The Metropolitan Museum unveils a ‘maybe’ Michelangelo

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Saturday I stopped at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to have a look at “Young Archer,” the sculpture attributed to a youthful Michelangelo Buonarroti (Caprese 1475 -- Rome 1564), which went on view Nov. 3 in the Vélez Blanco Patio, just off the grand staircase at the entrance to the European galleries. For decades the marble had been sitting in the lobby of the Cultural Services office of the French Embassy just down the street from the Met, but not until 1997 was the attribution to the Renaissance titan Michelangelo advanced by NYU professor Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, followed by Met curator James David Draper.

Other notable scholars doubt the claim, and research has been ongoing for the past dozen years.


Seven informative text panels lay out the pros and cons of the debate, as well as considering whether the figure of a nude youth might represent Apollo or Cupid. Rather than showing a counterbalanced posture, the boy affects a Hellenistic twist: The head turns in the same direction as one (missing) arm, which would have been reaching across the chest to pluck an arrow from a quiver, carved in the chunky shape of a lion’s paw.

The fragmentary figure is in poor condition. Missing both arms and lower legs, as well as a carved vase against which it originally leaned for stability, the sculpture is badly weathered on the front. (Pitting and general abrasions likely came from a lengthy outdoor stay in a niche in the Roman garden of Cardinal Scipione Borghese). Originally about 4 feet tall, it was also broken into several pieces prior to the 20th century and put back together with metal rods.

Rudimentary carving in areas of the face, hair and back of the slender, elongated torso also suggest the sculpture might not have been finished. If it is by Michelangelo, he would have been a teenager living in the house of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, just around the time Genoa’s Christopher Columbus was preparing to set sail for the Indies under the flag of Spain.

Surprisingly, the sculpture was not drawing much attention Saturday. I spent nearly an hour virtually alone in the gallery, which is outfitted with four 16th century Italian sculptures. (The embellishments of the Vélez Blanco Patio were themselves carved by Italian artisans working in Renaissance Spain.) Perhaps half a dozen Met visitors came in for a look. I returned an hour later, after venturing off to see a show of American paintings, and found the gallery still almost empty.

No matter. The Met is to be commended for putting the “Young Archer” on view, even though the attribution to Michelangelo is not secure. (It’s on loan to the museum for 10 years from the French Republic, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.) This is a sculpture you probably wouldn’t look at twice if it didn’t have the Renaissance genius’s name attached, but the possibility of his authorship means that an important bit of a great artist’s early biography might be at hand.

What’s on display, in other words, is not so much a sculpture as a fragment of doubt. In that regard it’s like the marble figure of a ‘kouros’ (standing man) at the Getty Villa, which is frankly labeled as either Greek, from about 530 BC, or a modern forgery. Given our coarse culture, when shrill demands for certainty on the day’s assorted topics are loudly made, it’s beneficial to be reminded that there’s a lot that we don’t know about many important things.


And, in fact, that we might never know for sure.

-- Christopher Knight