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The Rothschild Bronzes… by Michelangelo?!

The Rothschild Bronzes… by Michelangelo?!

Michelangelo isn’t normally the first artist to spring to one’s mind when thinking about bronze sculpture. But his name is certainly on a few people’s lips at the moment, when discussing the Rothschild Bronzes.

The bronze statues were found in the 19th century, in the private collection of Baron Adolphe de Rothschild. At the time, the works were attributed to Michelangelo, but this theory was quashed.

Despite having created at least two significant pieces of bronze artwork, it is not a material that Michelangelo is associated with. Between 1502 and 1504, the artist sculpted a statue of David, two-thirds of life-size. Only a couple of years later, in 1507 and 1508, he worked on a figure of Pope Juliusi that was more than double life-size.

And now, an international team of researchers have revealed that the Rothschild Bronzes might be works by Michelangelo, after all… And if it is true, they will be the only known surviving pieces of bronze work by the artist left in the world.

Most recently, the bronzes were thought to be the work of Willem Danielsz Van Tetrode, a sculptor from the Netherland. But this theory was thrown into some confusion last year, when University of Cambridge emeritus professor Paul Joannides noted the similarities between the statues and some Michelangelo sketches from the 16th century.

“Whoever made them clearly had a profound interest in the male body – the anatomy is perfect,” pointed out Dr Victoria Avery from Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. “They are clearly masterpieces; the modelling is superb, they are so powerful and so compelling. So whoever made them had to be superb.”

Both statues, each about a metre tall, depict a muscular, naked man riding on the back of a panther. They are strikingly similar to a small drawing currently held in Montpelier’s Musee Fabre in France.

It was not uncommon for Michelangelo’s apprentices to copy some of his earlier lost works, and it was upon one such piece of paper that the doodle was spotted. But not only is the pose of the character in the drawing the same as one of the bronze statues, it is also drawn in the very same style that Michelangelo used for his sculpture designs.

This was enough evidence for a team of researchers to really rally together and see if they could find more evidence of Michelangelo in the Rothschild Bronzes.

The bronzes were compared with other works by the artist: the style and anatomy were found to be almost identical to those Michelangelo used in works between 1500 and 1510.

This time frame was somewhat confirmed by using X-ray to establish that the bronze casts were thick and heavy. In itself, this is an indication that the sculptures date back to between the late 15th and early 16th century.

And he would have had time to make them during these years – between creating his arguably two most famous pieces of work, David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Dr Avery said that it was exciting to be involved in such a prestigious project, with an international team of researchers with a hugely diverse range of specialities, from conservation scientists to anatomists, to historians.

“You have to be pretty brave to contemplate even that [the Rothschild Bronzes] could be work by an artist of the magnificence and fame and importance of Michelangelo,” she added. “Nobody wants to be shot down and to look like an idiot.”

Research is going to continue, with the team hoping to present their final findings in July. In the meantime, the Rothschild Bronzes are on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum from a private collection and will be on display until 9 August.


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