Tuesday 1 September 2015

Michelangelo - Fake or Fortune?

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 expected.

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 by Michelangelo.

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?

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