A wooden crucifix attributed to Michelangelo was bought by the Italian state for $4.2 million. The purchase has fueled a debate among art experts.
ROME — Is it or isn’t it a Michelangelo? That is the question being pondered by art experts after the Italian state spent 3.3 million euros, or $4.2 million, last year to buy a small wooden crucifix attributed to that Renaissance genius.
Works by Michelangelo don’t come up for sale often, but the occasional drawing has nabbed as much as $20 million at auction. By comparison, the linden wood crucifix, which was sold by the Turin antiques dealer Giancarlo Gallino, is a bargain.
But there’s the rub. If it isn’t a Michelangelo, as some critics charge, then the state may have squandered its dwindling resources to buy a minor work — albeit an attractive one — in the middle of an economic crisis, when more than one billion euros have been cut from the Culture Ministry’s projected budget for the next three years.
What has further fueled the debate here has been the ceremonial flourishes surrounding the acquisition. Hailed by Culture Ministry officials as “an ambassador of Italian culture to the world,” the crucifix made its public debut in December at the Italian Embassy to the Holy See, during a rare visit by Pope Benedict XVI. It was then exhibited at the Chamber of Deputies in Rome, where it drew 30,000 visitors, Italian news media reported, before being showcased in an exhibition sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese in Trapani, Sicily. From there it moved to Palermo; until May 3 it is on exhibit in Milan at the Castello Sforzesco, next to the Pietà Rondanini, which Michelangelo was working on when he died in 1564.
There’s a decidedly “political strategy behind the operation,” said Tomaso Montanari, an art history professor at the University of Naples, who has written several editorials in newspapers and scholarly journals criticizing the “overblown and unusual” way that the delicately carved 16-inch sculpture — which depicts a young, slender Christ slumped against a now missing cross — has been touted around Italy.
Mr. Montanari is just one of several art experts around the country who have protested the ministry’s actions and have circulated a letter denouncing the government’s “propagandistic use” of the sculpture.
“It struck us that this was little more than a marketing operation to show the country that the Culture Ministry exists,” said Maurizia Migliorini, a professor at the University of Genoa, who helped draft the letter. “But in the meantime the country’s cultural patrimony is in dire need of repair, ministry employees are underpaid, and money is scarce. It was a lot of money to spend for a work of dubious attribution. Perhaps it could have been better spent to restore something or keep a struggling museum open.”
Prosecutors for Italy’s National Audit Office are now looking into the purchase to determine whether the state overpaid for the object, and Renaissance art experts will be asked whether it should be credited to Michelangelo.
Many have spoken out already.
“The attribution wrongs Michelangelo, as well as the history of 15th-century Florence,” where there were at least a dozen skilled artisans capable of making crucifixes like the one in question, said Francesco Caglioti, a specialist in Renaissance sculpture, who believes that the crucifix is typical of those made in such workshops, and is worth about 100,000 euros, or about $129,700.
“Unfortunately, my colleagues have forgotten that, and every time something beautiful emerges, they attribute it to a famous name,” Mr. Caglioti said. “It would seem like everything done in Renaissance Florence can be attributed to 10 people with a thousand hands.”
When Mr. Gallino, the dealer, offered to exhibit the crucifix a few years ago at the Casa Buonarroti, the Florentine museum dedicated to Michelangelo, the board turned him down. Luciano Berti, who was then the president of the foundation that ran the museum, “thought it was beautiful but not by Michelangelo,” said Pina Ragionieri, now the museum’s director.
No documents exist that tie the crucifix to Michelangelo, and his contemporary biographers Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari make no mention of his having made small works in wood.
Supporters of the attribution, who include the Renaissance art expert Giancarlo Gentilini; Cristina Acidini Luchinat, the superintendent of Florence’s state museums; and Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican museums, believe the crucifix was made around 1495 when Michelangelo would have been 20, citing similarities with other works of that decade, like the Vatican Pietà and the Crucifix in Santo Spirito, Florence.
The execution exhibits an exacting mastery of human anatomy. Vasari, Michelangelo’s 16th-century biographer, wrote that the artist “very often used to flay dead bodies in order to discover the secrets of anatomy.”
“I’ve seen hundreds of crucifixes and I think the quality of this one is superior to any other,” said Mr. Gentilini, who was one of the first to endorse it as a Michelangelo, after becoming aware of the work 20 years ago. The crucifix is the kind of work that the young Michelangelo would have been commissioned to do during a period when Florence was in the thrall of the fiery Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who preached virtuous living and pious prayer.
“To survive, a young artist would have had to do small works of this sort,” Mr. Gentilini said. “We can’t only associate Michelangelo with masterpieces.”
In the introduction to the catalog published when the crucifix was shown in Parliament, Sandro Bondi, the culture minister, wrote that “in a delicate moment of crisis like the one we are living in, it is important to assign what few funds are available to initiatives of lofty significance that we can consign to future generations.”
The opposite is true, Mr. Montanari said. The government would better serve future generations by preserving Italy’s vast patrimony rather than investing in isolated works of art. The crucifix and the way it has been displayed, he said, were a deliberate attempt by the Italian government to associate itself with an important religious symbol. Had the work been of a different subject, say, a satyr, with an equally tenuous attribution, “I doubt that the state would have invested the money,” he said.
“They didn’t just buy any work by Michelangelo,” he added. “They bought a crucifix.”