Category Archives: Research

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.


Review of The Journal of Art Historiography: Issue 13, December 2015

Faith Trend

The Journal of Art Historiography is a unique journal dedicated specifically to the specialised field of art historiography. It has been successfully edited since its conception by the University of Birmingham’s own Richard Woodfield and was the basis for the university’s recent summer symposium series. Each issue is packed full of articles, translations, reviews and reports of the highest academic standard and this abundant yet critically weighty output is what has made the journal an authority in the area of historiography. Indeed, the Dictionary of Art Historians calls it ‘the major research organ of the field’.

For those who attended the Birmingham art historiography symposium back in 2013 you will be delighted to see two articles by familiar faces in the most recent issue of the Journal: the University of Birmingham’s Daniel Reynolds and collaborator Rebecca Darley reflecting on their role as curators of the recent coin exhibition Faith and Fortune, and Australian academic Catherine De Lorenzo’s article on ‘The hang and art history’.

Darley and Reynolds curated the successful and long running coin exhibition, Faith and Fortune: visualizing the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage at the Barber between November 2013 and January 2015. Their article focuses on how the duo and their team decided to shake up the traditional method of numismatic exhibition display and instead present the coins in a revolutionary manner with the aim of engaging and educating a wider and more diverse audience. As Darley and Reynolds explain, the field of numismatics has long been seen as a rather esoteric and dry area, with exhibitions doing very little to sway audiences from these preconceptions. Exhibitions of numismatics have also, on the whole, focused on the visual and aesthetic qualities of the coins, and have been limited by the typical presentation method of the coins – placed in rows on pH-neutral cloth covered board, separated from their accompanying labels. With the Faith and Fortune exhibition, Darley and Reynolds chose to mount the coins on a large Foamex board integrated around the text which focused largely on the coins economic qualities.

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One of the cabinets showing how printed boards were used to mount the coins to encourage visitor engagement with the objects and their interpretation.

The team’s decision to focus on representing the coins as economic artefacts marked another break in tradition and reminds the viewer that coins were not typically meant to be perceived as art. Their aim, as the article states was to ‘reflect upon the multiple ways in which seeing and interacting with coins gave the objects value in the late antique world and how the coins in turn generated networks of shared expectation, rhetoric and material exchange which defined people’s lives.’ Darley and Reynolds then go on to weigh up the limitations and opportunities that the space at the Barber provided them with, other factors that had to be considered in the lead up to the exhibition, as well as general reflections on the successes and failures of the exhibition as a whole. In particular they highlight the research that has been stimulated by the exhibition, achieving a key aim of theirs to make the exhibition a ‘a forum for research rather than purely dissemination.’ The account provides a fascinating background to the exhibition and those of our readers who managed to see the exhibition will be able to judge for yourselves how successful you believe Darley and Reynolds to be in achieving their goals.

Catherine De Lorenzo’s article ‘The hang and art history’ is, as mentioned earlier, another one which may be familiar with our readers who attended the 2014 conference. De Lorenzo’s paper is one strand of a wider research project analysing exhibitions of Australian art over the last 50 years and focuses in particular on the subject of Aboriginal art, the increase in its recognition and acknowledgement as ‘quintessentially Australian’, and the implications this has on art history. Tony Tuckson’s Australian Aboriginal Art (1960-61) is the key example that De Lorenzo works with and she gives a fascinating and in-depth analysis of the ‘cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional’ curatorial strategies that directed the exhibition. While De Lorenzo touches on the curatorial and art historiographical legacies of Tuckson’s exhibition it would be interesting if she had looked at other exhibitions in the same level of detail, however I suspect that will be forthcoming as part of the goals of the wider research project that she is a part of. De Lorenzo’s article ultimately demonstrates how much the museum sector has changed over the past 50 years in its handling and understanding of Aboriginal art and how it can be further shaped in the future to continue to educate both scholars and the public on Aboriginal art and its essential place within the canon of Australian art history.

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The book that followed Tuckson’s exhibition

Further Birmingham art historians Matthew Rampley and Nóra Veszprémi are to be found in the reviews section. Rampley considers Vlad Toca’s Art Historical Discourse in Romania, 1919-1947 and suggests that the work does not constitute a particularly deep critical analysis but praises it for providing ‘a useful start to the discussion of an understudied subject.’ While Veszprémi provides a response to Rebecca Houze’s Textiles, Fashion and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary before the First World War: Principles of Dress, which is incredibly detailed and thorough, giving real insight into the many highlights of Houze’s text.

Another article which may hold particular interest for our readers is Claire Farago’s review of The Lives of Leonardo, a subject of great discussion among the writers and readers of our blog. Farago looks in depth at Thomas Frangenberg and Rodney Palmer’s collection of articles taken from a symposium in 2006 on the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography. Farago highlights the central theme of the book as considering the legacy of Vasari’s Lives and her fascinating review of the book makes it one to perhaps recommend to our undergraduates in the future as they tackle Vasari in their first year. While generally praising of the book on the whole, Farago is withering in her disdain of the lack of female contributors to the volume, a reminder to us all that there is still a great deal of work to be done in balancing out the field. Indeed our first years have recently been tackling the problems that arise when men are solely responsible for our understanding of artists biographies.

I have barely touched the surface of the multitude of articles contained in December’s issue of the Journal of Art Historiography, so richly packed as it is with such an abundant range of pieces. However, I hope I have done enough to whet the appetite and encourage our readers to take a closer look at further articles in the journal. Anyone who would like to review one or two in greater detail is encouraged to get in touch.


To read the December issue and the 12 past issues the website is:

Cosmin Minea, PhD researcher in the Department, publishes “New Images for Modern Nations: Creating a ‘National’ Architecture for the Balkan Countries at Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889”

AHRC/M3C scholar and PhD researcher Cosmin Minea has published part of his past research as an article in the book Ephemeral Architecture in Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Miklós Székely ed.) that has appeared with the French publisher l’Harmattan. In this work he describes the meanings of the pavilions and other constructions displayed by the three newly independent countries from the Balkan Peninsula, Greece, Serbia, and Romania, at the 1889 Parisian Universal Exhibition.

Cosmin lays the stake of the article at the very beginning that: “For the young Balkan countries, 19th century Universal Exhibitions were priceless opportunities to show off the unique characteristics that defined them as a nation, and architecture played a key role in a place of competing nationalisms, where visual displays where meant to be as attractive as possible.”

He then approaches the topic in three stages. First he describes how paradoxically French architects were those who designed “national” architecture to represent the Balkan countries. Then he takes a closer look at what exactly were the “national” architectural elements to discover yet another paradox: that some of the architecture taken to be national and thus specific for one country can actually be seen and have the same meaning as other countries. An example is the colourful glazed ceramic tiles that are taken to be “national” both by Serbia and Romania. Finally Cosmin analyses the importance of French views that played down the “national” specificities the Balkan countries wanted to promoted and rather associated them with the Oriental and exotic part of the Exhibition. In the end Cosmin concludes that the participation at the Paris 1889 Universal Exhibition proved to be an important step for newly independent countries form the Balkans to define artistic styles representative for the national state.

The article is part of a book that deals with a variety of constructions designed for national and international exhibitions in the 19th and 20th centuries and follows a conference held in Budapest in 2013. From very diverse geographical areas, these temporary buildings of the modern period stand for the latest trends in architecture and express contemporary ideas of nationalism, power, entertainment and art.

The book with the article (including lots of photos!) will be available soon by request. Meanwhile Cosmin’s former MA thesis that is the basis for the article and includes even more photos is free to download here.

Ephemeral - cover


The museum of the future! Technology advances research in the humanities (again)

Faith Trend

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 15.40.24

A viewer looking at a graphic of Venice and seeing the reconstructed map of the city for a given year and the document that served for the reconstruction, in this case an image the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the eighteenth century


Following on from Jamie’s fascinating blog post a little while back on the use of technology in the reconstruction of the church of S. Pier Maggiore in Florence, this week I’m highlighting a really fascinating project going on in Venice at the moment and it comes with a helpful 10 minute Ted talk.

Professor Federic Kaplan is part of a project run by EPFL and the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari to create a massive digital collection of Venice’s archives so that they can create a time machine using that data so that when you look at something like a Google map, as well as being able to move around the space, you can also move backwards and forwards through the space and see what it was like hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

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A helpful chart that Kaplan uses to show how we can create digital information for past centuries – through the digitisation of thousands of printed books and materials and through extrapolation (or simulation) of that material.

Kaplan explains it far more succinctly and passionately than I do so I’m going to let him do all the talking here.

Kaplan highlights that to construct such a time machine, one needs large archives and excellent specialists for those archives. Venice has both of these in abundance which is one of the many reasons it was chosen for this project. As a researcher who has spent many hours in Venice’s Archivio di Stato (which is indeed a very large archive!), the idea that all of their hundreds of thousands of archival documents will one day be online, possibly even transcribed and translated, is a source of major excitement. Kaplan gives just a few examples of the sorts of questions that could be asked of this material from: ‘who lived in this palazzo in 1323?’ or ‘how much did sea bream cost at the Rialto market in 1434?’ to mapping out Mediterranean trade routes to ask questions like ‘if I am in Corfu in June 1323 and want to go to Constantinople, when can I take a boat?’

Even better, for an art historian, is the idea that this type of time machine could be very visual and very interactive. Obviously art historians will be far from the only ones who benefit from this project, research in all areas of the humanities will be significantly impacted. As Kaplan says, ‘research in the humanities is about to undergo an evolution which is maybe similar to what happened to life science thirty years ago.’

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A fully 3D experience!

Imagine the huge impact that this sort of data collection, digitisation and manipulation (to make it interactive and accessible) will have on research in the humanities? The future of our field is going to be very exciting.

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 🙂 ).

The Mona Lisa(s). Re-blog.


Mona Lisas: the "Isleworth" and The Louvre's

Leonardo da Vinci is hot property these days. Recently we’ve had the silly furore about La Bella Principessa, and now there’s the 1 millionth new theory about the Mona Lisa, that world-famous, “mysterious” picture that is, in reality, a small but wonderful portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife. The theory was announced in last week’s BBC2 documentary Secrets of the Mona Lisa, which I haven’t had time to write anything about yet. Let me just say that though the documentary made for riveting tele, the art history concerned was, well, let’s say optimistically dumbed-down. There were also a number of incongruous leaps made that I simply couldn’t understand.

Long story short, the basic premise that was explored by Andrew Graham-Dixon is that Leonardo painted two Mona Lisas. One of them is of Lisa del Giocondo (née Gherardini), and it was commissioned from Leonardo by her husband, the Florentine cloth merchant Francesco. This is the story related by Vasari, and tradition has married his story to the painting now in The Louvre. The documentary then alerted us to the supposed existence of another Mona Lisa, commissioned  by Giuliano de Medici, which we learn about from Antonio de Beatis, who writes that Leonardo himself told him about this, a second Mona Lisa. In the show, Graham-Dixon pursued this idea and he went off to visit the so-called Isleworth Mona Lisa (a bit about which here by Prof. Martin Kemp), and subsequently led us to believe that the Isleworth Lisa could be the “original” picture–which is to say, the one with the del Giocondo provenance–and that the Louvre painting is, in fact, a fanciful re-imagining of that painting done for Giuliano–a hyped-up version of del Giocondo, if you will. There are problems with this as a basic premise, but it nevertheless made sense in the context of the programme and it must be said that the plot spun by Graham-Dixon was engrossing. Especially interesting was Giuseppe Pallanti’s contribution to the show, who has done extensive and enthralling research on the Mona Lisa, the del Giocondos and their relationship with Leonardo’s family.

But having spun that narrative things then got massively confused. Graham-Dixon changed his mind and basically departed from the view that two separate Mona Lisas once existed that were painted on two separate supports, and conversely claimed that the Mona Lisa we currently see when go to the Louvre (that is, of course, once we’ve elbowed our way through the crowds) is in fact painted on top of the “original”. This was based on various images gathered by Pascal Cotte, which were adduced to show that the current Mona Lisa obscures an erstwhile version of approximately the same subject. Basically it is supposed that Leonardo painted a “real portrait” of a real Florentine, in real Florentine dress etc. etc. (i.e. del Giocondo), but later painted over this to produce the “enigmatic” picture we now see in Paris, which is “un-real”.

Gripping though all this was, in a Dan Brown-esque sort of fashion, I thought that Graham-Dixon ultimately lost his way. Things got muddled towards the end. The initial plot was abandoned too suddenly and based on spurious reasoning. Just for example, the whole eyebrows thing came up again, which is to say that Vasari waxes lyrical about how good Leonardo’s eyebrows are in his portrait of Lisa (“The eyebrows, likewise, were rendered in so nature a manner that one saw how the hairs issued from the flesh…”) but these are absent from the Louvre painting. Graham-Dixon used this as a reason to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Paris picture, traditionally believed to be the portrait of Lisa known by Vasari. This is despite the fact that eyebrows probably did once exist but have since become eroded, perhaps as a result of over-zealous restorations (I can’t help but think that there’s something in this just by looking at the high-res image below, obtained from The Louvre’s website, in which the general eye area seems suspiciously smudgy–coincidentally, the same Pascal Cotte aforementioned believes that Mona Lisa did once have eyebrows and eyelashes). In any case, on the basis of AWOL eyebrows etc. Graham-Dixon concludes that there probably were two different Mona Lisas, one of which is possibly the Isleworth one. Curiously, though, he then offhandedly dismisses the idea that the Isleworth could be the original, since the face has never been tested, and we cannot therefore know its chemical and material constitution. So is this just another copy after all? Graham-Dixon thinks so (as do most sensible people, Prof. Kemp included).

As a result of all this (and other evidence besides), the whole 2 separate portraits idea, derived from Vasari’s and de Beatis’s testimonies, was quickly dropped and not satisfactorily resolved; the viewer initially was told that what we are dealing with here is two separate pictures, but then, suddenly, it became a story about two pictures in one? These two are the one lurking beneath, which is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (and which has been digitally reconstructed by Cotte and is terribly ugly) and another one, painted on top for  Giuliano (which is either imaginary or even, says Graham-Dixon, a lover of Giuliano’s!). Inherent in all this are serious problems–ultimately Graham-Dixon’s vacillations moved the programme from the realm of the enthralling to the exasperating. And all along I couldn’t help but think that the initial suggestion the Louvre painting is not the one familiar (by whatever means) to Vasari as a picture of Lisa del Giocondo is a troubling one, which ought to have been properly dealt with and substantiated.

As it was, I ended-up feeling confused. Certainly I didn’t feel as though I’d just witnessed “one of the stories of the century” unfold before my eyes, which is what the doc. was promising to deliver.

Mona Lisa Eyes

Anyway, since there’s still no time (!) to write about this properly, I am instead re-blogging Dr Bendor Grosvenor’s review of the show (below), which is fairly detailed and amounts to a compelling put-down of the show’s big claims. You can read Martin Kemp’s briefer thoughts here as well.

Mona Lisa

Poor ‘Mona Lisa’. We can’t stop talking about her. Or speculating, theorising, investigating, filming, researching, and arguing about her. We seldom look at her. We are too busy trying to work out what we think ‘lies beneath’. But if we were to just stop and look at the picture, objectively and without pre-conceptions, we might then begin to accept that this mesmeric creation is simply a portrait of a Florentine lady who, as the old sources tell us, was born Lisa Gherardini. True, it is one of the best portraits every painted, by one of the greatest artist who ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci. But it’s still a portrait.

It is, of course, too late to just ‘look’ at the Mona Lisa. The picture has acquired too much history and legend. So all we can do is tackle each new theory as it comes along, and either bat it away as the latest in a long line of optimistic fantasies, or say, ‘well there may be something to this’.

I watched the latest theory, ‘The Secrets of the Mona Lisa’, on BBC2 last week. Regular readers might appreciate that, as an occasional BBC arts presenter myself, I’m loathe to critique other BBC arts programmes (though this one was made by independent production company). But the programme said it would not just rewrite art history, but reveal ‘one of the stories of the century’. And that’s a big claim. So – here goes.

As a piece of telly, I thought it was excellent. Enjoyable, well made, and, as ever with Andrew Graham-Dixon, well presented. It was ‘Grade A’ telly. As art history, however, it scored a ‘C minus’. A number of basic art historical errors were made early on, and these set the programme onto the pursuit of a flawed – but sensational – thesis.

Actually, the programme started well. We were presented with Prof. Martin Kemp of Oxford University, who might know more about Leonardo da Vinci than anyone else on the planet. He was asked some general questions about the Mona Lisa, but wasn’t given a great opportunity to say anything in any detail. He merely set the scene – a Professor to tell us that we were indeed about to look into a Very Important Painting.

Then we were off to Italy, and on the way unveiled some of the key evidence behind the Mona Lisa. ‘Exhibit A’ as Andrew Graham-Dixon called it, was the art historian Georgio Vasari’s description of the painting. He selected a few sentences, but it’s worth quoting a larger excerpt here:

Leonardo undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo a portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. He lingered over it four years and left it unfinished. It is at present in the possession of the French King Francis, at Fontainebleau. In this head anyone who wished to see how closely art could come to imitating nature could easily do so; since here were rendered all those minute niceties which can only be painted with the most delicate means; the eyes had that lustre and liquid effulgence which are always to be observed in real life, and around them were all those rosy and pearly tints together with the eyelashes which could not have been depicted except by the greatest subtlety. The eyebrows, likewise, were rendered in so nature a manner that one saw how the hairs issued from the flesh, thick in one place, scanty and scarce in another. The nose with its beautiful nostrils, rose and tender, seemed to be alive. The open mouth and its corners, united by the red of the lips and the flesh tints of the face, appeared to be not painted but real flesh. By intently observing the pit of the throat the spectator would be convinced that he could see the pulse beating in it, and could but feel that this was a picture to make even the boldest artist tremble and lose courage. Leonardo made use, also, of this device: Mona Lisa being very beautiful, he employed people to play and sing, and continually jested while working at the picture in order to keep the lady merry and thus banish the air of melancholy which is so often seen in painted portraits. In this picture of Leonardo’s there was a smile of such charm that it seemed more divine than human and was esteemed a miracle since it was nothing less than alive.

Vasari (1511-1574) was first writing in 1550; a second edition was published in 1568. As Andrew Graham-Dixon finished reading from Vasari, he wondered whether the history of the Mona Lisa was really as ‘open and shut’ as Vasari implied. And with that we were off.

First, however, everything seemed to reinforce Vasari’s basic points. Graham-Dixon told us about the extraordinary discovery in 2005 by Dr. Armin Schlechter at the University of Heidelberg, who found a marginal note written by the Florentine official Agostino Vespucci on a text about the Greek painter Apelles, which said:

“Apelles the painter. That is the way Leonardo da Vinci does it with all of his paintings, like, for example, with the countenance [or, ‘head’] of Lisa del Giocondo and that of the holy Anne, the mother of the Virgin. We will see how he is going to do it regarding the great council chamber, the thing which he has just come to terms about with the gonfaloniere. October 1503.

In other words, the Mona Lisa was Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine Merchant. Her maiden name was Lisa Gherardini.

The programme then gave us an interview with the Italian art historian Giuseppe Pallanti, who has done much extraordinary research on the Mona Lisa. He showed us, for example, that Francesco del Giocondo’s house was very close to the house of Leonardo’s father, and, furthermore, that del Giocondo had been a client of Leonardo’s father. Pallanti has also found a record of Lisa’s death. So far, so conventional. Was it case closed?

No – for Andrew Graham-Dixon then set out the theory, held by many people (and for various reasons, as we’ll see below) that there were two versions of the Mona Lisa. Certain things in the evidence so far, said Graham-Dixon, ‘don’t add up’. These included, first, that the Mona Lisa in Paris has ‘no eyebrows’ – whereas Vasari describes eyebrows. Second, Vasari says the Mona Lisa was painted for Francesco del Giocondo – but he never owned the Mona Lisa now in the Louvre, for Leonardo kept that painting with him, and after his death it was sold to the French royal collection.

Finally, Graham-Dixon introduced us to a third key piece of evidence about the Mona Lisa, a diary entry written by Antonio de Beatis. He was acting as secretary for a Cardinal making a tour of France, and wrote of visiting Leonardo in October 1517, where he saw;

[…] three pictures, one of a certain Florentine lady, done from life, at the instance of the late Magnificent Giuliano de Medici […].

This, said Graham-Dixon, was puzzling, for Vasari (in 1550) tells us the Mona Lisa was painted for her husband, Francesco del Giocondo – but Beatis in 1517 tells us, from Leonardo himself, that the picture was commissioned by Giuliano de Medici. All of these points added together convinced Graham-Dixon that we were dealing with two separate paintings.

And so off we went in search of the missing picture. About which more in a moment, for here I want to just unpack a little further the evidence cited so far to suggest that there were two Mona Lisas. Because it seems to me that the programme has fundamentally misunderstood how we should be assessing the evidence mentioned above.

First, those eyebrows. Are we really sure there weren’t any on the Louvre Mona Lisa? The picture is over 500 years old. Thinly painted eyebrows, made with a dark glaze as used by Leonardo (and thus of very soft pigments) could easily have been removed by some overzealous restorer. Such damage is the work of a moment, with the wrong cleaning solution, or too rough a sponge. Or, there could still be faint traces of eyebrow left – but we cannot clearly see them through the many layers of dirt and old varnish that now cover the painting. It is simply impossible to say in any objective way; ‘the Mona Lisa in the Louvre has no eyebrows, therefore Vasari must have been talking about a different painting’.

Furthermore, Vasari almost certainly did not see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The picture was in France, which he is not known to have visited. He must have been basing his description on either a copy or someone else’s account. In any case, we can already see how inaccurate his remarks are anyway when he talks about the Mona Lisa’s ‘open mouth’ – when her mouth is in fact closed.  And we ought to note here that the lavish praise Vasari gives the painting was no doubt ammunition in his broader campaign to convince the world of the benefits of his preferred school of Italian art; that is, of ‘disegno’ (where the design or drawing of a painting was the most important part) as practiced in Florence and Rome by the likes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, as opposed to ‘colore’ (where the colour and application of paint was the best feature of a painting) as practiced in Venice by the likes of Titian and Tintoretto.

So I think that’s the eyebrows taken care of. Next we have the evidence of the different owners, or commissioners of the painting. We have Vasari saying in 1550 that Leonardo ‘undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo’ a portrait of his wife. But apparently in 1517 Leonardo tells us (via de Beatis) that it was painted for Giuliano de Medici. Does this discrepancy point to two different paintings? I don’t think so.

Let us look at the evidence, and how reliable it is. First, we know Vasari hasn’t seen the painting, and that his descriptions of it are not entirely reliable. Can we believe beyond doubt Vasari when he says that Francesco del Giocondo commissioned the portrait from Leonardo? In fact, Vasari says only that Francesco commissioned the painting, not that he ever owned it. Secondly, de Beatis talks of a portrait ‘of a certain Florentine lady, done from life’. In other words, he does not say that it is Lisa del Giocondo. It could be another sitter, another portrait. The two other pictures de Beatis mentions seeing on that day are a St John the Baptist, and a Madonna and Child, which are now both in the Louvre, and because the Mona Lisa is now in the Louvre, most people assume that de Beatis’ ‘Florentine lady’ is the Mona Lisa. But it’s far from certain – that is, it is not certain enough for us to say ‘there must be another painting’. Indeed, de Beatis makes another note the next day in his diary which confuses matters, for he describes seeing a different painting at Leonardo’s residence;

there was also a picture in which a certain lady from Lombardy is painted in oil from life, quite beautiful, but in my opinion not as much as the lady Gulanda, the lady Isabella Gulanda’.

Was one of these pictures the ‘Florentine lady’ de Beatis saw? Or is he (as is more likely) in a bit of a muddle about names and pictures and who commissioned what? For how many of us really can recall with clarity all the details of conversations we’ve had the day before, on all topics? De Beatis, unfortunately, reveals himself to be a somewhat unreliable witness when he says that Leonardo was then in his seventies, when he was actually 65, and that a paralysis on the right side of Leonardo’s body meant he couldn’t reach such artistic heights again – when of course Leonardo was left-handed.

In other words, there really isn’t much in the way of reliable evidence, in the good old-fashioned historical sense, for us to say ‘there were two Mona Lisas’. Maybe both Francesco del Giocondo and Giuliano de Medici were involved in somehow pressing Leonardo (who was famously loathe to take commissions at that time in Florence) to paint Lisa. The point is, we just don’t know.

Nevertheless, Andrew Graham-Dixon next went to Singapore to see contender number one for the ‘other’ Mona Lisa – the so-called ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ (above, it once belonged to a collector who lived in Isleworth). Regular readers will know my views about this picture, which is (perhaps rather too glibly) referred to in these parts as the ‘Isleworthless Mona Lisa’. It’s most likely a later copy, and the fact that it’s on canvas tells you a great deal. A good summary of the efforts made by the proponents (and owners) of the Isleworth Mona Lisa comes to us courtesy of Luke Syson (see here), who curated the 2012 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London:

The story ignores art history, denies the principles of connoisseurship, and bypasses the experts. The whole thing is a little sad, especially for anyone visiting the display who is hoping to see a masterpiece by Leonardo.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, however, was impressed by the picture, when he saw it in a Singapore bank vault, saying:*

There’s a lot to be said for first impressions, and I did well not to jump backwards in shock. It’s too good in my opinion for any of the other school of Leonardo painters… I think it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this is the picture that Francesco [del Giocondo] took, and then Leonardo goes off and paints another picture, and that’s the ‘Mona Lisa’ [in the Louvre].

To reinforce the Isleworth Mona Lisa’s claim to be an autograph Leonardo, we were shown an interview with ‘an eminent scientist in California’ Dr. John Asmus. Here, the programme really began to stray from the more acceptable realms of art history. Dr Asmus, who I am sure is indeed an eminent scientist, had, said Graham-Dixon:

[…] developed a new test to authenticate paintings by Rembrandt; it compares the subtle distribution of light and shadow measured as histograms to isolate an artist’s unique way of painting.

Sadly, attribution by computer simply doesn’t work. Nobody of any serious repute in the world of Rembrandt authentication is ever going to rely on Dr Asmus’ Rembrandt histograms. I’ve never heard them mentioned before. And it was wrong of the programme to suggest, to a general audience, that attribution by computer is even possible in the first place. Furthermore, we were told by Dr Asmus himself that his initial tests (which showed a result of ’99%’ certainty that the Isleworth picture was indeed painted by Leonardo) were made on the basis of a photograph of the Isleworth picture taken on an ‘instamatic camera’. We were even shown the bad photograph on the screen. It’s one thing to try and compare, with the aid of a computer, artistic techniques on the basis of good digital photos – but quite another to try it on the basis of a poor quality print. So when Dr Asmus concludes that his tests ‘demonstrate that the technique for blinding light and shade in each face [that is, the Isleworth Mona Lisa and the Louvre Mona Lisa] appears uncannily similar’, he is merely observing the characteristics of a copy.

Another piece of evidence we were shown in favour of the Isleworth painting – and as evidence in that there were once two Mona Lisa’s – was a drawing by Raphael which is said to be a ‘a copy’ of the Mona Lisa (below). The drawing shows a woman with a similar pose of hands, the head in the same direction, a landscape background, and two columns on either side of her.

The Isleworth backers say this relates more closely to their picture than the Louvre one. But of course it does not. There are too many differences between Raphael’s drawing and both the Louvre picture and the Isleworth picture for us to say it is a direct ‘copy’ of either. The ledge behind the sitter is at a higher level. The dress, both across the chest and the sleeves, is different. The landscape is different. Perhaps Raphael, whose own portraits at this date follow similar poses, was making an interpretation of the Mona Lisa, if he saw it, or a recollection of it.

(Much is made of the issue of the columns in Mona Lisa-ology. Proponents of the Isleworth Mona Lisa point to the columns in their painting and say it is evidence that it is not a copy of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, because that has only fragments of column visible. We must here, however, coming back to the issue of condition. We cannot be entirely certain (though some claim you can be) that the Louvre picture has never been trimmed at the sides, perhaps even very early in its career. Or, perhaps an early copyist decided to add in slightly larger columns of their own accord. Again, it’s one of those things we can’t be certain about.)

In the end, Graham-Dixon decided that the Isleworth Mona Lisa wasn’t by Leonardo. His logic was curious. He correctly noted that the usual ‘barage of scientific tests’ such as infra-red, x-ray, carbon dating etc. cannot tell us that Leonardo definitely painted the Isleworth picture, only that he might have done (and in fact only that any half decent artist from the period might have done). He then, however, looked at the location of the paint analysis samples taken by the ‘Mona Lisa Foundation’ (which acts as cheerleader for the Isleworth picture) and noticed that none were taken from the face itself. He wondered if a later restorer might have interfered with the head in the Isleworth picture, to somehow ‘bring it up’ to a level good enough to make it appear Leonardo-esque. ‘Until the face is tested, doubt remains’, he concludes, as if (again) an attribution to any artist can be achieved by something as straightforward as a scientific test.

So, with the Isleworth picture duly ruled out (which was, I admit, a relief**), we followed one final lead on the hunt for the ‘other’ Mona Lisa. Enter Pascal Cotte, the scientist and inventor of the Lumiere multi-spectral high definition camera. The camera allows us, he claimes, to ‘peel back the layers of a painting, like an onion’, and he can reconstruct the way the painting was made as a result. M. Cotte took a series of multi-spectral scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa in 2004, and has been ‘decoding’ his results ever since. This programme was the first time he unveiled them.

Now, regular readers will know that AHN and Pascal Cotte have ‘previous’. His recent analysis of Leonardo’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ showed, he said, that the picture was first not painted with an ermine, but with the hands in a different place. Then the ermine was added, and moved. Having looked at the published photos, I concluded that M. Cotte was leaping to conclusions. You can read about that here.

And I’m afraid to say that this time I think M. Cotte’s eyes are again deceiving him. The last part of the programme followed M. Cotte taking us through ever more extraordinary theories; that Mona Lisa was first painted with an elaborate head-dress, which Leonardo then scraped off; that she may have had a blanket on her lap (like the Queen Mum); that she once had a much larger head; that her face was moved 14 degrees; that her mouth was originally smaller; and so on. My favourite was the discovery of 11 hairpins (below), which were determined not to be random array of damages or blemishes (for example) by the fact that there were part of a special type of headdress, into which hair pins went in almost random manner.

The conclusion? That the Mona Lisa in the Louvre was actually two paintings all along. Leonardo had begun to paint Lisa del Giocondo, just like Vasari and Vespucci said. But then he painted over her, and put someone else’s head on instead. Graham-Dixon speculated that this may have been a lover of Giuliano de Medici, Pacifica Brandano. M. Cotte has made a digital recreation (below) of what the ‘original’ Mona Lisa looked like (answer; Gollum’s mum).

I’m sorry to say that all this is scarcely believable. I find it extraordinary that for decades now art historians have wrung their hands about the dangers of ‘connoisseurship’ – that is, the ability to look at the surface of a painting and tell who painted it – but now some are prepared to accept completely the much more dubious interpretation of images underneath a painting. We are now so reluctant to trust our own eyes, that we outsource these questions to scientists, and just because the results are presented by a man or woman in a white coat (or in this case a bow tie) we feel compelled to accept them. Science must be right.

But I’m afraid it isn’t – not always. And science in art history is in its infancy. We have no way of verifying M. Cotte’s tests. He’s the only one with a camera. And we haven’t tested nearly enough paintings for us to say with confidence that we know how to interpret such images. In fact, it seems to me to be quite easy to question Cotte’s results, just by using common sense and one’s own eyes. Where M. Cotte sees a larger head (below), artists and art historians will see a straightforward ‘penumbra’, which is the area of dead colour an artist lays down on the panel or canvas as a background colour, and then begins to paint the head on. Since we know that the Mona Lisa was painted over a number of years by Leonardo, it is likely that the background was added at a later stage than the initial life sittings, accounting for the differences M. Cotte’s cameras have identified around the head. Indeed, all M. Cotte’s images prove is that Leonardo, like so many portraitists, fiddled with and changed his composition as he went along. This is a long way from saying; ‘it’s two different people’.

And don’t just take my word for it. Here is the view of Prof. Martin Kemp, who has worked extensively with M. Cotte in the past. With apologies, I here quote Prof. Kemp’s recent blog post extensively. He’s much more diplomatic than I am:

Now that Pascal’s book is out in all its visual glory, and in the wake of the media interviews, edited as always to emphasise difference, it is worth laying out briefly how his researches look to me. It represents an extraordinary body of dedicated effort. He asked me for comments for his website – knowing that I disagreed with some of his interpretations.  He is a good guy.

The LAM technique undoubtedly provides an important new weapon in the armoury of those interested in scientific examinations of layered paintings. The Holy Grail of scientific examination is to disclose the successive layers that lie below the present surface. Pascal’s mode of analysis, adapting mathematical techniques from signal processing, is revealing far more from the deeper layers than was previously possible, but it does not definitively isolate information from a single layer. We are also unclear as to what is happening as the different frequencies of light penetrate the paint layers to varying degrees and interact in diverse ways with the varied optical properties of the materials within the layers of the picture. This means that tricky acts of interpretation are necessary – even more difficult than is the case with x-rays and infrared. There is always the danger of seeing what we want to see. None of us are immune from this.

Looking at a selection of the LAM images as an art historian, I can see things that are wholly consistent with Leonardo’s creative methods, such as the indication of the use of cartoon and the restless manoeuvrings of contours. Some of what Pascal sees and reconstructs, such as the elaborate headdress, makes no sense to me in terms of design procedures or in terms of Renaissance paintings. I have difficulties with his detailed reconstructions of finished or semi-finished paintings under the surface of the present one. Leonardo’s processes were very fluid, with things coming and going, and with varied levels of finish across the picture. There is obviously a question of presentation here, and I would have resisted the temptation to translate the complex and often ambiguous images from the lower layers into such definite “pictures”.

My strong sense, at this early stage in our understanding of what we are looking at, is that we are witnessing something consistent with the documentation and with Leonardo’s ways of proceeding. I see the painting beginning as a direct portrait of Lisa – building on the innovations of Leonardo’s Milanese portraits – and becoming increasingly conceptualised as picture that combines the combines the tropes of Renaissance love poetry with a profound interest in the microcosm of the human body and the “body of the earth”. I see a steady evolution from portrait to “picture”. The change in her draperies from a Florentine style (as Pascal shows) into a more conceptualised array of veils etc., is part of this process of generalisation. All this is consistent with the idea I first expressed in my 1981 monograph, that Giuliano de’ Medici asked Leonardo to finish the beautiful and remarkable picture when they were both in Rome from 1513-16.

Pascal is opening up very important fields for analysis.  We are at the beginning, Anyone is unwise to pronounce with certainty at this stage. I will have to make some sense of all this for the monograph of the Mona Lisa that I am currently writing with Giuseppe Pallanti.

All of which reinforces my earlier scepticism about Cotte’s analysis of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine.

Anyway, it’s a shame the latest Mona Lisa programme didn’t conclude with some form of independent assessment from Prof. Kemp. He was introduced at the beginning as an expert, why not have him at the end? In all the art discovery programmes I’m involved in, we always feel it imperative to show the audience some form of 3rd party, academic endorsement. So far, the Louvre has said rien.

I haven’t yet mentioned another picture that Graham-Dixon went to see as a possible ‘other’ Mona Lisa; a work in Russia. It was clearly a later copy – not even a very good one – and eventually, with the help of more science we were shown that it couldn’t have been by Leonardo, for the ground layer dated to the 17th Century. But a few days after the BBC programme went out, there was a fresh flurry of excitement about a ‘new Mona Lisa’. It was the same picture (detail below)! Only this time, it had the name of ‘leading da Vinci scholar’ Prof. Carlo Pedretti attached to it. Why is he so confident that the Russian picture has a chance of being by Leonardo? Because he too has developed a ‘new art analysis software’. So we’re back to square one in the Mona Lisa game, anything goes, as long as you can get enough media hype.

Computer software, ‘magic cameras’, mis-interpreted x-rays, optimistically assessed paint analysis, the views of scientists who don’t know their way around a painting; is this to be the new way of deciding (at least in the public arena) what is and what is not a Leonardo (or a Michelangelo or whatever else is next)? Not if I have anything to do with it. The public deserves better.

I’m not claiming to be uniquely right in any of the above. Do let me know what you thought of the new claims.

* I’ve been asked to see a few pictures in ‘bank vaults’. It’s usually a sure sign of something being a dud.

** This is not intended to be an exhaustive critique of the Isleworth Mona Lisa – I might get round to that one day.

Update – a reader alerts us to the fact that the new ‘Russian’ Mona Lisa was apparently that sold at Christie’s in New York as a copy for $122,000. The provenance would fit the bill for that shown in the Graham-Dixon progreamme, where oddly enough the recent auction history was not mentioned. The image looks the same too.




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.




New not new art history: reconstructing the Church of S Pier Maggiore, Florence


Image: The National Gallery (

Image: The National Gallery (

A neat little film here–brought to my attention by a good friend!–by the National Gallery, documenting their efforts alongside Cambridge University to reconstruct the now mostly destroyed church of S Pier Maggiore in Florence, which once housed Francesco Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece (1475-6). The research was undertaken in preparation for the National’s current show: Visions of Paradise: Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece

Botticini, Assumption of the Virgin, 1475-6, National Gallery, London

Botticini, Assumption of the Virgin, 1475-6, National Gallery, London

The film gives a good glimpse into how architectural historians are able to make use of the latest technologies–in this case, photogrammetric imaging–in order to shed new light on works of art, this time by endeavouring to gain better insights about, in the National’s words: “long-perpetuated misunderstandings about [the altarpiece’s] authorship, date, original location, and iconography.”  It is, in other words, a good example of how new technologies can play a useful and important role in more “traditional” art historical enquiries. Regular readers might recall that this isn’t always the case–I’ve written several times before on this blog about how newfangled tech, and its manipulation (or misuse), can, sadly, lead to over-exuberant and highly-questionable conclusions about works of art (e.g. here and here).

In this case, the researchers have got it right. Using photogrammetric imaging the team have managed to gain a better understanding of the original fabric of S Pier Maggiore. This has then enabled them  to identify more precisely the original location for Botticini’s altarpiece and its relationship with other important works of art once displayed inside the church, namely Jacopo di Cione and workshop’s Coronation of the Virgin polyptych (the location of which on the high altar at the end of the main nave of San Pier Maggiore is now intersected by a road, appropriately named the Via di S Pier Maggiore):

Model showing the original nave of S Pier Maggiore and the location for Jacopo di Cione and workshop's Assumption of the Virgin, on what is now the Via S Pier Maggiore, Florence

Model showing the original nave of S Pier Maggiore and the location of Jacopo di Cione and workshop’s Assumption of the Virgin, on what is now the Via di S Pier Maggiore, Florence

Anyway, the brief video is below. And if it piques your interest in Botticini and his altarpiece, the National Gallery’s exhibition runs until March 28 next year.


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”.


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