>During the weekends – and particularly during longish holiday weekends as the one I just took – I do not tend to read the newspapers or watch the news. I usually reason that, if something terrible important is happening, I will hear about it through conversation, telephone calls, or email. So when a friend posted on her Facebook wall yesterday news of what may turn out to be a lost Michelangelo painting, it was the first I heard on the subject.
The painting in question is a Pietà in the possession of a Buffalo, New York family. It shows the dead Christ in a rather ungainly position between the legs of a female figure presumably representing the Virgin Mary, with the arms of the corpus held out at right angles by two small figures, probably meant to be angels. It is believed to have been painted in 1545, possibly for Michelangelo’s friend Vittoria Colonna. The story behind both its discovery and, if genuine, its provenance is very interesting, and various experts will of course weigh in in response to a new book published on the piece as to whether or not it is a genuine piece from the hand of the Old Master.
As the reader may know, Michelangelo and Colonna associated with a crowd of pious thinkers, writers, prelates, etc., many of whom had somewhat heretical ideas. If this painting was created for Colonna, we could certainly try to discern whether there is some whiff of heresy about it, but there would not be much point. As tacky as heresy is, nothing can quite prepare us for what a truly ugly, ugly painting Michelangelo painted. For example, why do these small angels, if indeed they are wingless angels and not midgets, have large, children’s heads and unnaturally muscular frames? Why is the Virgin Mary so toad-like, with her rolling eyes and a swollen face twice the width of that of her Son? As I have commented before, Michelangelo was a rather terrible painter – a statement which is heresy to many art experts in and of itself – but the valuation of this newly discovered painting is very informative as to the nature of the art market.
It is not unreasonable to call this newly re-discovered work an ugly painting; there are those who would disagree, but then there are people who think all sorts of things. From a standpoint purely to valuation, it may surprise some of my Catholic readers to learn that religious art tends not to fetch as high prices these days as it used to, and particularly when the religious art for sale shows an unpleasant scene. If this piece with its unpleasant appearance and subject matter was merely by a good Renaissance artist not of general household name – someone like Lorenzo Lotto, for example – then the piece would not be valued at $300 million.
Nor can it be said that it is its intrinsic value to art history that gives this painting its enormous valuation, if definitely proven to be a genuine Michelangelo. There are many works of art that are unfinished, heavily damaged, or fragmentary, whose value lies not in their beauty, condition or preservation, but in what they show us about the working life of a great artist. For example, the (admittedly lovely) fragments of Raphael’s high altarpiece for the church of San Nicola da Tolentino, which was mostly destroyed in an earthquake in the 18th century, are important to art history because they are the remains of the first known solo commission which Raphael received when he set up his own workshop after years of apprenticeship. Yet fragments of a painting alone usually are not particularly valuable to those with the power to purchase such things, however interesting they may be to historians.
The real value here lies in the painting’s rarity. The possibility of owning a genuine piece by Michelangelo, which very, very few people or institutions can claim, is what has led to speculation with respect to the potential commercial value of this exceedingly repulsive painting. It is the same impetus, albeit on a grander scale, which drives people to bid on a strand of fake pearls because they happened to have belonged to Jackie Kennedy. Though of course, to own something that once belonged to a cultural icon is one thing; to own something created by him is quite another.
Paintings by Michelangelo simply do not come on the market with any frequency and so this piece, as unattractive as it is, is something so rare as to genuinely deserve the term, priceless. How can one put a price on something that is so rare that one can only guess what people will pay for it? Last year The Kimbell in Fort Worth paid an undisclosed sum for a painting attributed to an adolescent Michelangelo – though I continue to find such an attribution wishful thinking. What would they pay for a late work with, if confirmed, a known provenance?
In the art world it is often said that the three big motivations for selling are what are known as “The Three D’s”: death, debt, and divorce. The motivations for buying, however, are distinct. More often than not, the desire to own something no one else can claim to own, the rarest of the rare, causes artworks which have no real artistic value other than as a curiosity or historical document, to fetch outrageous prices. We shall simply have to see whether the predictions, in this case, turn out to be correct.