Category Archives: Debate

Art Detective “doing” Bosch.


“There’s so much in him ….” Him being Hieronymus Bosch. True.

Garden 2

Earthly Delights in the 2016 Bosch exhibition

Here’s Waldemar Januszczak being interviewed by the brilliant Janina Ramirez, as part of her Art Detective podcast series, on the subject of Bosch’s so-called Earthly Delights (1480s or 1490s; Prado, Madrid). Worth a listen; it does well, on the whole, to avoid, if not rubbish, some of the nonsense that people have had to say about Bosch, and this particular picture, in the past (including the “crazy idea” that this picture had something to do with Adamites!). It does a good job too to emphasise the basic religious significance of this picture, despite what you might think when you look at it for the first time.

There are some problems, though. It’s not all that exceptional, for instance, that Bosch ended up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady, as this was family tradition. (Though it might be exceptional that Bosch, as a painter, achieved such a senior position: he rapidly rose to the status of sworn brother, a promotion from “ordinary member,” and artists didn’t tend to occupy such an elevated position.) Most problematic, though, is the idea, rehearsed here, that the triptych was an altarpiece (  “… of course it was,” says Januszczak), which was set up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady’s chapel. OK, so a copy — they say here — might later have sat on the altar there ( … though I can’t remember what the evidence is for this? is there any? don’t think there is); and it is a triptych. But neither of those things mean that the original was an altarpiece.

For a start, not all triptychs were altarpieces; that’s the kind of assumption that led to the bonkers Adamites theory. (Put simply, that theory arose because if the triptych is assumed to have been an altarpiece, then it follows that it can’t really have sat on a Christian altar, can it? Sorry: the imagery just doesn’t fit there, for this image bears no sensible correlation with what actually goes on at a Christian altar …. So people went scurrying about to find alternative “altars”. Cue: the Adamites, whose altar, adorned with Bosch’s picture, presided over all the orgiastic sex. Err ….)

Any anyway, more compellingly, all the evidence — and when we’re dealing with Bosch, evidence is a rare commodity so should be seized upon whenever it’s available — suggests that the triptych was commissioned by a “local noble” for a domestic, albeit very grand, setting. That noble was Count Engelbrecht II of Nassau.

The triptych is first documented in the Nassau Palace of Coudenberg in Brussels in 1517: it was seen there by Antonio de Beatis (see, if you can, Gombrich, ‘The Earliest Description of Bosch’s Garden of Delight,’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967); Steppe, ‘Jheronimus Bosch. Bijdrage tot de historische … ,’ in Steppe (ed.), Jheronimus Bosch … (1967) ). At that time, in 1517, the triptych was in the possession of Count Henry III of Nassau-Breda, Engelbrecht’s nephew (the latter died in 1504 without direct legitimate heirs, so his property went to Henry). Current thinking is that Engelbrecht commissioned the triptych in the 1480s or 1490s (though disagreement reigns over which decade it was). Neatly, we do know that Engelbrecht visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1481, to attend the 14th Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece; and coincidentally, the first time that we find Bosch mentioned as a painter in his own right in the surviving documentation comes from that very year, when “Joen the Painter” sold shares in the Bosch family house at ‘s-Hertogenbosch to his older brother Goessen. Engelbrecht visited again in 1496, in the entourage of Philip the Fair. (The latter, we know as a matter of fact, was a patron of Bosch’s: in 1504, presumably with Engelbrecht once more in tow, Philip the Fair was in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and asked Bosch to produce a large triptych for him showing the Last Judgement. Inevitably — though not necessarily — this leads to speculation that Engelbrecht might have suggested to Philip that Bosch was an artist to be aware of!) And given that the Nassau owned a property nearby at Breda, we can guess that Engelbrecht, as well as Henry, actually visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch quite regularly, for business as well as pleasure.

The Prado endorses this view concerning Engelbrecht’s likely patronage, as did the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP Catalogue Raisonné, 2016). Not least this is because the triptych’s provenance can be traced from Engelbrecht-Henry Nassau into the possession of Phillip II of Spain, and, by extension, from there into the Prado in 1933. (Incidentally, it’s worth noting that when Phillip sent the triptych to the monastery of El Escorial, in 1593, it was not placed in a religious setting there either … it was placed instead in the royal apartments, in the Gallery of the Infanta.)

Januszczak surely knows this story about the triptych’s provenance: after all, displayed in the very same room as the Earthly Delights in the 2016 Prado exhibition was a portrait of the triptych’s likely patron, Engelbrecht, done in the 1480s by the so-called Master of the Princely Portraits. (You can just about make this out in photograph above, in the display cabinet.)

So, good and interesting podcast. But let’s not forget the evidence.

** Shameful plug, and tenuous link, alert: the podcast mentions Bruegel, and in case you’re interested, I’m giving a lecture about Bruegel at the Holburn Museum in Bath on March 22, to coincide with their exhibition Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty. More here.

New Caravaggio found in attic?


BBC reports that a new Caravaggio might just have been discovered in the attic of a house in Toulouse. The picture, showing Judith Beheading Holofernes, came to light two years ago (on the occasion of trying to mend a leaking roof apparently). It subsequently fell into the hands of Eric Turquin (pictured below alongside the painting in question), who now suspects that the painting is another autograph version of Caravaggio’s famous Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598/99; Palazzo Barberini, Rome).

The French Government has placed a 30-month export bar on the picture. In the meantime, analysts at The Louvre are working on ascertaining an attribution; should they authenticate it as a genuine Caravaggio, the French Government will have first dibs on acquiring it.

Caravaggio, Rome

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598/99; Palazzo Barberini, Rome)

New Caravaggio? AFP:Getty Images

New Caravaggio? AFP:Getty Images

I’m no Caravaggio expert, but when you put reproductions of the “new” Caravaggio next to the version in Rome, the former doesn’t seem “right”–the composition’s a bit clumsy; the flesh colours a bit stark; the curtains behind, a tad sharp and staccato. These comments come, of course, with the important caveat that they are being offered about a pretty bad reproduction of a painting that is supposed to have spent its recent history under a leaky roof, so caution is needed. However, the fact that Caravaggio courted such a huge following, the so-called Caravaggisti, seems to me to be clearly relevant and imposes yet another reason to be cautious about making excited pronouncements about this discovery. I’m sure that The Louvre will be able to shed some light when their investigations begin to yield answers.


Birmingham Central Library. In Memorandum.


Central Library

Central Library

The concrete heart of Birmingham is being destroyed. I, of course, am referring to John Madin’s brutalist masterpiece The Central Library.

 I remember the first time I visited Birmingham city centre, it was a few months before I started university in 2013. I got off a train at New Street and, having no idea where I was going, I walked to Victoria Square. There, peaking out from between the Town Hall and the Victorian Baroque Birmingham Museum was a huge concrete monolith of a building. I don’t remember much about that first visit three years ago but I remember the Central Library, though at the time I had no idea of its former function or about the ins and outs of British postwar concrete architecture. It’s jagged, angular concrete exterior struck my very core.

It is now, as was the fate of the second city’s Victorian library, being torn down by yellow cranes that appear in stark contrast to its muted colours; the demolition commenced before the final appeal to save the library had even begun. Birmingham City Council took a hammer to one of its most unique buildings, regardless of the fact that is one of the finest examples of Brutalist architecture in the UK and one of the finest examples of John Madin’s, one of the most brilliant Brummie architects, buildings. Though, shockingly, it is not the only of Madin’s buildings currently being demolished in Birmingham City centre. His incredible skyscraper stood at 103 Colmore Row, part of the Birmingham skyline for the last forty years, is also being taken down.

Central Library now.png

Why 103 Colmore Row, let alone the Central Library, have not been listed is still a point of contention for many people. Other outstanding examples of British brutalist have been: London’s Barbican Estate and Trellick and Balfron Towers, the UEA Ziggurat in Norwich and, closer to home, the New Street Signal Box (not five minutes walk from the Central Library) are all protected. Despite this, the Central Library, a remarkable example of postwar architecture that is so outstanding and unique to Birmingham and fits so well in to the city, with the entire Paradise Circus built just to house it has not been. Instead the city council have allowed it to be demolished, crushed in to nothing, razed it to the ground, in order to build another boring contemporary steel and glass structure as a gate between Victoria Square and Centenary Square. It is honestly a travesty, a real shame. A tragedy.

Colmore Row .png

103 Colmore Row

Signal Box

New St. Signal Box

It’s marmite nature may have divided Brummies and visitors alike but there is no way of denying that Central Library has been a distinctive, remarkable structure in the city since it opened in 1974. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact at some point I am going to get on a train from Selly Oak to New Street and it will not be there anymore, but it breaks my heart every time I go in to the city and a little bit more of it has been torn away.

So I’m writing this to say that, Birmingham Central Library, you magnificent brutal bastard, I will miss you. No matter how many t-shirts, postcards, tote bags and pin badges I buy with your unforgettable silhouette on it, I will miss you. 

Bosch controversy.


Bosch (?), St Anthony (detail); Prado Museum

Bosch (?), St Anthony (detail); Prado Museum

Martin Bailey reports in The Art Newspaper that tensions have erupted between the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and The Prado in Madrid, over its current major show on Hieronymus Bosch and the associated research conducted by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP).

Regular readers will know that we’ve been awaiting the results of the BRCP for some time now, and over the last few months snippets of the findings have gradually been coming to light (see here, and here). With the opening of the show, however, and the publication of its associated catalogue, feathers have been ruffled all over the place, with the result that two works from The Prado, which had been promised to the show, were withdrawn at the last minute, leaving, I suppose, two conspicuous gaps on the exhibition’s walls (not to mention a strange incongruity between the show and the catalogue, since the two works in question are still, obviously, to be found in the latter but are now absent from the former).

To cut a long story short, The Prado is dissatisfied with the findings of the BRCP in relation to 2 pictures which they believe to be by Bosch–and had promised to loan to the Noordbrabants Museum–but which have since been “downgraded”.

The first is the Cure of Folly, which The Prado is convinced was painted by Bosch at around the turn of the 1500s but which the BRCP believes to have been produced in Bosch’s orbit, at some time between 1510 and ’20 (and Bosch died in ’16).

Bosch (?), Cure of Folly; Prado Museum

Bosch (?), Cure of Folly; Prado Museum

The other is the  S Anthony, again believed to be genuine by The Prado, who date it to about 1490, whereas the BCRP gives it to a follower of Bosch’s and dates it to the 1530s, if not the ’40s!

Bosch (?), Temptation of S Anthony; Prado Museum

Bosch (?), S Anthony; Prado Museum

The Prado has said that it is a shame the works have not, after all, gone on show in the new exhibition, citing what they call the “extremely subjective” stylistic evidence that they say underscore the BCRP’s revised attributions. It goes without saying that the Spanish Museum does not agree with the BRCP in these cases (bolstered in their conviction, I am sure, by the fact that both pictures are done on panels that date to Bosch’s lifetime: the Anthony panel could, according to the dendrochronology, have been painted in the 1460s; the Folly in the early ’90s–so the issue here concerns style, hence the Prado’s accusation of connoisseurial subjectivity!). Still, it’s not as though such doubts are entirely brand new. In 1987 Roger Marijnissen, for example, put a big question mark over the status of the Anthony

Anyway, it will be interesting to read more about this when I get my hands on the catalogue etc. etc.

*Update 1. Bosch scholar Bernard Vermet writes to say that

We had the same problem in 2001. The Prado threatened to withdarw the Anthony if it wasn’t presented as an original Bosch. So the caption in the exhibition and in the book, p. 96, said ‘Bosch or follower, c. 1500-1525’, but in the article(s) it was only discussed as by a follower (which they did not notice before it was already on view for a month or so). Jos Koldeweij was there too, so he could have known this was going to happen. We had less problems in presenting the Cure of Folly as an original, even though it is mainly a workshop job.

So The Prado has previous (which Koldeweij already knew…)

**Update 2. Vermet adds

B.t.w.: there is a very simple characteristic of Bosch paintings that fails in the Anthony (but is present in Kansas): the waterlevel does not follow the contour of objects in the water, but is always drawn as a straight line by Bosch.

***More updates. (You can view these in the comments tab, but since that’s difficult to spot on some devices, I’m adding them here.)


  1. Maaike Dirkx says:

    There is still the question of the very last minute withdrawal. Loans must have been requested a long time ago, but the two panels were withdrawn at the very last minute – two weeks before opening and with the catalogue already in print. Someone who saw the exhibition noted a number tag where the Saint Anthony was supposed to hang is still on the wall.

    • jamieedwards756 says:

      Yep. That’s it–they pulled them at the last moment. There is a gap on the wall where the Anthony was supposed to be, ditto the Cure of Folly (so Vermet tells me!).
      Very silly if you ask me, but there you go… Thing is, the BRCP presumably don’t have definitive evidence (say of a scientific kind) that they’re not Bosch, more connoisseurial opinion. So to deny other art historians, not involved with the Project, the chance to study the Anthony and Folly alongside the other Boschs seems counterintuitive to me (plenty of people might, after all and on balance, disagree with the Project’s findings). Alas, it’s happened now.

      • Bernard Vermet says:

        Don’t worry, you can still see them in the Madrid exhibition in june, with all works now in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, plus the Anthony tritych from Lisbon and the Garden, the Seven Deadly sins and all or most other (former) Bosch paintings of the Prado and Escorial. (And the weather will be nicer too).

  2. Maaike Dirkx says:

    Ilsink (see NY Times) said in response that “he and another researcher informed curators at the Prado about the findings in person several months ago, and also showed them a sample of the catalog for the exhibition in which the new attributions were described and explained.”
    It would have been understandable if the Prado would have declined to lend at that time, but at the very last minute? On the whole I was surprised that the BRCP throughout announced their more sensational findings in the media without the backing of their scientific publication.

    • Bernard Vermet says:

      The Prado acts in mysterious ways, way above the comprehension of ordinary earthlings. But in this case it is probably the result of an accumulation of what they feel as insults. Still, the BRCP hasn’t annaounced any sensational finding so far. The November “news” about the Seven deadly Sins and the Carrying of the Cross was a) not an announcement, because it was only an aside remark by Jos Koldeweij in a documentary that was picked out by the press (and only then, afterwards, quite stupidly reproduced by the museum in a press release) and b) not a finding but a fairly common opinion beween most, or at least half of the Bosch experts. And I don’t think there is any expert outside the Prado who has written that the Anthony is by Bosch for the last thirty years. The catalogue raisonné and the technical report will appear at the end of this month and then you will hear about some really interesting findings.

      • Maaike Dirkxsays:

        I know that the demoted works, including also the Ghent Carrying of the Cross, were already debated by scholars. I was referring, for instance, to the re-attributed drawing. In any case that led to interesting discussions here and which one hopes will continue among scholars when the catalogue raisonné and technical report are published. The Prado’s side in the present controversy was published in El Pais yesterday. Very much looking forward to learning more from the publications, not so much about attributions but about the paintings and drawings as works of art.

        1. jamieedwards756 says:

          Good points, Bernard, about Madrid (especially re: the weather!). Also interesting to read that the Prado were well informed about all this in plenty of time. But for me, that makes their behaviour seem all the more silly–it’s one thing to decline to loan a work, because there are big questions marks hanging over the attribution etc., but it’s another to say and then take it back at the eleventh hour! Indeed, the Prado acts in very mysterious ways…
          Anyway good points–look forward to the forthcoming publications and all the light they will shed (or not) on recent events. Also:

          “Very much looking forward to learning more from the publications, not so much about attributions but about the paintings and drawings as works of art.”


        2. Bernard Vermet says:

          Today in the Dutch Volkskrant: There was a press release by the Prado yesterday, stating that the loan was cancelled already on November 25, because the paintings were asked for “an exhibition entirely devoted to original works by Bosch”. De Mooij has confirmed and said they kept hoping they would change their minds until two weeks ago. Apparently their hope was very strong since otherwise it is quite silly to present so prominently the Golden Fleece coat of arms paintings without the Cure of Folly next to them.

          Maaike Dirkx says: February 18, 2016 at 10:54 am  (Edit)

          If what the Prado says (as reported in the Volkskrant) is true and the de-attributions came out prematurely when the documentary on the Bosch team premiered at the documentary festival in October, with the Prado not being the first to be informed, it is understandable that the Prado is not amused. An unfortunate faux pa

        3. Bernard Vermet says:

          PS: and the Haywain was not withdrawn because it was presented as an original, so no legal conditions were violated there. (Hope for them the forthcoming catalogue will not express doubts about the wings, in- and outside 🙂 ).

Mary Beard on Blogging: why etc.?


Little podcast here of Prof. Mary Beard (Cambridge classicist) discussing her enormously popular Blog A Don’s Life, which, it must be said, us Golovine’ers (this one in particular) are big fans of (I happen to be a major fan of its author as well). Beard takes us through the genesis of her blog–which started a decade ago now!–and considers why blogging matters in the 21st century. Why exactly do we blog? What do we talk about? And what’s the point of it all?

Her thoughts in response are pretty interesting, and gives much food for thought for me, who happens to blog as often as I can and who also happens to believe that blogging is very important indeed (not least because it provides a platform for free thought on a whole host of interesting subjects without having to worry, for instance, about the kind of decorum or conventions that are involved in academic writing proper).

Anyway, give it a listen here.







Leonardo da Vinci (or forger?). La Bella Principessa (or Portrait of Bianca Sforza), chalk and pen and ink on vellum, mounted on wood, 1490s (or 1970s?), Private Collection

Leonardo da Vinci (or forger?). La Bella Principessa (or Portrait of Bianca Sforza), chalk and pen and ink on vellum, mounted on wood, 1490s (or 1970s?), Private Collection

2 updates below by Prof. Martin Kemp on his blog on the whole Bianca Sforza or Sally from the Co-op story, which is now looking more and more farcical. In my previous post I think I made it clear that I tended to lean towards Kemp’s side, and certainly don’t think that we should readily extend credence to the forger Greenhalgh. Kemp’s further thoughts below now bring me over more firmly to his side.


Having changed my email and password, I can now get into my own blog. This is a revised version of the comment I posted:

More on the forgery daftness.
The motivation for the absurd claims is clear. Greenhalgh and the writer / filmmaker Waldemar Januszczak are promoting their book and film [as I also pointed out]. It is difficult to think  that Waldemar really believes  the claims to be sustainable. We have to believe that a 17-year old in 1978 knew more than anyone in the world about Leonardo, about his techniques, about the Sforza court and its art, about costumes and hairstyles at the court and about techniques of scientific examination then unknown.

Michael Daley of Artwatch spoke at the attribution conference he has just organised and continued to repeat his errors as fact. He is reported as saying that Leonardo only used parallel shading inside forms not outside them. This is wonderfully ignorant. In Popham’s The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci (only a selection) I counted 24 drawing with parallel hatching being used to create a background for the drawn forms, including No 215, the Vitruvian Man and 210-11 the Leda heads!  He used it when he want to create a special degree of “rilievo” (relief), with the object standing out against its background.
One of the problems with much of the debate that is has been conducted by people using only online sources and not looking in details at the books written by Pascal Cotte and myself. The level of debate has been disappointingly poor. 


I have been looking at Jeanne Marchig’s testimony to the New York court on 17 Jan 2012.
She testified that “I had inherited the drawing from my late husband, Giannino Marchig (1897-1983), who was an art restorer and artist, and an expert in Italian Renaissance art. At that time the Drawing was in an antique ornate Florentine wooden frame, which it had been before I married him in 1955”.
François Bourne of Christie’s, rejecting the idea that it came from the Renaissance, as her husband and she firmly believed (though no mention by anyone of Leonardo), said that “your superb German drawing in the taste of the Italian Renaissance fascinates me. I think it is an object of great taste”. He advised her “to change the frame in order to make it seem an amateur object of the 19th century not an Italian pastiche”. The old frame (now disappeared), which looked like an Italianate mock-up from the 19th, was removed and replaced against Jeanne’s wishes, and she did not approve of its cataloguing as German, but she felt she “no choice but to accede”.

The date of 1955 rules out Greenhalgh (as do many other things), and works strongly against any other forgery theory, since the scientific examinations reveal features of which no forger could have been aware at that time. This applies to the scurrilous and unsupported identification of Marchig as the forger and to any other pre. 1955 forgery.

All that is left is for opponents to divert the argument into claiming that Jeanne Marchig lied profusely. She seemed to me to be a person of great credibility. I wish she were still with us to confirm the truth, which is evident to anyone who looks at the evidence with an open mind.

Compelling points there I think!

PS Meanwhile in Tokyo, a terrifying Leonardo “humanoid” (Reuters):

“Realistic”, they say? If I encountered somebody on the street looking as dodgy as those humanoids do, I’d cross over to the other side…

Leonardo’s Bianca Sforza or Greenhalgh’s Sally from the Co-op?


Leonardo da Vinci (or forger?). La Bella Principessa (or Portrait of Bianca Sforza), chalk and pen and ink on vellum, mounted on wood, 1490s (or 1970s?), Private Collection

Leonardo da Vinci (or forger?). La Bella Principessa (or Portrait of Bianca Sforza), chalk and pen and ink on vellum mounted on wood, 1490s (or 1970s?), Private Collection

The art world–well, a bit of it–was left reeling this weekend when it was revealed that the notorious (convicted) art forger Shaun Greenhalgh has claimed that the famous (but controversial) portrait known as La Bella Principessa is not a portrait of Bianca Sforza made by Leonardo da Vinci in the 1490s, but is, in fact, a portrait of Sally the checkout girl from a Co-op somewhere in Bolton and dated to the 1970s. 1978, to be precise.

The picture’s uncertain status rests on its sketchy provenance; or, more appropriately, distinct lack of provenance. Nothing at all is known for certain about the drawing prior to 1955. At that point it was apparently owned by the art restorer Giannino Marchig, who in ’55 married Jeanne. When Giannino died, his widow inherited the drawing, who subsequently hung it on the wall of her study and who later consigned it to Christie’s New York for sale in 1998. There it was sold for $21’850 with the title Young Girl in Profile in Renaissance Dress and attributed to a 19th-century German artist. The buyer was the American art dealer Kate Ganz, who kept hold of it until 2007 when she sold it on again for a break even price.

The buyer in 2007 had a hunch that the drawing might be a Leonardo; and, indeed, the first time that a scholarly connection was forged between the drawing and Leonardo, as far as I understand it, arose post-2007. To be precise it was 2008-9, when Cristina Geddo published a study of the sheet in which she, for the first time (again I might be wrong), suggested that the drawing is by Leonardo’s hand. The evidence she assembled was stylistic and technical: several aspects of the style of drawing points to Leonardo, such as the left-handed hatching (Leonardo was, as nearly everybody knows, left handed); and Geddo was able to establish that the “trois crayons” technique of the drawing, which is to say a drawing made by using a combination of red, white and black chalk, is something that Leonardo could’ve learned from Jean Perréal, who was in Milan at the same time Leonardo in the 1490s, was proficient in the “trois crayons” technique, and who Leonardo names as a source of technical information in the famous Codex Atlanticus.

In the meantime, Paris’s Lumière Technology performed digital scans of the sheet that were later studied in 2009 by fingerprint aficionado Peter Paul Biro, who reckoned that he could not only discern a fingerprint in the upper left edge of the sheet but that he could actually compare this favourably with a fingerprint, supposedly Leonardo’s, on the Vatican’s St Jerome in the Wilderness.


The supposed Leonardo fingerprint

Laying the fingerprint theory to one side–which has since been disparaged as wishful thinking at best–Geddo’s thesis did receive a resounding endorsement from none other than Prof. M. Kemp, who is emeritus professor in Art History at Oxford and well-established Leonardo expert. Kemp spent 2 years researching the drawing alongside Lumière Technology’s Pascal Cotte, and together they published a book on it in 2010: La Bella Principessa. The Profile Portrait of a Milanese WomanIt is Kemp in the 2010 book who was responsible for not only entrenching the view that the drawing could be Leonardo’s, but also for naming the sheet “A Beautiful Princess”. Kemp is also responsible for coming up with the idea that the sitter was Bianca Sforza who, though not actually a princess, was the daughter of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan who was something of a maecenas of Leonardo’s, and who, in 1496, married (at the tender age of 13 or thereabouts) one of her father’s military top dogs and another Leonardo’s patrons, Galeazzo Sanseverino. Kemp and Pascal thus offered an identity for the sitter, who was intimately connected with Leonardo through both her father and husband, and also offered a tantalisingly attractive addition to the sheet’s plausible provenance. Kemp and Pascal’s additional evidence is hefty, concerning the style, technique, iconography, and dynamic execution of the drawing (that is to say there is pentimenti, which often betrays the hand of an artist enrapt by the creative process rather than the servile hand of the copyist or forger), as well as probable dates for the drawing’s materials, support and so on, which they say are at least 250 years old.

Kemp and Pascal also ventured that the sheet was probably once bound in a book, or codex, perhaps containing poetry, which is exactly the kind of thing that the Sforza family might have commissioned to mark key events in Sforza family history, such as a birth, marriage or death. Slightly later, in 2011, Kemp and Pascal pursued this theory more vehemently, adducing specific evidence in in order to demonstrate that the drawing was probably once bound in a copy of Giovanni Simonetta’s La Sforziada that is now in Warsaw. La Sforziada was originally made in the mid-1470s to celebrate and honour the life and accomplishments of Francesco Sforza, who was Ludovico’s father, and the Sforza family more generally. La Sforziada was copied several times therafter–copies are extant not only in Warsaw but also London, Paris, and Florence–and it is thought by Pascal, Kemp and others that the Warsaw version had been presented to Galeazzo Sanseverino in 1496 on the occasion of his marriage to Bianca Sforza, complete with a drawing of her by no less a figure than Leonardo. It is thought that this sheet, now known as La Bella Principessa, was cut out from the codex during the process of rebinding the Warsaw Sforziada. You can read more of this argument, which is really rather detailed and, I think, plausible, here.

Cotte and Kemp's hypothetical reconstruction of the portrait in the Warsaw copy of La Sforziad

Cotte and Kemp’s hypothetical reconstruction of the portrait in the Warsaw copy of La Sforziad

Kemp and Pascal in other words assembled considerable connoisseurial and scientific evidence to support a link between the drawing and Leonardo, and hit upon a plausible addition to the sheet’s regrettably scanty provenance. Identifying the sitter is good going–a bit of a coup, even.

So far so good…

But now all this has been cast into doubt by Greenhalgh, who claims–in a forthcoming book, snippets of which have already come out–that he produced the drawing. He says that he used an old English book to source vellum that was old enough to dupe the scientists, and likewise used carefully sourced organic materials to get the medium right so as to dupe both the scientists and the connoisseurs. He also says that he mounted the drawing on a panel made from an old school desk, again to give the impression of age. He finally claims that his model was a certain Sally, who worked in a Co-op in Bolton in the late ’70s–which is a world away from Bianca Sforza, 1490’s Milanese noblewoman (which isn’t to deride Co-op workers everywhere, as I happen to be very fond of the staff in my local Co-op!).

Anyway the story has provoked all kinds of responses in the media. The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones labels the experts, including, I assume, Kemp, ‘gullible’ in his report on the story. He basically thinks that Greenhalgh is lying, but that it’s not by Leonardo either–a 17th-century pastiche, perhaps? Bendor Grosvenor sort of agrees, though he refrains from dubbing the Leonardo specialists ‘gullible’.

For his part, Martin Kemp unsurprisingly rubbishes the story as ‘ridiculous’ on his own very good Blog:

The silly season for Leonardo never stops. This now applies as much to the profile portrait on vellum, the portrait of Bianca Sforza known as La Bella Principessa, as it does to the Mona Lisa. The latest in the Sunday Times is the hilarious claim from the convicted forger Shaun Greenhalgh that he forged the portrait in 1978. He is effectively promoting his forthcoming book. There are many reasons why the story is ridiculous. I give just three for the moment.

1) We have lead isotope dating undertaken by the University of Pavia that shows the white pigment in the sitter’s cheek to be a minimum age of 250 years old. This means that it is not a recent forgery;
2) If someone fakes a Leonardo why do they not promote it as a Leonardo? There was no suggestion from 1978 to 2007 that it was by Leonardo.
3) Obviously anyone with a decent level of technical knowledge can read what Pascal Cotte, myself and other scholars have published and say, “that’s how I did this or that”. But many of the “thises” and “thats” were not known in 1978. A nice case in point is the hand-print technique in the flesh tones as revealed by Pascal’s multi-spectral analysis, a technique that we did not know about until the 1980s.

Faced with the pigment dating, Greenhalgh then claims that he used “organic” materials of appropriate age, including “iron-rich clays” he dug up. You cannot obtain lead-based pigments (non-organic) this way. No forger in 1978 could have anticipated the recent high-tech tests against which he would have to protect his creation.

The plus side of all this is that it provides another picturesque story for the book I am writing called Living with Leonardo, to be published by Thames and Hudson. Ha Ha!

Kemp is obviously not fazed. But when it comes to what I make of all this? Well, I find Greenhalgh’s story hard to swallow.

Greenhalgh, as Grosvenor points out, would have produced this drawing, if his story is true, during his late teens. So we have to wonder whether he really could have had the foresight then to get the “right” vellum, and to go out of his way to get the “right” materials, in order to produce a drawing that he would then quietly dispose of without naming Leonardo–wouldn’t a forger have wanted to get rid of it as a Leonardo from the off?–, only to then let almost 4 decades pass by before claiming that the drawing, which had since been attached to Leonardo, is, in fact, by him? Could Greenhalgh really have anticipated as a teenager drawing in a Bolton Co-op that a renowned Leonardo expert and his scientist friend would, decades later, subject that drawing, meticulously forged by him, to scientific scrutiny in order to prove that the drawing is a Leonardo, only for the forger himself to then be able to declare that they are wrong, and that he set out, all those years ago and armed with the “right materials” and a pinch, it seems, of prophetic foresight, to lead them astray? This just seems a bit too farfetched for me to believe. And it doesn’t ring true for how art forgers are supposed to operate.

Then there’s the problem that Jeanne Marchig says that her husband already owned the drawing when they married in 1955–which is some 20 years before Greenhalgh is supposed to have produced it. I think this must mean that the onus is placed on Greenhalgh himself to resolve this inconsistency. I suppose that some might try to cast suspicion over the Marchigs themselves, since Giannino was a proficient draughtsman himself and was very familiar with Leaonrdo’s work (in 1976 he undertook major conservation work on the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, then owned by the Wildenstein’s, for example). But you can’t just go around outing forgers willy-nilly. And even if you tried, this still wouldn’t square Greenhalgh’s claim: they, the Marchigs, say the drawing existed in ’55 (Mr Marchig, I read, believed the drawing to be a Ghirlandaio, a view which his wife shared), whereas the forger says it only came into being 2 decades later, in 1978.

Leonardo (and another?), Madonna of the Yarnwinder, oil on panel (transferred to canvas and later re-laid on panel), private collection

Leonardo (and another?), Madonna of the Yarnwinder, oil on panel (transferred to canvas and later re-laid on panel), private collection

And then I’m not really all that convinced by those who say that the drawing doesn’t look Leonardoesque enough. Kemp’s learned and trained eye for Leonardo wouldn’t have been aroused by a drawing it it didn’t look right in the first place (Kemp, I read somewhere, has photos of putative Leonardos land on his doormat all the time, so is used to separating the wheat from the chaff–otherwise he’d spend his life chasing after dud works). Still, The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones calls the drawing a “flat, dead and dull painting” (despite the fact it’s not a painting, per se) and concluded it is an “ugly pastiche”. As a result Jones is “absolutely certain” that is isn’t a Leonardo. He adds:

This really is a sorry tale, a revelation of how the most famous and justly revered artist in the world has become the centre of an inflated industry where everything than can remotely be connected with him is hyped to insane degrees of exaggeration or wishful thinking.

But, in response to Jones, I’d say at least two things.

The first is that isn’t this the same Jones that bought into the recent, equally sensational revelation that the bronze Panther Riders are “by Michelangelo”? I’ve said my bit on that before (here and here) but in short I’m not convinced. And based on that I’d say that Jones is perhaps exercising double standards by lampooning those who favour the attribution of “The Beautiful Princess” to Leonardo on the basis that it’s wishful thinking driven by the desire to attach Leonardo’s name to anything, yet is prepared to endorse the equally dubious and o.t.t. claims that the ungainly Panther Riders are by Leonardo’s just-as-famous rival.

And second I’d want to know what it is, exactly, that makes this drawing “flat”, “dead”, “dull” and an “ugly pastiche”? I don’t think it’s ugly–I actually find it quite charming, if not captivating, if not beautiful! OK, ugliness is a matter of opinion (though I don’t think anyone in their right mind could call this drawing ugly!), so getting to Jones’s real point, it seems to be the case that he thinks that Leonardo couldn’t possibly have produced a portrait that is so, I guess, standoffish: “The real giveaway is the total absence of an emotional dynamic between this young woman and Leonardo da Vinci. She just sits there, waiting, as if she was posing in a passport photobooth. There is no chemistry and no sense of personality.” But I think that what is actually happening here is that Jones is clinging on to the old Mona Lisa chichés, which underly his bold conviction that there’s no way this drawing is a Leonardo. This is all the “Leonardo liked to have a close, special bond with his sitters” and “there’s always a psychological connection” stuff, which is, as it goes, the kind of stuff that always makes me cringe (in the same way that anybody who waxes lyrical about van Gogh slicing his ear off makes me want to slice off mine, etc.). But what Jones perhaps ignores is that: a) Leonardo made portraits that don’t have a Mona Lisa-ness about them and come close to La Bella Principessa (e.g. the profile portrait below, of Isabella d’Este, which is (I think?) probably by Leonardo and, coincidentally, dates from about the same period as La Bella and pretty much approximates the “trois crayons” technique); and b) perhaps the artist’s hands were tied by whichever of the Sforzas commissioned it, since the Sforzas (and other nobles at the time) harboured a preference for the ennobling bust-length, profile-view portrait, which is most famously evinced by Piero della Francesa’s famous Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and His Wife Battista Sforza (but the Sforza preference is also evidenced by other Sforza portraits produced by Bonifazio Bembo, Domenico dei Cammei, Pisanello, Ambrogio de Predis, Domenico Rosselli etc. etc.).

Leonardo, Portrait of Isabella d'Este, about 1500, Red and black chalks and stumping ocher chalk, white highlights, Louvre, Paris

Attr. to Leonardo, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, about 1500, Red and black chalks and stumping ocher chalk, white highlights, Louvre, Paris

Piero della Francesca, Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and His Wife Battista Sforza, 1465-66 Tempera on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Piero della Francesca, Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and His Wife Battista Sforza, 1465-66, Tempera on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

So we can’t say that Leonardo simply didn’t do portraits like La Bella Principessa, because he did and, in any case, even if he didn’t, it’s conceivable that the Sforzas might have asked him to, based on Sforza portraits that were already knocking around (and it’s not true to imagine that Leonardo was never constrained by a patron’s demands–the whole “Leonardo the genius did whatever he liked” idea doesn’t ring true…!).

In short I don’t know for certain whether the drawing is or is not a Leonardo. The reader of this post is free to click on the various links included in this post and weigh things up for themselves. I think there’s a chance it could be, and I don’t buy those claims that it simply isn’t Leonardo enough to look at. The scientific evidence tells us it’s definitlely old (Kemp dismisses, rightly, Greengalgh’s claim that he sourced organic materials in order to get materials that would mislead the scientists), and so it cannot be the case that La Bella Principessa was made in the Bolton Co-op in the 1970s. Worst case scenario is that it’s a 17th-century work; but I think that we cannot simply dismiss Kemp’s careful findings and accuse Kemp et al. of being gullible. Certainly I’m disinclined to simply pay obeisance to a convicted forger over a respected art historian. The former, we remember, made a living for himself fooling the world, and who may well now be merely muddying the waters simply because he can (with commercial gain to boot!).

The final sting in the tail for me comes from the uncomfortable closeness that exists between the journalist that broke this story, the forger, the forger’s new book and the same journalist’s company that is distributing said forger’s book. It was Waldemar Janusczcak who broke this story in The Sunday Times, and it is Janusczcak’s company ZCZ Editions that has published Greenhalgh’s book, which is basically a memoir that the he wrote whilst serving a prison sentence for art forgeries. Perhaps Kemp has a point when he says that the way the story has come out reeks of publicity… I’ll just leave that there for you to think about.




The Bosch Research & Conservation Project, a new Bosch exhibition and a Bosch party


2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch (probably about 1450-1516). Bosch–who, possibly, is my favourite artist of all time–is most well known today as the creator of what are amongst the most innovative (I refuse to use the term “strange” as people too often do) pictures ever to have been produced. These include the monumental and monumentally fascinating so-called Garden of Earthly Delights triptych that is now in the Prado.

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480s (?), Prado, ,Madrid

Less well known, though, is the controversy that surrounds the artist, his life and his works. Bosch’s life is for the most part shrouded in mystery–we possess just a few scant references to the artist from his time, which, moreover, tend to be of a bureaucratic kind (e.g. “1486-7: Bosch joined the Confraternity of Our Lady”) and therefore tell us barely anything concrete about the artist’s beliefs or opinions. We possess no firm information about who Bosch painted most of his pictures for either (with a few, notable, exceptions), and no contracts for works have come down to us. Bosch is in other words an enigma: on the whole we lack the kind of information that might otherwise help us to understand better his pictures; his activities are hard to pin down; and the views or beliefs that inspired his works are graspable only in the vaguest sense.

Inevitably this has all only served to support the problematic rhetoric that surrounds Bosch’s name and which skews interpretations of his art. Bosch is, for example, often viewed as some kind of heretic, who, we are told, lived a secluded–or “hermetic”, to quote Wilhelm Fraenger who is responsible for what it perhaps the silliest contribution to Bosch scholarship–life at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, his hometown in what was then north Brabant, which he never permanently left. There, we’re sometimes led to believe, Bosch worked alone, in complete isolation, and as a result “unorthodox views” flourished that apparently inspired his “heterodox” iconography.

Needless to say that none of that holds true for me. I do think that if we look hard enough at the facts that are available, few though they are, and if we look really carefully at his pictures, we do stand to gain real insights into his art and are able to understand them in their proper (rather than imagined) contexts: artistic, spiritual, and religious. There’s not time here to go into this but let me just say that Bosch clearly was a practising Catholic–he after all held a senior position in a lay confraternity that was devoted to the Virgin (!)–and this should, though it hasn’t always, provide the basis for any interpretations of his pictures. This way we can do away with the erroneous and completely unhelpful point of view that Bosch was a heretic and that the keys to ‘unlocking’ his pictures lie in the realm of the esoteric.

Much scholarship recently has endorsed this view. And next year things look to set to improve even more, with the appearance of a brand new two volume monograph on Bosch that is the result of the 5 year long Bosch research and conservation project (BRCP), the appearance of which will coincide with the opening of a remarkable exhibition that will be held at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Noordbrabants museumJheronimus Bosch – Visions of a genius (12 Feb. – 8 May 2016).

Bosch, Haywain, after 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Haywain, after 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

The exhibition promises to be a must-see for all sorts of reasons, but not least because the show will feature the largest collection of Boschs ever to have been assembled in ‘s-Hertogenbosch since they were produced in that city over half a millennium ago. The organiser Charles de Mooij really has done a tremendous job managing to secure nearly ALL of the surviving Bosch paintings for his show, which is no mean feat if we take into account that he had not a single authentic Bosch to offer in exchange (though he did of course have knowledge gathered as a result of the BRCP). What’s more a couple of these are real coups, including the Haywain triptych, which is heading back home all the way from Madrid where it’s been for over 400 years! Other loans have been secured from collections in New York, Rotterdam, Paris and Venice (but apparently not London, as far as I can tell? Which is odd, since the National Gallery’s Bosch is one of the finest examples, to my mind, of Bosch’s less well known activities as a painter of more modest pictures intended as aids for domestic devotions… ). The show will in other words provide an unprecedented opportunity to study a large number of Bosch’s works alongside one another, in the city where they were made; a truly unique opportunity.

Equally exciting is the promise of Bosch fever that is set to descend on ‘s-Hertogenbosch to coincide with the exhibition. The town, it is plain to see, is bristling with excitement about the upcoming opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of its most famous son: Bosch’s images are going to be projected all over the grote mark’t–where Bosch lived and operated his studio and where there now stands a bronze statue of Bosch (inspired by a portrait in the Recueil d’Arras that may or may not accurately preserve Bosch’s appearance) made in 1929 by the sculptor August Falise–, there are going to be 3D recreations of some of his most iconic inventions going up all over the place, there will be tours of the town’s most important sites connected to Bosch including St John’s, as well as circus performances, dances, processions, games, 15th-century food and drink, and so on and so on. Basically, a right old jolly in memory of Bosch, and I can’t wait.

Bosch in 21st-C 's-Hertogenbosch

Bosch in 21st-C ‘s-Hertogenbosch (image:

Statue of Bosch by August Falise, 's-Hertogenbosch

Statue of Bosch by August Falise, ‘s-Hertogenbosch

But for now it’s the promise of things to come as a result of the BCRP that has grabbed my attention. The research project’s main aim was to subject the largest number of Bosch paintings as possible to rigorous technical examination, ranging from dendrochronological analysis (panel dating) to x-radiography, as well as various other high-res imaging processes. The main goal was to get a better idea of Bosch’s working methods, techniques and his creative process, which is embarrassingly little understood (only a few articles that I know of have even entertained the notion that Bosch’s inventions are the result of a coherent creative process!). All this scientific work doubtless will help us to get a better grasp of Bosch’s iconography and its meanings.

And already this work has generated some really high quality, interesting and useful images that, for a few works anyway, have been made available online. There we find images in high-res, infrared and infrared refloctographic formats:

Detail: Female St (image:

Detail: Bosch, Crucified Female Female St., about 1500, oil on panel, Palazzo Ducale, Venice (image:

Detail: Hermit Sts triptych (image:

Detail: Bosch, Hermit Sts triptych, after 1500, oil on panel, Palazzo Ducale, Venice (image:

There’s also the nifty option to see all 3 types of image tiled simultaneously, with a drag feature for the viewer to play around with:

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

It is especially nice in the example of Crucified Saint triptych, which usually lives in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale, to be able to get a proper up-close view of the donors which originally adorned the wings but were subsequently painted out:

Crucified female st (details: L: normal view; R: infrared reflectography)

Crucified female st (details: L: normal view; R: infrared reflectography revealing the overpainted donor portrait)

We’ve long known about the donor portraits but high quality, zoomable images have not before been readily available. Their existence might help us to test the hypothesis that the donors are dressed as Italians, and thus might provoke research that will in turn shed light on the whole Bosch and Italy problem. Did he go to Venice? Did he work for Italian clients? What’s the provenance of the Bosch paintings (there are 3 of them) in Venice? I’ve spoken about this before at conferences and in lectures, and maybe the appearance of the BRCP’s researches will help us to arrive at firmer answers. Indeed a suggestion that the research project might have yielded such conclusions is suggested by BCRP’s decision to specify that the female saint depicted by Bosch in this triptych is St Uncumber (a.k.a. Wilgefortis), since this has been a subject of considerable debate. Is it not St Julia? St Liberata? Granted, none of these–Uncumber/Wilgerfortis, Julia or Liberata–are what you could call familiar saints, but their identification is actually germane to the Italy question because Liberata and Julia are, if you will, Italian saints (i.e. their cults sprung up and were concentrated in Italy) which is important if the donor portraits really are of Italians, whereas St Uncumber/Wilgefortis was virtually unknown south of the Alps. So I eagerly await to see what the monograph has to say about this. (Maybe they’ve discovered something to do with a beard, since one of the more interesting things about Uncumber’s legend is that she was bearded at the time of her crucifixion, whereas Bosch’s saint is clean-shaven? I’ve already had a play with zooming-in on the saint’s mouth and chin area in normal view and in infrared photograph and have looked in vain for evidence of a beard. Is that a whisker-ish suggestion of facial hair? I don’t think it is… )

A beard? Normal and infrared photography image of mouth and chin

A beard? Normal and infrared photograph image of mouth and chin

Another important aim of the project is to refine Bosch’s oeuvre, which in the early 20th century expanded massively but was then narrowed and now looks set to be narrowed again. Though refining what is already a small(ish) corpus of works may seem regrettable, it is of the upmost importance for Bosch studies to be able to separate what’s Bosch from what’s not Bosch in order to provide a firm and accurate starting point for scholarly investigation. We know as a matter of fact, for example, that Bosch was not only copied or imitated in his own day but that he actually enjoyed a revival in the mid-1500s, when a number of imitators, pasticheurs and outright forgers (we can still read for ourselves grumblings from the 1560s about this!) made careers for themselves on the back of a vogue for all-things Bosch.

The “Bosch Renaissance” on the art market in the Netherlands in the mid-1500s is perhaps best illustrated by the engraving showing the Big Fish eat the Little Fish, which was published in Antwerp in 1557 by Hieronymus Cock and Volcxken Dierix:

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver), Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, 1557

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver) and Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, engraving, 1557

When Cock released this engraving he ran it with the inscription ‘Hieronijmus Bos inuentor’, that is “Hieronymus Bosch designed this image”. We know, however, that that is a fib, since the preparatory drawing for this engraving was made by Pieter Bruegel–who is the focus of my Ph.D.–who signed and dated it “brueghel” 1556. Cock in other words replaced Bruegel’s name with Bosch’s in order to ride the wave of Bosch’s fame and popularity at a time when Bruegel’s own reputation was still in its ascendancy.

Given that the example provided by Cock’s redacting of Bruegel’s name in favour of Bosch’s is but one example of a much wider phenomenon it does strike me as being really important to figure out what is Bosch and what isn’t. This isn’t to say that Bosch’s posthumous reputation and his “Renaissance” in the mid-1500s isn’t an important and interesting topic in and of itself–I am, in fact, very interested in it and part of my thesis touches on it. It’s also not to say that works “demoted” from Bosch’s oeuvre are not important–simply by becoming “not Boschs” doesn’t de-value these works or make them any less interesting from an art historical point of view. But what it is to say is that to get a proper grip on Bosch, who up to now has proven to be so slippery, we need to know what he actually did. It’s a simple aim, but in reality has proven vexing. The BRCP, however, does seem to have made a number of interesting discoveries, which are now starting to emerge.

First there’s the idea that the Prado Museum’s famous “tabletop” showing the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things might NOT, after all, be by Bosch’s hand.* The team have concluded that the underdrawing on this panel as well as its overall execution are not consonant with Bosch’s techniques and therefore attribute the work to a follower of Bosch’s (perhaps one who worked in Bosch’s studio, which is to say that this work has been deemed “close to Bosch” but not quite close enough). This really is an interesting conclusion since the tabletop has been traditionally feted as an exemplary early work of Bosch’s in which some principal characteristics of his art are announced. This reputation was of course partly formed on the basis of the picture’s stellar provenance, since this is one of the many works by Bosch, or perhaps better “works by Bosch”, that by 1560 had found their way into the collection of King Phillip II of Spain.

Follower of Bosch (?), Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, about 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

Follower of Bosch (?), Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, about 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

The team have also rejected, once and for all, the authenticity of the Carrying of the Cross in Ghent’s Museum voor Schone Kunsten. As of Jos Koldeweij, Paul Vandenbroeck, Bernard Vermet’s exhibition catalogue of 2001 we’ve had doubts about this work but the BRCP have amassed evidence that solidifies this work’s status as being “in the style of” or “after Bosch” rather than “Bosch”. The BRCP is even more convinced than Koldeweij, Vandenbroeck and Vermet had been that the execution of the picture just isn’t right. The framing also points to the 1520s as the probable date of this work’s production, which takes us to after Bosch’s death in 1516.

After Bosch (?), Christ Carrying the Cross, 1520s (?), oil on panel, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

After Bosch (?), Christ Carrying the Cross, 1520s (?), oil on panel, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

If these findings are likely to irk the owners of the pictures concerned–the Prado apparently is disinclined to accept them–one private collector’s luck is definitely in. For if the BRCP has trimmed the corpus of Bosch paintings by at least 2, it has enlarged the graphic corpus by at least 1:

Bosch, Hell landscape, pen and ink, private collection (photographed by Klein Gotink and Robert Erdmann for the BRCP)

Bosch, Hell landscape, pen and ink, private collection (photographed by Klein Gotink and Robert Erdmann for the BRCP)

This drawing, which is not new in the sense that I’ve never seen it before but is new in terms of its newly-proposed status, has long been thought to have been done by a follower of Bosch. Having thoroughly re-examined the sheet, however, the BRCP have determined that there is no reason to doubt its authenticity, and it will go on display as such, as a bona fide Bosch, in the Noordbrabants museum’s upcoming exhibition.**

All told this makes for pretty exciting stuff. On the basis of what we’ve already seen, it looks as though the show and the new monograph will mark something of a watershed moment in Bosch studies, forcing us to reassess some of the received knowledge about the artist and his activities, and giving us cause to think in new and innovative ways. What I really hope is that the show will inspire renewed interest in Bosch and generate probing and innovative new scholarship–and I suspect that it will.

In the meantime, though, we have a new documentary film to look forward to, which takes us behind-the-scenes of the BRCP. It premieres at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam on November 20 before being shown on TV next Feb. (in the Netherlands anyway, but I’m hoping that it will somehow be made available in the UK as well). The trailer is below, and I noted with interest Matthijs Ilsink’s reluctance to commit to making even a vague suggestion on camera about which works the project might end up wanting to remove from Bosch’s oeuvre. ‘I’ll end up in political matters- no comment’, he says, which is a telling example, I think, of the kinds of frictions that can arise between art historians and museums and collectors on the back of this kind of research (CAUTION: trailer begins with awful owl squawking):

*UPDATE 1: Renowned Bosch scholar Dr Bernard Vermet kindly writes to let me know that for him and others the tabletop’s authenticity has been out of the question for ages. Turns out my grasp of the literature in this particular respect isn’t as tight as it should be–tut, tut!

**UPDATE 2: The same Vermet tells me that when the sheet was auctioned in 2003 it went for 10 times the estimate–so, as he says, “at least 2 persons were convinced it was by Bosch already then.” Quite!

More clamorous attributions: yet another pair of “new Michelangelos”?


1 pair of sculptures (Atlantes consoles) Michelangelo Buonarroti. Study by the Art Research Foundation. Sculptures, walnut, polychromated, each 61 x 39 x 14 cm, circa 1494, each carved out of a glued and mortised and tenoned rectangular block made up of three parts. Previously unknown (not mentioned in either Vasari or Condivi). (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

1 pair of sculptures (Atlantes consoles) Michelangelo Buonarroti. Study by the Art Research Foundation. Sculptures, walnut, polychromated, each 61 x 39 x 14 cm, circa 1494.  (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

Hitherto unknown pair of sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti presented to the world. (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

Hitherto unknown pair of sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti presented to the world. (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

Granted, I’m a bit slow off the mark with this one, but with the dust barely settled on the Panther Riders, which were revealed to the world just a few months back as “newly-discovered Michelangelos” (ahem) by the Fitzwilliam Museum–you can read my and Dr David Hemsoll’s thoughts about those here and here–a Swiss authentication firm has without hesitation revealed that the two sculpted wooden putti above, which form a pair of consoles, are “in fact the work of Michelangelo.” The firm in fact reckons that it has dispelled “any…doubts” that the putti are by Michelangelo’s hand. You can read their press release for yourself here, but it’s worth thinking for a bit about their main evidence and weigh-up just how far we can be sure that these sculptures are indeed the work of Michelangelo.

The main thrust of the evidence concerns the date and likely place of origin of the sculptures; in their own words: “The study analyzes the plausibility of the object’s time of origin using technical and scientific methods.” What they’ve discovered is that the present layer of polychromy and bonding substances are original. Not only that, the technique and materials point to Italy as the place of manufacture and “the time of origin as circa 1494”. This approximate, but surprisingly precise (which is say, suspiciously engineered), date was then “confirmed” by scientific dating of the wood using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, which “showed that the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability.” Having thus “established” that the putti were made in Italy in 1494, they embarked upon stylistic analysis, comparing the sculptures to authentic works by Michelangelo. This is all to say that somebody involved had from the get-go a hunch, however wishful, that these might be by Michelangelo and so having decided on the date and place of production by means of science, let’s actually think about this in terms of art and try and prove this basic proposition. Backwards though this method of working may be (when dealing with art it seems sensible to me to begin with considerations of an artistic kind) this is, in any case, what they came up with:

In the study, the subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo. For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history, the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates.

In addition, it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work. This fact should dispel any remaining doubts that this pair of sculptures are in fact the work of Michelangelo.”

Err. This all seems to me dubiosuly vague evidence, underscored by the irresistible desire to discover new Michelangelos at the expense, it seems, of proper art historical rigour. Let’s consider the individual bits of evidence.

The polychromy and binding materials may well be original and may well point to Italy in the later 15th century. I’m sure they have abundant scientific facts to support this thesis that obviously were not regurgitated in the press release–the function of a press release being, of course, to be pithy and engender unabated excitement in the press. But what this evidence cannot do is generate the precise result that the putti were made in 1494. The dendrochronology (wood dating) cannot even determine such a date. For the benefit of the uninitiated, their statement that “the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability” doesn’t mean that the wood dating showed that sculptures were definitely made in 1494. Rather what the wood dating will have shown is that “the sculptures are made out of wood which is from a tree felled at some point in the later 1400s”. To be sure, the results can sometimes even say “a tree felled in 1491” etc., thus giving a terminus post quem, but never, ever says “was produced in 1494”. In other words the wood dating will have generated a broader time period for the sculptures (let’s say, the 1490s), and the researchers themselves have decided to pronounce the date as being 1494 (their what they call “assumed” date for the sculptures’ production). So we have to ask: why pick that date?

And we needn’t look far for the answer. The 1490s is after all the decade when Michelangelo the sculptor was born and the earlier years of that decade were especially frenetic and experimental. Michelangelo’s biographers Vasari and Condivi both relate that it was the young artist’s time in the Medici sculpture garden from 1490-92 that really ignited his interests in carving. During his time in the Medici court and in the following few years Michelangelo sculpted an all’antica Head of a Faun (lost), the Battle of the Centaurs relief and Madonna of the Steps, the latter in rilievo schiacciato, or “squashed relief”, in purposeful imitation of Donatello’s pioneering technique; Michelangelo also did a little Hercules (also lost), and in the very cold winter of 1493-4 even made a snowman in Piero de’ Medici’s courtyard (lost, obviously); at about the same time Michelangelo also carved a Sleeping Cupid, which, infamously, was fraudulently sold–apparently unbeknownst to Michelangelo–as a genuine antique to Cardinal San Giorgio (also lost). Crucially the middle years of the 1490s also saw Michelangelo embark on the carving of a wooden Crucifix for the church of S. Spirito–apparently as a gift in exchange for the wardens of the church having allowed Michelangelo to dissect cadavers in the crypt there!–as well as two sculpted Saints for S. Domenico in Bologna, and, most importantly, an Angel bearing a candelabrum for the same church.

This is all to say that at around 1494, Michelangelo was demonstrably a busy sculptor and, moreover, is known to have been sculpting in wood, as well as producing more utilitarian, or else “functional”, statuary such as the candelabrum, which might well justify the belief that he would have also carved in wood a pair of consoles (what the putti are reckoned to be). In other words, 1494 is a neat date that coincides with some important documented and still extant works by Michelangelo… So 1494’s a good date. But, and here’s the problem, the science could never have generated that precise a date. The science, which is to say the materials and techniques of the polychromy, as well as the wood dating, will, as I’ve said, have thrown up a vaguer result and definitely not anything near as firm as “made in 1494”. This I think leads to the skeptical but inevitable conclusion that that date 1494 was purposefully selected by the authors of the study because of the attractive correspondence between this date and Michelangelo’s known output during this early stage in his career. To put all of that another way, the date 1494 was ostensibly engineered because the study set off with the a priori purpose of proving that the putti are by Michelangelo, and the available science was subsequently deployed in order to sustain that premise, with the scientific results being manipulated to suit predetermined conclusions (i.e. made in 1494, during Michelangelo’s ascendancy as a sculptor); the science did not generate this result.

Michelangelo, Crucifix, about 1493, polychromed wood, S Spirito, Florence

Michelangelo, Crucifix, about 1493, polychromed wood, S Spirito, Florence

Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs, about 1492-3, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs, about 1492-3, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Madonna of the Steps, about 1491, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Madonna of the Steps, about 1491, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Angel bearing candelabrum, 1494-5, marble, S Domenico, Bologna

Michelangelo, Angel bearing candelabrum, 1494-5, marble, S Domenico, Bologna

“So what?” people will say, “that’s just how these things work”. Authors have hunches, and use both scientific and connoisseurial evidence to build a case. Vague wood dating results are often narrowed and refined in the way we’ve just encountered in order to bring unattributed works into line with a known artist’s activities. But the problem in this case is that the scientific result, and their consequent proposal that the consoles were made by Michelangelo in 1494, doesn’t gain any robustness or credibility by virtue of other, external evidence.

For a start and not unlike the bronze Panther Riders there is no mention of the putti consoles in the primary sources, namely Vasari and Condivi. I am surprised that having carefully selected the date of 1494 for the putti’s manufacture, that those behind the study weren’t more concerned that neither of Michelangelo’s biographers mention consoles, or wooden putti, or anything that feasibly could be related to the present works at all. This should at the very least have inspired some reticence or caution on their part about making the pronouncement that these sculptures are “without doubt” the work of Michelangelo. (It is important to remember at this point that the account provided by Condivi is especially useful in this connexion since Condivi’s account was sanctioned by Michelangelo himself, to the degree that it is not unreasonable to think of Condivi  as having been Michelangelo’s mouthpiece!) It is therefore troubling to say the least that there is no mention here, or anywhere else, of a pair of wooden consoles showing putti. Had Condivi or Vasari (or somebody else) mentioned wooden consoles, then there would be a sound foundation on which to build a case and to try and relate these sculptures to Michelangelo. We might also be more the wiser about why Michelangelo carved them: for where, why and for which patron? Indeed the lack of provenance for these works is a bit of a problem in general. Don’t they look a bit clean for wooden sculptures that are half a millennium old? This would suggest that they’ve been looked after well by a line of conscientious owners (or, less good for the authors given the importance of the materials, have been CLEANED!), and so we should want to know more about where they’ve been over the last 5 centuries.

Next there is the “connoisseurship” involved in supporting, but crucially not determining, this attribution which, we remember, is predicated on science and only backed-up by the art. First there’s the vagueness of their connoisseurial pronouncements which should and will raise eyebrows. What on earth does “The subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo actually mean? Are they saying that they’ve identified 52 instances where Michelangelo did angels or putti? Or 52 instances where Michelangelo actually designed consoles decorated with putti? I can’t think of 52 of the latter?! Ditto “For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history [… eh?], the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates. And then there’s “it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work“. Taken altogether, I think that what they’re saying here, without saying it, is that Michelangelo was interested in angels and putti, and that every individual bit of the putti’s anatomies can be compared with one work or another–whether that be a drawing, painting, or sculpture–by Michelangelo. But isn’t this all just a bit worryingly imprecise and unspecific? Of course you can compare one pec from a putto to another pec elsewhere of Michelangelo’s invention, or one toenail (or even in the case of the Panther Riders the shape of the pubic hair), and sure enough you’ll find similarities from such piecemeal connoisseurial dissections. But such an approach hardly seems robust. One should want to have some more precise, compelling examples? What’s more one should also want to know what the parameters were that circumscribed the selection of examples of Michelangelo’s works for comparative purposes. You can’t really, for example, enter into discussion here late works by Michelangelo in order to arrive at convincing arguments about the formal or stylistic merit of the putti because the putti are supposed to be very early, which should have imposed limits on which works were used for the purposes of stylistic comparison; or else, should have imposed limits on the number of works that can be used in order to arrive at useful, instructive, precise and convincing comparisons rather than generic ones. It is dead easy to say, for instance, that the abdomens of the putti, and the arrangements of the legs, bear a general resemblance to the Dying Slave–and I imagine that this is the sort of comparison that was indeed made–but the Dying Slave is a more accomplished work that postdates the putti by some two decades (…unless, of course, their dating of the putti is wrong in which case their entire thesis falls apart and needs to be started over).

Michelangelo, Dying Slave, mid-1510s, marble, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Michelangelo, Dying Slave, mid-1510s, marble, Musée du Louvre, Paris

The best and most measured results would arise if the putti are compared to contemporary works, viz.,early  sculptures made by Michelangelo in the 1490s. Especially useful might be the wooden Crucifix, since it is wooden, as well as the candelabrum, given the similarities in type between the candle-holding angel and the console putti. But these comparisons aren’t especially instructive. The consoles are a million miles away from the Crucifix (which harkens back, apparently deliberately, to older Tuscan crucifixes that would have been ten a penny in the churches Michelangelo hung out in). The bent legs and hunched shape of the Angel candelabrum, meanwhile, is a bit better but then this comparison throws up the problem of the faces: the chubby Angel in Bologna has a soft, sweet face that is well-composed and clearly the work of an already accomplished sculptor, whereas the faces of the putti are decidedly ungainly, if not grotesquely ugly, and seem to me to be the work of an unsure hand. There’s something about the faces of the putti that just does not seem right. The putti’s hairstyles are also, er, problematic… Does Michelangelo ever do the kind of scraggy hair that we find here? Overall, the console putti lack the beauty and careful finish that we find in Michelangelo’s other angels or cherubs from this period, including those that we find in the paintings: the candelabrum angel’s face is fully in line with the faces of those in the so-called Manchester Madonna in London, for example, whereas the console putti are patently different to both. In short, from a connoisseurial point of view, might we not conclude that the putti are, to be crass, a bit ugly? And then we have to ask: did Michelangelo, one of the greatest sculptors ever to have lived, do ugly?

In short, I think that this proposed attribution once more leaves serious questions unresolved, with the quality of the art history involved leaving a fair bit to be desired. Certainly, the authors of the study have a long way to go before convincing any serious scholar (and consequently, I suppose, an auction house!) that the putti are the real deal. The lessons that could have been learned from the way that the Panther Riders were sensationally revealed to the world seem not to have been heeded, with the wish to attach Michelangelo’s name to a sculpture once more overriding the importance of careful art historical analysis. Science can–and in this case probably does–tell us that the wooden consoles were made in Italy in the later 1400s, but that’s not quite the same as telling us that “these are definitely by Michelangelo”.


REGISTRATION NOW OPEN: House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticities

Yayoi Kusama, I'm Here, But Nothing, 2000/2001.

Yayoi Kusama, I’m Here, But Nothing, 2000/2001.

Registration is now open for the conference House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticitieswhich will take place on 3 and 4 July 2015 at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. The conference has been co-organised by our very own Fran Berry and Jo Applin (University of York).

The keynote speakers are Mignon Nixon (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and Julia Bryan-Wilson (University of California, Berkeley).

Other speakers include: Sarah Blaylock (UC Santa Cruz), Amy Charlesworth (Open University), Agata Jakubowska (Adam Mickiewicz University), Teresa Kittler (UCL), Alexandra Kokoli (Middlesex University), Megan Luke (University of Southern California), Barbara Mahlknecht (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna), Alyce Mahon (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Robles (University of Bristol), Harriet Riches (Kingston University), Giulia Smith (UCL), Catherine Spencer (University of St. Andrews), Amy Tobin (University of York).

For further details and to register (tickets £10), please visit the conference website.

House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticities is co-sponsored by the University of Birmingham, University of York, and the Oxford Art Journal.


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