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The Young Michelangelo: Making and Meaning.

Nicholas Penny of London's National Gallery introduces this publication that lies in a no-man's-land among the art books: an exhibition catalogue, an exordium to an interpretation of early Michelangelo, and a scholarly presentation treating irksome issues that surrounded the artist until his return to Florence in 1501. Penny sets the tone by offering supposition for fact. He mentions, for example, two of what are termed "preliminary drawings by Michelangelo" for the Entombment, one of the two panel paintings that comprise the core of the book. The assertion that Michelangelo abandoned the picture as unfinished represents a similar upgrading. Someone abandoned the picture all right, but was it Michelangelo? That remains to be seen. The other picture is the Manchester Madonna, and not surprisingly both are housed in the National Gallery, where they have been preserved for over a century. The book and the sponsored exhibition seem uncommonly intent upon confirming the attributions of these two painted panels, both unfinished, as original works by Michelangelo.

One should welcome collaborations between art historians like Hirst and restorers like Dunkerton, as one should surely encourage interchanges between the historical and the technical approaches. Both seem to move in their own directions, connected only by a shared purpose: to buttress the attributions. In this case, one of the most peculiar situations concerns the Entombment, which the book advocates had been painted in an oil medium in 1500/01 by Michelangelo, and the Doni Tondo, which was definitely painted by Michelangelo, though in tempera and between 1504 and 1507. In a fairly difficult reconstruction of events, it would appear that Michelangelo utilized the new, and (for a Tuscan) more "progressive" medium of oil, only to abandon it a few years later. Dunkerton deftly aces the deck by remarking that in the gallery's analysis of many paintings of the "transitional period from tempera to oil," the only emulsions found were simple oil-enriched temperas. Yet the Uffizi restorer who cleaned the picture in 1985 has called the Doni a tempera: but Dunkerton says the Doni is oil (111).

Hirst brought to the publication three kinds of data: (1) his own impressive expertise over Michelangelo's early career; (2) a suggestive constellation of documents, the largest part of which he published more than a decade before; and (3) many related works and drawings by or attributed to Michelangelo. There is no doubt that Hirst reveals an enviable control over the documents and scholarly literature dealing with the young Michelangelo. It might be time, finally, to put the documentation into some kind of orderly and accessible format, which is hardly the case in this book - a fact that leads one to hope that Hirst will soon turn his skills to such an enterprise.

One of the main planks for affirming the attributions is that both works are unfinished and "Michelangelesque." Yes the unfinished St. Matthew and those famous non-finito slaves are sculptures. The paintings - all frescoes, except the Doni Madonna - were finished. Are the circumstances the same for the sculptures and the National Gallery panel picture? I should think not. The argument about the provenance is largely a red herring. The same is true for issues of provenance. The Entombment comes from the Farnese collection and is said to be created by Michelangelo at a later date. On the other hand, the inventories of such collections were notoriously generous.

The observer might interject: why all the fuss about a couple of attributions? The Manchester Madonna, while not a Michelangelo (in my view), does not run contrary to what we can surmise about his early training and first works. In the case of the Entombment, the stakes are much greater for history. Michelangelo would have been twenty-five or twenty-six years old then, having already made two world-class sculptures, the Bacchus and the Pieta. Could he have had such a backslide in the understanding of anatomy and in the treatment of the human figure?

One of the most damaging contradictions for Hirst's attribution of the Entombment is his early dating. Even those scholars who have looked favorably on the Michelangelo attribution in the past have located it several or even many years later, when it was possibly executed (but never finished) in two campaigns. The bottom line is that it is virtually impossible to accept the proposed date, regardless of its author - a condition which, in turn, effectively separates the picture from the documentation that Hirst associates with it.

The drawings, among them one that is regarded as preparatory (the nude woman in the Louvre), are widely rejected as Michelangelo's works - even by the curator of drawings of the very museum that owns them. What we begin to see emerging from Hirst's presentation is that, while the art history as such may be acceptable, the methodology is suspicious. The various interlocking bits of the puzzle seem to support each other in favor of the attribution, but none of the pieces in and of themselves is solid. What results is something like an elegant structure built on sand. To quote Penny in a comment made in RQ (46.1 [1993]: 192) concerning another study: "This wild flight of fantasy was precipitated by a pedantic inflexibility in the interpretation of visual evidence."

JAMES BECK Columbia University
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Author:Beck, James
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Previous Article:Giovanni Bellini.
Next Article:Michelangelo: Selected Scholarship in English.

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