As a marble sculpture of a boy makes its debut at the Met, experts continue to debate whether it is an early Michelangelo .
What’s left of the marble boy stands barely 40 inches high. He’s missing his arms and his lower legs. His vacuous face is crowned by a thick mop of curly hair. For decades he stood in the lobby of the town house on Fifth Avenue that houses the French embassy’s cultural-services department, attracting little attention or comment, until a scholar of Renaissance art named Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt said that she believed him to be a lost sculpture by none other than Michelangelo. The boy made front-page news in January 1996 and inspired a flurry of controversy—some of it reported in this magazine.In the years since Brandt made her pronouncement, the statue has been the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and has been featured alone at the Louvre in Paris, where a dissenting curator, Jean-René Gaborit, labeled it an anonymous work of the later 16th century. Now the boy is on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, on a ten-year loan from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. Called “Young Archer,” he is firmly attributed to Michelangelo. And he is stirring up yet another round of support and dissent.Brandt, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and College of Arts and Science, had walked past the embassy building many times without paying much attention to the sculpture. It was only after she saw it well lighted at a reception and subsequently returned to photograph it from every angle that she became convinced of Michelangelo’s authorship; she published her thesis in two articles in the Burlington Magazine, in 1996 and 1997. James Draper, Henry R. Kravis Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Met, had earlier speculated that the work was by Michelangelo’s purported mentor, Bertoldo di Giovanni, but he too is now firmly convinced of the Michelangelo attribution.Draper recalls that at a party in the town house, Brandt remarked about the sculpture, “‘My gosh, you know, it really is him.’ And she called me over and I took a look, and I was immediately persuaded. When decent light finally fell on this piece, and I could really take in the superb carving of the hair and the twist of the body and the subtle serpentine movement, I believe I was converted right on the spot.”Draper estimates that Michelangelo was probably only about 15 years old when he carved the work, and he cites as further evidence the resemblance between the Young Archer’s pose and that of a bronze by Bertoldo of Apollo or Orpheus, now in the Bargello in Florence.The late James Beck, an authority on Renaissance art and professor at Columbia University, had a very different response to the figure. He told ARTnews in April 1996 that he found the boy’s proportions—”the large head, large neck, and skinny body”—extremely problematic, along with the hair, which even on the David, he remarked, “grows out of the head. It’s not applied to the head.”Others say they find the figure’s formal complexity a strong argument in favor of the attribution to Michelangelo. “This figure is turning, in action—he is about to draw an arrow from his quiver,” says Alexander Nagel, a professor of fine arts at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. “But at the same time, a meditative quality has set in. The figure’s motion is turned into a different kind of activity. It is a mode of being that transcends narrative and is congruent with its life as a work of art, and that to me is a signature of Michelangelo.”John T. Spike, an independent scholar and the author of the biography The Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine (to be published next year by Vendome Press), says he was converted upon seeing the statue in Florence. “The external outlines are supple like a Michelangelo drawing—and Michelangelo succeeds in preserving this effect from every angle. Less-gifted sculptors emphasize the solid volumes only; their outlines are not interesting.”Little is known about the statue’s whereabouts before it turned up in an auction at Christie’s in London in 1902 and failed to sell. The American architect Stanford White subsequently acquired it from a dealer named Stefano Bardini for the Payne Whitney mansion in New York, which later came to house the French Cultural Services. Brandt and Draper believe that the figure was once owned by Jacopo Galli, a Florentine banker living in Rome in the 16th century (though Draper says it was most likely carved when Michelangelo lived in Florence as a pupil). Contemporaries described a Cupid or Apollo in Galli’s collection with a vase at its feet, which, Draper says, would explain “the sort of flange” that projects from the back of the boy’s left leg. Later, Brandt and Draper believe, the figure may have made its way to the Borghese Gardens and suffered a fair amount of weathering and water damage over the years.“The provenance as constructed is shaky, especially given Bardini’s slippery reputation,” says Lynn Catterson, a specialist in Renaissance art and a lecturer at Columbia University. “To further interpolate a connection from the Borghese collection to Jacopo Galli is also treacherous.”Beck, in a lengthy refutation of Brandt’s arguments, questioned whether the dealer Bardini would sell the statue for so little—about $2,500 in today’s dollars. “If you… own a work that you consider to be by Michelangelo Buonarroti (or even his ‘School’ whatever that really means in this case because a sculptor or painter of eighteen or twenty could hardly have had a ‘school’),” he wrote in Artibus et Historiae in 1998, “would you give it up for, say, 2500 dollars, or really 1500 dollars, assuming that the carved base constitute part of the value, perhaps 1,000 dollars? And then one should reduce that sum for the middleman, so that Bardini might have got 1000 dollars in present day money for his statue and its base. Common sense tells me that you (and I) would have held out for a far greater sum or otherwise would have kept the object ourself and not sold it as an ordinary, recently recovered cheap antiquity.”Beck also pointed out that a Michelangelo attribution put forth in 1968 by Alessandro Parronchi, a Florentine art historian, was ignored. “Professor Parronchi stood alone for thirty years,” he noted. “The consensus was totally against his view.”In the wake of Brandt’s publication, Draper and Paul Joannides, a scholar at Cambridge University, pointed to drawings that they believe strengthen the argument for the Michelangelo attribution. In a 1997 article in the Burlington Magazine, Draper cites two drawings by Jean-Robert Ango, a French copyist in Rome between 1759 and 1773, who, he says, probably saw the sculpture in the Borghese Gardens and thought it was an antique. Joannides unearthed a pen-and-ink sketch on paper, attributed to an associate of Michelangelo, which shows a figure in the same pose as the Young Archer, but with arms and legs intact and a pronounced musculature through the thighs and torso, more in keeping with the robust figures we know from the Sistine ceiling. In none of these drawings is there any indication that the copyist knew he was reproducing a work by Michelangelo. But that is not unusual, Joannides says. “Many copy drawings of different types, from sketchy to very carefully worked, survive from the Renaissance, and I can’t think of any that are inscribed with the name of the artists or the works they are copied from.”Among the more unusual hypotheses put forth in the October 1996 issue of Apollo was that of Colin Eisler, Robert Lehman Professor of Fine Arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, who believes the statue to be a deliberate forgery of an ancient sculpture by the young Michelangelo.According to Lynn Catterson (who recently maintained that the Laocoín was by Michelangelo), the artist “made a lot of forgeries because antiquities would sell for as much as ten times [the price] of a contemporary work. A young sculptor would find this the best way to make money.”Indeed, Vasari claimed that Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping Cupid and treated it with acidic dirt to make it look ancient. The sculptor then sold it to a dealer, according to Vasari, who in turn sold it to Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio.“This was probably one of the most popular fabrications ever published,” says William Wallace, Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History at Washington University in Saint Louis, a Michelangelo authority and author of a recent biography of the artist. In ARTnews 13 years ago, Wallace rejected the attribution, and he still rejects it. “We’ve been urged to accept all kinds of secondary and circumstantial evidence to convince us, when in the world of connoisseurship it’s the object itself that should be first and foremost to convince,” he says. “And the object itself is not totally and thoroughly convincing.”“Like water, attributions tend eventually to find their own level,” Wallace continues. “They oftentimes start high and gradually descend. But I’m perfectly happy to have this in the public domain and on public display for a decade, rather than in the French cultural attaché, because it wasn’t really available. This is how connoisseurship and attribution should work. Not by current consensus but consensus over time. And consensus over time is usually unforgiving, but for the most part correct.”Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.