Michelangelo’s First Painting

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's display of Michelangelo’s first painting, which he completed at the age of 12 or 13, is accompanied by an explanation of the curatorial detective work that underlies the claim.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Through Sept. 7

Questions of authenticity were “the kinds of issues that museums used to keep under wraps,” said John Zeaman in the Passaic County, N.J., Herald News. No one wanted to be caught passing off an imitation as a genuine masterpiece, so they kept some of their most interesting and puzzling paintings in storage while research continued. “Then someone realized” that the question of who painted what could be turned into a sort of curatorial detective story. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fascinating new exhibition is dedicated to a single small oil painting whose creator was long unidentified. Using X-rays, carbon-dating techniques, and other tricks reminiscent of the CSI TV shows—as well as good old fashioned scholarship—curators now think they’ve fingered a culprit: A young Michelangelo Buonarroti, who apparently painted The Torment of St. Anthony when he was just 12 or 13.

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It must be said the painting is “less than Sistine-worthy work,” said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. In fact, the image’s odd composition and awkward iconology were taken directly from an undistinguished German print. Still, the precocious apprentice added many distinctive touches in translating the black-and-white image into colorful oils. Little naturalistic touches add realism to the otherworldly scene—legend has it that “the young Michelangelo shopped for fish in Florentine markets to get the scales on his bodies of his demons right.” Most interesting, however, is the twisting composition of the figures, which resembles the “knotted nudes” of Michelangelo’s later paintings and sculpture. The spiritual and emotional drama evident in the figures makes it seem “all but conclusive” that we are in fact looking at “the master’s virgin effort.”

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