Terracotta pieta found in moldy box created by Michelangelo, scientists prove

«Kichova fake», discovered two decades ago, turned out to be a real treasure. Art critics who have done lengthy detective work have proved that the exquisite terracotta figure of Mary with Christ in her arms is the work of Michelangelo.

Experts believe that the small figure was the model for one of the Renaissance master’s most famous works, a white marble statue called the «Pieta (Lamentation of Christ)». The artist took the bold step of placing the body of the dead Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary. The sculpture, completed in 1499, is now kept in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

The terracotta figurine was discovered about 20 years ago — it was bought by an antique dealer in northern Italy. Believing it to be a crude forgery made by a follower of the 19th century Neapolitan school of art, he kept it in a musty box and then sold it to a collector for a pittance as an example of the kitsch of the century before last.

However, the new owner suspected that it was a work by Michelangelo and contacted Roy Doliner, an American art historian who specializes in Italian cultural heritage. He began a multi-year study with Italian colleagues, during which experts painstakingly studied the archives of the Renaissance.

Pieta (Lamentation of Christ)

In a book describing their research, the authors provided detailed information that proves that it was Michelangelo who made the statue. Another confirmation was the striking similarity between the terracotta pieta and other attributed masterpieces of the artist.

In the documents, the team found numerous references to the existence of the terracotta figure. Such a work, attributed to the master, was mentioned in a 1591 register kept in the State Archives of Rome, as well as in a 1600 document from an archive in Tuscany Bologna. Another reference to «a terracotta model made by Michelangelo» was found in a document dated 1610, and it was also mentioned in a letter written in 1585 by one of the artist’s assistants, Antonio Basoia.

“She turned out to be the most documented terracotta figurine of the Renaissance. We now have a mountain of documents. They were the last piece of the puzzle. Mystery solved,” Roy Doliner told The Telegraph.

The figure was originally covered in nine layers of bright paint, but during a painstaking three-year restoration, experts removed them, revealing a simple terracotta original. An analysis of the work showed that it was created in the period from 1473 to 1496 — which corresponds to the early period of Michelangelo’s career.

This terracotta figurine is made from an unusual mixture of clay and dolomite. This mineral is common in the Apuan Alps in northern Tuscany, where Michelangelo traveled for pure white marble for his statues. This mixture of materials, more like marble than terracotta, made it possible for the sculptor to present the model in great detail — and convince the French cardinal to give him an order to make a marble pieta.

“Michelangelo was a Florentine, unknown in Rome and without patrons. The terracotta figure was his chance to win the commission,” says Roy Doliner. “By doing it, he earned his reputation for the rest of his life.”

Michelangelo often made terracotta models of the statues he planned to carve out of marble, and they were mostly the same size. The figures corresponded to the old Florentine measure of length, «braccio fiorentino» or «Florentine hand», which was 58 cm. The length of the terracotta model of the pieta is 58.3 cm.

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