Fitzwilliam Museum to house only surviving Michelangelo bronzes

Tonicha Upham 5 February 2015

A team of Cambridge art historians have broken ground in the artistic sphere by identifying two ‘lost’ sculptures, thought to be Michelangelo’s work.

The two metre-high bronze sculptures, which for 120 years have remained unattributed, portray two nude men riding on panthers. The project to identify the origin of the sculptures involved an international team working in many different fields.

In a move that will bring Cambridge’s art scene into line with that of many other great European cities, the Fitzwilliam Museum is set to exhibit the two Michelangelo bronzes publicly until August.

The pioneering project began last autumn, when emeritus professor of art history at the University of Cambridge Paul Joannides made links between the sculptures and a drawing by an apprentice of Michelangelo. In one corner of the work, a muscular youth in a similar pose is riding a panther.

Subsequent neutron scans placed the creation of the bronzes to be between the years of 1500 and 1510, around the time when Michelangelo had completed the marble David and before he began painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The sculptures have been compared to many of his other works which are similar. A professor from the University of Warwick noted that every detail of the bronzes – down to the six packs and belly buttons – was exemplary of the artist’s style and also drew links to Michelangelo’s nudes on the Sistine Chapel.

The sculptures are known as the Rothschild Bronzes, after their first recorded owner Baron Adolphe de Rothschild. The bronzes were initially attributed to Michelangelo, but the link was discredited in the late 19th century, as the sculptures are neither signed nor documented by him. There is currently no definitive history of the statues prior to 1878.

The attribution by the Cambridge team is notable because no other Michelangelo bronzes now survive. A bronze David was lost during the French Revolution and a statue of Pope Julius II was melted down by the rebellious Bolognese for artillery.

Victoria Avery, keeper of applied arts at the museum, told The Guardian that the project had been like "a Renaissance whodunit". She went on to speak of her hopes that the findings would be enjoyed by everyone, not just university academics.

Avery added: "I really hope people will engage with this, that they will read the arguments – maybe sit down in a cafe for half an hour with the book – and then come and look at the bronzes and make their own mind up."

Natalie Bird, a second-year English student, expressed excitement at the findings, commenting: "It’s not often you hear about the Fitz in national news. I’ll definitely make the trip to see these world famous sculptures."

One anonymous second-year student stated: "This kind of charade merely perpetuates the shallow and self-serving monetisation of art, perpetuated by people with far too much money and no taste. These sculptures may be good but I don’t care if they’re made by Michelangelo."

After the recent success of the Silent Partners exhibition, this discovery ensures that this year is set to be another exciting chapter in the musem’s history.