Michelangelo’s ‘River God’ Returns to Casa Buonarotti

Thanks to the Friends of Florence, another gem from the city’s artistic treasure chest has been newly restored. “River God,” a preparatory rendition of a human torso by Michelangelo Buonarroti, was created between 1526 and 1527. Made of raw clay and fiber on a wooden base, pieces such as this were used as reference models for collaborators and to garner approval from customers prior to creating the marble sculpture.

The sculpture was intended to be placed at the base of a Medici tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo. However, it was never completed, and instead Bartolomeo Ammannati gave the clay torso to the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno on April 28 1583. Since 1965, the torso has part of the Casa Buonarroti collection. It was selected three years ago for restoration so that the rare, fragile piece could be stabilized.

After a complex process of labor, research, and documentation, specialists were not only able to recover the initial color of the piece, but gather information about its original structure. The restoration revealed the layer of white-lead paint, utilized to simulate marble, beneath the dark tint which obscured it.

Because of numerous alterations, which took place since the sixteenth century, the torso’s physical positioning has changed and cannot be returned to its original state without an invasive procedure deemed too dangerous to the statue. Thanks to endoscopic investigation, however, and other analytical techniques, the internal structure can be better understood.

The torso was initially sitting upright, laying down on one side, and turned to the observer with the right leg resting on the ground. However, due to the later addition of iron bars which penetrate the figure, anchoring it to the base, the work is forever in this altered position. For educational purposes, a 1:1 replica of synthetic and modern materials was made, demonstrating the position Michelangelo originally conceived for the piece.

“River God” is simultaneously unique and representative of the muscular anatomy in many of Michelangelo’s works, as well as being part of the tradition of Renaissance sculpture based on classical imagery. The torso will be on display at the Casa Buonarroti until September when it will be moving to the Palazzo Strozzi for “The Cinquecento in Florence” art exhibition. For more information, see www.casabuonarotti.it and www.palazzostrozzi.org.  (shiri gross & elizabeth wicks)