Known as the Rothschild Bronzes, two sculptures depicting handsome, well-muscled, naked men riding in a triumphant pose atop large feline creatures have mystified the art community for centuries.
Now, after four years of research, an international team of art historians, conservation scientists, and human anatomy experts led by the University of Cambridge have announced the confirmation of a theory first presented in the 1800s: the works were made by the unrivaled Italian master Michelangelo.
"They are authentic Michelangelo, made when he was at the height of his creative genius, when he was desperate to outdo his contemporaries and dominate every medium on a massive scale," Dr Victoria Avery, leader of the attribution project, told BBC News.
The 1-meter-high (3.3-foot) sculptures are believed to have been crafted after Michelangelo hewed the inimitable "David" out of marble yet before he began work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco in 1508.
Currently owned by a private collector in London (who bought them for £1,821,650 in 2002), there was no documentation nor public knowledge of the pieces prior to 1878, when they were purchased by the Rothschild family from Venetian nobles. The idea that they were created by Michelangelo was first floated soon after, when Adolphe de Rothschild attributed them thusly in his collection.
This bold claim was dismissed until 2014, when sharp-eyed Cambridge art history professor Paul Joannides found a sketch resembling the pieces within an obscure Michelangelo drawing. He subsequently noted that the male figures bore several subtle physical features that are distinctive to male forms created by the lauded Renaissance man (literally and figuratively).
Most notable of these are "eight-pack" abs (speculated to show up in many of Michelangelo’s works due to him repeatedly using the same exquisitely ripped model, according to The Guardian), life-like pubic hair, feet with second toes longer than the big toes, a visible sartorius muscle in the thigh, and accurate "triangles of auscultation" in the upper back. Art experts claim that the latter two elements – both being aspects of the human body that are often overlooked or unknown to those without knowledge of anatomy – are representative of the magnificent attention to detail that set Michelangelo apart from his peers.
But as compelling as these visible clues may be, Joannides and his colleagues knew they would need stronger evidence to assign new work to one of the greatest artists of all time.
So, in the interval leading up to today’s confident announcement, the Cambridge group definitively dated the sculptures to Michelangelo’s era through neutron analysis, enlisted a clinical anatomist to compare the works to others by Michelangelo, and studied the artist’s writings. The extensive research journey is documented in a new book, titled Michelangelo: Sculpture in Bronze.
Dr Avery, who found mention of the sculptures in 30 letters Michelangelo wrote to his family as he was working on an enormous bronze statue of Pope Julius II, is thrilled that her team’s efforts will help spread Michelangelo’s unknown legacy as a bronze sculptor of the highest caliber.
“I knew him as a poet, as an architect, as a military engineer, as a marble carver, as a painter of frescoes, but nowhere was I ever taught about him as bronzista,” Avery told the Guardian, noting that no bronze works by Michelangelo have survived to the modern day.
“I hope people will see Michelangelo as even more brilliant than before.”
There is no word yet on how much the sculptures are now estimated to be worth, but we’re guessing that private buyer is pinching themself in joy.