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07 April 2018

Dr Great Art Episode 33: Michelangelo's Forgery

Dr Great Art podcast. Episode 33: Michelangelo's Forgery.
Did he or didn't he? There is a somewhat frequently-heard accusation that Michelangelo forged ancient Roman sculpture at the start of his career.
#arthistory #michelangelo #forgery


Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the 33rd "Dr Great Art" brief podcast.

My artecdote this time concerns the truth and myth of Michelangelo's forgery.

There is a somewhat frequently-heard accusation that Michelangelo forged ancient Roman sculpture at the start of his career. This allegation comes and goes in waves in popular media. And once again recently, I have read a claims concerning it, most with few facts to back them up. I even read one that said he forged "hundreds" of sculptures. Here is the truth.

First, almost no one at this time or even ours, does hundreds of marble sculptures at all! It is extremely demanding work, especially without the assistance of teams of apprentices and modern electric tools. Michelangelo, in his entire career did about 42 to 46 sculptures. His output in every field during his long life was prodigious; he was amazingly prolific. With only that number. There are no "hundreds" and certainly not of forgeries. In fact of the latter, there is only one. And yet there IS one. Sort of.

This forgery anecdote about the artist goes back to Vasari, and originally was meant as a compliment!

The young Michelangelo had been taken in to the workshop/school of Lorenzo, the Magnificent, il Magnifico, de Medici. And that was because Lorenzo was impressed with how faithfully and adeptly the artist was mimicking aspects of ancient sculpture. This was much desired, and was the key to the whole Renaissance, at least at first. They wished to be a
Re-naissance, a Re-Birth of the "Ancients," yet with Christian and newly interpreted Neo-Platonic ideals, leaving the stylizations of Medieval art behind --- which was art and thought they considered to be backward and oppressive.

One stone sculpture by the young, precocious artist was particularly impressive, that of a sleeping cupid. The art dealer Baldassari del Milanese apparently told the young sculptor he could sell the work. Unbeknownst to Michelangelo, (or possibly with his help, yet hiding the reasons), he aged the sculpture of the sleeping cupid artificially by caking it in earth, burying it, etc. This was to give it the aura of a newly rediscovered Roman or Greek sculpture, which were all the rage among collectors, especially Cardinals, in Rome.

Baldassari probably intended to sell it for a, thus, very high price, much higher than one could get for a new work by an unknown young artist, and then keep most of the money, giving Michelangelo only a small part. He probably thought it was a one-off, a bit of technical "luck" on the part of the artist. Little did he know what the aims, talents and future successes of Michelangelo were and would be.

Did the artist go along with the dupe? There are two possibilities. First, he did not and the dealer was acting alone. Or second, and more likely, Michelangelo did not go along with it, but when he realized what was happening, decided to use it to his advantage.

The buyer was indeed a cardinal, who realized he had been duped, and became angry at the dealer alone, forcing him to return his fee. There is a good possibility that Michelangelo himself leaked the information to the cardinal.

The cardinal was Raffaello Riario of San Giorgio, who was impressed by Michelangelo's virtuosity, thus he didn’t press any charges against him. In fact quite the opposite. He allowed Michelangelo to keep his share of the deal and also invited him to come to Rome. The artist was still only about twenty years old and immediately renowned in good circles.

Much later, the piece became part of the d'Este collection in Mantua, which also helped Michelangelo increase his reputation. Purportedly, his Sleeping Cupid was displayed along with ancient marble sculptures then attributed to the most renowned of the Attic sculptors, Praxiteles.

Much later, the Sleeping Cupid was acquired by Charles I of England. It most probably was destroyed in the great fire of the Palace of Whitehall in London in 1689.

So there you have it. Michelangelo did NOT make a career of forgeries --- he did not need to. His ancient-leaning, yet thereby radically new style was in great demand. It summed up what many had actually been searching for. But he was crafty enough to use the attempted corrupted trickery of a dealer to his own advantage.

Thanks for listening. Podcast number 33.
Michelangelo's Forgery

If you wish to hear more cool, exciting and hopefully inspiring stuff about art history and art, come back for more. Also I, Dr Mark Staff Brandl, artist and art historian, am available for live custom Performance-Lectures. In English und auf Deutsch.

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