A Michelangelo discovery?

What a difference an attribution makes. I saw these two muscular nudes astride a pair of panthers in the Royal Academy exhibition Bronze in 2012 but remember other exhibits much more vividly. Now, however, they are the centre of attention in an exhibition in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, basking in glory following their recent attribution to Michelangelo.

Or is it recent? They were attributed to Michelangelo when they were exhibited in Paris in 1878. Perhaps some distant tradition clung to them when they were transferred from an aristocratic collection (possibly that of the Farnese family) to Baron Adolphe de Rothschild in the 1860s. The attribution was doubted at the time and the booklet A Michelangelo Discovery, which accompanies the Fitzwilliam exhibition, shows how difficult it is to date bronze. Since their first public appearance in 1878 experts have confidently put forward dates across the breadth of the 16th century and have linked them to specific artists. The curator of the 2012 exhibition placed them as only ‘within the circle of Michelangelo’, in the middle of the century, when of course Michelangelo was still active.

Then Paul Joannides, Professor in the History of Art at Cambridge, noted a copy of some lost drawings of Michelangelo in the Musée Faure in Montpellier, dated c. 1508, and there was a man astride a panther in very much the same pose as that of the bronzes. This clue to their origins—by Michelangelo himself but perhaps much earlier than thought—focused the research in new directions.

When one sees the bronzes they are larger than the photographs suggest, both just over 90cm, and then it is noted how one, the panther carrying the younger, clean-shaven man, is much more roughly cast than the panther carrying his bearded companion. Casting was always a demanding business, as readers of Cellini’s account of the casting of his Perseus in his Autobiography will know, and here some of the crispness of the modeling has been lost. There are signs that this bronze was hammered to remedy its deficiencies, a common practice when a complete recasting would have been unfeasible. There is a clue to the date in the casting itself. While the Classical sculptors had mastered the art of thin casts, the long-forgotten techniques and skills were only revived in the 16th century. These bronzes have thick walls, more typical of the early than the later 16th century.

Michelangelo is not normally associated with bronze and this may account for the hesitancy with which these casts were attributed to him. Yet there is ample documentary evidence that he used the medium, and lost bronzes of David and the papa terrible, Julius II, are known, both dating from the first decade of the 16th century. What confirms the attribution is the drawings of nudes, many of them in poses similar to those of the men on the panthers. An anatomical study of the relationship between the bodies and Michelangelo’s drawings, by Professor Peter Abrahams, notes the many congruences. Even the public hair of the bronzes. luxuriant for this period, closely matches that on Michelangelo’s great marble David in Florence.

The size of the bronzes is unusual. Life-size bronzes from this period include equestrian statues and Cellini’s Perseus in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. More common are statuettes of both religious and mythical subjects and it is fitting that the Michelangelo bronzes help highlight the Fitzwilliam’s own fine collection of Renaissance bronzes. The size of the Rothschild bronzes falls between the two. Panthers are always associated with Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus, god of wine and disorder. A fine pair of panthers feature in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (National Gallery, London), its date 1520–3, only a few years later than the proposed date for these bronzes. The nudes would therefore be bacchantes, Bacchus’ raucous companions. While they look far too healthy, perhaps even too well-ordered, for a life of dissolution, the authors note how the late 15th and early 16th centuries was an age of ‘serene, if short-lived classicizing culture. . .with its accent on refinement and dolcesse’, and this may explain their idealised forms. They appear to have been designed to be part of a larger display of a Bacchic celebration, perhaps in a frescoed palace interior or beside an antique statue of Bacchus himself.

First you have one pair of Renaissance bronzes and then you get another four. As I was writing this it was confirmed that the Victoria & Albert Museum had raised the £5 million needed to buy the four bronze angels that had originally been destined for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey. Appropriated by Henry VIII for his own tomb when Wolsey fell, they were never put in place and their rediscovery, two of them on the gateposts of a golf club, was exciting. Wolsey commissioned  them in 1524 from the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano who, in an intriguing coincidence, was the very man who finished the lost bronze David of Michelangelo noted above.

The well-illustrated A Michelangelo Discovery is a model text for those who want to know how an attribution is made. In fact if I was a professor of History of Art interviewing prospective students I would make them read it for discussion at interview. A fuller study will follow a conference on the bronzes to be held in Cambridge this summer, but so far everything—the manner of casting, the supporting pictorial evidence, the anatomical details, the cultural background—fits to confirm the attribution. This is a good time for aficionados of early Renaissance bronzes.

A Michelangelo Discovery: The Rothschild bronzes and the case for their proposed attribution, by Victoria Avery and Paul Joannides and other contributors, is published by the Fitzwilliam Museum. The (privately-owned) bronzes are on exhibition until 9th August and entry to see them in the Italian galleries is free.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. Freeman’s own book on four famous sculpted animals, not of bronze but gilded copper, The Horses of St Mark’s, is published by Overlook.

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