Washboard Abs and Unusual Toes Convince Experts These Sculptures Were Crafted by Michelangelo

Analysis makes the newly attributed early 16th-century Florentine sculptures the Renaissance giant’s only surviving bronzes

The Rothschild bronzes depict two muscular men riding astride panthers Fitzwilliam Museum

If you’d ever seen the Rothschild bronzes, you’d remember. The pair of early 16th-century Florentine sculptures, which depict two nude men riding astride panthers, certainly makes an impression. But whose hand was behind such virile masterpieces? As Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, researchers from Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum and the University of Cambridge have compiled a book of evidence positing that the Renaissance giant Michelangelo was the creator of such impressive specimens of the human form. Only Michelangelo, the research team argues, could be behind such muscular eight-pack abdomens, unruly pubic hair—and disproportionate toes.

If proven true, the team’s findings would make the Rothschild sculptures Michelangelo’s only surviving bronzes. As the Times’ David Sanderson notes, three known bronzes made by the artist have been lost over the centuries: A colossal statue of Pope Julius II was melted down by anti-papal rebels soon after its creation, a second was turned into a cannon during the French Revolution and a third disappeared from France around the same time.

Experts first floated the potential Michelangelo attribution back in 2015, according to CNN's Matthew Robinson. Peter Abrahams, a clinical anatomist at Warwick Medical School, tells the Telegraph’s Anita Singh that the sculpted pair’s eight-pack torsos mirror similarly impressive washboards seen in two of the artist’s statues and five of his drawings. That suggests the same (muscular) model sat for all eight works.

“They look slightly on steroids, slightly pumped up, like bodybuilders,” Abrahams says. “But if you were a guy lifting masonry stone you would have very developed muscles.”

The figures’ toes offer another vital link to Michelangelo; of the 40 total toes scattered throughout his oeuvre, all but two feature a short, outward-leaning big toe and a long second toe. This same trend is evident in the Rothschild bronzes, and the effect, according to Abrahams, is a bit like the men are wearing flip-flops.

The painstaking attention to detail apparent in the sculptures speaks to their creator’s extensive knowledge of anatomy, Abrahams tells the Guardian. Michelangelo is one of the few Renaissance artists known to have dissected human bodies, affording him an advanced insight of the body’s inner workings. A thigh muscle known as the sartorius, for example, isn’t visible to the untrained eye but would be easily recognized by an anatomist, while triangles of auscultation (spots in the small of the back which lack muscle and bone) weren’t even recorded by researchers until a generation after the Rothschilds were cast. Both are present in the newly attributed sculptures.

A final anatomical clue to the bronzes’ provenance is the figures’ pubic hair. The majority of Renaissance sculptures place male pubic hair in a triangle pointing down toward the genitalia, but Michelangelo’s reverse the direction with patches of curls.

Sanderson of the Times reports that the Rothschild bronzes’ first recorded appearance in the art history canon dates to 1878, when Julie von Rothschild, wife of Baron Adolphe Carl von Rothschild, purchased them in Venice. The next time the sculptures went on auction was in 2002, when Sotheby’s sold them to a private buyer for £1.8 million (around $2.3 million USD).

At the time of the Sotheby’s sale, the sculptures were simply listed as “Florentine, mid-16th century, a pair of large and impressive Mannerist bronze groups of allegorical male figures astride fantastic beasts.” The following decade, the British Royal Academy attributed the works to a follower of Michelangelo’s named Daniele da Volterra.

But Paul Joannides, an art historian at the University of Cambridge, long suspected otherwise. After discovering a “lost” Michelangelo drawing bearing a marked resemblance to the figures, he decided to share his theory with the sculptures’ owner. Eventually, the Rothschilds ended up at the Fitzwilliam, where scholars further explored the revelatory claim.

Victoria Avery, the Fitzwilliam’s keeper of applied arts, tells BBC News that the attribution draws not only on anatomical evidence, but historical and technical analysis. Avery personally studied 30 letters written by Michelangelo during the time he was working on a colossal bronze statue of Pope Julius II, while scientists in Switzerland used neutron analysis to definitively date the bronzes to the artist’s lifetime.

"They are authentic Michelangelo, made when he was at the height of his creative genius, when he was desperate to outdo his contemporaries and dominate every medium on a massive scale," Avery says. “... Where artists shied away from this alchemical material, he embraced it like no-one else of his generation.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.