Article originally published April 2015 in issue 301 of Current Archaeology magazine.
Although better known for marble masterpieces like David and the Pietà, Michelangelo (1475-1564) is also recorded as having worked with bronze. Until recently, none of the artist’s creations using this material were thought to have survived – but now, art history experts have identified a pair of bronzes thought to have been made by Michelangelo’s hand.
Standing just under a metre tall, the bronzes depict muscular, naked men – one young, the other older and bearded – riding panthers, each with an arm raised in a triumphant gesture.
They were first linked to Michelangelo after appearing in the collection of Adolphe de Rothschild in the 19th century, but as they were undocumented and unsigned, this attribution was dismissed, and over the next 120 years the bronzes were associated with various other sculptors.
This all changed, however, when Professor Paul Joannides, Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Cambridge, noticed a striking similarity between the sculptures and a drawing by one of Michelangelo’s apprentices, which is now held by the Musée Fabre in Montepellier, France.
Entitled A sheet of studies with Virgin embracing infant Jesus, the document, dated to c.1508, represents a student’s faithful copy of various slightly earlier (and now lost) sketches by Michelangelo himself. In one corner, Prof. Joannides spotted an image of a muscular figure riding a panther, with his arm raised in a similar pose to the sculptures. Depicted using the abrupt, forceful style that Michelangelo commonly used for designing sculpture, the sketch could indicate that the artist was developing this unusual theme for a 3D work.
Further analysis by Prof. Joannides and Dr Victoria Avery of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, identified further similarities between the bronzes and the style and anatomical detail of Michelangelo’s known works from AD 1500-1510. They discussed these findings with numerous art history experts, and neutron X-ray imaging by conservators at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam further added to this picture, revealing that the casts were thick-walled and heavy, indicating a date before 1530.
IMAGES: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge