A Michelangelo Discovery

On July 6th 2015, I was invited to speak at the Michelangelo Discovery Symposium at Downing College Cambridge. I was part of a team of international art experts and academics that had set out to discover if the Rothschild Bronzes – two naked male figures punching the air while straddling wild panthers – could be attributed to Michelangelo. After sharing and debating our findings, we concluded the works were indeed his, making them the only surviving bronze sculptures in the world today to have been created by the Renaissance master.

Working alongside specialists carrying out a wide range of scientific experiments, neutron scans and meticulous historical research, I had a very unique role in the project. It was my job to attempt to create an exact facsimile the bronzes using materials and techniques appropriate to the early 16th Century.

I compare this sort of work to forensic TV shows in which crime scenes are reconstructed in miniscule detail. Only by making these sculptures myself was I able to learn about their physiology, and the wider material conditions in which they were originally created. After much detailed experimentation in my studio-foundry, I not only attributed the sculptures to the appropriate time period, I was able to account for the blemishes and imperfections that appear on one of the bronzes.

But as I worked with these iconic sculptures, so too did they ‘work’ on me. Their singular, extravagant figuration has begun to creep into my own practice. In particular, the panther skulks in my studio, rearing up suddenly in the choices I make – like a vital, unharnessed energy seeking form through my own material manipulations. This makes me reflect that, as an artist, I am as much responsive to what I make as I am responsible for it.

A studio visitor recently watched me working on a large plaster model of a horse. As I rested for a moment, my hand and wrist assumed the angle of a fetlock (the equine ankle joint), and I inhaled sharply. The visitor commented that I was, for the briefest of moments, ‘becoming’ horse.

The French philosopher Giles Deleuze talks about ‘becoming’ as an encounter that deterritorializes our habitual and boundaried sense of self, thrusting us into an intensity of experience beyond the everyday.

I think I feel this when I’m fully engrossed in the studio, experiencing my own flow state. The more familiar sense of ‘me’ dissolves in an immersive exchange with my materials. And bronze too is in a constant state of ‘becoming’; from liquid metal to soldered surface, it deterritorializes in the furnace, reterritorializes in the mold and communes over time with its environmental conditions.

So while I was not consciously aware of my moment of ‘becoming-horse’, it captures the dynamic exchange that occurs between artist and artwork; both are shaped by the encounter.

For more information, there is a new book available from 14th November 2018: Michelangelo, Sculptor in Bronze: The Art, Anatomy, Technology and Design of the Rothschild Bronzes

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Andrew Lacey