Michelangiolo? He would have never put himself among the saved

May 22, 2024 | Authentications & attributions, Cutural Heritage, Discoveries, Fakes

All what you wanted to know about the recent attribution of Geneva’s Last Judgment

The Spanish art historian, dr. Amel Olivares, has attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti a linen canvas measuring 96.5×81.3 cm, painted in oil and depicting the Last Judgment in a “summarized” version.

The canvas is now kept in the vault of a bank in Geneva.

It has the same Christ and other figures, but not all, from the famous Michelangiolo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel


The news could really be a sensation, not only because it’s about Michelangiolo, and the works of the Florentine are indeed very few; not only because the documented paintings by the master are even fewer (in fact, there is only one, the Doni Tondo in the Uffizi), but also because this would be the only painting by him using oil medium.

So, a rarity within a rarity.

The Spanish scholar, accompanied by some experts, held a long press conference at the headquarters of the Foreign Press in Rome, and there she explained, in great detail, the reasons for her attribution.

Dr. Olivares began her studies on the canvas several years ago, and, to begin with, given the initial poor state of conservation of the work, she asked Art-Test to carry out just a IR reflectography to see better under the thick varnish.

The scholar’s interest focused on a bearded head in the group of the “saved” ones at the bottom left, bearing an evident resemblance to the known portraits of Buonarroti.

In the reflectography, she noticed a slight strabismus in the gaze, and in her opinion, this was a first proof of the possible authenticity, as it seems that Michelangelo used this “trick” in some of his works, such as the David and the Moses, a stratagem to make sure that the viewers, moving around, have the impression that the gaze follows them wherever they go.

Continuing on this face, thanks also to the contribution of a forensic anthropology specialist, she carried out a detailed comparison with other portraits of the master, by him and by other painters, to establish that it is indeed likely to be Michelangelo’s portrait.

She then shifted the focus to Christ in the center of the painting, who is beardless, and on this she handed over to Monsignor José Carrasco, an expert in iconography, who explained that Christ has always been depicted both with and without a beard, following two iconography models of different origins.

During the conference, also the connections with the Last Judgment by Alessandro Allori now at the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, were also illustrated. An enormous wooden panel, located in a not easily accessible position, since the chapel where it is, is quite small.

Also on this, , at the request of the Spanish scholar, in order to allow her to perform the relevant comparisons, Art-Test did, in a rather heroic manner considering the spaces, a scanner reflectography, with the same instrument that had been used for the canvas in Geneva.

This last investigation was done in three areas, namely on Christ’s face, on the portrait of Michelangelo, and on the lower part of the panel, where there is an inscription saying that Allori in this painting copied an invention by Michelangiolo.

The aim of these analyses was to be able to compare the same details in the two works.

Dr. Olivares continued to illustrate other arguments in favor of Michelangelo’s authorship, such as those related to the materials used (which were not analysed by Art-Test), and the anatomical description of the figures, together with some recently discovered archival documents.

The illustrated work was very long and articulate.

After the presentation, a discussion among scholars began, and in many cases it was noted that this conference leaves many more doubts than certainties, especially regarding historical-artistic arguments.

The resemblance of the head on the left to Michelangelo’s portraits, presented as evidence, did not seem to be a very strong argument, as there were many portraits of Michelangelo, starting with the very famous one by Jacopino del Conte, and so it was very easy for a painter to portray Michelangelo, even without being Michelangelo.

Furthermore, if one knows the personality of the Florentine master and his troubled relationship with faith, it seems rather unlikely that he would have wanted to depict himself among the saved, and moreover modeling his own image on a portrait made by a colleague, i.e. Jacopino dal Conte.

We can also recall that Michelangelo did not like oil painting, at least according to Vasari’s account, who in his “Lives” recalls that Michelangelo in a dispute with Sebastiano del Piombo said “that he did not want to do it except in fresco, and that oil painting was an art for women and for wealthy and lazy people like Sebastiano.”

Certainly, oil painting, with its effects of softness, transparency, and depth, was foreign to his poetics.

But the elements that most of all challenge this attribution are three.

The first is that this work is very far from the usually extraordinary level of execution of the artist. The painting in question presents much flatter colors compared to those of the Vatican fresco. The iridescence is almost completely missing (see, for example, the tunic of the Virgin), the figures have a decidedly less statuesque relief compared to those of the Sistine Chapel, and they present errors in their proportions that Michelangiolo would hardly have made, given his skill and attention to the study of the human body.

The second is the reconstruction of the relationship with the painting by Allori at the Santissima Annunziata, which according to dr. Olivares would have been based on the canvas preserved in Geneva, which Michelangelo would have donated as a “bozzetto” to Allori.

In fact, the canvas in Geneva could instead of being the source of inspiration, be a copy of Allori’s altarpiece, which has always been considered an explicit homage to Michelangelo’s work, as also supported by Vasari, a contemporary of both. In Vasari’s text, there is no mention of a gift, but it is said that Allori was inspired by the “Judgment of Michelagnolo Buonarroti,” to be understood as that of the Sistine Chapel (“He [Allori] painted and conducted entirely with his own hand with great diligence the chapel of the Montaguti in the church of the Nunziata, that is the oil painting and the faces and the vault in fresco. In the panel there is Christ on high and the Madonna in the act of judging with many figures in different attitudes and well-made, portrayed from Michelagnolo Buonarroti’s Judgment“).

Finally, the third element seems definitive, namely the presence of the “breeches” on the canvas in Geneva. The famous covering of the nudes of the Sistine figures was done, as it is known, by Daniele da Volterra in 1565, i.e., after Michelangelo’s death had occurred, so the Master would never have seen these breeches.

In this case, as in many others, IR reflectographies provide additional data, compared to what is visible to the naked eye, on the genesis and conservation status of a painting, data that must be interpreted, and on their interpretation, which often falls within the scope of stylistic aspects, there can be motivated, and even very different opinions, among art historians.

Filippo Melli