When is a Michelangelo not a Michelangelo?

In Photo: The much disputed marble bas relief attributed to Michelangelo, showing the limp form of the crucified Jesus, slumped at the feet and knees of his mother, Mary. Baby angels tug at his arms, trying to keep the corpse upright. Mary lifts her face and stretches her arms wide.

By Mike Boehm / Los Angeles Times

IT’S one of the rarest things an American museum could display: a piece of marble made marvelous by the hand of Michelangelo.

About 300,000 people saw such a sight a few years ago in Pittsburgh, Saint Louis and Fort Lauderdale, Florida—or so they were led to believe. Now top experts on Michelangelo are saying the people were misled. Southern Californians will have a chance to see the disputed carving starting in March 2016 when the touring exhibition Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art comes to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

At issue is the authorship of a marble bas relief that’s barely more than a foot long and wide, and 3-1/2 inches thick. It shows the limp form of the crucified Jesus, slumped at the feet and knees of his mother, Mary. Baby angels tug at his arms, trying to keep the corpse upright. Mary lifts her face and stretches her arms wide.

A media release for the exhibition states that it “includes one of Michelangelo’s signed documents and a rarely seen bas relief sculpture created toward the end of his career.”

The bas relief pieta—a blanket term for images of Mary grieving over her dead son—was first attributed to Michelangelo by the Vatican in one of its publications in 1934, said William Wallace, an art historian at Washington University in Saint Louis, but few experts fell in with the claim.

Only 37 sculptures are considered undisputedly by Michelangelo’s hand, Wallace said. The author of Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture isn’t buying the Vatican’s assertions about the little image.

“If they are trying to promote it as a Michelangelo, that’s utterly fallacious,” Wallace said. “When I published The Complete Michelangelo, I would never, ever have considered including that object. There are many other ‘Complete Michelangelo’ [studies], none of which included that relief.

“That [bas relief] would not appear on most experts’ lists of works Michelangelo sculpted,” said Michael Cole of Columbia University, who recently co-curated an exhibition in Boston that focused on how the drawings of Michelangelo and other Italian Renaissance artists relate to their work as sculptors. The show featured a famous pieta drawing by Michelangelo from which the Vatican’s bas relief is believed to have been copied.

The Vatican scholar who is attributing the bas relief to Michelangelo is Giovanni Morello, whose credentials Wallace questions along with his conclusions. “He is in no way recognized as a Michelangelo scholar by a field crowded with many superb scholars and experts,” Wallace said.

A spokesman for Morello said he was not available to comment or respond to e-mailed questions until late August. She referred the Los Angeles Times to essays that Morello wrote about the bas relief in 2013. The Vatican and its tour producer, Texas-based Evergreen Exhibitions, did not give permission to publish an image of the bas relief.

Morello laid out his case in an essay in 2013 for the catalog of an exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts in São Paulo, Brazil, The Sacred Heritage: Masterpieces from the Vatican and Italian Museums. He wrote that one expert, Charles de Tolnay, had opined in 1953 that the bas relief “was probably made in the workshop of Michelangelo.”

He cited exhibition catalogs from 1992 in Montreal and 1997 in Vienna, in which the Vatican’s bas relief was attributed to “Michelangelo and one of his employees.”

Pietro Marani, co-curator of the 1992 exhibition, said in an e-mail that the catalog’s attribution of the bas relief to “Michelangelo and a collaborator” was proposed by one of the book’s contributors, Renaissance art expert Kristina Herrmann Fiore, who wrote that “this prized marble relief was created within Michelangelo’s immediate circle, most probably during his later period.” However, Marani added, “that [does] not mean it was considered by me a [work by] Michelangelo.”

Morello, the Vatican scholar who attributes the bas relief to Michelangelo, noted in his essay for the São Paulo exhibition’s catalog that markings on the bas relief show that it was left unfinished—as Michelangelo often was known to do when sculpting.

In Morello’s eyes, hatch marks and other distinctive touches in the carving reflect “a typical technique of Buonarroti,” Michelangelo’s last name. “It seems logical to assert that the work can be attributed to Michelangelo.”

Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a New York University art historian who is a leading expert on Michelangelo, remains unpersuaded. But after having long dismissed the bas relief out of hand as something insignificant—“I, like others, had a default position of ignoring it or rejecting it,” she said—Brandt became intrigued when she took a closer look.

“It’s much more interesting and worth studying than I had thought,” said Brandt, who since 1980 has been an unpaid advisor to the Vatican museums, focusing on art conservation, including the cleaning and conservation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.

Basing her fresh observations on an online image of the bas relief, Brandt said it reveals multiple attempts to revise and rework the piece. While that shows that the creator or creators were painstaking and saw the piece as important, she said, it wasn’t enough for her to embrace Morello’s theory.

“It doesn’t have the incisiveness of Michelangelo’s carving technique,” Brandt said. “He is a stunningly economical and radical carver. This is too ambiguous.”

It’s also unlikely that Michelangelo would have spent time on a small piece at that point in his career, Brandt added, because he’d become immersed in big projects such as his commission as the architect of Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The Vatican’s bas relief is almost identical to a famous drawing by Michelangelo in the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. He drew it in black chalk around 1540 as a gift to his close friend and spiritual soul mate, the poet Vittoria Colonna. It was one of three related drawings he gave her at the time, but only the Gardner’s drawing survives.

Like any new work by Michelangelo in the mid-1500s, Wallace said, the drawing for Colonna would have been an immediate sensation among Rome’s intelligentsia, and other artists and their patrons would have leaped to borrow it so they could make copies of the great man’s latest achievement.

Many copies of Michelangelo’s pieta drawing for Colonna are known today, having proliferated in a variety of media, including etchings.

Most scholars who’ve paid attention to the Vatican’s bas relief regard it as one of those homages rather than Michelangelo’s own attempt to translate his drawing into sculpture.

But that doesn’t mean the bas relief is insignificant, Brandt said. For her, it reflects the deep intellectual and spiritual kinship between Michelangelo and Colonna and testifies to their passionate belief that the Catholic Church needed to emphasize faith, as well as good works as a pathway to salvation. It was made at a time when the rising Protestant Reformation had accused the Catholic hierarchy of corruptly selling promises of salvation in return for a particular kind of good work: donating large sums to the church.

“It reflects a great deal of [Michelangelo’s] thinking about faith at a time when he was increasingly worried that he hadn’t formed a sufficiently direct personal relationship to Christ through faith,” Brandt said. For that reason, she said, it’s entirely appropriate to include the bas relief in a show such as “Vatican Splendors,” whose focus is not on art history but on how artworks and historical objects from the Vatican’s collections embody the history of Catholic belief.

Wallace also says he isn’t terribly perturbed at what, to him, is a clear misattribution. I don’t have a problem with lots of people thinking they’ve seen a Michelangelo sculpture. I like to have people interested.”

“America doesn’t have a lot of Michelangelos around” except for “just a few drawings,” Wallace added. “I think this is a way of promoting an exhibition, and I’m not against it. It’s slightly misleading, that’s all.” He and other skeptics said the correct attribution should be “after Michelangelo”—meaning that the bas relief is an authentic piece of Renaissance art that another, unknown artist copied from Michelangelo’s pieta drawing.

Despite being attributed to Michelangelo, the piece drew little notice and sparked no controversy as it toured through the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, the Missouri History Museum and the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale in 2010-2011. The sculpture will return to the United States starting September 19 at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where the run of Vatican Splendors will overlap Pope Francis’s visit in late September.

Mark Greenberg, president of tour producer Evergreen Exhibitions, which was hired by the Vatican to handle logistics and promotion of the Vatican Splendors tours, said his firm had no input into curatorial decisions such as choosing, describing and attributing the objects.

The show features more than 200 pieces from the Vatican arrayed chronologically from ancient Roman times to the present. Among them are a replica of the famous lifesize Pieta sculpture that Michelangelo made about 40 years before his pieta drawing, an early Christian mosaic, an early 1300s Bust of an Angel by Giotto, a candlestick attributed to Bernini, gold religious objects, a brick from Saint Paul’s tomb, and a touchable bronze cast of Pope John Paul II’s hands.

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