The Sleeping Cupid and Michelangelo

Sleeping Cupid with Two Snakes (1500)

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo

This is the Article of the Month for March, 2020. The topic for the Article of the Month is voted on each month by Ctruth patrons. The topic for the March 2020 article is art. A special thanks goes out from the Ctruth team to the Ctruth patrons. Thank you for your pledges and your votes.

If you are not a patron yet, you can pledge here or by clicking the Patreon image at the end of this article.

The specific subject of this article is the sculpture which the famous Renaissance artist Michelangelo has been accused of trying to pass off as a genuine antique artifact. The sculpture was exposed as a fake shortly after its discovery. I still have yet to generate serious convictions about whether Michelangelo made this statue with the intent to deceive its viewers. Some of the issues I see with claiming for certain that Michelangelo created this with the intent to deceive, as opposed to the intent of creating a beautiful piece of art to be cherished a modern original, are covered in this article.

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Michelangelo was born in 1475 and began his Cupid in 1495 in Florence shortly after he arrived there from Bologna. To this day, we do not know why Michelangelo decided to create the Cupid, as no record has been located which relays this information. One possible reason is that in his younger days he had studied antique sculpture in the Medici garden where since 1488 a Sleeping Cupid had been displayed. This means that Michelangelo was at least 12 when he saw the Cupid in the Medici garden, and about 8 years later, around the age of 20, that he began his own Cupid.

The statue was treated with acidic earth to make it appear ancient. There are differing narratives about who attempted to artificially age the statue. From what I can tell, the more popular notion is that Michelangelo was the person who treated the statue to make it appear older due to his financial hardships and to gain a significantly greater sum of money for selling an ancient sculpture than a modern one by a “yet to be seriously famous” artist. However, a conflicting report claims that it was Baldassare del Milanese, the man who Michelangelo sold the statue to, who was responsible for trying to pass off the modern statue as an ancient original.

If the latter is the case, then it appears to me that Baldassare took advantage of a young artist’s talent to gain a greater amount for the piece. In both cases, I can see each party having motive; a starving artist trying to put food on the table against a cunning dealer trying to increase his wealth and portfolio. Given the recent explorations into the controversy about the origins of the Laocoön, I am more willing to believe that Baldassare was the perpetrator of artificial aging, and that Michelangelo created it without the intention of deceiving anyone. As this may have been the same situation Michelangelo later found himself in with the Pope.

The Laocoön. Possibly a work by the hand of Michelangelo.

There was a schism in opinions about the authenticity of the statue’s age from the moment it was put on the market. Some believed it to be antique, while others believed it to be modern. Cardinal Raffaello Riario bought the statue in Rome in 1496 from Baldassare. From what I can tell, it is this Cardinal who is responsible for providing an authoritative basis for claiming that the statue was modern, and not antique.

Cardinal Riario, after having the statue in his possession for a short time, came to the conclusion that the Sleeping Cupid was not an antique. He returned to the dealer and demanded a refund, of which he did receive. There are differing reports on what happened to the statue after this confrontation and refund. The more popular opinion, which I maintain to be the more probable one, is that the statue was returned to Baldassare during the return of the Cardinal. The less popular one is that the Cardinal maintained ownership of the statue.

Michelangelo had heard about how much Baldassare made from the sale to the Cardinal, and went to Rome to demand the return of his Cupid. Baldassare responded by saying “he would rather break it into a hundred pieces; he had bought the child and it was his property”. This is one reason why I doubt that the Cardinal had kept the statue after his refund, for Michelangelo returns to Baldassare and Baldassare makes his famous comment about rather wishing to destroy it than return it.

The Cardinal had the option to press charges against Michelangelo, but due to how impressed he was with the skill of the young artist, he did not press charges, he allowed Michelangelo to keep his money from the sale to Baldassare, and invited Michelangelo to come work in Rome. This invitation and subsequent move to Rome greatly boosted Michelangelo’s career in the art world, but leading up to the Cardinal’s final decision on Michelangelo’s fate was a stressful event for Michelangelo. Due to the conflicting stories about who faked the age of the artifact, this stress may have been influenced either by fear of his own forgery being exposed and his career ruined, or fear of his career being ruined by the actions of a shady dealer which were out of his control.

^Cardinal Riario in response to Michelangelo’s statue (c.1496, colorized)

The Cupid was then placed in the Banchi Vecchi in the house of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este by Baldassare del Milanese. This was a place where the richest and most influential people saw it. It was bought by Cesare Borgia from Baldassare and shortly later Borgia gave it to Guidobaldo da Montefeltre, the Duke of Urbino, who had one of the most exquisite art collection in all of Italy.

Cesare Borgia seized the city of Urbino in 1502 and in doing so regained possession of the Cupid. This regained possession had a short life due to Isabella d’Este successfully retrieving the statue from Borgia’s loot. It was shortly thereafter that it stayed at the court of the dukes of Mantua for over a hundred years until 1632, when it was sent to England for Charles I.

It is commonly believed that Michelangelo’s Cupid was destroyed in the 1698 fire at the Whitehall Palace in London. The idea that the following sketch is the “only visual remains of Michelangelo’s lost masterpiece” was pioneered by Paul F. Norton, the author of [1]. The fact that Michelangelo destroyed a massive amount of his records shortly before his death does not help much in determining the truth of what really happened pertaining to the Sleeping Cupid statue.

Drawings of Cupid 8914. Windsor Castle. (1495)

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References:

[1] – The Lost Sleeping Cupid of Michelangelo, Paul F. Norton (1957)

[2] – Michelangelo’s Lost Sleeping Cupid and Fetti’s Vertumnus and Pomona, Ruth Rubinstein (1986)

[3] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid_(Michelangelo)

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