LONDON, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Two bronze statues of muscular men riding panthers, each a meter (three-feet) high and whose attribution has long been a matter of conjecture, are now thought to be the only surviving bronzes of Michelangelo, the Fitzwilliam Museum said on Monday.
The statues of two men, each holding an arm aloft in a gesture of salute, were attributed to the 16th-century Italian Renaissance artist based in part on a tiny detail from one of his student's drawings, the Fitzwilliam, which is the museum of Cambridge University, said.
It said that last autumn Professor Paul Joannides, Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Cambridge, connected the bronzes to a drawing by one of Michelangelo's apprentices now in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France.
The apprentice's copy of some of Michelangelo's lost sketches includes a composition of a muscular youth riding a panther, which the museum said was very similar in pose to the bronzes.
It was also "drawn in the abrupt, forceful manner that Michelangelo employed in designs for sculpture. This suggests that Michelangelo was working up this very unusual theme for a work in three dimensions."
The bronzes, which have spent over a century in relative obscurity, are now thought to be early works by Michelangelo, the museum said, made just after he completed his marble David as he was about to embark on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
It said the evidence linking the bronzes to Michelangelo would be presented to a conference in July. In the meantime the works would be on display at the Fitzwilliam.
"The bronzes are exceptionally powerful and compelling works of art that deserve close-up study -- we hope the public will come and examine them for themselves, and engage with this ongoing debate," Dr Victoria Avery, Keeper of the Applied Arts Department of the Fitzwilliam Museum, said in a statement.
The first recorded attribution of the bronzes was to Michelangelo when they appeared in the collection of Adolphe de Rothschild in the 19th century, the museum said.
But since they are undocumented and unsigned, this attribution was dismissed. Over the last 120 years, the bronzes had been attributed to various other sculptors.
Michelangelo was known to have worked in bronze, but other exemplars were lost or destroyed, the museum said.
"If the attribution is correct, they are the only surviving Michelangelo bronzes in the world," the museum said. (Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)