Sometimes famous works of art can continue to surprise. Case in point: A wax sculpture crafted by Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni) may have just revealed a thumbprint belonging to the famed artist.
The finding, which was discovered at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in late 2020, materialized on the small sculpture known as A Slave or Wax model of a slave (circa 1516-1519) as a result of environmental changes. The artwork had been relocated from display to the museum’s basement to help keep it cool while the main building was closed during the pandemic. (Wax sculptures can “sweat” when exposed to prolonged heat and humidity.)
When the artwork was brought back to the floor, curators noticed it had started to display evidence of a thumbprint on the buttocks of the figure.
The most likely explanation for the print being revealed is changes to the chemical composition of the wax as a result of fluctuating temperatures and humidity.
Curators will now seek to determine whether the thumbprint is definitively from the artist. The finding was also highlighted on a recent episode of the BBC Two series Secrets of the Museum.
“It is an exciting prospect that one of Michelangelo's prints could have survived in the wax,” Peta Motture, the museum’s senior curator, said in a press release. “Such marks would suggest the physical presence of the creative process of an artist. It is where mind and hand somehow come together…he destroyed a lot of [the wax models] himself. A fingerprint would be a direct connection with the artist.”
The piece was a study—or kind of pre-visualization—for a full-size sculpture intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Michelangelo was going to sculpt over 40 figures. The project was never completed.
If the thumbprint proves authentic, it would be a rare and inadvertent signature from the artist, who famously refused to sign virtually all of his works.