A San Giovannino Attributed to Michaelangelo Reconstructed


5/9/13 - Discovery - Ubeda, Capilla de El Salvador - Rarely a year, even a month, goes by without the discovery of a so called Michelangelo, be it Buonarroti or Merisi ! The readers of The Art Tribune are well aware as we regularly denounce these media scoops, often concerning works where an attribution is frankly impossible.


1. Attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti,
known as Michelangelo (1475-1564)
San Giovannino reconstructed
Marble (for the authentic parts)
Fiberglass and nylon
(for the reconstructed parts)
Photo : Didier Rykner

2. Attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti,
known as Michelangelo (1475-1564)
San Giovannino
Marble
In the Chapel of the Savior
before its destruction in 1936
during the Spanish Civil War
Photo : Archivio della Fondazione Medinaceli


Thus, we find it all the more ironic to see that the identification of a sculpture by Michelangelo, where on the contrary the chance of authenticating it is in fact real, was almost overlooked [1]. Published in a scholarly journal (Prospettiva. Rivista di storia dell’arte antica e moderna) in January 2012, restored and exhibited in Florence at the Museo del Opificio delle Pietre Dure until 29 August (ill. 1), this work is not, true, as seen in its current state, particularly impressive. But the rather convincing authentification, the fact that there are many very good old photographs and the ensuing attempt to reconstruct it, constitute a significant event for art historians.

Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of this story. In 1930, a Spanish art historian, Manuel Gomez Moreno, published an article on the Michelangelo works in Spain in which he suggested that a statue of Saint John the Baptist as a child, residing in the choir of the Chapel of the Savior (Capilla de El Salvador) in Ubeda (ill. 2), a sculpture commissioned for Lorenzo de Piero de Medici, should be acknowledged. In July 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, the statue was broken by the Republicans. There now remain only fifteen fragments (ill. 3).


3. Original fragments of the San Giovannino
Photo : Archivio della Fondazione Medinaceli


No doubt because the art historian had also published other works in this same article with attributions to Michelangelo which were highly dubious, this one was not noticed and since it was partly destroyed, never acknowledged.
Its rediscovery is due to Francesco Caglioti, a professor of modern art at the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, the author of the article in Prospettiva, who found several photographs dating from before 1936, of good quality and taken from different angles. His demonstration is based on several arguments.

4. The reconstructed San Giovannino :
in green, the new parts

The first is of a philosophical order and proceeds by elimination : of all the possible candidates in art history for the lost San Giovannino, this is the only one which shows Saint John the Baptist as a child and not a teenager. We should remember that during the Renaissance, the term San Giovannino applied only in the first case, as opposed to current usage when it corresponds to all of the representations of Saint John the Baptist before he was an adult.
The other arguments are more positive : they are based on the style (by comparing the work and some of its characteristics to the Bacchus at the Bargello), its quality and its ownership history. We refer those of our readers who might be interested to the long demonstration published in this journal.

The destruction of the work had transformed it into an incomplete puzzle which could not be presented to the public the way it was. Therefore, a reconstruction was planned, based on the old photographs, incorporating the original pieces but making it clear to the viewer which were the authentic parts and which had been reproduced in fiberglass and nylon. We are generally against reconstructions but each case is different and here we sincerely believe that this is the better choice, especially since the new fragments are attached to the originals thanks to magnets, making this reconstruction totally reversible. On the authentic pieces, viewers can admire the quality of the sculpture, while also understanding now where they belong in the composition. In ill . 5, where the new pieces are shown in green, we can see that there remained essentially the upper part of the face (ill. 6), a large prt of the right arm, the bottom of the trunk up to upper thighs (ill. 7), a part of the right leg and the base.


5. Attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti,
known as Michelangelo (1475-1564)
San Giovannino reconstructed, detail
Marble (for the authentic parts)
Fiberglass and nylon (for the reconstructed parts)
Photo : Didier Rykner

6. Attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti,
known as Michelangelo (1475-1564)
San Giovannino reconstructed, detail
Marble (for the authentic parts)
Fiberglass and nylon (for the reconstructed parts)
Photo : Didier Rykner


During a colloquium organized in Florence in late June, according to The New York Times many specialists, including Carmen Brambach, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, were convinced by the presentation while others remained a bit skeptical. The more cautious term "attributed to" thus appears in our legends even though, in our case, after having seen it in Florence and read the demonstration put forth by Francesco Caglioti, we were also duly persuaded. Whether this work is one day definitively acknowledged as being by Michelangelo or not, the process of publication (an article in a recognized journal, by a respected art historian, then a colloquium and an exhibition) should be respected as usual for any important discovery of this kind.

After Florence, the San Giovannino was supposed to go on display at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, as of September 3 but the presentation was cancelled by the Italian Ministry of Culture as explained in this article in the Corriere della Sera, apparently because the exhibition, organized by a private foundation, without shedding any new scholarly light on the work, resulted in an unjustified increase of 2€ to the admission price. In Florence, the modest entrance fee to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a national establishment like the Galleria Borghese, had remained the same. We should recall that this institution is also an important restoration center (in charge of the work on the sculpture) and that the small but fascinating museum, just two steps away from the Accademia which draws large crowds is practically empty when in fact it is really worth visiting, with or without the Michelangelo.
Now deprived of its stop in Rome, the sculpture should be returning to Ubeda soon and will once again be on view in the Chapel of the Savior.

Version française


Didier Rykner, mardi 10 septembre 2013


Notes

[1] We should point out however, that a long article on the subject appeared in The New York Times last 30 June and that, in France, the discovery was observed by Eric Bietry in Le Figaro on 14 June, as well as in an article by Magali Lesauvage in L’Exponaute on 1st July 2013.



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