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A little-known work has its American premiere at The Met

by Val Castronovo

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has unveiled what it believes to be Michelangelos first painting, one of only four such canvases attributed to the master sculptor and creator of the Sistine Chapel ceiling

The Torment of Saint Anthony (1487-88), a small, tempera-and-oil wooden panel completed when the artist was only 12 or 13, will be on view at The Met in New York City until September 7. Purchased in May 2009 for a reported $6 million by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, it is the first easel painting by Michelangelo to become part of the permanent collection of an American art museum. His three other known pictures, Doni Tondo (c.1503-06) and two unfinished works, The Entombment (1500-01) and The Manchester Madonna (c.1497), are housed in the National Gallery in London and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence respectively.

The paintings provenance has been a matter of debate for hundreds of years. One of the artists biographers and a former student, Ascanio Condivi, writes that the masters first painted work was a depiction of Saint Anthony being riven by monsters, a painting in imitation of a 15th century German engraving by Martin Schongauer, a facsimile of which hangs alongside the exhibits main attraction. Schongauers engravings were very much in vogue in Italy in the 1400s and, according to Condivi, caught the young boys attention while he was an apprentice in the workshop of Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio.

It was there that Michelangelo first tried his hand at painting, using Schongauers Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons (c.1470-75) as a template, the artist later told Condivi. But the young Michelangelo was eager to make the work his own and haunted the nearby fish market to study colors and scales, which he added to the monsters besieging the saint in a departure from the original engraving.

After cleaning and technical study by conservators at The Met, detailed on the walls of the current show with vivid graphics, the curators are convinced that the work on display is the real thing, a Michelangelo that matches the work described by his biographers, Giorgio Vasari included.

As the exhibits organizer, Dr. Keith Christiansen, the Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings at The Met, says: The case for this panel being the one described by Condivi is exceptionally strong . . . and given what we know, the burden of proof that it is not the picture described by Condivi is with those who would deny it.

Or as Claire M. Barry, chief conservator at the Kimbell, recently explained to The New York Times, The important technical information that has come to light includes revelations of numerous pentimenti, or artists changes, that show Michelangelo working through his ideas in paint. Indeed, The Met employed state-of-the-art methods, such as digital infrared reflectography, to expose not only the execution of the painting but also the particular elaborations and embellishments Michelangelo added to the original composition. Among the tell-tale signs that the work is that of the master himself: the use of the colors apple green and lavender, later employed in the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the use of outlining to emphasize the contours of his figures.

The young Renaissance artist also tweaked the original by adding more natural, realistic forms and a landscape — boulders and barren trees in the immediate foreground, greener, lush pastures in the distance.  A boat navigates the waters between them, prompting speculation that it represents the voyage of the soul:  “[A] boat making its way safely through a vast seascape — an allegorical reference to the voyage of the soul epitomized by Anthony’s resigned detachment from the torments he undergoes?” the curators ask.

But Michelangelos first effort at painting, while singled out for praise in a eulogy at his funeral in 1564, did not, in his eyes, represent the best medium for channeling the divine. For that, he turned to sculpture. For it was the sculptor, he believed, that was closer to the divine, because the sculptor could make man.

©2009 Val Castronovo for SeniorWomenWeb

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