There’s a popular series on BBC television called “Fake or Fortune?”. Various works of art attributed to famous artists are examined and researched in the hope that the can be revealed as genuine pieces by the attributed artist.
Of course, you don’t need
a television programme to do that. A couple of years ago I wrote about a work
called “The Cardsharps” that was revealed by be by Caravaggio. More recently
the very remains of Caravaggio himself are claimed to have been discovered.
So there was quite a bit
of excitement in the art world again earlier this year when some bronze statues
were claimed to be long-long works by none other than Michelangelo. If they
are, they are the only surviving bronze statues by him. I say “if” because art
experts are not unanimous in agreeing. It’s a big deal to discover lost works
by someone as great as Michelangelo, so their cautious approach is to be
The statues, known as the
Rothschild bronzes, have been in private ownership since they were first
documented in the collection of Baron Adolphe de Rothschild (d.1900). No-one
thought they were by Michelangelo, but the Rothschilds certainly did and
exhibited the two bronzes as such in 1878 in Paris. Doubts were cast on the
attribution by leading figures in the art world, and since then the statues
have been attributed to others.
The bronzes are of two
naked muscular men sitting astride two panthers. The men are sat in mirrored
poses with one arm raised high with clenched fist. One of them is bearded and
the other is youthfully clean-shaven. The panthers are, to my mind, rather
mild-mannered in appearance with a somewhat bored appearance in their
expression and stance. It’s obvious that it is the male figures who are the
main focus of the pieces.
Because they were in a
private collection art historians had not seen them on display for a long time.
In 2012 the bronzes were put on display at the Royal Academy, and it was their
appearance at that time that gave hints to some historians that they were
A lot of research into
Michelangelo had been done since the bronzes last appeared. When at last art
historians saw the bronzes “in the flesh” some remarked how very similar they
were to some recently researched sketches by Michelangelo and the overall
appearance and musculature of the male figures looked a lot like some of his
other work as well.
These similarities sparked
new research into the Rothschild bronzes themselves. Even though no documentation
existed of their creation or provenance up to the 19th century there
was a whole army of scientific techniques that were used to ascertain an
accurate age of the statues and clear hints of their creator.
Pail Joannides, Emeritus
Professor of Art History at Cambridge spotted a remarkable similarity between
the poses of the men and a sketch by one of Michelangelo’s apprentices. The
sketch dates from about 1508 and is a copy of one of Michelangelo’s own
sketches of a young man sitting on a panther. Prof. Joannides had catalogued
many hundreds of drawings and sketches by Michelangelo and his apprentices so
had enough authority to make the connection.
Scientists and academics
from Cambridge University and the Fitzwilliam Museum then teamed together to
give the bronzes a thorough investigation.
They announced their
findings and their theories in support of the Michelangelo attribution during a
special symposium in July called “A Michelangelo Discovery”. Experts who gave
presentations included a sculptor and a researcher who made laser scans and 3D
copies of the statues to learn more about how they were made.
The Rothschild bronzes
were on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum from February to August this year.
Art historians have mulled over the evidence and the statues, and while there
is no strong voice coming up with contrary evidence there does not yet to be
any definite consensus. Perhaps the art world is too cautious. In a time when
art treasures are being destroyed and lost forever in the Middle East we should
be treasure the new discoveries that come along.
So, Fake or Fortune?