Michelangelo, Pietà (1498-99). Image courtesy of Juan M Romero via Creative Commons.
In 1496, Cardinal Raffaele Riario, a voracious collector of Roman antiquities, added to his collection a marble sculpture of a sleeping Eros, god of love. The cardinal had purchased the sculpture through art dealer Baldassarre del Milanese, who made a reported 200 ducats on the sale. Despite its aged appearance, however, the sculpture was not a true Roman antique, but rather a forgery created just months prior by a then-relatively-unknown 21-year-old Florentine sculptor. Who could have crafted a forgery so convincing as to deceive the informed eye of an avid, if not overly knowledgeable, collector? None other than Michelangelo.
Nowadays, there is no question that to be successful in an increasingly competitive market, an artist’s work must be one of a kind. The harshest critique an artist can receive is that he or she is “derivative” (read: “unoriginal,” “uninspired,” or worse, “an imitator.”) But it wasn’t always like this. In the Renaissance, an artist had to train as an apprentice in an artist’s studio for years before even thinking about developing his own practice. “The ability to mimic Roman sculpture was a sign of ability in the Renaissance,” art history professor and author of The Art of Forgery Noah Charney told me. “In the studio system, which every artist was a part of until the 19th century, your job was to mimic the style of the master—otherwise the works produced by the master’s studio would not look congruous.” Copying was not only an acceptable practice in Michelangelo’s time, it was required.
In Michelangelo’s case, the act of forgery helped to support his career and eventual rise to fame and fortune. Cardinal Riario, upon discovering the inauthenticity of his Sleeping Eros, did not disavow the artist who had duped him. On the contrary, he was so impressed by Michelangelo’s ability that he became his first patron in Rome. Within a year, the cardinal had commissioned two other sculptures from Michelangelo between 1496 and 1497: Standing Eros which, like his Sleeping Eros, is now lost, and Bacchus—now conserved in Florence’s Bargello Museum. It was during this time in Rome that Michelangelo sculpted his Pietà (1498-99), located in Saint Peter’s Basilica, and though he did not receive another major commission for two years, the Pietà was considered then, as it is now, a masterpiece.
So what had motivated Michelangelo to pass off his own sculpture as an ancient Roman one? Renaissance Italy’s renewed interest in the ancient world meant that Roman artworks were selling for higher prices than contemporary art. In the mid-1490s, Michelangelo was in desperate need of cash. After leaving the studio of painter Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1489, where he had apprenticed at the age of 13, he studied under the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni in the palace of Florentine ruler Lorenzo “The Magnificent” de’ Medici. With the backing of the Medici, Michelangelo produced some of his earliest sculptures, small reliefs like the surviving Battle of the Centaurs (1490-92) and Madonna of the Stairs (c. 1490). Following the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492, however, the Medici were exiled from Florence, leaving Michelangelo without steady patronage. “Michelangelo was really in a pickle, without his Medici patrons and in need of cash, when he forged Sleeping Eros,” Charney says. “It was really some quick thinking on his part.”
Though it is still unclear whose idea it was to market Sleeping Eros as an antique, the artist or the dealer, this detail matters little in the grand scheme of things. In his chapter on Michelangelo in The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects from Cimabue to Our Times, Giorgio Vasari, writing in 1550, paints a picture of Michelangelo as a singular genius whose artistic style set the standard for the High Renaissance. His ability as a painter and an architect, but most of all as a sculptor, was unsurpassed in his day—a fact that was contingent upon his early dabbling in forgery.