The statues of nude men riding panthers have been known to art historians for a century or more and once were attributed to the great master.
The claim was discredited at a Paris exhibition in 1878 and the works, known as the Rothschild statues, were attributed to lesser-known period artists.
But new evidence has surfaced that suggests the bronzes are authentic Michelangelo works, according to the University of Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum.
If true, the find would be “phenomenally important,” according to one art historian.
The institutions hang their claim on a 500-year-old sketch by a Michelangelo apprentice. It’s said to be a copy of a drawing by the artist himself. The pose and the physical details of the man in the drawing are almost identical to the bronzes.
The drawing was discovered in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France. The circa 1508 sketch is part of works known as the “sheet of studies with Virgin embracing Infant Jesus,” and is known to be authentic.
The sketch was “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 museum said in a statement.
Paul Joannides, Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Cambridge, which houses the Fitzwilliam, made the connection, according to the museum.
Michelangelo is known to have worked in bronze. He made a nine-foot tall figure of Pope Julius II and a version of his marble statue, David. But both of bronzes were destroyed.
Peter Abrahams, a professor and clinical anatomist, added another critical clue. He examined the sculptures and concluded the anatomy of the figures were “incredibly accurate and well understood.”
In fact, he pronounced them so “perfect” only an artist like Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci would possess the knowledge to make them.
Other scientists have conducted a microscopic examination and looked at the statue using neutron imaging. That would reveal clues about the composition of the bronze and its age. Michelangelo is thought to have made the figures between 1500 and 1510.
So far the university and the museum have yet to release those findings.
In a statement, Victoria Avery of the Fitzwilliam Museum said:
“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 are exceptionally powerful and compelling works of art that deserve close-up study – we hope the public will come and examine them for themselves, and engage with this ongoing debate.”
The statues, each just over three feet high were on display at the Royal Museum and have been moved to the Fitzwilliam in advance of its bicentenary celebration in 2016. The exhibit will also include the latest evidence.
The museum has invited the public and academics to inspect the pieces and weigh in with their thoughts.
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