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Are these Michelangelo’s only surviving bronzes?

February 3, 2015
Victoria Avery of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, said the project to attribute the bronzes, involving a team of experts from different fields, had been like a Renaissance whodunnit. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA - Click on image to enlarge.

Victoria Avery of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, said the project to attribute the bronzes, involving a team of experts from different fields, had been like a Renaissance whodunnit. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA – Click on image to enlarge.

If confirmed, this would be a major discovery – the only know surviving bronzes by the great Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo.  According to the Guardianthe two meter-high male nudes astride panthers (take that Katy Perry), which will be on view at Cambridge’s FitzWilliam Museum, have been the subject of years of investigation and testing.

According to the  Guardian: 

Crucial to the attribution of the bronzes, which belong to a private British owner, has been a tiny detail from a drawing by an apprentice of Michelangelo, now in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France. The drawing shows in one corner a muscular youth riding a panther in a similar pose.

Unknown draughtsman, after Michelangelo: detail from ‘Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus,’ c1508, pen and ink on paper. Photograph: Musée Fabre de Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole.

Unknown draughtsman, after Michelangelo: detail from ‘Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus,’ c1508, pen and ink on paper.
Photograph: Musée Fabre de Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole.

Last autumn, Paul Joannides, professor of art history at Cambridge University, connected the sculptures to the drawing.

Further research included a neutron scan at a research institute in Switzerland, which placed the bronzes in the first decade of the 16th century. Investigations by clinical anatomist Professor Peter Abrahams, from the University of Warwick, suggested every detail in the bronzes was textbook perfect Michelangelo – from the six packs to the belly buttons, which are as artist portrayed them on his marble statue of David.

“Even a peroneal tendon is visible, as is the transverse arch of the foot,” Abrahams writes in the book that accompanies the discovery.

Nude bacchants riding panthers, c1506-08 Photograph: Michael Jones/The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Nude bacchants riding panthers, c1506-08
Photograph: Michael Jones/The Fitzwilliam Museum.

The history of the sculptures is as fascinating as they are beautiful. They are named after their first recorded owner, Baron Adolphe de Rothschild, a grandson of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who founded the banking dynasty. It is possible that Rothschild bought them from one of the Bourbon kings of Naples and if so they may have come from the Villa Reale at Caserta where the Bourbon art treasures were displayed. After Rothschild’s death in 1900 the bronzes were inherited by Maurice de Rothschild. When he died in 1957 they went into a private French collection and were effectively forgotten about until they came to auction in 2002 and were bought by the current unnamed British owner.

They were sold at Sotheby’s where experts loosely associated them with the Florentine sculptor Cellini.

They began to interest academics once more and featured in an exhibition on Willem van Tetrode at the Frick Collection and then at the Royal Academy’s big Bronze show in 2012, where they were attributed to the circle of Michelangelo and dated towards the middle of the 16th century. Experts who saw them at the RA recognised them as Michelangelesque but were reluctant to assign them directly to the man himself.

The attribution is particular exciting because no other Michelangelo bronzes survive. A two-thirds size bronze David, known to have been made for a French grandee’s chateau, was lost during the French Revolution and a spectacular statue of Pope Julius II was melted down for artillery by rebellious Bolognese.

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