He is known as a Renaissance great – but Michelangelo was also a skilled forger who made copies of major works before ageing them with smoke and swapping them for the originals.
The little known details of his penchant for forgery were revealed by art historian Thierry Lenain at the Institut Français in London.
According to Mr Lenain, author of Art Forgery: The History of the Modern Obsession, the Italian frequently forged artworks in order to obtain the originals from their owners by giving them the copies. On one occasion, Michelangelo made a painted copy of a print representing Saint Anthony by the engraver Martin Schongauer, making his version so similar to the original it was impossible to tell which one was which.
Speaking at the VIEW festival of art history, Mr Lenain said: “He admired these originals for the excellence of their art and sought to surpass them.”
This is not the first time rumours of the artist’s forgeries have emerged. One anecdote describes how in 1496 a young Michelangelo copied a Roman sculpture, Sleeping Cupid. He buried it in the ground to give it the various stains, scratches and dents needed to make it look like a genuine antique. He then used a middleman to sell the piece to Cardinal Riario for a substantial sum.
According to Mr Lenain, Michelangelo’s copies earned him great notoriety, which helped launch his career.
Significantly, the perception of art forgery in the Renaissance era was very different to the negative attitudes which developed in later centuries.
“In late-modern forgeries, the main goal consists not so much in the creation of a work of art than in the construction of a trap,” said Mr Lenain.
“The most important authors on art, from the Renaissance to the 18th century, had a completely different approach to the issue,” he explained. “Far from condemning those who performed that kind of trick, they hailed them with the utmost enthusiasm.”