At first glance, a shakily etched carving on the façade of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio appears to be a piece of graffiti hastily drawn by an anonymous street artist. But tour guides and popular lore have long argued that the portrait of a man in profile boasts a surprisingly prestigious past: According to local legend, Michelangelo created the work in the early 16th century.
Once dismissed by scholars as wishful speculation, the attribution is now gaining ground. As Kelly Crow reports for the Wall Street Journal, Adriano Marinazzo, a curator at the College of William and Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art, recently published a paper outlining evidence that could confirm the carving’s provenance. Writing in the Italian art journal Art e Dossier, the art historian notes that the portrait—also known as L’importuno di Michelangelo, or “Michelangelo’s graffiti”—bears a striking resemblance to a Michelangelo drawing housed in the Louvre Museum.
Marinazzo, who previously identified one of Michelangelo’s earliest sketches of the Sistine Chapel, was working on a book and exhibition about the Renaissaince giant’s famed Vatican City artworks when he found the newly detailed drawing.
“I was looking at this sheet from the Louvre, and I had an epiphany,” he tells artnet News’ Brian Boucher. “‘Wow! This looks like the profile!’ I showed it to my wife without saying anything, ‘What do you think about this, does it look like something familiar?’ And she said, ‘It looks like the profile on the Palazzo Vecchio!’”
In addition to pointing out similarities in the sitters’ bulbous noses, curly hair and prominent Adam’s apples, Marinazzo calls attention to a note scribbled in the drawing’s margins: “Who would ever say it is by my hand?” The enigmatic message, he argues, may serve as a subtle reference to the Florentine carving’s authorship.
Given the Palazzo Vecchio’s importance as a civic building, guards would have been unlikely to let an unknown artist engrave a picture on its façade. Per the paper, the fact that 19th-century renovators left the portrait intact also implies that it holds some significance.
Marinazzo posits that Michelangelo created the work in 1504, when he was in Florence to create sketches for a possible battle scene within the Palazzo Vecchio, as well as to oversee David’s installation outside of the town hall. By this point in his career, the 29-year-old was already an established artist; at the same time, Marinazzo tells the Journal, he was “still impish and ambitious enough to do whatever he could to direct audiences to his David.”
Though the art historians remains unsure who the carving depicts, he suggests that it may show Francesco Granacci, an artist who counted Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli among his friends. Artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari created a later portrait of Granacci that has comparable facial features, according to the Journal.
Over the years, tour guides and locals have offered up various origin stories for the etching. Some said that Michelangelo created the sculpture as a dare, while others claimed that he carved it to stave off boredom. As Atlas Obscura notes, a third theory suggests that the artist captured the likeness of a man headed to his execution.
William E. Wallace, an art historian at Washington University in St. Louis, tells the Journal that he’s “intrigued” by Marinazzo’s findings.
“We like discoveries because they remind us that history isn’t a closed book,” Wallace adds. “There’s more to learn.”
Other scholars remain unconvinced of the portrait’s link to Michelangelo. John Cunnally, an art historian at Iowa State University, deems the graffiti “crude and amateurish”—a break from the artist’s established style, per the Journal. Cunnally also notes that Vasari’s contemporary biography of Michelangelo fails to mention the carving.
Cecilie Hollberg, director of Florence’s Accademia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s David has been on view since 1873, is also skeptical. If scholars find compelling new evidence of the attribution, however, she tells the Journal that “we would be delighted.”