A pair of bronze statues of nude revelers riding panthers are the only surviving works in metal by Michelangelo, a new study claims. While their inscrutable symbolism and disjointed aesthetics may not quite align with the modern image we have of Michelangelo and his work, the small sculptures (both about three feet tall) are charmingly strange and look startlingly contemporary.
The bronzes, which go on public view tomorrow at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, have been attributed to various circles and schools since their first documented appearance, in 1878, in the collection of Baron Adolphe de Rothschild. Known ever since as the “Rothschild bronzes,” the sculptures have been exhibited only a handful of times, most recently as part of the Bronze exhibition at London’s Royal Academy in 2012. But based on new scientific evidence, as well as close analysis of the pieces in relation to the rest of Michelangelo’s oeuvre and an invaluable clue from a sheet of one of his disciples’ sketches, Cambridge University professor emeritus Paul Joannides and Victoria Avery, the keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam, have attributed the puzzling pair to the Renaissance master. They were assisted in their research by a team of scientists, conservationists, anatomical experts, art historians, and others in the UK, Europe, and America.
A key element of the case for attributing the Rothschild bronzes to Michelangelo is a small sheet of sketches (at left), now in the collection of the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France, made by an unknown artist after originals by Michelangelo. One of the drawings on the lower-right-hand corner of the page is a small study of a nude male figure, arms raised, riding on a panther.
“Although the concetto (a small drawing) of the muscular nude riding the panther on the Musée Fabre sheet is quite small and apparently of no great significance, it is nevertheless a vital piece of evidence in the story of the Rothschild attribution for it certainly records a lost drawing by Michelangelo,” Avery and Joannides write in the 83-page book supporting their attribution, A Michelangelo Discovery. “In so doing, it proves incontrovertibly two things: first, that Michelangelo was actively engaged with the very unusual subject of muscular nude men riding panthers; second, he was doing so in the first eight years of the sixteenth century. Indeed, Michelangelo’s composition is remarkably close to that of the Rothschild bronzes, especially in the disjunction between rider and animal, and the two-dimensional panther bears a striking resemblance in form and stride to her three-dimensional counterparts.”
Other supporting evidence put forth in the study is the incredible anatomical detail of the male figures, which was a trademark of Michelangelo’s work, and the supposition that he would have been well trained in metal sculpture during his tutelage under Bertoldo di Giovanni, a Florentine master best known for his small-scale bronze sculptures. Michelangelo’s work with metal remains largely unknown partly because none of it survived (save, perhaps, the Rothschild bronzes), and partly because of the way the artist portrayed himself later in life.
“Ironically, it is Michelangelo himself who is largely to blame for this skewed perception; in later life, although not explicitly condemning bronze sculpture, he emphasized that, as a modeled medium (with a model in wax or clay being the basis for the finished bronze cast), it should be classed with painting, and was thus of a lower order than carving,” Avery and Joannides write. “Whatever the motivations behind the elderly Michelangelo’s aesthetic disclaimer, it has been taken as gospel by the vast majority of his biographers and commentators, and has led to the cliché that Michelangelo was not a maker of bronzes: to a large extent Michelangelo was the posthumous victim of his own later ideology.”
In spite of the very thorough analysis and compelling evidence gathered in A Michelangelo Discovery, what may ultimately give most viewers pause about this new attribution is just how poorly the works fit in with our image of the revered artist’s oeuvre. Avery and Joannides even acknowledge the oddball look of the bronzes in their book, commenting on the disparate appearances of the panthers and their riders.
“Although there is some stylistic disconnect between the humans and the animals (with the idealization of the former at odds, to modern eyes at least, with the high degree of abstraction of the latter),” they write, “the way in which they are designed to fit together proves that they were conceived as units from the start.”
Even so, the pairing of the “bacchants” — either followers of Bacchus, the ancient god of wine, or simply drunken revelers — and the panthers is jarring. The fairly realistic portrayal of the two men, whose awkward poses seem at once celebratory and threatening, clashes with the stylized felines, who resemble cartoonish creatures cobbled together from different animal parts. It’s the type of visual collage one doesn’t associate with the august imagery of classical bronze statuary. The sculptures call to mind everything from ancient depictions of Dionysus astride a big cat of his own and the large feline sculptures stationed outside palaces and temples — or contemporary McMansions, for that matter — to the giant animatronic lion Katy Perry rode into her Super Bowl XLIX halftime show and the most famous scene from the Harold and Kumar film franchise (see below).
But perhaps rather than hampering the case for the inclusion of the Rothschild bronzes in Michelangelo’s oeuvre, the sculptures’ singular strangeness and unintended humor strengthen it. These quizzical characters foolishly riding wild animals express, as Avery and Joannides put it, “a joie-de-vivre, and a pleasure in physical mobility absent from Michelangelo’s work after he settled in Rome in 1534.” Or, to paraphrase what Harold told Kumar, this is either a really smart move or by far the stupidest thing Michelangelo ever tried.