For sale: a huge drawing, perhaps by Michelangelo

For half a century, the Sernesi family lived in a historic villa overlooking Florence, where Renaissance artist Michelangelo grew up and later owned it. The property included several buildings, an orchard and a drawing of a muscular male nude etched into the wall of a former kitchen. Tradition has it that the work was designed by a young Michelangelo, although scholars aren't so sure.

Last year the Sernesi family sold the villa. Now they want to sell the mural drawing, which was removed from its original location in 1979 so it could undergo much-needed restoration. Etched with charcoal or black chalk on plaster and measuring about 40 by 50 inches, art historians have identified the figure – which is well built, but somewhat wizened – as a “merman,” a sea god, or a “satyr, “Part man, part beast.

Over the decades, the drawing has been lent as Michelangelo's work to exhibitions in Japan, Canada, China and, most recently, the United States, where it was included in the Metropolitan Museum's blockbuster 2017 exhibition “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”. The catalog entry for that exhibition, by Carmen C. Bambach, the Met's curator of drawings and prints, describes it as “the only surviving manifestation of Michelangelo's skill as a large-scale draftsman.”

The news that the drawing will be put on the market will likely expand what has until now been a rather low-profile academic debate over the authorship of a work that has remained in private hands, and mostly hidden from the public eye, for past. five centuries.

“It's very interesting and now we definitely need to do further investigation,” said Cecilie Hollberg, director of the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. She had already been to see the drawing, at the request of the Sernesi family, she says.

Years ago officials from the Ministry of Culture declared the work of national importance, meaning that it cannot leave Italy unless on loan. In the event of a sale, the Ministry of Culture has the right of pre-emption to adjust the sale price and purchase the work for the Italian State.

The Hollberg museum, which houses some of Michelangelo's most famous sculptures, including his “David,” could be a good solution if the state decides to exercise this option. In any case, Italy's strict cultural heritage laws could have a significant impact on the sale, limiting both the number of potential buyers and the selling price.

Works by Renaissance masters like Michelangelo rarely come to market, and when they do, they can fetch sensational prices. In 2022, Christie's in New York sold a sketch by Michelangelo for over 23 million euros.

But in Italy, such works normally sell for a fraction of what the owners would get if they sold them internationally, said Carlo Orsi, an art dealer with galleries in Milan and London. Italy's export laws depress the market, he and other experts said.

There are wealthy Italian collectors, he added, but “they are not so far-sighted”, so “finding customers for these things at those prices is practically impossible”.

At the same time, international buyers may think twice before buying a piece they can't take home with them, said Francesco Salamone, a lawyer who specializes in cultural heritage law. “This therefore excludes the foreign market, making the job less attractive from a financial point of view,” he added.

Although the family refused to put a price tag on the work, Ilaria Sernesi, one of the owners, pointed out that when the work went to the Met exhibition, it was insured for nearly $24 million. (Experts say insurance prices don't always reflect sales values.)

But the Sernesi family says it's not about money.

“We believe it is a work that deserves to be seen, appreciated and loved,” said Ilaria Sernesi, a retired biologist whose family bought the villa in the 1970s.

In the late 19th century, Michelangelo's descendants sold the estate to a French count, and it changed hands before being purchased by an American, who left it to his Italian heirs, who sold it to the Sernesi family. The previous owners don't seem to have put much thought into the work. «When we arrived it was in a state of complete abandonment», covered by a cardboard sheet, recalls Sernesi.

In 1979 the drawing was removed from the wall to be restored at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, one of the main Italian restoration laboratories. When he returned to the Sernesi home, it remained hanging in the vaulted dining room of the villa until the family decided it would be better to keep it in a safer place. The drawing moved to a protected warehouse on the outskirts of Florence.

The Sernesi trace the attribution of the drawing to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo's contemporary biographer, who writes that the young artist honed his skills by drawing “on paper and walls”, although Vasari does not give precise indications where. Some visitors to the villa over the centuries wrote of seeing Michelangelo's scribbles there.

When the drawing began making the rounds at exhibitions, many of the catalog entries attributing the work to Michelangelo were written by Giorgio Bonsanti, an expert on the Italian Renaissance who also oversaw the 1979 restoration. “I just can't imagine a other person who enters Michelangelo's house and draws a figure on his kitchen wall,” he said.

Bonsanti was a protégé of Charles de Tolnay, the naturalized American of Hungarian descent who wrote a five-volume study of Michelangelo in which the artist is said to have drawn the mural as a teenager. Comparisons between the Sernesi drawing and a Michelangelo study of a bearded man, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, have led some scholars to date the work to Michelangelo's mid-1920s.

Bambach, the Met curator, called it “a neglected work by Michelangelo” in a 2013 article. Lui declined an interview request for this article, citing his museum's policy of not commenting on works for sale. But she confirmed that she stands by that article and its attribution.

The footnotes of Bambach's article provide a detailed breakdown of the “long history of attributions” between those in favor of Michelangelo's authorship, those against it, and those undecided.

Paul Joannides, a Michelangelo expert and emeritus professor of art history at Cambridge University, said there was “much in favor” of an attribution to Michelangelo. “However,” he writes in an email, “for what it's worth, I personally have never been convinced. I see it as clumsy, poorly foreshortened, crude in facial expression, poorly articulated and generally of low quality. I find it hard to believe that even the very young Michelangelo could have drawn so badly.”

Francesco Caglioti, a Renaissance expert who teaches at the Scuola Normale in Pisa, Italy, said that if the work had been by Michelangelo, it would not have been in top form. The artist, he added, had been “a very severe judge of himself,” who at the end of his life destroyed many of his early works. “Maybe he forgot this,” Caglioti said.

The Sernesi have not contacted a dealer, antiques dealer or auction house to assist in the sale, although Salamone, the lawyer, said it is “extremely rare for an important work of art to be sold without an intermediary.” , as it limits the number of potential customers.

«These are details we will deal with, we haven't decided anything yet», explains Ilaria Sernesi, one of the six family owners of the work.

He was aware, he said, that the export ban would impact sales. “It's obvious that people will aim to lower the price,” she said, “but it's also true that there are limits beyond which we won't go.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *