Nude, drunk and riding on panthers: Michelangelo's lost masterpiece discovered

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. Michelangelo--genius, right? Good painter, fair sculptor, lots of sketches. And now a team of art experts think they’ve got proof that a couple of Michelangelo sculptures have been hidden in plain sight for centuries. It’s a pair of bronze statues depicting two drunk athletic naked men riding on panthers. Let that sink in for a second. Okay. Dr. Victoria Avery is the Keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. That’s where the statues are now on display.


Dr. Victoria Avery: They are absolutely stunning. You really need to try and come and see them in person. They’re just under a meter height, and as you say, they are two very athletic, highly muscled youngish men, a slightly older one with a beard, a slightly younger one clean shaven. They each have one arm raised in the air, the other arm held towards the waist, and, as you say, seated astride snarling ferocious panthers.


Werman: Yeah, a really triumphant pose. They are pretty extraordinary. So, why do we believe that Michelangelo might have created them?


Avery: Well, we’ve gathered together a body of evidence that we feel is pretty compelling. There’s quite a lot of visual evidence. Professor Paul Joannides made a connection with a drawing in France that shows--it’s a copy drawing by people of Michelangelo of several facsimile copies of several works by Michelangelo, and in a little corner there is indeed a nude youth on the back of a panther, so it’s a very unusual subject and it shows that Michelangelo was working on this topic. Also, the technique used for this drawing implies very much that Michelangelo was thinking about it in terms of a sculpture rather than a pictorial composition. So, the visual evidence is there, and we’ve also got some pretty convincing technical and anatomical evidence too.


Werman: Like what?


Avery: We’ve had some Rijksmuseum conservation scientist colleagues analyze the bronzes and they were very thick-walled, which would indicate an early date of casting, because really by the 1530s, the Italians had got their act together with casting and most bronzes after about the 1530s had much thinner-walled casts. So, this bit of evidence has led the Rijksmuseum conservation scientists to say “Well, actually from a technical point of view, it’s more likely than not that these bronzes are earlier 16th century.”


Werman: And for you, the moment you realize that it was probably pretty certain these are Michelangelo’s, what was that like for you?


Avery: Mindblowing. To have in front of one these nude, lithe, athletic muscled males on their snarling panthers and then to actually be able to touch them, you really are in the presence of Michelangelo, and the fact that they may well be lost works by his hand when you do more research--yeah, I’m actually delighted.


Werman: And what about the subject matter? Nude men, that seems kind of an appropriate subject for sculpture, but on a panther?


Avery: Yes, it is an incredibly unusual subject matter. We believe that what they represent are male followers of the wine god Bacchus, Bacchus in ancient Roman mythology or Dionysus in ancient Greek. He was the god of wine, of hedonism, of joyfulness and Dionysus or Bacchus had followers, female Maenads or male Bacchantes, and often they were rather drunk, inebriated by the god, and they formed this triumphant procession. The link between nudity and triumphalism and panthers makes us think very strongly that they are definitely a pagan subject and probably Bacchantes on panthers. I think it was a good excuse to show people having a  wild time and a bit of nudity under the guise of an intellectual ancient subject.


Werman: Well, from high art to low art, my most recent reference to men on panthers was “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” there was a panther but they weren’t naked. What’s been the response since you made the announcement there in Cambridge?


Avery: Very, very interesting indeed. I think the public are as intrigued by the story as we are. The press have all leapt upon it. But on the other hand, Michelangelo is one of the greatest artists ever to have lived, so I think to have not one but two new works by his hand, it’s a very, very critical and interesting moment in Michelangelo’s career.


Werman: Dr. Victoria Avery, Keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK, telling us about two statues of nude men on panthers strongly suspected to be Michelangelo’s. Thank you very much.


Avery: My pleasure. Thank you.