The Cupid fraud is the last one the biographers mention. Did Michelangelo learn his lesson and get back on the straight and narrow?
He stayed at the Cardinal’s palace for more than a year. The biographers say the blind-to-quality Cardinal never gave him a commission in all that time but a letter written by Michelangelo contradicts them. He says the Cardinal asked him if he was ready to carve a masterpiece and bought him a block of marble big enough to make a life-sized figure; and that he, Michelangelo, was about to begin to work that next Monday.
Whatever it was, that figure and three others—another Cupid, the Bacchus, and the Pietá—are the only works mentioned for the five years Michelangelo lived in Rome. The Cupid was life-size, the Bacchus was ten feet high, and the Pietá was an extremely complex work; but few biographers of the Master would believe that those works kept him busy for so long. He was slow and he was fast: most things he never finished; but those he did finish, he whipped off in no time. Of both the Pietá and the giant David Vasari says it was unbelievable that such works could have been carved in so short a time. Yet even if we allow a year of hard work for each of the three Roman statues—which is allowing very much for the young Michelangelo—two years of the five are still left unaccounted for. How did he keep body and soul together in Rome then? The supposition is that he did little sculptural odd-jobs for the occasional rich duke or wealthy banker like Jacopo Galli. Might he have fallen into temptation one or two more times and carved an “antique” statue for a fast ducat?
It ought to be said that not only sculptors and other craftsmen with a diffuse moral fiber stooped to this kind of deception. Most of the art collectors of the time probably deserved to be fooled because, like the Cardinal San Giorgio, it wasn’t that they didn’t know old from new but that they didn’t know good art from bad. The whole country was crazy about antiques and there were hundreds passed around for sale. The question isn’t so much “how many of them were forgeries?” as “how many of them were any good?” In the buyer’s mind age and quality were the same. Pretend you are a sculptor or a jeweler. No one will buy your statue because it is modern. What might you do to sell it? Any ideas?
As there were no surviving paintings from antiquity Renaissance painters couldn’t get into the antique racket. But every single sculptor or jeweler, especially a beginner without a reputation, must have tried or been tempted to try the experiment of tossing one of his rejected creations anonymously onto the pile of old junk, just to see how it made a collector’s eyes brighten. A collector with ducats to burn. Benvenuto Cellini, though naturally without directly incriminating himself, mentions two or three things of his own that others sold successfully as antiques and praised as something almost supernaturally excellent. He loved to hear that. Does anyone think Benvenuto would not have fooled a buyer á la Michelangelo?
Bernini’s earliest surviving statue may be a forgery like Michelangelo’s Cupid.
Howard Hibbard in his Bernini says: “The young Bernini, like Michelangelo, established his claim to artistic importance by rivalling antiquity; the Amalthea was long mistaken for an ancient work, although we do not know whether it was carved as a deliberate forgery. Its owner, Cardinal Borghese, was the greatest collector of antiquities of his time…”
But now recently a scholar has come up with the idea that Michelangelo quit doing little forgeries and pulled off the biggest one in history. Ms. Catterson says he made the famous Laocoön group, found in 1506 in Rome and supposed to be the ancient work mentioned by Pliny the Elder. She theorizes that he carved it while he was in Rome, about the time he made the Pietá, around 1498. Later he buried it and showed up very promptly eight years later when it was unearthed. He made a fuss over the figure—certainly the most spectacular sculpture ever recovered from ancient times—and recommended it to Pope Julius, who bought it for his collection. It is still in the Vatican collection.
I am not prepared to discuss her theory. There are certain features of style about the Laocoön which remind one of Michelangelo’s work—the great torso, for example. But there are others which seem to rule out his authorship, such as the very composition (“Michel Angelo has laid down the rule that a group should be so compactly composed that, if it is rolled down a hill, none of the limbs would break off….” (Edouard Lanteri, Sculpture), or the refined materialism of the carving: the anatomy of the figure is not rendered with the Master’s peculiar abstraction.
Did Ms. Catterson make a study of the marble used, which should not have come from Carrara? The Laocoön was carved not from a single block but from six. Did Michelangelo collect six big ancient pieces and stick them together to make this forgery? It sounds like a very complex scheme. How would the big statue have been transported from Michelangelo’s studio to the garden where it was discovered without anyone knowing? And who paid him and when?
The statue wasn’t dug up until six or seven years after he allegedly carved it. If that was according to his plan, the Laocoön was a very long-range scheme for a starving artist. A potboiler is never such an ambitious work.
Much against the forgery theory is that no one in Michelangelo’s time suspected him. After the Cupid swindle some people must have kept an eye on him.
Another giant obstacle in the way of believing that Michelangelo forged the Laocoön was his pride. It is very hard to imagine that he could keep his mouth shut while so many people raved about the statue. He wanted praise. Look what happened with the Pietá, which Ms. Catterson believes he carved at the same time:
“Michelangelo put into this work so much love and effort that (something he never did again) he left his name written across the sash over Our Lady’s breast. The reason for this was that one day he went along to where the statue was and found a crowd of strangers from Lombardy singing its praises; then one of them asked another who had made it, only to be told: ‘Our Gobbo from Milan.’
“Michelangelo stood there not saying a word, but thinking it very odd to have all his efforts attributed to someone else. Then one night, taking is chisels, he shut himself in with a light and carved his name on the statue.” (Vasari)