The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is currently showing two bronzes of muscular nude men riding “panthers”. They are little short of a metre high overall, much larger than standard bronze statuettes. They were announced to press a few days ago. I was asked by various journalists what I thought of them. Having been involved the attribution of two new “Leonardos” – the portrait on vellum that I christened La Bella Princpessa and the Salvator Mundi – I know how unwise it is for art historians to give instant responses to press enquiries on the basis of poorish images and with no access to the detailed evidence. I set my mind against premature ejaculations, and said I would wait to see the bronzes – which I did on Friday. Before commenting on the attribution, it might be helpful to say something about methods of involved.
Seeing things “in the flesh”
The truism is that the item must be inspected closely in the original before putting forward or dismissing an attribution. This comprises the basis of traditional connoisseurship – or what I prefer to call judgment by eye. It is valid, but only to a limited degree. There are two major qualifications to the truism, both arising from modern technologies of imaging. The first is that very high resolution images produced under ideal lighting and/or by multi-spectral scanning may well disclose more than first-hand inspection, even aided by magnification. The second is that varieties of scientific analysis may produce clear evidence about the origins of the work, most definitely to exclude the artist or period or place from which the work is supposed to originate.
The imaging will often produce such clear results that a given attribution can be safely excluded, independently of what the object might look like in the original. I am sent many “Leonardos” (and other things) that can be securely excluded without seeing the original. If I were to travel to see every speculative attribution – ranging from 19th century lithographs to paintings by followers – I would be on the road more or less perpetually. I have been denounced by David Feldman on behalf of the Mona Lisa Foundation for “refusing” to see the so-called first version of the Mona Lisa in Geneva. I have not refused, but on the basis of high level imaging, most notably infrared reflectography, I have decided that the visual and documentary evidence does not in this case rise above the threshold of probability (or even possibility) at which it is worth the time and expense of the necessary travel. If a work is above that threshold, then being in the presence of the original becomes a crucial factor. I would be pleased to see the Geneva version at some stage, just as I would like to see all the earlyish copies of Leonardo paintings, which exist in great numbers.
As it happens, sculptures are something of special case. Even the best images, including close-ups and photographs from varied viewpoints, do not convey the full effect of the plastic and spatial properties of the work at its actual scale. We can draw some conclusions from photography and technical analysis, but the presence of the sculpture is significantly diminished when rendered in two dimensions – to a much greater degree than a two-dimensional painting. The effect of the bronzes in the Fitzwilliam is different (and more impressive) than the best photographs available online.
The figures of the two men, each with one arm raised and with one leg more bent than other, are powerfully realised, with a strong sense of an individual vision. The comparisons in the accompanying book by Victoria Avery and Paul Joannides are very telling, ranging from the marble David to a figure at the centre of Bastiano da Sangallo’s fine copy of the bathers in the lost Battle of Cascina cartoon. In all respects, the two nudes align very well with Michelangelo’s vision of male anatomy around 1506. I happy to accept them – at least provisionally.
Questions remain. I will raise just two. One concerns what the men were holding in their upraised hands. They are currently gripping stubby cylinders, which appear to be the vestigial remains of what would have been shafts or handles – perhaps of weapons. The second concerns the angles of the men’s’ legs. The relatively narrow V between their thighs, particularly that of the younger figure, is not that of a rider astride an animal of normal bodily bulk. This brings us to the animals themselves.
The first thing to say is that to call them “panthers’ is relatively meaningless. Panthera is genus that includes the lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard and snow leopard. What we now call a panther is a black (melanistic) variety of a jaguar or leopard, not a species in itself. Since they are sculpted in dark bronze, we cannot of course tell if the “panthers” are black. If we are using “panther” in a historical sense, we will need to clarify what was known and named at the time (not least in Florence), beginning with Pliny’s Natural History. The picture is confused, since not enough specimens were available to sort out the confusion in the existing texts, including bestiaries. Bacchus’s chariot in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne is pulled by a pair of very well described cheetahs.
The “panthers’ on which the men sit are very poorly characterised, working against any clear identification – and indeed against their attribution to Michelangelo. The animals torsos are notably narrow, even for slim big cats, indicating that they have been formed to fit as best as they can between the Vs of the men’s thighs. The animals’ anatomies are as incoherent as the men’s’ anatomies are coherent. The flat-footed paws are stereotypical, lacking the kind of organic vitality with which Michelangelo endowed clawed feet. The bodies and heads are full of sausagey lumps that look anatomical but are not. The strange “shields” with median incisions than run down the animals’ noses are bizarre and ineloquent. The muzzles are crudely incised with deep marks that signify nothing. The folds of skin around their necks fail to convey any sense of real folding. We might argue that Michelangelo did not have a model of a “panther” to guide him. This would not have stopped him creating compelling sculptural beasts, even if they were not zoologically accurate.
The men’s’ figures are compelling in themselves, and are based on models that can be reasonably attributed to Michelangelo. The “panthers” seem to have been designed by someone else to accommodate the men. My hypothesis is that the large models of the men, originally intended to hold weapons, were made for an unidentified ensemble, perhaps a tomb (like that sketched in the corner of the Albertina drawing, fig. 31 in the book), in which they straddled or knelt on an architectural feature. Someone has utilised the exisiting models of the men to realise a pair of bronze sculptures that have Bacchic connotations. This is of course very hypothetical.
Is the bronze of the “panthers” the same as that of men? Are the anal rods that are used to insert the men into the backs of the “panthers” cast from the same bronze as the men? There are many questions to resolve.
While we are talking about making attributions, what about the famous British Museum drawing for the centrally seated man in the Battle of Cascina (fig. 46 in the book)? It graced the cover the Michelangelo drawings show in the BM. It seems to me to be a laboured version, poorly articulated and mis-proportioned. There’s an arbitrary judgment for you!
(I am trying to attach images…)