Granted, I’m a bit slow off the mark with this one, but with the dust barely settled on the Panther Riders, which were revealed to the world just a few months back as “newly-discovered Michelangelos” (ahem) by the Fitzwilliam Museum–you can read my and Dr David Hemsoll’s thoughts about those here and here–a Swiss authentication firm has without hesitation revealed that the two sculpted wooden putti above, which form a pair of consoles, are “in fact the work of Michelangelo.” The firm in fact reckons that it has dispelled “any…doubts” that the putti are by Michelangelo’s hand. You can read their press release for yourself here, but it’s worth thinking for a bit about their main evidence and weigh-up just how far we can be sure that these sculptures are indeed the work of Michelangelo.
The main thrust of the evidence concerns the date and likely place of origin of the sculptures; in their own words: “The study analyzes the plausibility of the object’s time of origin using technical and scientific methods.” What they’ve discovered is that the present layer of polychromy and bonding substances are original. Not only that, the technique and materials point to Italy as the place of manufacture and “the time of origin as circa 1494”. This approximate, but surprisingly precise (which is say, suspiciously engineered), date was then “confirmed” by scientific dating of the wood using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, which “showed that the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability.” Having thus “established” that the putti were made in Italy in 1494, they embarked upon stylistic analysis, comparing the sculptures to authentic works by Michelangelo. This is all to say that somebody involved had from the get-go a hunch, however wishful, that these might be by Michelangelo and so having decided on the date and place of production by means of science, let’s actually think about this in terms of art and try and prove this basic proposition. Backwards though this method of working may be (when dealing with art it seems sensible to me to begin with considerations of an artistic kind) this is, in any case, what they came up with:
“In the study, the subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo. For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history, the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates.
In addition, it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work. This fact should dispel any remaining doubts that this pair of sculptures are in fact the work of Michelangelo.”
Err. This all seems to me dubiosuly vague evidence, underscored by the irresistible desire to discover new Michelangelos at the expense, it seems, of proper art historical rigour. Let’s consider the individual bits of evidence.
The polychromy and binding materials may well be original and may well point to Italy in the later 15th century. I’m sure they have abundant scientific facts to support this thesis that obviously were not regurgitated in the press release–the function of a press release being, of course, to be pithy and engender unabated excitement in the press. But what this evidence cannot do is generate the precise result that the putti were made in 1494. The dendrochronology (wood dating) cannot even determine such a date. For the benefit of the uninitiated, their statement that “the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability” doesn’t mean that the wood dating showed that sculptures were definitely made in 1494. Rather what the wood dating will have shown is that “the sculptures are made out of wood which is from a tree felled at some point in the later 1400s”. To be sure, the results can sometimes even say “a tree felled in 1491” etc., thus giving a terminus post quem, but never, ever says “was produced in 1494”. In other words the wood dating will have generated a broader time period for the sculptures (let’s say, the 1490s), and the researchers themselves have decided to pronounce the date as being 1494 (their what they call “assumed” date for the sculptures’ production). So we have to ask: why pick that date?
And we needn’t look far for the answer. The 1490s is after all the decade when Michelangelo the sculptor was born and the earlier years of that decade were especially frenetic and experimental. Michelangelo’s biographers Vasari and Condivi both relate that it was the young artist’s time in the Medici sculpture garden from 1490-92 that really ignited his interests in carving. During his time in the Medici court and in the following few years Michelangelo sculpted an all’antica Head of a Faun (lost), the Battle of the Centaurs relief and Madonna of the Steps, the latter in rilievo schiacciato, or “squashed relief”, in purposeful imitation of Donatello’s pioneering technique; Michelangelo also did a little Hercules (also lost), and in the very cold winter of 1493-4 even made a snowman in Piero de’ Medici’s courtyard (lost, obviously); at about the same time Michelangelo also carved a Sleeping Cupid, which, infamously, was fraudulently sold–apparently unbeknownst to Michelangelo–as a genuine antique to Cardinal San Giorgio (also lost). Crucially the middle years of the 1490s also saw Michelangelo embark on the carving of a wooden Crucifix for the church of S. Spirito–apparently as a gift in exchange for the wardens of the church having allowed Michelangelo to dissect cadavers in the crypt there!–as well as two sculpted Saints for S. Domenico in Bologna, and, most importantly, an Angel bearing a candelabrum for the same church.
This is all to say that at around 1494, Michelangelo was demonstrably a busy sculptor and, moreover, is known to have been sculpting in wood, as well as producing more utilitarian, or else “functional”, statuary such as the candelabrum, which might well justify the belief that he would have also carved in wood a pair of consoles (what the putti are reckoned to be). In other words, 1494 is a neat date that coincides with some important documented and still extant works by Michelangelo… So 1494’s a good date. But, and here’s the problem, the science could never have generated that precise a date. The science, which is to say the materials and techniques of the polychromy, as well as the wood dating, will, as I’ve said, have thrown up a vaguer result and definitely not anything near as firm as “made in 1494”. This I think leads to the skeptical but inevitable conclusion that that date 1494 was purposefully selected by the authors of the study because of the attractive correspondence between this date and Michelangelo’s known output during this early stage in his career. To put all of that another way, the date 1494 was ostensibly engineered because the study set off with the a priori purpose of proving that the putti are by Michelangelo, and the available science was subsequently deployed in order to sustain that premise, with the scientific results being manipulated to suit predetermined conclusions (i.e. made in 1494, during Michelangelo’s ascendancy as a sculptor); the science did not generate this result.
“So what?” people will say, “that’s just how these things work”. Authors have hunches, and use both scientific and connoisseurial evidence to build a case. Vague wood dating results are often narrowed and refined in the way we’ve just encountered in order to bring unattributed works into line with a known artist’s activities. But the problem in this case is that the scientific result, and their consequent proposal that the consoles were made by Michelangelo in 1494, doesn’t gain any robustness or credibility by virtue of other, external evidence.
For a start and not unlike the bronze Panther Riders there is no mention of the putti consoles in the primary sources, namely Vasari and Condivi. I am surprised that having carefully selected the date of 1494 for the putti’s manufacture, that those behind the study weren’t more concerned that neither of Michelangelo’s biographers mention consoles, or wooden putti, or anything that feasibly could be related to the present works at all. This should at the very least have inspired some reticence or caution on their part about making the pronouncement that these sculptures are “without doubt” the work of Michelangelo. (It is important to remember at this point that the account provided by Condivi is especially useful in this connexion since Condivi’s account was sanctioned by Michelangelo himself, to the degree that it is not unreasonable to think of Condivi as having been Michelangelo’s mouthpiece!) It is therefore troubling to say the least that there is no mention here, or anywhere else, of a pair of wooden consoles showing putti. Had Condivi or Vasari (or somebody else) mentioned wooden consoles, then there would be a sound foundation on which to build a case and to try and relate these sculptures to Michelangelo. We might also be more the wiser about why Michelangelo carved them: for where, why and for which patron? Indeed the lack of provenance for these works is a bit of a problem in general. Don’t they look a bit clean for wooden sculptures that are half a millennium old? This would suggest that they’ve been looked after well by a line of conscientious owners (or, less good for the authors given the importance of the materials, have been CLEANED!), and so we should want to know more about where they’ve been over the last 5 centuries.
Next there is the “connoisseurship” involved in supporting, but crucially not determining, this attribution which, we remember, is predicated on science and only backed-up by the art. First there’s the vagueness of their connoisseurial pronouncements which should and will raise eyebrows. What on earth does “The subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo“ actually mean? Are they saying that they’ve identified 52 instances where Michelangelo did angels or putti? Or 52 instances where Michelangelo actually designed consoles decorated with putti? I can’t think of 52 of the latter?! Ditto “For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history [… eh?], the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates.“ And then there’s “it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work“. Taken altogether, I think that what they’re saying here, without saying it, is that Michelangelo was interested in angels and putti, and that every individual bit of the putti’s anatomies can be compared with one work or another–whether that be a drawing, painting, or sculpture–by Michelangelo. But isn’t this all just a bit worryingly imprecise and unspecific? Of course you can compare one pec from a putto to another pec elsewhere of Michelangelo’s invention, or one toenail (or even in the case of the Panther Riders the shape of the pubic hair), and sure enough you’ll find similarities from such piecemeal connoisseurial dissections. But such an approach hardly seems robust. One should want to have some more precise, compelling examples? What’s more one should also want to know what the parameters were that circumscribed the selection of examples of Michelangelo’s works for comparative purposes. You can’t really, for example, enter into discussion here late works by Michelangelo in order to arrive at convincing arguments about the formal or stylistic merit of the putti because the putti are supposed to be very early, which should have imposed limits on which works were used for the purposes of stylistic comparison; or else, should have imposed limits on the number of works that can be used in order to arrive at useful, instructive, precise and convincing comparisons rather than generic ones. It is dead easy to say, for instance, that the abdomens of the putti, and the arrangements of the legs, bear a general resemblance to the Dying Slave–and I imagine that this is the sort of comparison that was indeed made–but the Dying Slave is a more accomplished work that postdates the putti by some two decades (…unless, of course, their dating of the putti is wrong in which case their entire thesis falls apart and needs to be started over).
The best and most measured results would arise if the putti are compared to contemporary works, viz.,early sculptures made by Michelangelo in the 1490s. Especially useful might be the wooden Crucifix, since it is wooden, as well as the candelabrum, given the similarities in type between the candle-holding angel and the console putti. But these comparisons aren’t especially instructive. The consoles are a million miles away from the Crucifix (which harkens back, apparently deliberately, to older Tuscan crucifixes that would have been ten a penny in the churches Michelangelo hung out in). The bent legs and hunched shape of the Angel candelabrum, meanwhile, is a bit better but then this comparison throws up the problem of the faces: the chubby Angel in Bologna has a soft, sweet face that is well-composed and clearly the work of an already accomplished sculptor, whereas the faces of the putti are decidedly ungainly, if not grotesquely ugly, and seem to me to be the work of an unsure hand. There’s something about the faces of the putti that just does not seem right. The putti’s hairstyles are also, er, problematic… Does Michelangelo ever do the kind of scraggy hair that we find here? Overall, the console putti lack the beauty and careful finish that we find in Michelangelo’s other angels or cherubs from this period, including those that we find in the paintings: the candelabrum angel’s face is fully in line with the faces of those in the so-called Manchester Madonna in London, for example, whereas the console putti are patently different to both. In short, from a connoisseurial point of view, might we not conclude that the putti are, to be crass, a bit ugly? And then we have to ask: did Michelangelo, one of the greatest sculptors ever to have lived, do ugly?
In short, I think that this proposed attribution once more leaves serious questions unresolved, with the quality of the art history involved leaving a fair bit to be desired. Certainly, the authors of the study have a long way to go before convincing any serious scholar (and consequently, I suppose, an auction house!) that the putti are the real deal. The lessons that could have been learned from the way that the Panther Riders were sensationally revealed to the world seem not to have been heeded, with the wish to attach Michelangelo’s name to a sculpture once more overriding the importance of careful art historical analysis. Science can–and in this case probably does–tell us that the wooden consoles were made in Italy in the later 1400s, but that’s not quite the same as telling us that “these are definitely by Michelangelo”.