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Controversy over 'Michelangelo' sculpture

Sculpture of Christ on the Cross (2 January 2009)
The sculpture takes centre stage among a series of painting and other artwork

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

The Italian art world is in a messy "is it or isn't it" debate over a wooden sculpture that may or may not have been made by Michelangelo.

Standing just 40cm (16 inches) high, it depicts Christ on the Cross, but leading art experts simply cannot agree who made it.

This is not a tale about fakery or imitation - everyone says the statue is a Renaissance piece of art from around 1495, when Michelangelo would have been 20.

But who actually crafted it? That is the question.

The controversy has been rekindled because of a new exhibition in Naples to display the sculpture - minus the cross, which incidentally disappeared somewhere in antiquity leaving the figure of Christ these days hanging mid-air connected to a sheet of transparent plastic.

Dubious provenance

Amid the splendid grandeur of a former cathedral, the sculpture takes centre stage among a series of paintings, tapestries and other works, including a golden sculpture that is said to contain a splinter of the True Cross, upon which Jesus was said to be crucified.

Sculpture of Christ on the Cross (2 January 2009)
The cross has disappeared, leaving the figure of Christ suspended in mid-air

And for critics, it is the association with religion that is part of the problem.

They say the government has endorsed the wooden sculpture as a work by Michelangelo to boost its standing with the Catholic Church, and to burnish its credentials with the electorate as a government of conservative beliefs.

In other words, say the doubters, the sculpture is being used for political, even propaganda, uses by a government intent on spending tax payers money to pursue dubious quasi-artistic ends.

In fact, the bill was just over $4m (£2.5m).

Those who believe it to be by Michelangelo say it is money well spent saving it for the nation.

Those who do not say the money has, at best, been squandered on a piece of dubious provenance.

They add that had it been a genuine Michelangelo it would have sold for 10 times the amount, so rarely do his works come to market.

'Anatomical accuracy'

So, let us examine the positions, if not the evidence, of both sides.

Sculpture of Christ on the Cross (2 January 2009)
It is of the highest quality, way above that of other artists at the time
Cristina Acidini Luchinat
Florence State Museum

I say "not the evidence" because, frankly, there is none - there are no signatures on the statue nor documentation to support its authorship.

"Even major works of art rarely have supportive documents," said Cristina Acidini Luchinat, the superintendent of Florence's state museum and a renowned expert on Renaissance art.

Mrs Acidini has lent her support and considerable authority to the exhibition.

"These pieces don't come with a written guarantee," she said.

She told me she was impressed by the anatomical accuracy and portrayal of the human body found in the sculpture.

"It is of the highest quality, way above that of other artists at the time," she said.

I pressed Mrs Acidini about this and asked if she believed the work was by Michelangelo.

"You can attribute it to Michelangelo, certainly," she replied.

"Does 'attribute' mean you are sure it's by him?" I asked.

"I am as sure as I can possibly be," she said.

Others go further.

"To survive, a young artist would have had to do small works of this sort," says Giancarlo Gentilini, a Renaissance art expert. "We can't only associate Michelangelo with masterpieces."

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Italy rows over statue's origins

'Scandal'

But when it comes to the sceptics, there is an equal, if opposing, readiness to step in and deploy withering counter-arguments.

I went to Florence, where Michelangelo was raised and worked, to meet two other world-class specialists on Renaissance art, Tomasso Montanari and Francesco Caglioti.

When it comes to this statue, it is like comparing a Ford with a Ferrari
Professor Tomasso Montanari

I asked each, in turn, if they thought Michelangelo had carved the statue.

"No" and "no" came back the stereophonic replies.

"When it comes to this statue, it is like comparing a Ford with a Ferrari," Professor Montanari said.

"This is way below the standard of Michelangelo," he added. "It is like it has come off a production line and could have been made by any one of a dozen wood carvers of the time."

Professor Caglioti agreed.

"It's a scandal," he said. "The muscle definition is all wrong.

"Michelangelo rarely worked in wood. He rarely made small pieces like this. His contemporary biographers make no mention of his having made small works in wood," he added.

Public unaware

It is rumoured that at least one museum outside Italy turned down the chance to exhibit the piece as a Michelangelo, so doubtful was it about its authenticity.

Italians walk past a poster advertising an exhibition including the statue (2 January 2009)
The posters for exhibitions including the sculpture leave people in no doubt

But here in Italy, whenever and wherever it is exhibited, the public get no hint at the experts' misgivings.

The posters and publicity for the current exhibition leave you with no doubt that you are paying to see a work by Michelangelo. His name does not appear in inverted commas, or come with a question mark.

Few of the experts I spoke to on both sides of this dispute could remember a similar, deeply polarised, row about a piece of art.

"It's a shame," said Professor Montanari, "because all this is making Italy look foolish.

"It is harming our reputation as the world centre of culture and expertise."

No-one doubts the statue is beautiful, but is it a Michelangelo?



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