Two handsome, virile naked men riding triumphantly on ferocious panthers will on Monday be unveiled as, probably, the only surviving bronze sculptures by the Renaissance giant Michelangelo.
In art history terms, the attribution is sensational. Academics in Cambridge will suggest that a pair of mysterious metre-high sculptures known as the Rothschild Bronzes are by the master himself, made just after he completed David and as he was about to embark on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
If correct, they are the only surviving Michelangelo bronzes in the world.
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, has unearthed two original works that show the great Renaissance artist inventing the art of the bizarre, says Jonathan Jones.
They will go on public display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge from Tuesday. Victoria Avery, keeper of applied arts at the museum, said the attribution project, involving an international team of experts from different fields, had been like “a Renaissance whodunnit”. She said: “It has been a huge privilege to be involved, very exciting and great fun.”
Crucial to the attribution of the bronzes, which belong to a private British owner, has been a tiny detail from a drawing by an apprentice of Michelangelo, now in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France. The drawing shows in one corner a muscular youth riding a panther in a similar pose.
Last autumn, Paul Joannides, professor of art history at Cambridge University, connected the sculptures to the drawing.
Further research included a neutron scan at a research institute in Switzerland, which placed the bronzes in the first decade of the 16th century. Investigations by clinical anatomist Professor Peter Abrahams, from the University of Warwick, suggested every detail in the bronzes was textbook perfect Michelangelo – from the six packs to the belly buttons, which are as artist portrayed them on his marble statue of David.
“Even a peroneal tendon is visible, as is the transverse arch of the foot,” Abrahams writes in the book that accompanies the discovery.
Avery said: “Whoever made them clearly had a profound interest in the male body … the anatomy is perfect.”
The pictorial evidence is also compelling, with Michelangelo’s nudes on the Sistine Chapel being clearly similar to the Rothschild Bronzes.
The bronzes were initially attributed to Michelangelo, but the link was discredited in the late 19th century. Since then they have been ascribed to various great sculptors and their circles, including Tiziano Aspetti, Jacopo Sansovino and Benvenuto Cellini – all of them great artists.
“They are clearly masterpieces,” said Avery. “The modelling is superb, they are so powerful and so compelling, so whoever made them had to be superb.”
She said they had deliberately proceeded with caution during the attribution project.
“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. We decided to be rather cautious, to be very careful and methodical … nobody wants to be shot down and to look like an idiot.
They are now as convinced as they can be that the bronzes were made by Michelangelo between 1506 and 1508, when he was in his early 30s, hungry for success. The history of the sculptures is as fascinating as they are beautiful. They are named after their first recorded owner, Baron Adolphe de Rothschild, a grandson of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who founded the banking dynasty. It is possible that Rothschild bought them from one of the Bourbon kings of Naples and if so they may have come from the Villa Reale at Caserta where the Bourbon art treasures were displayed. After Rothschild’s death in 1900 the bronzes were inherited by Maurice de Rothschild. When he died in 1957 they went into a private French collection and were effectively forgotten about until they came to auction in 2002 and were bought by the current unnamed British owner.