Michelangelo’s Only Surviving Bronzes Discovered

A tiny detail in a drawing by the master's apprentice tipped off researchers.

"Up Close: Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel" at the Oculus at Westfield World Trade Center. Courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

Two previously unknown bronzes by Michelangelo are being unveiled at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, on Monday. They are believed to be the only bronzes the master created that are still in existence. Each of the roughly three-foot-tall sculptures depicts a naked man riding on the back of a Panther.

For years, the pair have simply been known as the Rothschild Bronzes. But, a lengthy analysis carried out by researchers at Cambridge has suggested that, in fact, they were created by Michelangelo in the first decade of the 16th century. This means the works would have been created just after he finished David—of which the male figures depicted in the bronzes are strikingly redolent—and just before the artist began work on the Sistine Chapel.

The bronzes were last sold at auction in 2002. A British buyer, who has asked not to be named following their attribution to Michelangelo, purchased them from a private French collector, who had, in turn, received them upon the death of Maurice de Rothschild in 1957.

At the time of the sale, Sotheby’s attributed the pair as being associated with 16th-century sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. Previous attributions have run the gamut from Jacopo Sansovino to Willem van Tetrode. The bronzes were shown at the Royal Academy in 2012 as simply, “Roman c. 1550.”

It was a drawing at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France, that initiated the full scale investigation into the bronzes’ origins. Created by one of Michelangelo’s apprentices, the drawing depicts what experts have since concluded is one of the two bronzes in one of its corners.

Old Fashioned Art Historical Expertise

A mix of high-tech science—a neutron scan, which confirmed the bronzes’ age—and old fashioned art historical expertise sealed the deal. Speaking to the Guardian ahead of the bronzes’ unveiling, Cambridge University’s Victoria Avery said, “They are clearly masterpieces. The modelling is superb, they are so powerful and so compelling, so whoever made them had to be superb.”

However, Avery and her colleagues didn’t rush to confirm the Michelangelo attribution. “You have to be pretty brave to even contemplate that they could be work by an artist of the magnificence and fame and importance of Michelangelo,” she said. “We decided to be rather cautious, to be very careful and methodical […] nobody wants to be shot down and to look like an idiot.”

At this point, all signs suggest that the attribution will stick. The bronzes themselves will stay on view at the Fitzwilliam Museum through August 9 (see Fitzwilliam Museum Gets £430,000 Facelift). Plans have yet to be announced for any further display thereafter.

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