Art Market

Michelangelo’s terracotta model for his iconic pietà was discovered.

Wallace Ludel
Mar 8, 2019 6:05PM, via The Telegraph

Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498–99. Photo by Stanislav Traykov, via Wikimedia Commons.

After a decade of investigation, art historians have concluded that a small terracotta statuette of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus was, in fact, made by the Renaissance master Michelangelo. It’s believed that the small terracotta work was a maquette made by Michelangelo as a study for his world-famous Pietà (1498–99), which is housed at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

The terracotta work resurfaced about 20 years ago, when it was acquired by an antiquarian in Northern Italy who, believing the piece to be worthless, kept it in a moldy box before selling it to a collector for next to nothing. The collector, acting on a hunch that it may have been a Michelangelo, contacted Roy Doliner, a U.S. art historian who specializes in Italian works of that era. Doliner gathered a team of Italian art historians who collectively scoured archives of the Renaissance era. The team found multiple instances of the terracotta model being attributed to Michelangelo in sources dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

Doliner told The Telegraph:

It turned out to be the most documented terracotta statue of the Renaissance. We have a mountain of documents now. They were the last piece of the puzzle. The mystery is resolved.

The statue was originally coated in nine layers of bright paint (as was often the case with classical sculpture), but during its laborious, three-year restoration process, the paint was stripped, revealing the plain terracotta beneath. Analysis shows that the terracotta figurine is made from an unusual mix of clay and a mineral called dolomite—a mineral found in the Apuan Alps of Tuscany, where Michelangelo frequently sourced his marble.

Analysis also shows that the work was produced between 1473 and 1496, which makes perfect sense as it’s believed that this maquette was used to convince a French cardinal that Michelangelo should be the artist hired to sculpt the marble Pietà, which was completed in 1499.

Doliner added:

Michelangelo was a Florentine, unknown in Rome and without any patrons. The terracotta figure was his proposal to win the commission. [...] He got it and it made his reputation. He was established for the rest of his long life.

Michelangelo was known to make preliminary terracotta studies before embarking on a marble sculpture, and they typically corresponded to an old Florentine measure of length known as the “braccio fiorentino” or “Florentine arm.” The Florentine arm translates to 22.80 inches; the newly discovered work is 22.95 inches.

The statuette remains in private hands for the time being, but has gone on display in Paris, where it was already been seen by 200,000 visitors. News of the newly attributed Michelangelo comes only a few days after new analysis supported a theory that a drawing of a sitter resembling Mona Lisa in-the-nude was most likely by Leonardo da Vinci.

Wallace Ludel