Only surviving pair of Michelangelo bronzes found in Cambridge with help of 500-year-old student sketch

By Ben Miller | 02 February 2015

Experts find only surviving Michelangelo bronzes in "fantastically exciting", panther-riding discovery

a photo of two sculptures
Nude bacchants riding panthers (circa 1506-08) - a mooted Michelangelo© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
A pair of “exceptionally powerful” metre-high male nudes, riding triumphantly on panthers and kept in obscurity for more than a century, are the only two examples of Michelangelo’s bronzes ever discovered, according to art historians examining a tiny detail in a drawing made more than 500 years ago.

An old, lithe man and his young, athletic companion are portrayed in the non-matching pair, first attributed to Michelangelo during the 19th century but considered the work of other sculptors for the past 120 years.

Paul Joannides, an Emeritus Professor of Art at the University of Cambridge, connected the duo to a drawing by one of Michelangelo’s apprentices last autumn – A Sheet of Studies with Virgin Embracing Infant Jesus, faithfully copied by the student and held at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.

A photo of a sketch of a man
Michelangelo Buonarroti, A nude young man, to front, looking to right, beckoning; and a study of a right leg (1503/4). Pen and two shades of brown ink; black chalk (leg study) on paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
A team of experts from the university and the Fitzwilliam Museum studied a composition of a muscular youth riding a panther in the corner of the sketch, described as having a “very similar” pose to the bronze, as well as a composition reflecting the abrupt, forceful manner Michelangelo was known to use while creating sculpture designs.

Initial scientific analysis has confirmed that the bronzes are stylistically and anatomically similar to his works between 1500 and 1510, although the team are continuing their investigations and expect to present their findings at an international conference in July.

“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,” says Dr Victoria Avery, the Keeper of the Applied Arts Department at the museum, where the pair have gone on show.

“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.”

Research has shown that Michelangelo was associated with bronze, as well as his customary marble, throughout his 75-year career.

He is said to have made a two-thirds life-size David for a French grandee, lost during the French Revolution, and an over life-size statue of Pope Julius II which was swiftly melted down for artillery.

  • You can see the bronzes and a selection of the evidence in the Italian galleries at the museum from February 3 – August 9. Open 10am-5pm (closed Monday, 12pm-5pm Sunday and Bank Holidays). Admission free.

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