Academics at the University of Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum have publicly announced that they believe two bronze sculptures in the museum collection are by Michelangelo. The metre-high statues, previously known as the Rothschild Bronzes, are a non-matching pair of muscular male nudes astride panthers. 

The finding is particularly significant because it was believed that none of Michelangelo’s sculptures in bronze had survived. The artist is best known for his work in marble, such as David.

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Photo: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The belief that the sculptures were the 500-year-old work of Michelangelo had previously been dismissed in the 19th century. However last year Paul Joannides, professor of art history at the University of Cambridge noted something important in a corner of a drawing held in the Musee Fabre in Montpellier, France. The drawing was by one of Michelangelo’s apprentices, who made copies of some of the drawings done by his master. The small sketch depicted a youth riding a panther in a pose very similar to the bronzes in the Fitzwilliam collection. Further evidence was provided by initial scientific analysis, which helped to date the bronze casting to the first decade of the 16th century, and therefore contemporary with the Renaissance master.

“Michelangelo is a dangerous attribution to make,” explains Professor Joannides in The Economist. “Every year or two, somebody comes up with a new painting or sculpture attributed to Michelangelo, and 99.99% of the time, they’re fantasy attributions.” However, in this instance “There really isn’t anyone around who’s in any way a plausible alternative candidate,” he says.

The bronzes will be on display as autograph works at the Fitzwilliam Museum from 3 February to 9 August. More findings and research will be presented at an international conference on 6 July.