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The Met’s “Michelangelo” Show: A Truth-in-Advertising Alert

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James Draper with the purported Michelangelo

At the Metropolitan Museum’s recent press preview unveiling The Young Archer, James Draper, the museum’s curator of European sculpture and decorative arts, made it clear that he thoroughly believes that the waif, labeled as “attributed to” Michelangelo, is in fact the real deal—a very early Michelangelo owned by Jacopo Galli in Rome, which had been described as an Apollo or Cupid by commentators from the mid-16th century.

The damaged and weathered marble figure of a youth has been relocated for at least the
next 10 years from the French Embassy’s Cultural Services mansion to the
Metropolitan Museum, across the street and one block north.

If you have any doubt about what Draper thinks about his new charge, take a look at this banner announcing the boy’s arrival:

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If you’re having trouble reading the camouflaged blue words “attributed to” (after “Young Archer”), so are all the people driving by. What they’re seeing is, “Young Archer MICHELANGELO.”

The texts and illustrations that now occupy one wall of the museum’s Vélez Blanco Patio are intended to bolster the case for the master’s authorship—a matter of considerable dispute among Michelangelo experts.

This wasn’t the show I was expecting to see. According to the Met’s press release:

The
exhibition will include illustrated text panels outlining the “Young
Archer’s” history and indicating various scholarly schools of thought
so that viewers can make up their minds accordingly.

The show gave no attention whatsoever to any “scholarly schools of thought” that differ from Draper’s. But the case he makes here for Michelangelo’s authorship seems far from airtight.

Most of the illustrations he provides seem to undermine his argument. Here’s the “Battle of the Centaurs,” 1490-91,  which, as Draper says, is “generally acknowledged to be his [Michelangelo's] earliest sculpture”:

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Michelangelo, “Battle of the Centaurs,” ca. 1490-91, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Draper hypothesizes that the “Young Archer” was made when Michelangelo was
15 or 16, which would make it a contemporary of “Centaurs.” But the above figures, with their Michelangelesque musculature,
look nothing like the Archer, who is slight in build. Draper finds a way to get around this:

The forms [of the Centaurs] are more robust that those of the “Young Archer,”
befitting the action…but there are especially good matches in the
blunt, concentrated facial features.

If so, he doesn’t explain what those “good matches” consist of, let alone show them in close-ups.

Similarly, Draper reproduces two drawings that he says are copies of Michelangelo’s “Young Archer” by other artists. Again, he has to finesse the fact that while the poses of both figures are similar in stance to the Archer’s, neither nude looks much like him.

Of the first—a 16th-century Italian drawing of a muscular, manly figure with burly legs—Draper says:

By implication, the copyist drew the marble believing it to have a connection to Michelangelo but endowed the youth with heroic proportions in keeping with the master’s later work and reputation.

For the second, an 18th-century drawing by a Jean-Robert Ango, he excuses its imperfect resemblance on the grounds that Ango was an “indifferent copyist.”

The sculpture among Draper’s illustrations that most closely corresponds to the Archer in body-type is a polychrome wood crucifix from the Church of Santo Spirito, Florence. But what the curator doesn’t tell us is that the relatively recent attribution of that slender crucifix to Michelangelo is the subject of dispute.

To help convince the French to lend their boy to the Met, the museum had an exact copy made from a synthetic material and marble dust. Below, to the left, is the “Young Archer” with Draper’s wall text behind him; to the right, the new copy, recently installed in the rotunda of the French Cultural Services headquarters on Fifth Avenue:

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At the press preview, I mentioned to Draper that it would have been interesting and instructive to have seen the “Young Archer” installed in the same room with “The Torment of St. Anthony,” a very early Michelangelo recently purchased by the Kimbell Art Museum. That painting was authenticated at the Met and shown there last summer, with supporting text by Met curator Keith Christiansen (now the museum’s chairman of European paintings), accompanied by detailed illustrations. That dossier exhibition thoroughly convinced me.

Draper told me he hadn’t known that his colleague’s show was in the works until it was about to be installed. But, as he indicated in his comments from the Met’s podcast for the current exhibition, he doesn’t think that juxtaposing the two would have been a good idea:

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.

I think it would confuse people because it’s hard to believe that the precocious talent who had produced such an energetic, visceral painting could have also created such a bland, lifeless sculpture.

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