Pubic hair and killer abs pegged Michelangelo bronzes
Keen eye of an expert spots vital clues to identify the only known Michelangelo bronzes in existence
Big toes, rippled torsos and pubic hair.
They sound like keywords in a salacious internet search, but they’re also key to identifying a Michelangelo bronze.
A professor of clinical anatomy has helped to identify two of the Renaissance master’s sculptures after making some keen observations, including the bristling discovery that the pubic hair is pointed in an unusual direction.
Almost every male classical and Renaissance sculpture has pubic hair arranged “in a triangle going down towards the genitalia”, Professor Peter Abrahams explained. In Michelangelo’s work, “the triangle goes up towards the umbilicus, not the other way around”.
Abrahams was invited by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to assess the sculptures in an attempt to establish who made them. His research has helped to confirm them as the only known Michelangelo bronzes in existence.
First, he noticed that the big toes on the sculptures bore the hallmarks of the master.
“Being an observant person, both as a doctor and a scientist, I noticed that the toes on the bronzes were a bit odd,” he said.
“I then went and had a look at all the toes that I could find anywhere in Michelangelo’s oeuvre. Out of 40 toes, all except for two fitted this brief: they had a short big toe and a long second toe, and the big toe goes outwards – it looks like someone is wearing a flip-flop in between the toes.
“In the Sistine Chapel, David, Moses, they all have the same toes. There are certain traits that shine through in an artist’s work.”
Abrahams, who combines his work at Warwick Medical School with a keen interest in art history, says he can now instantly tell a real Michelangelo foot from a fake.
He also found another physical clue to link the bronzes to Michelangelo. The two men – one young, one older and bearded – have rippled torsos.
“We all know a six pack, but these guys actually have an eight pack,” he said, something seen in very few people. “I found two statues and five Michelangelo drawings that have that same, rare anomaly, which tells me that the model he used for those was the same model he used for these bronzes.
“They look slightly on steroids, slightly pumped up, like bodybuilders. But if you were a guy lifting masonry stone you would have very developed muscles.”
Another indicator was the presence of the sartorius muscle in the legs. The muscle is not outwardly visible, leading Abrahams to conclude that only an artist who had dissected bodies would know of its existence.
When Abrahams was told that the bronzes probably dated to the early 1500s, he was surprised. “The first anatomy textbook was written in 1543 – we’re talking a generation later. So whoever made these beautiful bronzes had actually seen under the skin.”
He narrowed down to less than a dozen a list of artists known to have dissected bodies, and concluded that their work did not match the bronzes.
The statues “took my breath away”, Abrahams said. “Of course, they’re beautiful, but what I’m talking about is anatomical, scientific accuracy.”
The final word
Abrahams’s evidence is featured in a new book, Michelangelo: Sculptor in Bronze, which draws together the work of various experts.
The bronzes were first recorded as being the work of Michelangelo in 1878, when they were owned by the Rothschild family, but the attribution was later in doubt. They last changed hands at Sotheby’s in 2002 for £1.65m, when they were bought by a private collector, and remain known as the Rothschild bronzes.
A team from Cambridge University and the Fitzwilliam re-attributed them to Michelangelo in 2015 and invited experts from various disciplines to contribute further research, which has now confirmed their findings.
They commissioned technical analysis at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam which found that the bronzes date from the early 1500s.
The book also details 30 little-known letters from Michelangelo to his family, written between 1506 and 1508, in which he writes about working in bronze. He is known to have made three major bronze sculptures, none of which survive.
Dr Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, described the research as a “game changer”.
“It provides a completely new, and indeed long overdue, interdisciplinary approach to Michelangelo studies.
“It proves what can be achieved when there is genuine collaboration between internationally regarded experts in fields as diverse as art history, conservation science, anatomy and technical archaeology.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited