Michelangelo was a stone cutter … we know this from David and his other extraordinary sculptures in marble.
So how could a pair of three-foot tall bronze sculptures be attributed to him recently? On what basis, when there is no other Michelangelo bronze to compare to, stylistically?
The figures are a non-matching pair of men riding in triumph on two sinuous panthers, one man older and lithe, the other young and athletic. They have long been admired for the beauty of their anatomy and expression, their first recorded attribution was to Michelangelo when they catalogued in the collection of Adolphe de Rothschild in the 19th century. But, since they there was no other documentation and they are unsigned, this attribution was dismissed and, for the past 120 years, the bronzes have been attributed to various other sculptors.
That changed last autumn when Prof Paul Joannides, Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Cambridge, connected the bronzes to a drawing by one of Michelangelo’s apprentices. The drawing is in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France.
According to the press release issued by The FitzwilliamMuseum in Cambridge, England, “A sheet of studies with Virgin Embracing Infant Jesus, c.1508, is a student’s faithful copy of various slightly earlier lost sketches by Michelangelo. In one corner is a composition of a muscular youth riding a panther, which is very similar in pose to the bronzes, and drawn in the abrupt, forceful manner that Michelangelo employed in designs for sculpture. This suggests that Michelangelo was working up this very unusual theme for a work in three dimensions.”
So, the drawing provides a clue. And – although none remain to us – there is the documented knowledge that Michelangelo did produce works in bronze. I’d say it that production of works in bronze was expected of a Renaissance sculptor of any standing. It’s known that one of two documented Michelangelo sculptures was destroyed during the French Revolution; the other, a twice life-size statue of Pope Julius II, was melted down for artillery just three years after it was completed.
The recent insight provided by the drawing triggered a program of concentrated art-historical research. When compared with other works by Michelangelo the bronzes were found to be very similar in style and anatomy to his works of 1500-1510. That dating was confirmed by preliminary interpretation of initial scientific analysis. Interdisciplinary research continues.
Dr Victoria Avery, Keeper of the Applied Arts Department of the Fitzwilliam Museum says, "It has been fantastically exciting to have been able to participate in this ground-breaking project, which has involved input from many art-historians in the UK, Europe and the States, and to draw on evidence from conservation scientists and anatomists.
The bronzes and a selection of the evidence are now on display in the Italian galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from February 3 until 9 August 2015.