… sexual coming into being …
The Young Archer now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a sculpture of sexual discovery. The nude, sensuous, sinuous, lightly built, somewhat effeminate youth, an object of desire, draws an arrow from his quiver with a dreamy look. And what a quiver — made from the paw of a leonine animal: long, thick, strong, feral, in every way a contrast to the slim, delicate boy. In this play of contrasts, the boy’s act of drawing out his arrow from the quiver becomes a nascent sexual act. (see the three photos of the Young Archer below)
Did Michelangelo carve the Young Archer? There’s little or no evidence he did.
In the mid-16th Century a visitor to the palazzo of Jacopo Galli in Rome, Ulisse Aldovrandi, noting Michelangelo’s sculpture of Bacchus, next comments about an “Apollo” that he says is a work by the “same” artist. The curator, James David Draper, has a light touch, and has wisely not made too much of Aldovrandi’s comment — there’s no reason to believe that this philosopher and naturalist, visiting from Bologna, was correct about Michelangelo’s authorship — all the more since he calls the work “Apollo” while the Young Archer is most likely Cupid. Apollo is represented as older and most often with his lyre, not drawing an arrow from his quiver. Michelangelo was the most famous and adored artist of the 16th Century and many works were said to be by him that were not. Eventually, the Archer, now owned by France was on display at the French Embassy Cultural Service at 972 Fifth Avenue in NYC, and is currently on a ten-year loan just across the street at the Metropolitan Museum.
In sum, the sculpture’s history doesn’t support attributing it to Michelangelo.
What about stylistic traits and comparisons with Michelangelo’s other works? One should look particularly to his early works because, if by Michelangelo, The Archer would have been made in 1490 or ’91 when he was around fifteen or sixteen, living in the palazzo of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence, learning his skills and absorbing classical ideas and knowledge of classical art.
There are no significant stylistic comparisons. Comparisons that have been claimed, such as “perfect correspondences” between passages in the carving of the hair of the Young Archer and Michelangelo’s Kneeling Angel of 1494 in Bologna but upon observation, these are simply not there.
A key issue involves classical contrapposto. As in classical works, the Young Archer stands (as one can reconstruct from the current condition) with his weight distributed unevenly on his legs, a shift of weight that reflects the famous classical Greek negotiation with gravity — the “deal” the human body makes to remain upright against gravity’s incessant pull. But the counter position isn’t carried through to the Young Archer’s head. If it were, there would be a movement in his head in the direction opposite that of the more open, expanded side of his chest — but no, the Archer’s head follows the open chest. From Michelangelo’s earliest works, contrapposto is a central theme of his art. In his first known carving, Battle of the Centaurs, among all the gyrations of figures, the play of opposites is always there.
And throughout the figures he painted as well as sculpted, seated as well as standing — one can think of the Slaves, Moses, or the Prophets of the Sistine Chapel — Michelangelo uses the tension of contrapposto, often as a kind of grinding conflict within the body, to convey inner, spiritual struggle in physical terms, to make the invisible visible. It is a signature motif.
I think, though, there is one tantalizing reason for linking the work to Michelanglo: its cleverness. It’s worth considering in connection with the Archer, that Michelangelo’s early David, with its magnificent contrapposto, represents a spiritual coming of age. The Archer represents a sexual coming of age. Themes of coming of into being, process, movement, emerging, are characteristic of Michelangelo’s art. And the powerful idea of the sexually loaded contrast between the boy and the quiver may also point in Michelangelo’s direction. It’s quirky enough for him! But these issues are a “soft” kind of evidence for attributing a work — and Michelangelo wasn’t the only talented young sculptor around Florence to “come of age.”
Since the Young Archer would be an early work, an advocate for Michelangelo can discount anything that doesn’t “fit” in with what’s known about him by saying he was still very young. There are awkward anatomical passages — “He was still learning.” The contrapposto is incomplete — “He hasn’t gotten there yet.” But discounting anything and everything doesn’t get you anywhere. The question of who made the work remains wide open.
Maybe he just made that quiver!