Curator James David Draper discusses the attribution to the teenage Michelangelo of the marble sculpture now on special loan to the Museum from the French Republic’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.
James Draper: Hello, I’m James Draper, the Henry R. Kravis Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Museum is now displaying the marble sculpture of a young archer attributed to the young Michelangelo. This fragmentary figure of a nude youth, missing arms and lower legs, was previously in the Fifth Avenue mansion that has housed the Cultural Services office of the French Embassy for several decades. The sculpture's on view at the Metropolitan Museum for ten years as a special loan from the French Republic’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.
It shows every sign of having been the piece that belonged to a Florentine banker living in Rome in the sixteenth century who owned something that is variously described as a Cupid or an Apollo, but with a vase at his feet that’s just got to be this figure. The explanation for that sort of flange of marble that comes off his left leg is, in fact, the edge of that vase that also helped support the figure.
So then it lay neglected—although a couple of artists did draw it, so we can do a lot to reconstruct the limbs—until it passed into the hands of a Florentine dealer named Bardini, whose collection was sold at Christie’s in London in 1905. He preserved the thought that it was by Michelangelo, said that it came from the gardens of Villa Borghese, which is where the later draftsmen certainly saw it. But it didn’t find a buyer at that London sale and Stanford White eventually got hold of it for his clients. White served as a bit of a dealer besides as an architect and designer, and he bought it and sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Payne Whitney, to whom the Fifth Avenue mansion in question had belonged. And it was installed by White in the entrance to the mansion, above a sort of make-believe fountain.
A Florentine scholar attributed it to Michelangelo simply on the basis of the photograph in the old sale catalogue, and that had no particular consequence. But I, too, was interested, because I was doing my dissertation on Michelangelo’s mentor, whose name was Bertoldo di Giovanni. And I could just see that this marble had something to do with the intensely lyric style of Bertoldo, even though it was a fragment and even though Bertoldo worked in bronze rather than marble.
And one day—I don’t remember precise details—I was walking down Fifth Avenue, really right around the corner, and there was the marble in the vestibule of the French Cultural Affairs office. Glass doors, so you could see in, and, well, I put that in my dissertation as a later work. It didn’t occur to me that it was by Michelangelo.
Later, an NYU professor, Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, was at a party in that building where the sculpture was well lighted. And she knows Michelangelo through and through, and she said, “My gosh, you know, it really is him.” And she called me over and I took a look, and I was immediately persuaded. When decent light finally fell on this piece and I could really take in the superb carving of the hair and the twist of the body and the subtle serpentine movement, I believe I was converted right on the spot. Counter claims were made, not everybody believed it, but an increasing number of people do. And I’m not going to be unbiased about this, as we walk through. I’ll tell you the reasons why I think that is spot-on for Michelangelo.
I think it was the carving of the hair more than anything, that you could see really modeled in a decent light, that spoke most eloquently. The hair is very tightly curled and crisply curled, and this is in accord with his work until the famous Bacchus.
And then gradually to try to reconstruct the composition also helped, because this arm hooked over the chest is also an element in Bertoldo. And when you could start walking around the work, you could see many, many more possibilities. One knew it only from a black-and-white photo, in one position. So it was a revelation to see it, and when your eye could move around and take in the especially serpentine elements.
Another feature is that he really never quite completed this figure. Look at his proper left temple and you’ll see that it was never completely finished—I mean, it’s only blocked out and never completely carved with the finesse of the rest of the curls. And this is a feature with Michelangelo all his life, this unfinished state.
One thing you mustn’t do is think of the older Michelangelo of the Sistine ceiling or the David or the Medici tombs or the vaunted Pietàs or those titanic, heroic efforts when you look at this little boy. For this is a slight figure, he’s almost skinny, and the only end way for me to deal with it is to deal with the child Michelangelo. I think we’re talking about a work done when he was fifteen or sixteen years old.
Michelangelo had every privilege. I was born on his birthday, March 6, in his case 1475. He was born in a little town in Umbria called Caprese, now called Caprese Michelangelo. And his father was a sort of low-grade official who was mayor of that little town at the moment. But within a month, the whole family had moved to Florence. And his father apprenticed him to the leading painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, where we know that he mastered painting rather quickly. You may remember the recent exhibition of a single painting of The Torment of Saint Anthony borrowed from the museum in Fort Worth, the Kimbell Museum, that Michelangelo painted even slightly younger, in Ghirlandaio’s workshop. We couldn’t have these two works in the same room. It would confuse people even more to see the crisp graphic style of the painting and the much looser, much more lyric attitude in the marble, near each other in date, but showing the artist capable of pursuing more than one path at a time that he did all his life, in painting, sculpture, architecture.
And so, very quickly—it’s in all the literature—Michelangelo entered the Medici household, the household of the great Lorenzo the Magnificent, who nourished the careers of artists and who had great collections for them to study. And it’s clear that a lot of looking at antique sculpture has gone into this lithe young archer, with his almost Hellenistic movement. You’ve got to realize that his hands originally—as you can see from a couple of drawings—were very articulated, very reticulated in this movement of pulling an arrow from a quiver, a very strange quiver that’s in the shape of a lion’s paw, as a sort of touch of rusticity, looking back to sort of barbaric never-never land, way before the beginning of time, when we’re looking at an idea of the earliest notions of the gods.
And the household of Lorenzo contained my artist, Bertoldo, who was sort of a grumpy factotum of the place, a sort of unofficial curator of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s collections. And it’s his style—this very splendid, out-of-it, lyric aspect that’s been given to this youth—that’s reflected here. It’s beyond Bertoldo in its ambitions. There’s always a slightness in Bertoldo that is reflected in this lyric little boy, but it’s much more ambitious than he is and a lot closer to classical antiquity. And Bertoldo didn’t carve any marbles that we know about. And here’s this kid, as if on the loose, experimenting with imaginary poses, vaguely connected with classical antiquity and full of his own pathos already.
So Michelangelo is simultaneously, more or less, nailing down painting and sculpture from his mid-teens. Bertoldo died in 1491 and Lorenzo, who as we know was absolutely distraught, the following year, 1492. And it is to those years that I suggest we should place the Young Archer, leaving apart preconceptions about the firebrand of the Sistine Chapel and the powerful male nude and all that. He’s not yet really into his anatomical studies, for example.
We’ve only just discovered that the same marble belongs to the whole body. It’s broken into separate major pieces. The legs are the same piece of marble to below the knees. And so you can see that that’s a strange elongation and rather strange kneecaps that this child possesses. And it becomes easier and easier to view this through the lens of the young artist. He’s sort of rivaling the antique, providing his own touches, including this extraordinary elongation that you will find him using selectively. Especially in the famous wood crucifix for San Lorenzo that is only a very few years later than this, you find that splendid, sinuous, serpentine movement and elongation. Other times, no. For example, the famous relief of the battle of the centaurs that is generally acknowledged to be his earliest sculpture, you won’t find that elongation but you’ll find really vigorous tumbling figures. The blunt profiles in the relief and the Young Archer are worth comparing. I really do think they’re close to being the same. But I would put the Young Archer even just a little bit earlier.
We could project that the piece was about four feet tall. We can never perfectly reconstruct the piece because a lot has been lost due to weathering. It was outdoors for a long time and so got pretty beat up. In the Villa Borghese gardens it was in a niche, and that is why the front of the sculpture has suffered worse than the back. The back was relatively protected. But you can see how weather caused pitting across the chest especially.
We owe a great deal to Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, for bringing so much notice to the piece in articles that she pulled together in 1997–98, and to an exhibition in Florence that brought it together with the most pertinent early works, where these hypotheses could be really tested and where a lot of art historians came around to the idea that we really are looking at a work of this young genius.
I mean, you have a fixed view of an artist. It’s hard to separate preconceptions sometimes. And it’s only just a little boy, you know, it’s not some big lusty nude. It’s a rather quiet, introspective piece. And if people are unconvinced, I’m not worried. I’m glad we can offer people the chance to see and decide.