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MICHELANGELO is arguably the world's best-known sculptor of marble. He also worked with bronze, yet none of his bronze sculptures are believed to have survived to the present day. Now, experts at the University of Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum (also in Cambridge) are disputing that assumption. They have presented two sculptures of muscular male nudes as being the work of Michelangelo himself. The figures, one young and the other older, both ride on panthers and have raised arms.
If the attribution is endorsed by scholars round the world, the 500-year-old, one-metre-high bronzes would become this century's second-most spectacular Renaissance discovery after Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi".
The scholar linking the bronzes to Michelangelo is Paul Joannides, a professor of art history at Cambridge. When he was recently approached by the bronzes' owner for an appraisal, Professor Joannides says, the sculptures reminded him of a drawing by one of the master's apprentices, which he had come across at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier (and which was not widely known or written about). That drawing faithfully reproduced an original Michelangelo sketch and showed a well-built youth on the back of a panther, in a pose that resembled the young bronze riders'. It was also executed in the vigorous style that Michelangelo used when designing for sculpture.
The professor saw other corroborating elements. The Albertina Museum in Vienna had a set of drawings of lions and panthers associated with Michelangelo; he and his circle were known to be interested in large felines in the first decade of the 16th century. The professor concluded that the sculptures were made by Michelangelo as he was just beginning to paint the Sistine Chapel.