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The Metropolitan Museum unveils a 'maybe' Michelangelo

November 8, 2009 |  1:24 pm

Michelangelo Archer side 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.

Michelangelo installed overhead 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

Photos: "Young Archer," Carrara marble, circa 1491/92, attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564). Credit: Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (4)

I wonder if the museum's emptiness is a reflection of New Yorkers' disconnection from their famed, old art institutes. they should get Pei or Gehry to do something about that! mix it up.

Interesting, but irrelevant. If it doesnt arouse people, it just isn't very good, no matter who made it. Only academics care about this nonsense, and those who collect such things as postage stamps, for rarity, and investment. Not art.

We crave quality and passion, things that connect us to the earth, to god, and to each other. This fixation with names is for profit and marketing only. We dont care. Just as with Picasso, who created far more crap than great art, other artists did also. Michelangelo burned most of the works he had which he did not feel were of true artistic value, but obviously couldnt get to them all.

Let it be, and stop searching though acadmeic trash bins seeking art. Its OUT THRE. Go find it CK, instead of presenting those with bought MFAs in hand, and what the academics tell you is good. It's your job, stop being lazy. Anyone can do that, and do.

art collegia delenda est

I live in New York and I love visiting the Met. It is overwhelmingly popular, endlessly engaging with the city and interesting. No need for a superficial change to attract attention. Thank you.

I read your article after watching a TV segment about this. I'm glad I will have a chance to see the statue, since it's impossible for me to go now. It surprises me that more people aren't already clamoring to see it, but perhaps they just don't know about it. With all the other stuff on people's minds these days...but I was pretty excited about it, especially since the video included closeups of the hair, which was thrilling to see. I'm no expert, but I disagree with you that most people would pass by it with no interest at all if Michelangelo's names wasn't attached to it. Walking into the rom inb the middle of the news segment, and not knowing who it was (maybe) attributed to, I found it lovely. Maybe I'm not educated enough to know I shouldn't. Having graduated with a degree in Art History, I'm glad I was left with the ability to appreciate it.


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