Michelangiolo’s crucifix bought by the Italian State, is not by Michelangelo

Sep 26, 2023

When visiting the Bargello Museum in Florence you may come across an “old acquaintance”, that is, a small wooden Crucifix (41.3 x 39.7 cm), which now stands in a corner but which a few years ago unleashed a real hurricane in the art world. And not only.

The work is known as the Gallino Crucifix since it was the Turin antiquarian Giancarlo Gallino who brought it to public attention about thirty years ago.

But what is (or was…) so extraordinary about this small wooden carving?

The fact that some critics loudly proposed it as an early work by Michelangelo, and this attribution (and perhaps the great publicity that came with it…) convinced the Italian State to purchase it for 3,250,000 euros.

Immediately afterwards (we are in 2008) the little sculpture was exhibited in various prestigious venues with great media fanfare. Now the Bargello’s label is much less bombastic: “Florentine carver from the early sixteenth century”. And Michelangelo? And the 3 million and 250 thousand euros of public money? It is worth retracing this intricate and fascinating story.

The artwork has in fact been surrounded, since its appearance on the market, by uncertain information and, as we will see, by just inventions.

In the 1990s, when the work began to circulate, there were rumours about its certain and prestigious provenance, which at a certain point took the name of the noble Florentine Corsini family. As proof of this, the Portrait of Saint Andrew Corsini was pointed out, a masterpiece by Guido Reni, which has always been preserved in Palazzo Corsini. In this seventeenth-century work the saint is in fact kneeling in front of an altar on which stands a small Crucifix in which some have claimed to see a close resemblance to ours.

Nothing could be more wrong or more false

The Crucifix portrayed by Reni has nothing to do with this, as it harks back to the baroque models of Bernini and Algardi. And also regarding the alleged origin from the noble family, it was later discovered that it was a real invention, since this small wooden Crucifix had been on the antique market for years. And a Florentine antique dealer had then purchased it in New York for the modest sum of 10,000 euros. Oops.

But evidently the astute antiquarian Gallino, who in the meantime had come into possession of the work, had not given up, and had actually intensified and strengthened the operation of attribution to the Divine Master. And so in 2004 the Gallino Crucifix was exhibited to the public for the first time in a fascinating Florentine venue, the Horne Museum, with the publication in the small catalogue of favourable essays by great scholars such as Giancarlo Gentilini, Antonio Paolucci, Umberto Baldini, Luciano Bellosi.

The expert sixteenth century scholar Cristina Acidini, then Superintendent of the Florentine Musea, and the famous scholar Arturo Carlo Quintavalle also firmly supported this attribution. At the conclusion of the Florentine exhibition, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage could not fail to notify the work and subject it to export and other restrictions.

A decisive step for the intelligent antiquarian who continued to carry out his strategy, and in 2006 proposed the purchase of the work to the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, which has always been a careful buyer of important Florentine masterpieces, with an initial request of 15 million of Euro. In a few weeks, faced with the caution expressed by the experts consulted by the banking institution (in particular Mina Gregori), the owner reduced his demands to 3 million euros, a move which did not, however, serve to convince the bank to make the purchase, and it all ended in nothing.

However, Giuliano Gallino certainly did not stop in the face of this failure, and on 5 July 2007 he proposed the purchase to the ministry, led at the time by Francesco Rutelli, for a value of 18 million euros. After the opinions expressed by the Committee for historical-artistic heritage, the technical-scientific body of the ministry, the negotiation concluded in 2008, when Sandro Bondi took over as head of the ministry.

On 13 November 2008, the purchase proposal was formalized for 3,250,000 euros which was, who could have guessed, accepted by the seller the following day: the deal was concluded and great emphasis and publicity were given to the operation.

The first exhibition of this new and very prestigious purchase of the State was at the Italian Embassy to the Vatican, and later at the Chamber of Deputies and in other locations, such as the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. After some necessary restoration interventions and further study sessions, on 25 October 2011 the Crucifix was destined for the National Sculpture Museum of the Bargello, and exhibited in the display case located in the Maddalena Chapel bearing the triumphant attribution to Michelangelo Buonarroti and a date around 1495.

It is not difficult to understand that there was an immediate ignition around this work and the presumed illustrious author, that ended in a very fierce attribution controversy, with many illustrious favourable opinions, but just as many scholars absolutely certain of the contrary.

Those who were in favour of the authoritative author referred to the comparison with the only other Crucifix by Michelangelo’s hand, the one in the Basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence, another work with a daring and compelling story, and of whose authorship practically no one ever doubted. That is a youthful work that Michelangelo executed during the months he spent hidden by the prior of that convent following the expulsion of the Medici in 1494.

It is a very sweet, serene sculpture, devoid of that terribleness that will have such a large part in Michelangelo’s subsequent production, where the artist shows an astonishing knowledge of human anatomy, due to the opportunity he had in those months to study the corpses of the convent infirmary, thanks to the support of the prior (sectioning corpses was then firmly prohibited by the Church). To reward him for so much help received, Michelangelo sculpted that wonderful Crucifix for him. This work is necessarily an important reference for comparisons also for this small Crucifix.

The Crucifix of Santo Spirito, Florence, Michelangiolo Buonarroti

In fact, the Gallino Crucifix also has a careful rendering of the anatomical details, clearly visible in the tendons of the feet or in the knee joint but above all in the admirable rendering of the torso. Even the expression, silently painful but not heartbroken, recalls the work of Santo Spirito. The dating for the small Crucifix is therefore placed, by analogy, between approximately 1495 and 1497. But we must also keep in mind aspects that conflict with this autography, such as the rendering of the back of the figure, which is not particularly accurate (unlike that of S. Spirito), nor are the backs of the hands or the rendering of the hair. Even the head, so deeply reclined, revealed to the investigations a technical detail, a wooden tessellation which does not correspond at all to the typical workmanship of the Master.

The back of the Gallino Crucifix

In the intricate question there are certainly other aspects to underline, such as the fact that there is no documentary support of the work, and this, in the case of an artist like Michelangelo, is an aspect that weighs heavily in a negative sense.

The other thing is that the price paid is absolutely not appropriate, in fact ridiculously low for a youthful and autograph sculpture by Michelangelo, given that, for example, one of his drawings sold at Christies in May 2022 reached the remarkable figure of 23 million EUR. Instead, that same price becomes a “nonsense” if it refers to a serial work, or one of dubious attribution.

Clearly the affair also had judicial consequences on the part of the Court of Auditors, which affected the supporters of that purchase, namely the then superintendent of the Florentine Musea, Cristina Acidini, and Roberto Cecchi, the undersecretary of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage who signed the agreement, but in the end, they were acquitted as they were found not guilty of causing damage to the treasury. The sculpture was still attributed to Michelangiolo.

Unfortunately, however, today the work is displayed with a tag that reads “Florentine carver from the early sixteenth century”, vaguely mentioning “further and in-depth studies” which have caused its prices to be revised downwards.

Therefore we ended up precisely in that hypothesis, namely that a disproportionate price was paid for the work of an anonymous carpenter from the early sixteenth century, which was valued at a maximum of 700,000 euros. Who performed these studies? What studies? What scientific insights? And why weren’t they done before? And why weren’t they published?

However, what was discussed for a long time, and which it is worth continuing to talk about, is also the opportunity of such a purchase. When a work is so controversial (it is true that prominent scholars were in favour of it, but it is equally true that other scholars of the calibre of Luciano Berti, Margrit Lisner, Paola Barocchi, Francesco Caglioti and Mina Gregori had expressed themselves in a totally negative manner) (not to mention that in its short history the Crucifix could count on very important refusals to purchase, such as that of Luciano Berti for Casa Buonarroti, of Mina Gregori for the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze and of the then Minister of Culture Giovanna Melandri), the State should not act in a hurry, evidently moved by the publicity hype that a name like that of Michelangelo stirs up. And above all, we should evaluate even more carefully whether it is legitimate and appropriate to pay so much money for a work of absolute uncertainty in a panorama in which so few resources are dedicated to the safeguarding and protection of cultural heritage.

But if the Crucifix is really not by Michelangelo, who could i have carved it? In fact, there is no shortage of alternative proposals to the Divine Master, such as that of Margrit Lisner who had proposed the attribution to Sansovino, while Stella Rudolph proposed the Florentine carpenter Leonardo del Tasso as the author with valid arguments, such as the execution of the frame by his own hand of Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni and an interesting comparison with the San Sebastiano carved by Leonardo in the church of Sant’Ambrogio.

Francesco Caglioti, on the other hand, underlined how the small Crucifix is part of a tradition of high artistic craftsmanship, that of the Florentine carpenters, whose very high quality levels guaranteed Florence a real prominence in this field.

In conclusion, a big mess. But the million-dollar question is this: do these experts and their methods remain credible? Perhaps this is why no one reported the news of the downgrading of the Crucifix, which occurred during Covid.

Filippo Melli