Mark Lamster | Essays

A Renaissance Who Dunnit


What's in a name? Tomorrow the Metropolitan Museum will put on display a sculpture of a boy archer that made headlines about a decade ago when a New York art historian claimed it was the work of Michelangelo. At the time it was placed with no great ceremony in the lobby of a Fifth Avenue mansion used by the French government for cultural programming. I recall seeing it there during an exhibition of work by the cartoonist Semp, and thinking nothing much of it. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, the professor in question, thought differently, and made the attribution. Is it really a Michelangelo? Experts are divided. To the extent that the controversy drums up attendance at the museum I don't see much harm in the debate, which is probably only good for the field in the long run. The evidence supporting the claim is entirely circumstantial and based on connoisseurship—that is, it looks like something he would have done and uses techniques he was known to use. Of course, naysayers have pointed out any number of ways it differs from the master's work, including an analysis of the poor boy's swingers. In lieu of any hard evidence, specifically, contemporary documentary evidence linking the piece to Michelangelo, I'm hard pressed to believe any claim that it's his work. Connoisseuship has proven, over and over and over again, to be an unreliable method of authentication. We see what we want to see in things. History is filled with anomalies and black holes that undermine what appear to be logical assumptions. Rubens generally took a liberal view of the concept of authenticity. He often recommended that clients purchase paintings from his workshop rather than signature works by himself, because he thought the two were indistinguishable in quality and the former could be had at much lower prices. That is to say, what concerned him most was the quality of the object itself. Of course, clients preferred to have the works by his hand, nevermind his suggestion. Part of the attraction of art is association with its creator, especially if that creator is thought to possess a mysterious "genius." Which goes a long way to explaining the fascination with the Young Archer. Is it by Michelangelo? Maybe. But if it's not, is it even worth looking at?

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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