TWO handsome, virile naked men riding triumphantly on ferocious panthers were unveiled on Monday as, probably, the only surviving bronze sculptures by the Renaissance giant Michelangelo, saint of Antinous.
In art history terms, the attribution is sensational.
Art experts in Cambridge, England, suggest that the pair of mysterious metre-high sculptures known as the Rothschild Bronzes are by the master himself, made just after he completed David and as he was about to embark on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
They are to be on public display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Dr. Victoria Avery (shown above), keeper of applied arts at the museum, says the attribution project, involving an international team of experts from different fields, has been like "a Renaissance whodunnit."
She says: "It has been a huge privilege to be involved, very exciting and great fun."
Crucial to the attribution of the bronzes, which belong to a private British owner, has been a tiny detail from a drawing by an apprentice of Michelangelo, now in the Musee Fabre in Montpellier, France. The drawing shows in one corner a muscular youth riding a panther in a similar pose.
Last autumn, Paul Joannides, professor of art history at Cambridge University, connected the sculptures to the drawing.
Further research included a neutron scan at a research institute in Switzerland, which placed the bronzes in the first decade of the 16th Century.
Investigations by clinical anatomist Professor Peter Abrahams, from the University of Warwick, suggested every detail in the bronzes was textbook perfect Michelangelo — from the six packs to the belly buttons, which are as artist portrayed them on his marble statue of David.
"Even a peroneal tendon is visible, as is the transverse arch of the foot," Abrahams writes in the book that accompanies the discovery.
Avery says: "Whoever made them clearly had a profound interest in the male body … the anatomy is perfect."
Michelangelo is a Saint of Antinous because his male art is done with a passion for detail and obvious love of the male form ... The only females he sculpted were maternal figures. Michelangelo reminds us that male beauty IS divine ... like the 20 "ignudi" male nudes he painted as angels-in-human-form for the Sistine Chapel.