But questions of what came first arise here too, centered on a marble sculpture called the “Young Archer.” For many years, this figure of a nude youth had stood, barely noticed, in the Cultural Services of the French Embassy on Fifth Avenue, across the street from the Met. Then in 1996, an art historian identified it as a Michelangelo. The call was hotly debated, but the attribution has stood. And the “circa 1496-97” date now attached to the work makes it altogether possible that Michelangelo carved the figure at age 21, making him the prodigy he claimed to be.
With this sculpture, he had found what would be his favorite subject, and the one that would make his name: the heroic male body. Approximately a decade after the “Young Archer” came the colossal “David,” and with that Michelangelo was a star, a Medici darling, and on his way to becoming the new kind of public celebrity he aimed to be: not just a highly skilled maker of things, but a multitasking, miracle-working aristocrat of creativity called a genius. If Michelangelo didn’t coin the term, he (with a reluctant nod to Leonardo da Vinci) coined the type.
Prestigious commissions, in painting, sculpture and architecture, piled up. In 1504, he was asked to do a fresco for the Council Chamber of the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of the Florentine government. Leonardo, more than 30 years his senior, and no friend, was assigned the opposite wall. The idea was that they both would paint a historic battle, Michelangelo’s being one in which a troop of 14th-century Florentine soldiers interrupted a swim in the Arno to take an enemy by surprise.