A sandstone sculpture of a kneeling man sharpening a knife could be a long forgotten work by Michelangelo, according to an Italian scholar who has rediscovered the statue in a private collection.
Measuring 111 centimeters (3.65 feet), the statue is now on display for the first time after more than 120 years at the exhibition, "And There Was Light. The Masters of the Renaissance," in Göteborg, Sweden.
The powerful sculpture is a copy of a marble statue known as the "Arrotino" (the Blade-Sharpener) on display at the Uffizi gallery in Florence.
Representing the Scythian slave who served Apollo and flayed the satyr Marsyas, the Uffizi sculpture is itself a Roman copy from a lost Hellenistic original.
"The sandstone Arrotino lacks of the nose and two left fingers. At a first look, this made me suspicious: Nose-missing statues are often forgeries. This was a known expedient to give a statue an antique look," Flavia Zisa, archaeologist at the Kore University of Enna, Sicily, told Discovery News.
Believed to be an original Greek sculpture, the Uffizi Arrotino became the subject of innumerable faithful copies, especially in the 17th century.
Upon further investigation, "it became clear that the sandstone Arrotino, was not a copy at all. Many features make this a unique sculpture," Zisa said.
Following extensive archival research, Zisa found the first reference to the sandstone statue in a 1751 book on Pisa's monuments.
In his description of the Palazzo Lanfranchi, author Pandolfo Titi wrote that when the building was under construction, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) "was working there at that beautiful statue of the Arrotino, which he copied from the ancient Greek one in the Tribuna of the Galleria dei Medici."
"I would be inclined to say that this statue crafted by Michelangelo's chisel, while made of Gonfolina sandstone, better brings out the softness of the flesh. ... And next to it is displayed a beautiful Harpy for a fountain, a figure astride a frog," Titi wrote.
According to Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci and artistic director of the Swedish exhibition, there is no doubt that the sandstone Arrotino is the statue Titi saw in Pisa.
"Titi's descriptions appear correct, especially when he refers to the grey Gonfolina sandstone.
The great stone blocks, which are even mentioned by Leonardo Da Vinci in the Codex Leicester, are found on a stretch of the Arno not far from Florence near the village of Carmignano, and were used since medieval times," Vezzosi told Discovery News.
Completed 15 years after Michelangelo's death, the Palazzo Lanfranchi was sold by its owners - without the two sculptures - in 1827.
"The fact that the Lanfranchis decided to the keep the two statues when selling their entire property gives an idea of how valued the sculptures might have been considered," Zisa said.
On display in Florence's Bargello museum until 1888, the sculptures were then moved to the Capannoli Villa near Pisa, and ultimately ended up on the antiquarian market. They currently belong to two separate owners.
While the Harpy was attributed to the Mannerist sculptor Tribolo (around 1500 – 1550) and displayed at a few exhibitions, the Lanfranchi Arrotino fell into oblivion.
"I think it lost its appeal because it was the copy of a famous Classical sculpture, unlike the Harpy, which featured some iconographic originality. They did not notice that while each detail is faithfully reproduced, the final version of the Arrotino is totally new," Zisa said.
According to Zisa, the sculpture shows great attention to anatomical features, while the touching surfaces adhere as if permeating one another.
"Moreover, the cloak wrapped around the right side of the figure may be a correction of the unnatural hanging of the cloth in the original sculpture. It is covered with dense, parallel stripes - a decorative pattern that can be also found in the cloak of the Lorenzo de' Medici statue by Michelangelo in the Medici Chapels in Florence," Zisa said.
It is known that Michelangelo may have copied classical statues. According to the artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574), the master carved a marble cupid, buried it for a time to make it seem older than it was, and sold it as an ancient sculpture to a dealer.
"The relationship between Michelangelo and the classical statuary is very interesting. Further studies are required on the Lanfranchi Arrotino. It certainly deserves to be reevaluated," Vezzosi said.
Pictures: The Lanfranchi Arrotino. Courtesy of Flavia Zisa.