One of my favourite things to do on a cold winter day off is wandering around an art gallery or museum! I love how the snow outside bounces a different kind of light onto paintings and photographs, and how — with the weather being so grim — there’s no pressure to be anywhere else, or do anything except sit and appreciate.
Good art raises big questions, including “What is meant by this piece?” “How does it affect me?” Sometimes, with pieces of murky provenance, the biggest question is “Who the heck made this??” That can be really difficult to answer. But, in a recent case, science has happily stepped in to add real-world context to some incredibly rare art.
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, had a pair of 16th-century bronze statues, whose creator was unknown. So, they took the outside-the-box step of asking clinical anatomist Professor Peter Abrahams of Warwick Medical School to have a look. Abrahams focused not on technique or material, but on the model. And it is through the physical quirks of the man who sat for the artist that Abrahams has determined the sculptures to be the only known bronze works by Michelangelo! As the professor said to The Guardian:
“Being an observant person, both as a doctor and a scientist, I noticed that the toes on the bronzes were a bit odd. […]
I then went and had a look at all the toes that I could find anywhere in Michelangelo’s oeuvre. Out of 40 toes, all except for two fitted this brief: they had a short big toe and a long second toe, and the big toe goes outwards — it looks like someone is wearing a flip-flop in between the toes.
In the Sistine Chapel, David, Moses, they all have the same toes. There are certain traits that shine through in an artist’s work.”
The toes were the clincher, but there were other tells: the model also had an “eight-pack” series of abdominal muscles on display. This rare configuration has a genetic basis, and further narrows down the modeling pool to Michelangelo’s usual collaborator. Most fascinatingly, the statues’ legs showed evidence of the sartorius muscle in action. The sartorius is not usually externally visible, and both sculptures predated the publication of the first human anatomy textbook in 1543, so Prof. Abrahams concluded the person who sculpted the bronzes had dissected human bodies. Bingo: Michelangelo!
While we often think of science as the opposite of art, in the case of the mysterious Michelangelo, it complemented it. Prof. Abrahams’ analysis answered a question about who made the bronzes, and leaves us to contemplate so many more: Who was the quarry labourer who had such a great working relationship with the artist? What was it like collaborating with such genius? And, how beautiful are the pieces left for us to enjoy, 450 years in the future, on our day off in the museum!