Found: a Michelangelo pasted in a scrapbook

What could be more apt?

Julien Stock, Sotheby's Old Master drawings expert, is just crossing the River Arno in Florence (his wife at the wheel) when he answers my call on his cellphone. It's apt because the great Italian city was "spiritual home," as they say, to Michelangelo.

My call is about one of Michelangelo's early drawings, discovered by Mr. Stock in England and now offered for sale by Sotheby's auction house - to anyone who has a spare $8 million to $11 million or so.

The drawing, dated to around 1505, lay entirely unknown to art historians since at least the mid-18th century. It is a striking work in ink, about 10 in. by 6 in., representing a draped figure in mourning. It has about it the solemn air of antiquity.

Such discoveries are extremely rare. Mr. Stock came across the drawing, along with other Old Master drawings (mediocre ones) and without any attribution to Michelangelo, pasted into a dull-looking scrapbook with no inscription, in the library of Castle Howard in northeast England.

Stock had an immediate conviction that it was by the Italian High Renaissance artist. Even though he discovered the drawing in 1995, he had to prove it was a Michelangelo.

Between his finding the drawing and the decision by Simon Howard (who owns the stately home where the drawing was found) to sell it, lie years of intensive discussion and research.

Dating the drawing precisely, Stock points out, "as with all early Michelangelo drawings, is difficult." Between 1495 and 1525, he says, the quality and character of the artist's draftsmanship "remain on a consistent high." He tells me to look at the remarkable "authority" of Michelangelo's cross-hatching technique, particularly in the forms and spaces of the drapery below the figure's left arm.

Michelangelo's drawing technique at this time, Stock says, is seen as his development of what he had learned in the late 1480s as an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio.

But in the absence of attribution or signature, how do scholars arrive at certainty over a reappearing drawing of this kind?

Finding a context or a reason for a drawing is one tactic. A number of Michelangelo's early works that have survived (he is known to have destroyed a vast amount of his work on paper) are copies after earlier Italian masters, Giotto or Masaccio, for example. Others are drawn from ancient statuary. But this drawing is evidently no such thing.

Stock's own belief is that the drawing was done in preparation "for a large composition [by Michelangelo] - like a crucifixion or a deposition [from the cross]."

But no known fresco or painting by the artist has any connection with it. And when Stock showed the drawing to all the major experts on Michelangelo's work, they all thought it was simply Michelangelo's own "invention." All of the experts, however, including one who always dissents in such cases, did agree that it was authentic.

The drawing has three unusual features. First, there is white paint on the figure's left arm. Michelangelo rarely used white "heightening." In this case, Stock says, it is used for "correction," and not just visual emphasis. The artist has drawn over it.

Second, the drawing has been cut along the lower edge. A number of later copies of the drawing by other artists have been found - one attributing the original to Michelangelo - and it is clear the figure's feet were originally part of it.

Third, Stock, to his dismay, noticed blue fibers in the paper. And he knew Michelangelo never used blue paper. There ensued a trip to a paper-conservation conference in Toronto, and various consultations with paper experts. Finally the drawing was taken off the 18th-century mount to which was glued, and it was found that under it was a sheet of blue paper. The fibers belonged to this and not to Michelangelo's paper!

Now the drawing looks set to be included in the Italian master's oeuvre, though no doubt arguments about its precise date and function will continue. After all, that is what art historians are for.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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