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    Michelangelo in Paris
by Adrian Darmon
 
     
 
The cupid on display in the lobby of the French Embassy's Cultural Services building at 972 Fifth Avenue
photo Daniel Moss
 
The Michelangelo of Manhattan
 
The "Michelangelo of Manhattan," a marble statue of Cupid attributed to Michelangelo by an American art historian in 1996, is now being exhibited in the Louvre Museum, Feb. 15-Apr. 17, 2000. Later this year, the work will be the centerpiece of a show in Florence devoted to Michelangelo's early work.

Many art historians have identified this sculpture of a naked boy with curly hair as the lost Cupid done by Michelangelo in 1496-1497 for the banker Jacopo Galli. But how did it become the "Michelangelo of Manhattan," unnoticed for years in a Fifth Avenue townhouse?

The story starts in New York in October 1996, during a reception at the offices of the French Embassy's cultural institute, which is located on Fifth Avenue across the street from the Metropolitan Museum. It was there that Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts, was suddenly mesmerized by a statue of Cupid in the foyer. Staring at the curly-haired Amor she became certain it had been carved by Michelangelo himself.

Her claims for the "Manhattan Michelangelo" rocked art circles and inevitably stirred polemics about its authorship.

The statue is now on view in the Louvre next to two Roman copies of works by the Greek sculptor Lysippus (4th century BC) and a torso of Mercury playing the flute by Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560), one of Michelangelo's rivals.

But the question remains -- is the enigmatic statue in fact a work by the famous Renaissance master? Jean-René Gaborit, head of sculpture at the Louvre, remains somewhat dubious.

"I only knew that statue through photographs and I thought it was the work of Francheville, a French sculptor active in Rome at the end of the 16th century," he said. "Now, facing it in person, I find it fascinating."

Gaborit called the work ambitious but unaccomplished. "Its movement is audacious though it lacks some coordination," he said. "There's a discrepancy between the lines of the buttocks and the modeling of the belly, which might suggest a work created during Michelangelo's youth. But its exact history remains to be determined."

One thing is certain. Our cupid was placed in the gardens of the Villa Borghese during the mid-18th century, and later offered for sale in London in 1902 by an Italian dealer named Stefano Bardini. The sale catalogue attributed it to an artist from the school of Michelangelo. The statue remained unsold and was returned to Italy, where it was acquired by an American before eventually ending up at the French embassy in New York in 1906.

Kathleen Brandt's claim for the Cupid stirred passions in the staid world of art history. The Columbia University art historian James Beck went as far as to say that the statue had been mutilated on purpose to disguise all details that do not suggest Michelangelo's authorship. The sculpture was briefly transported to the Metropolitan Museum in 1996 for study, and was the subject of an article by Brandt in the Burlington Magazine the same year.

As the case stands now, despite the appearance of the Cupid of Manhattan at the Louvre, no decisive proof exists that the statue was carved by Michelangelo. One thing is certain, however -- authentic or not, the Michelangelo of Manhattan is a real crowd-pleaser.


ADRIAN DARMON reports on art from Paris.