Michelangelo Buonarroti1544 by Attributed To Daniele Da Volterra

This unfinished portrait has recently been identified as the work of Daniele da Volterra, Michelangelo's faithful follower and the author of a bronze bust of the great Florentine artist. Indeed, an inventory drawn up after Daniele's death lists "a portrait of Michelangelo on panel." It was probably painted about 1545, when Michelangelo would have been seventy. It was the source for numerous copies.

The portrait looks unfinished, but Daniele has fully described the sculptor's features and his left hand, almost as though recalling Michelangelo's notion that, "It is necessary to keep one's compass in one's eyes and not in the hand, for the hands execute, but the eye judges."

The Picture: The picture is unfinished and shows only Michelangelo’s head and his left hand. However, the shape—but not the articulation—of the figure’s upper torso has been held "in reserve," with the background color painted around it. Also visible upon close examination are details from an underlying composition that, in x-ray, is revealed as a Holy Family, with Saint Joseph peering over the shoulder of the Virgin Mary, who steadies the Christ Child standing on her lap....

Portraits of Michelangelo: In his biography of Michelangelo, Giorgio Vasari recorded that there were four likenesses of the great sculptor: a medal by Leone Leoni (1509–1590), a bronze bust by Daniele da Volterra—a close associate of Michelangelo during his last years in Rome—and two painted portraits, one by Giuliano Bugiardini (1475–1555) and the other by Jacopino del Conte (1515–1598). The painted portraits were much copied and multiple versions of both types exist.... Vasari does not suggest when or under what circumstances the two painted portraits were made, nor where he saw them, and these facts need to be borne in mind in considering the issues surrounding the authorship and status of the picture in The Met.

The portrait type invented by Bugiardini shows Michelangelo bust length, his torso facing left, his head turned toward the viewer. He is bearded and wears on his head a white turban with a curious flip at the top—the turban (sciugatoio) used by sculptors to keep the head dry and prevent the mixing of marble dust with sweat. The picture was requested by Ottaviano de’ Medici and would have been painted about 1532.

The Met’s picture is generally associated with that created by Jacopino and, as noted above, depicts Michelangelo to below the waist, evidently seated, his body facing to the right, with his head turned towards the viewer and his left hand—the one with which he wielded the hammer when sculpting—prominently displayed, as though recalling his famous admonition: "It is necessary to keep one's compass in one's eyes and not in the hand, for the hands execute, but the eye judges." The picture has been dated as late as 1545–47 and by Zeri (1978) to about 1535, when Jacopino was busy on a fresco of the Annunciation to Zaccharias in the Oratorio di San Giovanni Decollato in Rome.

Whoever its author, The Met’s painting is, arguably, the prototype for the numerous variants of this composition. Not only is its quality notably high, its conspicuously unfinished state explains why the other portraits belonging to this compositional type resolve the issue of the unfinished parts somewhat differently. That The Met’s painting is the prime version is now widely accepted (see Du Teil 1913 and Donati 2010); one copy, known as the Strozzi or Uffizi portrait, is now in the Casa Buonarroti, Florence, and was formerly considered the primary version by some authorities. But is The Met’s painting necessarily by Jacopino del Conte?

Before broaching this question, a third portrait-type—belonging to the Louvre and not mentioned by Vasari—requires mentioning. It is related to but distinct from Bugiardini’s and was, according to an inscription, painted when the artist was 47 years old, which is to say 1522, making it the earliest of the paintings. More aggressive in pose and style and in conveying a quality of Michelangelo’s celebrated terribilità, it shows the great sculptor only shoulder length, more broad-faced and wearing a turban. The figure is behind a marble parapet bearing the inscription identifying the subject and his age. It has been variously attributed to Daniele da Volterra and Baccio Bandinelli as well as to Bugiardini, but there is a growing consensus that, together with a related drawing, also in the Louvre, it is by Baccio Bandinelli .... For our purposes, its importance lies in the fact that Vasari was incorrect in stating that only two painted portraits of Michelangelo exist. After befriending Michelangelo in Florence, Bandinelli had a falling out with him, but Michelangelo remained his exemplar and the engraved portrait of him by Niccolò della Casa of 1548 is clearly based on the portrait type in The Met.

The Authorship of The Met’s Painting: The creation of a coherent group of portraits attributable to Jacopino is of recent date. In the 19th century The Met’s portrait was considered a self portrait by Michelangelo, an idea that persisted into the 20th century, although Gaetano Milanesi and others ascribed it to Francesco Salviati —who assisted Jacopino del Conte in the Oratorio di San Giovanni Decollato and whose activity as a portrait painter has proven equally problematic. Gaetano Guasti was the first to identify The Met’s picture with the portrait of Michelangelo by Jacopino del Conte mentioned by Giorgio Vasari, and this association has been taken up by most—but not all—later scholars. Jacopino’s career as a portraitist has come into clearer focus through recent scholarship, but the primary point of departure has always been the depiction of Michelangelo. As to that, a complication arose when The Met’s picture was cleaned and x-rayed following its gift to the museum in 1977 and it was discovered that below the portrait there is a composition of the Holy Family that has been related to a well-known painting by Daniele da Volterra in the Elci collection. Then, in 2010, Andrea Donati noted that in a postmortem inventory of Daniele’s possessions drawn up in 1566 there is listed a portrait of Michelangelo on panel. By the 1530s, Daniele had left his native Tuscany for Rome, where he fell under the influence of Michelangelo, becoming a loyal disciple and close friend. At the end of his life, Daniele was hired by Pope Paul IV to paint over the nude bodies in Michelangelo's fresco of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, for which he earned the nickname "Il Braghettone" (the breeches maker).

Daniele included a portrait of Michelangelo in his fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin in Trinità dei Monti in Rome (1548–53), for which the drawn cartoon (pounced for transfer) is in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, in addition to the bronze portrait mentioned above. Daniele is thus documented as portraying his esteemed colleague multiple times. Donati attributes The Met’s portrait to Daniele da Volterra and dates it to the summer of 1544, when Daniele was working closely with Michelangelo. In support of this attribution he relates it to three drawings by Daniele depicting left hands very similar in their articulation to the one seen in The Met’s painting.... He also tentatively identifies the picture with a work in Fulvio Orsini's inventory of 1600.

Donati's attribution is based in part on the composition of the Holy Family visible in x-rays beneath the unfinished portrait, and on Daniele’s documented possession of precisely such a picture. But there is also the distinctly "marble-like" modeling of the face that is characteristic of Daniele’s painting and was clearly inspired by Michelangelo. For these reasons there seems to this writer a strong case for ascribing the painting to Daniele and dating it around 1545, when Daniele came into close contact with the sculptor. Recently, however, Carmen Bambach has argued for a return to the attribution to Jacopino on the basis of: Vasari's statement; what she sees as differences in anatomical structure from Daniele's drawing in the Teylers Museum; and her feeling that the Holy Family visible in x-rays is closer in style to Jacopino's work than to Daniele's....

...After the painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres saw the picture in 1852 in the Chaix d'Est-Ange collection in Paris, he praised it as a self portrait by Michelangelo in a letter now in the Museum's collection.

In Conclusion: Although the present writer currently ascribes the picture to Daniele da Volterra, it is worth laying out the following points and possibilities:

1. The Met’s portrait is the prototype ascribed by Vasari to Jacopino del Conte as its replication in other versions would suggest.

2. Vasari was possibly mistaken about its authorship, just as he was mistaken about there being only two types.

3. Daniele, who owned a painted portrait of Michelangelo, is the author of The Met’s portrait and thus, contrary to what Vasari thought, the originator of the most influential representation of the artist.

4. The portrait listed in Daniele da Volterra's inventory (authorship unspecified) was, in fact, not by him but by Jacopino del Conte.

5. The Met's portrait is not the one listed in Daniele da Volterra's inventory.

Keith Christiansen, 2017

See also https://curiator.com/art/jacopino-del-conte/self-portrait
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