The Panthers and The Nudes

Two bronze sculptures that just went on display at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum in the UK seemed to have finally given up their secret.

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Nude bacchants riding panthers” about 3 feet tall each (c.1506–08) (all images © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, unless noted otherwise)

Which one of these is not like the others. Proving who created this work, also referred to as the “Panther-Riding Drunks”, was long debated but ultimately the honors have gone to  Michelangelo one of the most recognizable and famous artists of the Italian Renaissance. However, when looking at his works like the “David” or the “Sistine Chapel” many refused to credit him as the artist that created these sculptures.

The Bronzes have been “attributed to various circles and schools since their first documented appearance, in 1878 in the collection of Baron Adolphe de Rothschild. The sculptures have been exhibited only a handful of times…but based on new scientific evidence, as well as close analysis…and an invaluable clue from a sheet of one of his disciples’ sketches, Cambridge University professor emeritus Paul Joannides and Victoria Avery, the keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam, have attributed the puzzling pair to the Renaissance master.”

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Unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus” (c.1508) (Musée Fabre, Montpellier; ©)

Researchers Avery and Joannides state this drawing, made by an unknown artist after originals by Michelangelo, records the nude riding a panther on the lower right hand corner and “proves that Michelangelo was actively engaged with the very unusual subject of muscular nude men riding panthers and, he was doing so in the first eight years of the sixteenth century.

The work depicts a definite pagan subject  – Bacchus, the Roman God of wine, celebration, nudity and drunkenness.

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Detail of “Nude bacchants riding panthers” (c.1506–08)

While the figures seem to clash, anatomical and well muscled male nudes with stylized panthers that look like they were created from a mix of mythical felines, the researchers say that they way they fit together proves this work was created and intended to be a cohesive unit.

A beautifully odd albeit slightly humorous piece that may be Michelangelo’s only surviving metal sculptures

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Detail of “Nude bacchants riding panthers” (c.1506–08)

The length of time it took to credit Michelangelo with this work may have been partly due to the artists own documented views on bronze sculpture he had later in life. He did not look favorably on the medium and “classed it with painting, and was thus of a lower order than carving.”  Michelangelo’s aesthetic disclaimer had been “taken as gospel by the vast majority of his biographers and commentators” leading most to believe that Michelangelo was not a maker of bronzes.

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