Is This a Michelangelo?

Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Young Archer is a marble Renaissance youth with an amazing backstory: Thirteen years ago, it was declared by NYU’s Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt to be an early work of Michelangelo himself. Rival scholars howled, and art historians continue to pick over its anatomy and history for clues. On loan from the French Republic, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, the boy goes on long-term exhibit November 3; the arguments, pro and con, are on view here.

1. The Hair
Pro: “I saw passages in the carving of the hair that only Michelangelo does,” Brandt says. “He would begin by carving out … an undifferentiated cap of marble, and out of that he distinguishes the curls.”
Con: “This is kind of an impressionistic way of making hair,” wrote the late Columbia historian James Beck. “Even the hair of the David, which is very intellectualized, grows out of the head. It’s not applied to the head.”

2. The Face
Pro: Brandt likens it to that of a Michelangelo in Britain’s National Gallery, and Met curator James Draper says the “blunt athletic profile” echoes his Battle of the Centaurs.
Con: The Archer’s bland expression seems inconsistent with Michelangelo, says the University of Pennsylvania’s Leo Steinberg, who adds, “The right cheek and jaw seem planed down.”

3. The Quiver
Pro: Draper notes that the Archer’s quiver is fashioned from a lion’s paw, exactly as in the Hercules figures Michelangelo admired in the Medici household.
Con: Oddly, the quiver is finished but other features aren’t. “Can one imagine,” wrote Beck, “that Michelangelo, young or old, would have gone to the trouble of fully finishing an incidental element while leaving the eyes and ears and other crucial portions?”

4. The Lack of Finish
Pro: Michelangelo often left work undone, and Draper notes that the left temple is “only blocked out … [without] the finesse of the rest.”
Con: It’s hard to tell exactly how much work the original sculptor did, since later artists may have reworked it, and decades outdoors have eroded the surface.

5. The Pose
Pro: It’s a fact that the boy’s legs don’t bear his weight quite right, but Draper chalks this up to Michelangelo’s youth: “I don’t think anyone’s telling him what to do.”
Con: The head position means that a hallmark of Michelangelo’s David—the naturalistic stance known as contrapposto—is absent.

6. The Back
Pro: Though the curve of the back is not the work of a master—mostly, it’s too long—Brandt calls it “exquisite.” She calls this, like the pose, the work of a young artist “who doesn’t know the tricks.”
Con: Steinberg finds this especially damning, saying “a stretched-out sacrum denies normal length to the spine.”

Is This a Michelangelo?