Bronze statues of naked men riding panthers could be Michelangelo’s only surviving bronzes!
It could be an extraordinary discovery on behalf of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge scholars who have established that two bronze statues, whose attribution remained dubious for a long time, could be Michelangelo’s only remaining bronzes. It was thought that no bronzes by Michelangelo had survived and now experts believe they have found not one, but two – with a tiny detail in a 500-year-old drawing providing vital evidence.
The sculptures depict two beautiful muscular naked men’s bodies, enhancing their manhood, one younger and one older, while riding triumphantly on two ferocious panthers with one arm raised in salute.
The pair of metre-high masterpieces have long been revered in the art world for their homoerotic beauty. Yet the experts were missing one crucial fact: the artist who created them.
A team of international experts led by the University of Cambridge and Fitzwilliam Museum has gathered compelling evidence that argues that these masterpieces, which have spent over a century in relative obscurity, are early works by Michelangelo, dated from around 1508-10, and made just after he completed the marble David and as he was about to embark on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
If this assumption is to be correct, the statues would be the only bronzes by Michelangelo that survived over centuries.
Their first recorded attribution to Michelangelo was when they appeared in the collection of Adolphe de Rothschild in the 19th century. But since they were undocumented and unsigned, that attribution was dismissed and over the last 120 years, the bronzes have been attributed to various other talented sculptors. Sotheby’s had them associated with the work of the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.
The two bronze statues, which now belong to a private collection, from February 3 until August 9, 2015 will be revealed and exposed in the Italian galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, with all the honors of the event.
Though, the day of truth will be a month before, in July, when the final results of the research will be announced. Until then, they are called the Rothshild Bronzes, taking their name from their first registered owner, Baron Adolphe de Rothschild, the grandson of the founder of the dynasty of bankers, whom seemed to have purchased them directly from the Bourbons in 1878. They remained in the Rothschild Collection until 1957 when they were sold to a private collector in France, reappearing at Sotheby’s London in 2002, where they were auctioned for 1.8 million pounds.
But a breakthrough came last autumn after Paul Joannides, emeritus professor of art history at Cambridge, connected them to a drawing by one of Michelangelo’s apprentices, A Sheet of studies with Virgin embracing Infant Jesus, c.1508, 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.
The study of this sheet of drawings now in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France, showed a composition remarkably similar to the bronzes, not to mention the highly unusual bacchic subject matter. This triggered further art-historical research by Joannides along with Victoria Avery, keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam, two conservation experts at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Robert van Langh and Arie Pappot, and Peter Abrahams, the professor of clinical anatomy at Warwick University Medical School. The team was assisted by Charles Avery, the art historian, Andrew Butterfield, an Old Master dealer and Verrocchio specialist, and Martin Gayford, the art critic.
Scientists at Oxford University’s laboratories that specialise in researching authenticity questions used thermoluminescence dating and determined that the bronzes were cast between 300 and 500 years ago, while conservators at the Rijksmuseum subjected samples from the statues’ cores to neutron imaging, establishing that the method of casting fits completely with what is known of contemporary Florentine practices.
A minutely detailed anatomical examination of the nude male figures not only proved their exact correspondence with features (for example, belly-buttons, posterior back grooves, exaggerated abs) of other of Michelangelo’s male sculptures, but showed that their observation of musculature and torsion was anatomically correct in every way, a characteristic particularly of Michelangelo.
Above all, as Paul Joannides has remarked, these bronzes are works of considerable power and energy and, indeed, beauty.
Fitzwilliam Museum – One of the oldest museums of England, founded in 1816 by Richard Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, who left his collections of paintings and books to the University along with a significant sum of money in order to found the museum. Began in 1837 and designed by Giorgio Basevi, it has been completed in 1875 by EM Barry. The collections were placed there in 1848 and continuously increased in number with donations among which there is one of more than 10,000 Greek coins made by JR Mc Clean.
The museum includes, in addition to collections of medieval manuscripts, collections of paintings, drawings, prints, potteries and porcelains, textiles, weapons and armor, an interesting Egyptian and Greek-Roman section as well as a medal collection and the Henderson collection of carved ivories.
Cambridge – Situated in the southeast of England, Cambridge is the county town of Cambridgeshire and has been an important center during the Roman period (Camboritum). It is most widely known as the home of the University of Cambridge, founded in 1209 by scholars leaving the University of Oxford after a dispute with local town folks. The University of Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s third oldest surviving university. Cambridge is known to be an important archaeological and art site due to the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Fitzwilliam Museum.