Early in 2013, experts were excited to have found what they thought was the earliest yet known Raphael. It was the ‘Mystical Marriage of St Catherine’, and they dated it around 1496:

RaphaelMysticalMarriageStElizabeth

Unfortunately, though, although signed by Raphael, it was also dated (very faintly in the bottom right hand corner just below the sticker, and on the hands), as having been painted in 1499, not as early as thought. It’s not the earliest: there is another dated 1496. Expert opinion was more wildly out on this one though – they had dated it at 1518-1520, some twenty years off target:

P21-raphaelselfportraitwithfriend

Raphael is said to have painted himself with a friend, which is odd, because if the expert date were correct, Raphael would have been 35-37. Do either of these guys look that old to you? There’s a lack of joined-up thinking here. Indeed, we can see the shadowy real date on the cuff to the far right, about the size of the gentleman’s thumb. It says ’96’. Raphael would have been 13, so it is the clearly the work of a prodigy, but neither of the guys here is Raphael.

He tells us who they are, though. The one on our right is Adamo, the elder brother of Michelangelo, who we know better as ‘Lionardo Buonarroti’. What then of the younger chap on the left? Raphael wrote around the head that he is Michelangelo himself. This is what he looked like at 21, seemingly before his nose was broken.

There is a yet younger depiction of him, though. Ghirlandaio painted him in his ‘Obsequies to St Fina’ in 1485 – and there is another at the age of 34, painted by his friend Sebastiano del Piombo. I’ve put them together with the existing known portraits of Michelangelo below so you can compare for yourself:

Michelangelo Comp Small

Even though we still have a 35 year gap (between 1509 and 1545), we seem to be looking at the same person, at least from the Raphael onwards, and watching as the master progressively ages. The nose, though, remains an enigma. It is reported by Cellini that it was broken by Pietro Torrigiani, a sculptor three years Michelangelo’s elder, when they were both ‘boys’. Vasari (Michelangelo’s biographer – and son) adds that Pietro then fled Florence for fear of what the ruler Lorenzo might do, and that would place the latest date for the mishap as 1492, when Lorenzo de’ Medici died.

Cellini was reporting a conversation he had with Torrigiani which he dated to around 1517, when Torrigiani was visiting from England, looking for skilled sculptors to come work for him there on a commission by Henry VIII. Cellini’s words run as follows:

“Now let us return to Piero Torrigiani, who, with my drawing in his hand, spoke as follows: “This Buonarroti and I used, when we were boys, to go into the Church of the Carmine, to learn drawing from the chapel of Masaccio. It was Buonarroti’s habit to banter all who were drawing there; and one day, among others, when he was annoying me, I got more angry than usual, and clenching my fist, gave him such a blow on the nose, that I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles; and this mark of mine he will carry with him to the grave.” These words begat in me such hatred of the man, since I was always gazing at the masterpieces of the divine Michel Agnolo, that although I felt a wish to go with him to England, I now could never bear the sight of him.”

Did the boastful Torrigiani do it? Maybe, maybe not. Did it happen when they were boys? Maybe, maybe not, but Vasari, who could hardly have known Michelangelo better, says Torrigiani, after the act, left Florence in fear of Lorenzo. It could be, then, that the 1496 and 1509 noses were mere flattery by those in awe of Michelangelo. But it could equally be that the stories told by Cellini, and implicitly by Vasari covered up a reason for the breakage less favourable to the master’s reputation. Perhaps the ‘Lorenzo’ that Vasari mentions was in fact Lorenzo the Magnificent’s grandson, who ruled Florence from 1513 to 1519? Perhaps Torrigiani was merely mentioning his first encounters with Michelangelo in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s court, and not when the actual deed took place?

Could it be that Torrigiani asked not only Cellini, but also Michelangelo to go to England to work for him, and didn’t like the reply he got? After all, Michelangelo’s nose was such a defining feature that had it already been long broken when Cellini and Torrigiani met, and so Cellini – who was such a fan of the sculptor – would surely have known who did it. And if he already knew, why was it such appalling news when Torrigiani told him? The idea that the famous nose met its demise in 1517, not around 1490, has more than a few merits, no?