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Notre-Dame Cathedral: Another restoration, another fire – and more unanswered questions

The Notre-Dame Cathedral inferno was not an act of God. It arose within a particular restoration programme under a singular (ambivalent) French heritage ethos that has spawned many fires – these include, as our colleague Michel Favre-Felix of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique) points out: interventions on the roof of Saint Pierre cathedral in Nantes which had led to a similar blaze disaster in 1972, and, in the very same conditions again, on Nantes’ basilica Saint Donatien in 2015; a fire caused by repairs that had threatened Amiens’ cathedral in 1987; and, a severe roof fire that destroyed unique paintings in the Hôtel Lambert, an architectural jewel of the XVIIth century in Paris, during its controversial restoration in 2013.

In the wake of the shocking cataclysm in Paris, joining up restoration’s conflagration dots seems more urgent than ever. The pattern of occurrences and reoccurrences is not confined to France. Collectively it might all be taken to reflect gross international laxity in today’s heritage stewardship regardless of administrative systems. Consider the circumstances of the following seven fires.

CASE 1: NOTRE-DAME CATHEDRAL, PARIS

See various comments below.

CASE 2: NOTRE-DAME CATHEDRAL, LUXEMBOURG

On 5 April 1985, welding work caused a fire in the belfry of Luxembourg’s Notre-Dame Cathedral’s west tower which then collapsed, destroying the bells and part of the roof. It was repaired within the year.

CASE 3: WINDSOR CASTLE

The United Kingdom, under less centralised heritage management than France, is scarcely less fire-afflicted. In 1992 the Great Fire at Windsor Castle (above) occurred when picture restorations were taking place in the Queen’s Private Chapel. A number of accounts of the cause were given but all contained a lamp, a curtain and picture restoration paraphernalia. The outcome was a fire-gutted chapel that cost £36.5 million to repair and reconstruct as closely as possible to “as was”.

Grievously damaged ancient buildings often unleash anti-history, would-be “modernising” impulses. Today, at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, President Macron, already a self-styled political Jupiter (who was possibly still in school shorts when the Louvre sprouted its pyramid), instantly assumed the role of Style King and licensed the modernisers by plucking an arbitrary five-year target date to rebuild Notre-Dame with the inducement “an element of modern architecture could be imagined” and the accompanying assurance that such a recreation will be even better than before (“more beautiful”). In consequence, war has broken out already between those who would make good the injuries and return the cathedral to its pre-conflagration state and those who would insinuate today’s professionally-dominant tastes and anti-style predilections. (The unfolding of that important debate merits separate examination.)

CASE 4: CUTTY SARK

On 21 May 2007, the famous tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, was gutted by fire during restoration (above) at Greenwich. The ship’s sprinklers had been removed for the duration of the renovation. No fire alarm went off. The fire burned through all three decks, destroying all the building work structures and tools onboard. A planned £25 million renovation then became a transforming “more than £50m” rebuild that took two extra years. The ship – a globe-traversing maritime Concorde of its day – was left too weakened to support itself in water. Against highly expert advice from within and without the project, it was then raised off the ground and entombed on stilts within a modernist architectural techno-swank steel and glass structure covering a dry dock that had become a themed visitors’ centre (£13.50 entrance). This new ship/building hybrid (below) presents to the world as a sagging turquoise conservatory with a part-visible boat on top and is set in a sanitised, municipalised space with not a drop of water or a single bollard in sight:

Architecture and Interiors photography by Jim Stephenson / clickclickjim

Within this modernist makeover visitors are denied the opportunity to see real artefacts like the ship’s historic log books and instead are offered electronic “interactivity” (shaped, as always, by unseen programmers and their unexamined agendas) and off-ship catering facilities:

PHILISTINE POLITICAL GRANDSTANDING

In February 2010 the super-sleuth journalist, Andrew Gilligan, reported in the Telegraph that the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had promised that the Cutty Sark, already in restoration since 2006, would be “brought back to its former glory” in time for the Olympics. “It will be yet another jewel for visitors in 2012 to enjoy,” Mr Brown predicted, notwithstanding the fact that the project’s chief engineer, Peter Mason, had resigned on grounds that the restoration should be “stopped and reviewed” because it will “damage the fabric of the ship” and could cause it to fall apart. The project had run massively late and over-budget and its main backer, the Heritage Lottery Fund, had cut off payments for most of a year amid “serious concerns” over the “governance and financial controls” of the restoration project. Prime Minister Brown, however, very much inclined to equate high-spending with “investment-in-the-future”. The Olympic Games opened in July 2012. The Cutty Sark was finally reopened four months later in November 2012 by Her Majesty the Queen, for whom the occasion might have seemed like deja vu all over again.

No one will ever again see the sleek majesty of the hull and its great projecting bowsprit rising above a body of water, as above, top, when first arriving in Greenwich in 1954 and, left, when opened by the Queen in 1957, and below, top, when opened by the Queen, and left, when resting on its keel in dry dock.

BORN FREE, FREE AS THE WIND BLOWS…

While the spirit of the ship may live on in the imagination, and in depictions, as above, the vessel itself will never again move in response to a breeze or see water. She is frozen permanently and propped (perilously, perhaps) in modernist aspic, sans water, sans buoyancy, sans motion, sans mobility. She now has no natural flexibility in the face of high winds which will inescapably subject her greatly weakened hull to unequal and un-natural stresses and tensions. She has literally been left high and dry. Ships are built from the bottom upwards on their keels. They can support themselves on their keels in dry docks with surprisingly few steadying props but Cutty Sark has been hoisted in the air and held entirely aloft on props around her hull. The fire-weakened vessel’s full weight now rests entirely on those props. The consequences of a possible second fire amidst the catering facilities do not bear thinking about.

CASE 5: GLASGOW SCHOOL OF ART

Above, as reported by the Mirror, the June 2018 conflagration – the second burning down of Charles Rennie Macintosh’s Glasgow School of Art – occurred towards the end of the restoration that followed the May 2014 fire. That restoration had cost £36million. It was said to have been caused by an unattended continuous slide projection unit forming part of a student’s final year exam presentation. As with the Cutty Sark, the art school’s sprinkler system had been removed during the second restoration. The second fire was found to have been started by oily rags. Such materials are a known fire hazard: when stored in restricted spaces where heat cannot dissipate they self-combust. A spokesman for the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association has said that while automatic fire sprinklers had not been fitted while the building was undergoing restoration, “it should be realised that sprinklers can be fitted in buildings throughout construction on a temporary basis, as there is a considerable risk from fire during this period”. Not only had a new or a temporary sprinkler system not been installed, the removal of the old sprinklers, as the BBC reported on 17 January 2019 (“Fire expert ‘puzzled’ over art school mist system”) had itself been found mystifying:

“Holyrood’s culture committee has been taking evidence on the circumstances surrounding the second blaze. On Thursday it heard from independent fire, security and resilience adviser Stephen Mackenzie. Speaking about the equipment, which relies on cooling mist to extinguish flames, committee member Tavish Scott asked Mr Mackenzie: ‘The committee wasn’t told it was removed after the first fire and we are all puzzled as to why it would have been removed. Why would it have been removed?’ Mr Mackenzie said: ‘I’m also puzzled as an expert.’” The second rebuild is expected to cost £100million.

COMMON CAUSES

The Cutty Sark fire was found to have been caused by a blocked industrial vacuum cleaner that was left switched on and unattended over a weekend. Investigation found that unattended electrical equipment was often left plugged in; that there were loose electrical connections on the site; and, that building work debris was not removed immediately. In short, the fire had broken out and run out of control because of grossly bad practices and truly rotten management. Security guards first failed to carry out patrols and spot the start of the fire and then falsified their log book – see “Vacuum cleaner caused £10 million pound Cutty Sark fire as guards slept.

CASE 6: CLANDON PARK

Faulty electrics were said by a fire officer to have caused the devastating spontaneous (albeit not restoration-linked) fire, above, that gutted Clandon Park and its contents in 2015: “The cause of the fire was a faulty connection in the fuse board…We believe a lack of fire protection to the ceiling of the electrical fuse cupboard allowed the fire to spread quickly to the room above, and it then spread throughout the house owing to its historic design.”

CASE 7: THE TURIN SHROUD

On 11 April 1997, the Turin Shroud had its third known encounter with fire. The dome of the Guarini Chapel, which was undergoing renovation for forthcoming public exhibitions, caught fire. It spread quickly and engulfed the chapel interior. Fortunately, the Shroud’s custodians had moved it from the chapel’s altar to a safer place inside the Cathedral itself while the restoration was underway. The Shroud’s silver casket had been placed behind bullet-proof plate glass which firemen smashed before taking the casket to the apartment of Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini, Archbishop of Turin and Custodian of the Shroud, for safekeeping. The incident is vividly told here with more photographs captured by RAI Italian Television. Whatever the status of the Shroud is taken to be that incident shows that the safety of an artefact can sometimes be treated as a matter of paramount importance.

WHAT STARTED THE NOTRE-DAME CONFLAGRATION?

With the extensive, entire-cathedral threatening fire at Notre-Dame (above), the Mailonline reported that a young construction boss had boasted about the ability of his small firm (“Cathedral Restorers”) to protect historic sites when it won a £5million contract to repair the Notre-Dame spire. Investigators reportedly believe the blaze started in the roof cavity below the spire – see below. It has since been denied that work had begun on the spire itself or that tools were present. The last of a group of large free-standing copper sculptures that surrounded the base of the spire (as also seen below) had been removed just days before the fire.
The blaze is now said to have been discovered at “around 6.50 pm” after workers reportedly downed tools between 5pm and 5.30pm. It has not been said what those workers had been doing or with what tools they had been working. According to investigators, an alarm had gone off at 6.20pm but no fire was found. The alarm sounded again at 6.43pm, by which time the flames were already burning out of control and visible across Paris. The contagion’s unaddressed half hour before the second alarm might have had even more disastrous consequences: the Notre-Dame fire-fighters had been within half an hour of losing control of the blaze and, hence, of being able to save the cathedral’s stone fabric. It would seem that this end was only achieved by an astute structural appraisal and the decision by the fire-fighters to sacrifice part of the interior in order to protect the massive timbers of the bell tower which buttresses the accumulated lateral thrust of the nave vaulting and thereby prevents the collapse of the building. (See the Architect’s Newspaper“Here’s what saved the Notre Dame Cathedral from total destruction” )

GENERAL LESSONS

As the fire raged late into the evening of Monday 15 April, many despaired throughout France. Our colleague, the Leonardo specialist Jacques Franck, wrote:

“…We are all in tears. Just think of the same happening to Westminster Abbey and you’ll know how we feel tonight. All I can say is that we are all shattered and desperately sad: the unthinkable has destroyed 50% of France’s most beautiful cathedral! Whatever the cause of the fire, disasters of this kind should never happen. In my country the law forces ordinary people, that’s to say those not owning historical monuments with precious contents, to put warning signals in any flat or house so that the slightest sign of fire can be detected at any moment. Was it not the case in this emblematic building which had resisted the worst, wars and revolutions, through nearly a millennium? Notre-Dame will be reconstructed but the precious and unique works of art it contained are gone for ever. It is a shame that the French cultural authorities did not make such a terrible event impossible, given that all the security techniques to prevent it exist nowadays.”

In the event, although the catastrophe was less than total (the extent of the damage to the building’s stone fabric after its ordeal by fire and massive volumes of water and resulting steam, remains to be established) it seems clear that it is only through the great courage and good judgement of the fire-fighters that much of the building still stands. Had the ancient stone vaulting not largely withstood the crashing and burning spire and giant roof timbers the entire length of the cathedral including the bell Tower would likely have been engulfed. Franck’s charge of manifest official negligence still stands, a week later and as disturbing reports of prior negligence by the authorities have emerged through Italy, a French newspaper and a French arts blog.

In the 22 April 2019 La Tribune del l’Art, blog (“Audrey Azoulay est-elle légitime pour s’occuper de Notre-Dame?”) Didier Rykner points out that an alarming report on the security of the Notre-Dame in Paris had been in the French administration’s hands since 2016. The existence of this report was disclosed by the French newspaper, Marianne, on April 18 (“Notre-Dame de Paris : “Nous avions alerté le CNRS sur les risques d’incendie””). The newspaper published an interview with Paolo Vannucci, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Versailles, which revealed that a study funded by the CNRS (- the National Centre for Scientific Research, and therefore the State) was carried out in 2016 on the safety of Notre-Dame de Paris, especially in the event of a terrorist attack. The study had concluded, it was said, that: “the risk of a burning of the roof existed”, and “it was absolutely necessary to protect and install a system of extinction”. It was further disclosed that: “In truth, there was virtually no fire protection system, especially in the attic where there was no electrical system to avoid the risk of short circuit and spark.” Worse: even lightning could trigger a fire (- much as had happened at York Minster in July 2009) and it was therefore necessary “to install a whole system of prevention”. Rykner reports that Prof. Vannucci, had confirmed that there were no smoke or heat detectors and believed that “the government was well aware” of this absence. Vannucci had attended a concluding meeting at the Ministry of Education with seven or eight people from different institutions. While he did not remember whether a representative of the Ministry of Culture was present he found it hard to imagine that the ministry, which is in charge of the Notre-Dame monument, would not have been made aware of such an alarming report, not least because although the CNRS is under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, it has very close links with the Ministry of Culture.

What would seem on the fire-fighters’ forensic analysis to be beyond question, is that the fire began underneath the base of the spire from around which the group of copper sculptures had just been removed (see above). What might also be considered, perhaps, beyond dispute is that today’s custodians of western heritage have become astonishingly un-averse to risk-taking in their stewardship of artefacts – even when those artefacts comprise integral parts of ancient cathedrals.

In 2014 we complained that the authorities at Canterbury Cathedral had permitted six whole windows, each with a single monumental seated figure that, in its grandeur and gravity, had anticipated Michelangelo’s giant Sistine Chapel ceiling prophets, to be packed and sent off across the Atlantic (see above) to tour American Museums – even though these were now the only surviving parts of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ that had once formed one of the most comprehensive stained-glass cycles known in art history. The pattern and the gravity of heritage stewardship failures seems clear and beyond dispute but from where might the will to correct it spring?

Michael Daley, 23 April 2019


“Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting”

Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian that a Leonardo scholar, Matthew Landrus, believes most of the upgraded Salvator Mundi was painted by a Leonardo assistant, Bernardino Luini.

THE LUINI CONNECTION

In her Guardian article, “Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting”, Dalya Alberge further reports that the upgraded version of the Salvator Mundi that Matthew Landrus has de-attributed to Leonardo’s assistant, Bernardino Luini, is the very painting that was attributed to Luini in 1900, when acquired by Sir Charles Robinson for the Cook collection.

Above, Fig. 1: Left, the Salvator Mundi that was bought for $450m as a Leonardo for the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017 as it was seen in 2007 when only part-repainted and about to be taken to the National Gallery, London, for a viewing by a small group of Leonardo scholars who are said to have been sworn to secrecy. (For the many subsequent changes to the painting see our “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is” and Figs. 4 to 6 below.) Above, right: A detail of the National Gallery’s Luini Christ among the Doctors.

BIG CLAIMS ON INCOMPLETE EVIDENCE

Even after being sold twice (in 2013 and 2017) for a total of more than half a billion dollars, the painting’s 118 year long journey from a Luini to a Leonardo and now back to Luini again, remains a mystery: no one has disclosed when, from whom and where the painting is said to have been bought in 2005. Professor Martin Kemp recently disclosed that the work was bought for the original consortium of owners “by proxy”. Long-promised technical reports and accounts of the provenance have yet to appear and keep receding into the future. These lacunae notwithstanding, the painting is scheduled to be launched at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September, and also to be included in a major Leonardo exhibition at the Paris Louvre in 2019.

THE ROLE OF LEONARDO’S ASSISTANTS IN THE LOUVRE ABU DHABI SALVATOR MUNDI

As Dalya Alberge reports, a number of Leonardo scholars have contested the present Leonardo attribution and held the work to be largely a studio production that was only part-painted by Leonardo himself. Frank Zöllner, a German art historian at the University of Leipzig and author of the catalogue raisonné Leonardo da Vinci – the Complete Paintings and Drawings, believes it to be either the work of a later Leonardo follower or a “high-quality product of Leonardo’s workshop”. Carmen Bambach, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, holds it to have been largely the work of Leonardo’s assistant Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. One scholar, Jacques Franck, suggested in a 29 November 2011 interview in the Journal des Arts that an attribution to either Luini or Leonardo’s late assistant (and effective ‘office manager’) Gian Giacomo Caprotti, called Salai or Salaino seemed plausible and persuasive. More recently, in January 2018, he tipped to Salai as the author because of strong similarities revealed by penetrating technical imaging examinations – see Figs. 2 and 3 below and “Salvator Mundi LES DESSOUS DE LA VENTE DU SIECLE”.

Above, Fig. 2: Left, an infra-red reflectogram of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi; above, right, an infra-red reflectogram of Salai’s Head of Christ, signed and dated 1511, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Milan).

Above, Fig. 3: An infra-red reflectogram detail of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi. Jacques Franck writes: “This close-up view of the Fig. 2, left, document, reveals in the Saviour’s face, neck and head, the same typical underlying sketching-out technique using very thick dark lines to define the preliminary contours and modelling that are seen in Fig. 2, right. None of this underlying graphic/roughing out process is ever encountered in original Leonardo painting where the graphic/painterly stages are more subtle.”

CHANGING FACES: FOUR STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT IN THE LOUVRE ABU DHABI SALVATOR MUNDI

ABOVE, FIG.4: From the left, Face 1 – The former Cook collection Salvator Mundi when presented in 2005 (– when still “sticky” from a recent restoration) to the New York restorer, Dianne Dwyer Modestini.
Face 2: The former Cook collection painting after the panel had been repaired and the painting had been stripped down.
Face 3: The former Cook collection Salvator Mundi after several stages of repainting and as exhibited as a Leonardo at the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition.
Face 4: The face after yet further (- and initially undisclosed) repainting by Dianne Dwyer Modestini at Christie’s, New York, ahead of the 2017 sale – as was first published by Dalya Alberge in her Mail Online revelation: “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo Da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in last five years”.

Above, Fig. 5: Left, the former Cook collection painting’s face as in 2005; right, the face, as transformed over twelve years by Modestini, when presented for sale at Christie’s, New York, in November 2017.

Alberge’s current Guardian article, “Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting” has gone viral – see for example: CNN’s “Leonardo’s $450M painting may not be all Leonardo’s, says scholar”, and the ABC (Spain) “Crecen las dudas sobre la autoría del «Salvator Mundi» de Leonardo”.

In the CNN report, it is said that:

“Others are in less doubt. Curator of Italian Paintings at London’s National Gallery, Martin Kemp, sent the following statement to CNN Style by email: ‘The book I am publishing in 2019 with Robert Simon and Margaret Dalivalle (…) will present a conclusive body of evidence that the Salvator Mundi is a masterpiece by Leonardo. In the meantime I am not addressing ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price.’”

We make the following observations. Although Professor Martin Kemp is not a curator at the National Gallery he does seem to have been considered at one point as a possible co-curator of the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo exhibition, which, in the event, was curated solely by the Gallery’s own then curator, Luke Syson, who is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Syson drew heavily for his 2011 catalogue entry on the painting on the researches of one of the owners of the Salvator Mundi, the New York art dealer, Robert Simon: “This discussion anticipates the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon and others. I am grateful to Robert Simon for making available his research and that of Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Nica Gutman Rieppi and (for the picture’s provenance) Margaret Dalivalle, all to be presented in a forthcoming book.” That book has now been coming for some time. First promised by the National Gallery in 2011, it was more recently promised for 2017, and then for this year, and now, for next year – and possibly in time for inclusion in the catalogue of the Paris Louvre’s planned major 2019 Leonardo exhibition?

Professor Kemp also promised a conclusive body of evidence for his attribution to Leonardo of the drawing he dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. In his 2012 book Leonardo’s Lost Princess, Peter Silverman, the owner of “La Bella Principessa”, wrote: “Martin believed that the fingerprints [compiled by the now discredited fingerprints expert Peter Paul Biro], though not conclusive on their own, added an important piece to the puzzle. He wrote to me, ‘This is yet one more component in what is as consistent a body of evidence as I have ever seen. I will be happy to emphasize that we have something as close to an open and shut case as is ever likely with an attribution of a previously unknown work to a major master. As you know, I was hugely skeptical at first, as one needs to be in the Leonardo jungle, but now I have not the slightest flicker of doubt that we are a dealing with a work of great beauty and originality that contributes something special to Leonardo’s oeuvre. It deserves to be in the public domain.’” In the event, the “La Bella Principessa” drawing did not enter the public domain. Unlike the Salvator Mundi, which sold for $450m, it was not included in the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo exhibition and it presently remains, so far as we know, unsold, in a Swiss free port.

Kemp’s present lofty disinclination to address “ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price” marks a change of policy. Last year, immediately ahead of the sale that produced the astronomical price of the Salvator Mundi, Kemp was happy to engage polemically with those who rejected the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo attribution. As he has recently disclosed: “I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.”

SCHOLARS’ NEED FOR FULL AND DETAILED REPORTS AND FOR OPEN DEBATES

Above, Fig. 6: Left, the small-scale published (infra-red) technical image of the Salvator Mundi; centre, the painting as exhibited in 2011-2012 as a Leonardo at the National Gallery; right, the painting as presented for sale at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

Much remains to be examined with this restoration-transformed but still, effectively, unpublished work where the promised reports on technical examinations and provenance seem perpetually trapped in the post like Billy Bunter’s postal order. Note in Fig. 6 above, for example, the radical changes made to the true left shoulder draperies; to the orb and the sole of the hand that holds it; and, above all, to the face. We must hope that the painting’s new owners will encourage the old 2005 consortium of owners to publish their privately commissioned researches as soon as possible. In general terms, it would be a much better thing if new and elevating attributions were once more published by single scholars, taking full responsibility in a scholarly publication, so that the case for a work’s re-attribution might be examined widely and discussed openly on a fully informative account and presentation of technical evidence and history of provenance. The recent tendency for owners to hold and selectively part-release researches during promotional campaigns of advocacy is not conducive to best scholarly practice.

Michael Daley, Director, 9 August 2018

Coming next:
Professor Martin Kemp and ArtWatch – Part 1: Twenty-four years of abuse on photo-testimony


Fake or Fortune: Hypotheses, Claims and Immutable Facts

We have received two communications on “La Bella Principessa”, which drawing some take to be by Leonardo da Vinci. One came from the work’s owner, the other from a disinterested scholar in confirmation that the work could not, for reasons of arithmetic and plain physical facts, have been made by Leonardo for inclusion in a book.

THE DRAWING

Above, Fig. 1: The full vellum sheet of the proposed Leonardo drawing “La Bella Principessa”.

THE DRAWING’S CLAIMED ORIGIN

This drawing was presented anonymously to the world in 1998 without authorial ascription and without an atom of provenance. When claims of autograph Leonardo authorship were made after barely a decade, it became necessary to fill a five-hundred years long void of records in order to dispel suspicions of forgery or pastiche. In 2010 Professor Martin Kemp bundled together what he held to be a “barrage of evidence – stylistic, historical or technical” that somehow provided collectively what no individual parts constituted: proof that Leonardo da Vinci was the author of what he (Kemp) dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. Thus, a collection of not-evidence was vested with quasi-evidential force on a circular, question-begging appeal to the claimed authority of a “sustained, collective sense that the portrait ‘belongs’ to Leonardo and contributes something new to the Leonardo we currently know.”

Although some scholars (chiefly Italian) were persuaded by the claims, for the consensual majority who did not see Leonardo’s hand in the drawing, Kemp’s methodological ju-ju gained no traction. His claims were advanced in a portmanteau book of collective advocacy, La Bella Principessa – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, which he co-wrote with Pascal Cotte of Lumiere Technology (the firm hired by the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, to conduct technical research) and which carried highly supportive contributions by Peter Paul Biro, Eva Schwan, Claudio Strinati and Nicholas Turner; London, 2010 (– see pp. 187-88).

THE THREE STITCH HOLES

During Pascal Cotte’s technical analysis of the drawing it was noticed that three holes are present on the left-hand edge. Cotte took these to “prove that it originally came from a book or a manuscript” (- Kemp/Cotte 2010, p. 113). Working with Mr Cotte, Prof. Kemp proposed that the hypothetical book might well have been a collection of celebratory poems of Bianca Sforza who had died in childhood and that “La Bella Principessa” had been made as an illustration to such a book.

Above, Fig. 2: “La Bella Principessa” with Pascal Cotte’s indicated locations of the three supposed stitch holes.

Kemp’s elaborate hypothetical advocacy constituted a daisy-chain of improbabilities. This is a drawing made in the manner of a distinctive (and invariably painted) profile portrait type that is nowhere encountered in recorded Leonardos – and, indeed, this is the very type which Leonardo famously subverted with his own revolutionary plastically dynamic figural innovations. Within the rigorous constraints of the strict profile type, this drawing’s supposedly high-born subject is bereft of the customary/requisite opulence in clothing and jewellery. The eccentric iconography was made on an atypical support – vellum. It was drawn, Kemp holds, either directly from the subject in celebration of her wedding, or, as a commemorative portrayal after her death and thus made either in recollection or from some other depiction. No explanation was offered for how this single image might have resulted from two radically different circumstances of execution.

THE CLAIMED CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN THE “LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA” DRAWING AND THE WARSAW SFORZIAD

On a suggestion from Professor David Wright, Kemp proposed that this from-life or post-death portrait had been made to be incorporated within a large, heavy book of the mid-1490s that is now housed in Poland, the so-called Warsaw Sforziad. In the wake of a great deal of (Kemp and Silverman-activated) archival research which found no mention of any work resembling “La Bella Principessa”, it can be seen that without this claimed Warsaw connection, the drawing would remain what it was on its 1998 debut: a stylistically untypical and unprecedented work without any history – the inclusion of which within Leonardo’s oeuvre would, in Prof. Kemp’s own advocacy, “contribute something new to the Leonardo we currently know” and “reveal a previously unknown dimension to the way in which he fulfilled his duties at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza”. (Kemp/Cotte, 2010, p. 188.) Without history, that is to say, other than the time it is now said to have been in the possession of the restorer/painter Giannino Marchig, the late husband of the anonymous vendor in 1998.

It has been claimed many times that a ‘match’ exists between the drawing’s holes and the book’s stitches but, aside from the small format photo-diagram at Fig. 3, this has never been demonstrated or independently corroborated. Similarly, it has been said that carbon dating tests established that the vellum sheet on which the drawing was made is of an age securely consistent with a drawing being made by Leonardo in the mid-1490s. This claim is seriously misleading, as is shown below.

THE TESTIMONY OF HOLES

Before Prof. Wright’s suggestion, in 2010 Pascal Cotte regarded the three holes on the drawing’s left-hand edge as evidence that might identify incorporation within a specific book:

“It would be interesting to use the evidence of the nature and placement of these needle holes to look for other surviving quires from the same codex, which, with other physical clues, might shed further light on the provenance and original commission.”

(Kemp/Cotte, 2010, page 113.)

Cotte’s hope was reasonable but such testimony can cut both ways. Establishing a relationship between the drawing and a particular book requires an exact correspondence between the drawing’s holes and a book’s stitches. Two separate claims were made of a discovered fit with the Warsaw Sforziad, first by the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, and then jointly by Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte. Both occasions were filmed by National Geographic but only the second was broadcast. In it, Kemp expressed himself as being 80% confident. The presently claimed location of the drawing is at the front of the Sforziad. Clearly, the credibility of what is now a 200 million euro-insured drawing that is stored in the Geneva Free Port depends greatly on confidence being maintained in this claimed connection.

Above, Fig. 3: A facsimile of “La Bella Principessa” inserted into the Warsaw Sforziad with five arrows marking the
book’s stitches and three circles in which matches are claimed, but are not evident, between the drawing’s holes and
the book’s outer and central stitches. (The stitch marked by the right-hand arrow is shown in close-up below at Fig. 5.)

As previously shown, our colleague in ArtWatch, Dr Kasia Pisarek, has catalogued very many discrepancies between the drawing and the book, the most problematic being that the former has only three stitch holes, when the latter was bound with five stitches. To cope with this material/arithmetical incompatibility, Kemp and Cotte conjured two hypotheses.

The first was that the book had originally been bound with only three stitches and that at some undated point the drawing had been removed during a rebinding in which two extra stitches were added to the book. That (unsupported) contention was technically implausible: the book is too large and heavy to be supported by just three stitches – and
both of its sister volumes in London and Paris were bound with five stitches.

The second, and now preferred, hypothesis is that the book was indeed originally bound with five stitches and that, as
a part of this book, the drawing originally possessed the requisite five stitch holes, two of which had subsequently been cut off from the sheet. We demonstrated the impossibility of that claim in an earlier post. (To recap briefly: as Cotte had acknowledged in 2010, stitch holes are always made in a straight line along the crease in a group of folded sheets. Given that a central and two outer stitch holes are all present on the “La Bella Principessa” sheet, any original intermediary stitch holes would necessarily be found in alignment with the present three holes on the sheet as it is today.)

In addition to the absence of the two requisite stitch holes, the sheet itself is a mismatch in terms of colour, texture and size with the sheets in the book. Kasia Pisarek now adds a further mismatch:

“The follicles in the ‘La Bella Principessa’ vellum are tightly spaced, while those in the Sforziad vellum are widely spaced. This can be seen on the Polona website, where you can zoom in until you can see the follicles as dots. I remember seeing some pages where the dots were more apparent and they were definitely widely spaced.”

WHAT LIES BENEATH?

Yet another unaddressed difficulty concerns the back of the drawing. One of the earliest proponents of a Leonardo ascription, Dr Cristina Geddo, has described the presence on the reverse of the drawing of random lettering and an image of a dragon. Kemp and Cotte seem not to have offered an explanation for this content (which, presumably, was revealed by Cotte’s penetrative photography) even though they now claim that the back of the drawing would have faced the book’s beautiful and elaborately painted, symbolically-charged frontispiece. What conceivable iconographic function might such a melange have served in that strategic context of so important and precious a book? Dr Geddo has called for the vellum drawing to be removed from its (most unusual) oak panel support but the owner has declined to do so on grounds of safety. Some of the lettering is visible in an X-ray photograph published in the 2010 and 2012 English and Italian editions of the Kemp/Cotte joint book.

FIVE HOLES GOOD, THREE HOLES BAD

As we reported previously, with regard to the Three Holes v. Five Stitches conundrum, the problems for supporters of “La Bella Principessa” have now become insurmountable: Pisarek established on her second examination of the Warsaw Sforziad in the Polish National Library that while the drawing bears only three holes, the book itself was not only bound with five stitches but that each of those stitches passed through two holes that were two or three millimetres apart (see Figs. 6, 7 and 8 below). At a stroke, the previously claimed ‘fit’ between the drawing and the book is demolished: the drawing possesses only three single stitch holes when it should have five pairs of holes making ten in total. Even if it were to be conceded that two inner stitches might once have been present, today’s three single holes should be three pairs of holes, making six holes in total, not three.

AN OWNER’S RESPONSE

When we sent our previous “La Bella Principessa” post with the newly disqualifying physical/technical evidence to the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, (13 June), he dismissed the bearers of the information by alleging lack of expertise: “I leave the attribution question to serious and highly qualified experts!!!” In support of his professional slur, Silverman copied-in two messages to us. The first had been sent to him, at his request, by a costume expert, Elisabetta Gnigera. The second Silverman had sent to Jean Penicaut, the CEO of Lumiere Technology. It was evidently written in haste and heat:

“Dear Jean
I am sorry but we, as owners of the BP, are not to be told how and with whom to talk! I understand your frustration in dealing with Artwatch and Franck but i feel that Pisareks statement must not and cannot be left unchallenged! I therefore request you to rebut each and every point in this latest statement-most importantly of all i would like to see the INDISPUTABLE proof of the binding holes, in a first and separate email to me! Unfortunaley Martin has made statements which can be perverted by anyone in bad faith-equivocal statements quoted in the first part of the enclosed article!!
“I would like Elisabetta to comment on the costume questions.
And i would like YOU to extensively quote from the lab results of La Veneria*, which is very helpful to our cause! [*This is a reference the conservation laboratory “La Venaria Reale” which has conducted analysis of the drawing.]
“We cannot afford to lose the high ground’ in this battle-no matter the bad faith of our ennemy.
“To avoid your corresponding with them please send the rebuttal to me. I INSIST THAT THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY!!
Best, peter

http://artwatch.org.uk/problems-with-la-bella-principessa-part-iii-dr-pisarek-responds-to-prof-kemp/

“PS-the good news is that there is a very serious party interested in acquiring a share in the BP(highly confidential) and July 1 will be a decisive day!!!”

It would seem after more than a month that Lumiere Technology has not provided the owner with indisputable evidence of a connection between the drawing and the Warsaw book that would counter Pisarek’s account. On 14 June we replied to Mr Silverman:

“Speaking of clarification and your requests, I note the various requests from the ‘owners of the BP’ to your associates
to read our current post, and your talk of a prospective part-sale of the BP. Can I take it that the potential buyer of whom you speak has been similarly advised?

“Also, perhaps you might say how you will respond if Jean Penicaut advises you, as we would predict, that he can find
no ‘INDISPUTABLE proof of the binding holes’ that might enable you – or he on your behalf – ‘to rebut each and every point in this latest statement [in the then current AWUK post]’”?

Concerning the La Venaria Reale laboratory reports, we asked Mr Silverman on 15 June:

“On your technical ‘proofs-of-authenticity’ and our possible viewing of your Swiss-vaulted, soon-to-be part-sold drawing, might we not deal with both by: a) your sending to us all reports and data that have been made available to you; and, b) your bringing the drawing to either Paris or London so that we might arrange a group viewing by sceptics and rejecters?”

MISINTERPRETED REPORTS

After more than a month we have received no technical reports on “La Bella Principessa”. Lumiere Technology’s
apparent silence on the conflicting number of stitch holes seems remiss. In our experience it is valuable to see the reports themselves because evidence can sometimes be interpreted and presented in ways that might mislead. For example, it has been claimed (technically-speaking correctly) that carbon dating has established a 95.4% probability
that “La Bella Principessa” had been made at some point between 1440 and 1650. On that particular technical examination and very wide range of possible ages, Pascal Cotte (2010, p. 110) has claimed a number of things in a single sentence:

“This dating confirms that the portrait could well have been made in Leonardo’s lifetime, supporting Martin Kemp’s proposed date in the mid-1490s and virtually eliminating the possibility that it is a 19th century pastiche.”

This was all quite misleading. A confirmed “could well have” remains a “could have” and does not become a confirming “was”. A “virtually eliminated possibility” remains a possibility. Taken as a whole and properly appraised, the data itself cannot reasonably be said to support Kemp’s claimed date and authorship – in fact, it does the opposite.

Cotte’s claims rest on what is only a loose and very wide overall estimation of probability. While it is true to say there is a 95.4% chance that the sheet appeared at some point between 1440 and 1650, there is not a 95.4% probability that it appeared before the mid-1490s when the Sforziad was made. Even on that loose, overall range of possibilities, it would be more accurate to say that because we know (today) that the Warsaw book was made in the 1490s (and had known in 2010 that the proposed subject of “La Bella Principessa”, Bianca Sforza, had died in 1496), it is three times more likely that the “La Bella Principessa” sheet post-dated rather than predated the book. What has not been acknowledged is that within the overall figure, the probabilities had been greatly more precisely quantified.

It was said in the report, for example, that there was a 68.2% probability that the sheet was made between 1470 and 1650 and that, within this period (see Fig. 4 below), there was only a 27.2% probability that the drawing was made between 1470 and 1530 – and this was compared against the appreciably greater probability (41.0%) that the sheet was made some time between 1550 and 1650 – which would place the sheet altogether much later than Leonardo who died in 1519. Properly read, with a proposed date for the drawing set in the mid-1490s, the data shows that there was only a 13.6% probability that the “La Bella Principessa” sheet existed when the book was made. When the general 95.4% probability of an origin anywhere between 1470 and 1650 and the 13.6% probability of an origin between 1470 and 1495 are expressed as racing odds, it is seven times more likely that the sheet was made after the book than before it. And the odds of seven to one against pertain to the vellum sheet itself, not to the possible dates of execution for the drawing. Even if this sheet had once been present in that book, such a dating would indicate only the age of the material, not the date of the drawing’s execution. On this last, we should recall that Eric Hebborn advised in his The Art Forger’s Handbook that a prime source of old materials for forged drawings is obtained from blank end papers in books. Thieves cut valuable illuminated pages from books. Forgers crave blank pages but will make use of a blank side by gluing its reverse firmly to some impenetrable material.

Above, Fig. 4: The carbon dating report on the “La Bella Principessa” sheet (as published by Kemp/Cotte, 2010, p. 110).

FOR THE RECORD

Where Mr Silverman declines to make reports available to us, and Pascal Cotte fails to demonstrate a fit between the drawing’s three stitch holes and the book’s ten stitch holes, we now present further visual proofs and documentary confirmation of the previously claimed mismatch to demonstrate precisely why “La Bella Principessa” could never have been part of the Warsaw Sforziad.

INSTITUTIONAL CORROBORATION

On 23 June 2016 Barbara Dzierzanowska, the Head of Department of Old Prints BN at the National Library of Poland, wrote to Kasia Pisarek:

“Dear Madam,

I would like to inform you that yesterday we entered the Treasury and re-examined the Sforziad, which has confirmed that the binding stitches are double and there are 10 holes.

Yours sincerely,

Barbara Dzierzanowska”

PHOTOGRAPHICALLY-RECORDED AND ELECTRONICALLY TRANSMITTED PROOF OF THE DOUBLE STITCHING OF THE WARSAW SFORZIAD

That the stitching of the Sforziad was made through double holes can be seen by eye on the book itself, as shown below at Fig. 5.

Above, Fig. 5: A stitch made through two holes, as seen on the numbered page 1 of the Warsaw Sforziad. In this photograph, the top stitch and the two flanking holes are shown but some of the other holes can also be seen on stitches below it. This stitch/holes configuration would have been evident when (as described above) a full-size facsimile of “La Bella Principessa” was inserted into the Sforziad at precisely this point. This evidence is also available online: our image was taken from the detailed record of the entire book that is carried on this site: Polona – La Sforziada.

ESTABLISHING THE TRUE DIMENSIONS

When Kasia Pisarek inspected the book for the second time, she asked that the dimensions of the pages and the relative positions of the stitch holes be marked along the edge of a piece of paper. This was done by the library’s books’ conservator in her presence and that of the chief librarian. Intervals between the stitch holes were marked in pencil along the two sides of the strip of paper and these are shown here at Figs. 6 and 7. When we marked off those measurements onto a separate sheet of paper, to prepare the diagram at Fig. 8, and then measured them on our sheet with a ruler, they were all exactly as given by Pisarek. We can be sure, therefore, that the dimensions and ratios between the stitch holes as shown below at Fig. 8 have been accurately established and physically transported to ArtWatch UK – and at practically zero-cost by means of sharp pencils and two pieces of paper.

Above, Figs. 6 (top) and 7: The strip of paper on which the book’s page size and stitch holes were recorded, as described above.

The conservator explained to Pisarek that the present positions of the stitch holes were those of the original construction of the book and that, therefore, there was no possibility that the book had once been bound with only three stitches. She made diagrams on the strip showing (at Fig. 7) different ways of executing stitching with double holes.

THE DIMENSIONS OF THE INTERVALS BETWEEN THE STITCHES IN THE BOOK – A NOTE FROM KASIA PISAREK:

1) According to Kemp and Cotte, the dimensions of the vellum pages of the Sforziad vary from 33.0 to 33.4 cm in height, while the drawing is 33 cm high.

2) I have carefully checked the dimensions with the Librarian in March 2016. All the pages are at least 33.4 cm high and more, up to 33.7 cm. The size of 33 cm would be far too small for the book.

3) The 5 holes in the book are in fact all double holes. Each of the 5 holes is two small holes, between which a string passes. The distance between the two small holes is about 3 mm. The double holes were never mentioned by Kemp or Cotte.

4) According to the conservator who was present at the time of my last visit, this is the binding that follows the original binding as there is no damage of any kind. So in total there were as many as 10 small holes, not 3 single ones as in the drawing.

5) I measured the distances between the 3 holes that Kemp and Cotte measured in La Bella Principessa. The measurements were taken from the middle of the double holes.

6) The distance between the bottom hole and the middle hole is 11.35 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.06 cm.

7) The distance between the middle hole and the top hole is 11.7 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.44 cm.

THE MISMATCHED HOLES AND STITCHES

Above Fig. 8: We took the dimensions of the Sforziad’s page and stitch holes from the strip of paper marked by the Polish National Library’s books’ conservator (as shown at Figs. 6 and 7) and drew them in black, as above, and marked “WS”. We then drew in red the “La Bella Principessa” sheet (here marked “LBP”) and its stitch holes as given above by Pisarek.
As can be seen above, it is impossible to align the drawing’s single stitch holes with their claimed counterparts in the book. If the drawing’s centre hole is aligned with the centre of the two central holes in the book (as shown on the left here), its other two holes fall short of their claimed counterparts.
If the LBP drawing’s upper hole is aligned with the centre of book’s two upper holes, its central and lower holes fall progressively further short of their claimed counterparts on the book.
In short, there is no fit or match between the book and the drawing – and which drawing in all probability post-dated the book, for reasons indicated above.

Those who would continue to give this drawing to Leonardo must now find some other means of filling a five centuries absence of provenance and of squaring intractable technical circles. We will examine next the supposed left-handed execution of “La Bella Principessa”.

Michael Daley, 21 July 2016


Opera, Authenticity and Madness

The director of the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten, has written to ticket holders for the forthcoming Lucia di Lammermoor to say that because of “sexual acts portrayed on stage, and other scenes that… feature violence”, the House will “discuss suitable arrangements” for anyone likely to be upset. On the evidence of the House’s website, many are more than upset.

Above, top, a Royal Opera House email photograph promoting “Lucia di Lammermoor 7 April-19 May”

Above, Joan Sutherland as Lucia in the Covent Garden Opera Company production of Lucia di Lammermoor © Royal Opera House, 1959. (For observations on Sutherland’s artistry and standing vis a vis today’s performers, see Jacques Franck’s comments below at CODA. For Sutherland performing Lucia’s “Mad scene”, see this video. )

On March 14th we received an email from Kasper Holten, the The Royal Opera House’s director of opera. At first glance it looked like a customary ROH sexed-up advertising puff for an under-selling opera. In fact, the glam blonde-in-a-tub (see above) came in advance warning that the opera house would allow ticket holders to pull out:

“I am writing to you as our records show you have booked tickets for The Royal Opera’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, staged by one of the UK’s most acclaimed directors, Katie Mitchell.
Katie and her team have set the production around the time of the opera’s creation in the 19th century, and they use this as a platform to explore deeply all the aspects of human relationships in the story – sexual, emotional, physical and psychological. As Katie observes of the famous ending, ‘after all if on your wedding night you took a sharp implement and tried to kill a very strong man, and it went horribly wrong… We’re going to see all of that’.
The rehearsals have had a terrific start with a strong sense of excitement coming from the rehearsal room. But as they have progressed it has also become clear to us that the team’s approach will lead to scenes that feature sexual acts portrayed on stage, and other scenes that – as you might expect from the story of Lucia – feature violence. As a result, we have recently updated our website with a message about this. As you have already booked, we wanted to draw your attention to it. If there are any members of your party who you feel may be upset by such scenes then please email us at onlinebooking@roh.org.uk and we will, of course, discuss suitable arrangements.”

The Daily Telegraph revealed (17 March – “Royal Opera House customers demand money back over new risqué production”) that the ROH reported forty cancellations by March 15th and now advises that children should not be brought to the performance. On 15 March the Times predicted “Another fright night at the opera” and the next day carried a letter from ArtWatch UK calling for more respectful treatments of great dramatic and musical art (see below). The Evening Standard (“Outraged opera fans cancel bookings after sex and violence warning”, 18 March) reported our protest over an attempt to rewrite history and turn historical works into crusading politically progressive instruments, and noted that 100 responses had been made to the ROH’s unprecedented emailed warning. The warning provided links to a ROH interview with the director of Lucia di Lammermoor, Katie Mitchell and to a YouTube discussion in which she takes part. NB – Both of these items carry viewers’ comments. The banner heading to the video reads:

“Watch: Katie Mitchell on Lucia di Lammermoor ‘My focus is 100% on the female characters’
The director on her feminist take on Donizetti, and an innovative split-stage design.”

It is never good for artistic productions to be given over to politicised axe-grinders or sensation-seekers. Here, the express purpose of the split-staging is political and didactic – an indulged subterfuge under which alien additions enjoy a deforming and subverting parity with the opera’s authentic material. When Mitchell was asked in Warwick Thomson’s ROH magazine interview if this is “going to be ‘a feminist Lucia’?” her answer had two parts, one being the assertion of a political credo, the other a programme for its theatrical implementation: “If feminism is a political movement about equality then, yes, you could say that this interpretation will favour a feminist viewpoint”, and, “I want to find ideas that support the movement of the drama, but fill in the gaps in the female narrative in a dynamic way.” What gaps?

On Mitchell’s account, such alleged gaps are not confined to this opera but are present also throughout 19th century operas where the number of women who die is seen as being unacceptably high and “a cultural problem that we’ve inherited”. The director displays a sense of aggrievement that is personal as much as professional: “if it were matched by the equivalent number of dead and mentally disturbed men, I’d be happy as Larry. But it isn’t. So we have to be a bit more rigorous now about how we think about it and how we represent those 19th-century heroines. We can’t just glamourize them, or leave them unexamined. Just because there are beautiful sounds, they can’t be immune to scrutiny.”

By “scrutiny” Mitchell means artistic reformulation. The sheer ambition of pending licensed revisionism is breath-taking: a century’s worth of fabulous cultural achievements are deemed in need of ideological purification. We should be clear, this is not re-interpretation of Donizetti’s great work, but reconstruction on a nakedly and narrowly specialised political agenda. It might fairly be protested that if Mitchell wishes women to be cast in different, non-19th century lights she should consider writing her own operas or directing those written today by other women. There is certainly no shortage of role models in our culture that might find operatic realisation. The portrayal of women in the highly acclaimed television series “Happy Valley” is a currently prominent case in point. (Moreover, it happens to be one that helpfully includes a highly climactic operatic moment in which the forty-something police officer heroine tasers an aggressing male criminal in his genital area.)

Mitchell’s interview was published on 7 October 2015, long before rehearsals began. In a more culturally confident and artistically respectful milieu, she might have been gently advised that there are no artistic gaps in Donizetti’s opera; that, dramatically, Lucia needs to remain who she gloriously is and who Donizetti created. Instead, Mitchell has been allowed to proceed presumptuously through the opera righting shortcomings of her own reckoning, such as:

“The male characters in Lucia di Lammermoor are on stage a lot, their psychologies are well drawn, they’re complex and thrilling and interesting. My beef with the piece is that there just isn’t that same degree of attention and thoughtfulness in the drawing of the female characters. There are scenes that seem to be missing. So my production will try to fill in some of the gaps in the central character’s story. It will balance things out.”

To make physical space for her bolted-on countervailing constructions of meaning, Mitchell plans “to create a split-stage, in which there will be lots of different simultaneous environments. In the first scene, the main action, the sung action, will show Normanno [the captain of the castle guard] describing the search for the lovers – but we will also see Lucia and her maid sneaking into her brother’s bedroom to try on men’s clothes in order to disguise herself. She’s in a threatening situation, and she mustn’t be recognized going to meet her beloved Edgardo, whom her brother hates; she doesn’t just waft down in her normal clothing. I want to show scenes like that, which raise the IQ and agency of Lucia. Those are the sort of gaps I mean.”

The interviewer, instead of asking what might be meant by raising IQ and agency, supplies more rope, asking if there are other gaps. He discovers there are perceived gaps-that-constitute-missing-scenes everywhere, including at the opera’s heart and ending:

“We need to understand why Lucia goes mad. There’s a missing scene, rather like in Hamlet, where we don’t see how Ophelia goes mad. It’s the same with Lucia: we see her sane, then insane. We’ll fill that gap here as well. After all, if on your wedding night you took a sharp implement and tried to kill a very strong man, and it went horribly wrong – not like in the movies, where a knife just pops in and out, but it’s a complete bloody mess – it’s enough to unsettle anyone. We’re going to see all of that.”

It would seem that in this feminist’s politicised artistic universe, nothing can be taken as read or implicit. Even at the risk of being thought risible, everything must be acted out and underscored in full-frontal fashion: the lovers must be shown in sexual congress; the groom must not simply be taken to be dead, he must be shown to a die a horrible slow death in which he is first smothered and then, on staging a Lazarus-like recovery [- message to Arturo from the Amphitheatre: “Lie down you silly bugger, you’re supposed to be dead!”], is variously knifed and battered. Battered with a fossil. Why a fossil? Because by recasting the heroine from an emotionally fragile teenage innocent caught between a rock and a hard place, to a feisty forty-something woman in the mid 19th- rather than the 17th-century, the director can portray her as of a breed of unmarried women who “often found other ways to channel their energies. It was a period of brilliant female artists – just think of the Brontës or George Eliot. Or of other women who were fossil-hunters, or scientists.” It is sometimes difficult to decide whether perversity has trumped obtuseness or vice versa.

Mitchell’s claim that her changes and additions are intended to assist Donizetti is self-disabling: “All the choices we’re making will support the story and hopefully nudge it into more of a thriller genre”. How does pushing a work of 19th century high operatic tragedy – and that was set by its author in 17th century Scotland – towards a 20th-century literary genre assist? And what assistance is rendered by dressing the mixed choir in men’s clothing to illustrate “male domination” in support of the director’s own avowed beef about the dominance of the opera’s men, and her counter-determination to focus “100% on the female characters”? The ROH management must be hoping that few in the audience will recall Alfred Hitchcock’s description of the slow and difficult demise of one of his characters who was murdered by having his head placed into a gas oven, and then, on regaining consciousness and sitting up, by being beaten about the head by a couple of hapless would-be murderers with a succession of increasingly heavy kitchen implements.

Much as the ROH management’s indulgence of Mitchell’s programme in the production of a work that has not been seen at Covent Garden for a decade might be regretted, it not a purely local culpability. Women are having their way with dead male composers throughout the world – and in the unlikeliest places. In her production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at last year’s Bayreuth Festival, Katharina Wagner reworked her great grandfather’s sublime work in such fashion that Isolde’s (unacceptably) transcendent “Liebestod” was followed not by her suicide but by her being dragged off by an out-of-role vengeful and impatient King Marke.

There are frequent laments over the ‘greying’ of classical music audiences. This can seem hypocritical. It is not helpful to attempts to introduce other generations if producers are allowed to turn the grandest, most beautiful operas into sensationally, provocatively schlocky x-rated ersatz horror movies. To give a personal example: a friend who had bought three tickets for himself, his wife and their twelve-years old daughter has cancelled what would have been the daughter’s first visit to the opera. I started taking my elder daughter to the ROH when she was about that age and had become captivated by opera after viewing a televised performance of Monteverdi’s ‘The Return of Ulysses’. The present policy of encouraging ever-more disturbingly naturalistic sexual and violent enactments is as institutionally short-sighted as it tasteless and offensive. There are more youngsters who might be brought into opera-going than people craving voyeuristic sensationalism. Most crave movingly performed, beautifully sung stories, not debasing simulations of “dogging” and violence.
On what counts as beautiful singing, and perceived shortcomings in performances today, see CODA below.

Michael Daley, 18 March 2016

CODA

Our colleague, the painter and Leonardo scholar, Jacques Franck responds from Paris:

“I knew Sutherland indirectly through two friends in London in the early sixties: Alan Freeman, an Australian BBC producer, and Cornell Senekal, a South African top male model who knew Richard Bonynge very well. At the time Joan was already complaining about many singers lacking the proper technique … What would she say if she were alive today? That ROH stage director is confusing Bel canto romantic operas of the early 19th century and expressionist operas 80 years later, like Berg’s Lulu or even later like Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mzentsk. The musical aesthetic she’s trying to introduce into Lucia di Lammermoor is entirely anachronistic and has never existed in Donizetti’s mind and music – how can the ROH accept that??

“It’s a devilish situation. I’m regularly fighting with a politically correct musical critic from Le Figaro who hates singers of extremely skilled vocal technique like Sutherland because, he says, it hinders their dramatic expression. I always retort that opera singing is based on vocal qualities first and that no proper dramatic interpretation can exist unless you have a well educated voice and a lot of musical feeling. I also add that all these awful women he favours so much with horrible worn wobbly voices producing false notes and who can’t vocalize easily if at all (notably in Mozart and all the Bel canto repertoire) yet are, on his judgment, genius actresses, should stop singing and devote themselves to acting. That would spare the public’s ears and leave room to those who have real talent… Diana Damrau is to me the absolute anti-Sutherland: the voice is colourless and, in my opinion, she shows – or is allowed to show – no musical intelligence or feeling. I just don’t understand her success. I know all the coloratura soprano parts in her repertoire, like the Queen of night (Mozart, Zaüberflöte), Violetta (a real horror – compare her with any average good soprano like Ghiorghiu), Rigoletto’s Gilda (her best, but still with a jerky singing line), Constanza (Mozart, Seraglio) with inappropriate vocalizing in both of Constanza’s major arias (notably the very tricky “Martern aller Arten”, one of the most difficult in Western operatic music). Try and find it sung by Teresa Stitch-Randall in the sixties: you’ll see the extent to which vocal art has decayed since then. Please feel free to use my comments about the Glorious Joan in your post, one of the few leading dramatic coloraturas of the 20th C, just next to Callas. They were sisters in art, ‘la Divina’ and ‘la Stupenda’. Sutherland was a marvelous Alcina, have you heard her in that opera?

“I just heard a magnificent American tenor on the radio, Frank Lopardo, singing Don Ottavio’s great aria from Don Giovanni – simply fantastic with the proper style. Thanks Heavens some good ones still exist – but I feel sad to see the degree to which insanity has perverted art nowadays including opera singing. Remembering Sutherland’s performance in Lucia as if it was yesterday, I just cannot think that the ROH would break with its own glorious past days and stage now the very mockery of what once was a planetary, sensational, operatic event…”

On seeing a draft of this post, Jacques Franck wrote:

“Mike, Thanks. I’m happy with this quote because it expresses all I’ve been longing to say publicly about the awful decadence that has occurred in operatic art for about twenty years. None of the great singers of the (still) recent past would accept what’s going on nowadays. I mean people whose shows and recitals I’ve attended with my wife, that is Callas, Sutherland, Schwarzkopf, Norma Procter, Mado Robin, Régine Crespin, Rita Gorr, Monserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Gundula Janowitz, Dame Janet Baker, Jessye Norman, Margaret Price, Frederica von Stade, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, Hermann Prey, José Van Dam, etc., etc. And I feel sure that those ones of the younger generation like Angela Ghiorghiu, Renée Fleming, Jonas Kaufmann, etc. don’t think otherwise but accept the situation because it’s hopeless and there isn’t much they can do about it.”

It might be added that Franck is especially well qualified to speak on such technical music matters: on our pointing out a video link to a live performance by Joan Sutherland of the final scene of Lucia di Lammermoor (instructions above), he responded:

“Not only have I had Sutherland’s mad scene in my collection of favourite records since the early sixties, but don’t forget what I told you in confidence one day. I was born with a totally anomalous/exceptional coloratura soprano voice revealed at the age of 13. It lasted as such until it partially broke at the age of 20 and then extended towards the deepest lower notes. During that period the voice would cover the range of 4 octaves up to a counter-counter F which is 7 notes higher than the highest note in Mozart’s famous second aria of the Queen of the night! Just imagine that I was able to sing anything in the written coloratura repertoire of Western opera. In fact my voice was 9 notes above Sutherland’s highest one and very close to that of Mado Robin, whose voice was like mine the highest ever heard. Listen to her Lakmé online in which she emits a counter A. However, when the voice broke off, it was left with a shortly extended baritone in the lower register while keeping an enormous high “soprano counter tenor” in the upper one. Which means I could still sing Lucia and all the Bellini/Verdi/Mozart coloratura parts without difficulty although the voice had to be re-educated and trained. At the time, since it was impossible for a male singer to make a career with such a voice, I used it as a means to learn all about the art of singing just for my personal information and pleasure. Imitating the art of Callas, Sutherland, Schwarzkopf and the like was part of my lessons. It lasted until the age of 44 when my larynx developed an ulcer (due to causes strange to singing) that kept bleeding each time I would sing: my doctor asked me to stop singing. My last “exercise” was the famous aria “Son vergin vezzosa” from Bellini’s “I Puritani” which I sung a major fourth above the original score, terminating with an enormous, rich counter A as a conclusion of a most thrilling and instructive experience. Every time I listen to Sutherland, not only I do understand what she actually does technically and the high level of her art, but I live it from inside. Now you can understand fully how much, like you, I suffer from what’s going on at the ROH and elsewhere in the operatic world to date.”


Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship

Connoisseurship may be defined as expertise in art in the very narrowest of senses; surprisingly, however, it is also a definition in which many different disciplines intersect.

In the public realms of law and the art world, a ‘connoisseur’ must be recognized as being an expert, as being capable of giving credible testimony regarding the subject, and as remaining actively engaged with the world in which attributions and authentications are made. This public recognition takes years of work and is hard-won.

Yet, does this public recognition of expertise signify accuracy or truth in the claims that a connoisseur makes about art? This one-day conference investigates the always-interrelated and often mutually-troubled processes by which connoisseurship is constructed in the fields of art and law, and the ways in which these different fields come together in determining the scope and clarity of the connoisseur’s ‘eye’.

“Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”

A conference organized by ArtWatch UK, the Center for Art Law (USA) and the LSE Cultural Heritage Law (UK), to be held at: The Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BE – all inquiries to: artwatch.uk@gmail.com.

1 December 2015 from 08:30 to 19:30 (GMT)

London, United Kingdom

For full conference programme, see below.

Admission is by ticket only.

For ticket prices and to purchase tickets (exclusively through Eventbrite ), please click on: Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship

PROGRAMME

8.30 – 9.00: Registration

PART I: The Making of Art and the Power of Its Testimonies

9.00-25: Welcome and Keynote Paper: Michael Daley, “Like/Unlike; Interests/Disinterest”

Michael Daley (UK), Director, ArtWatch UK, an artist who trained for twelve years (with post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy Schools) and taught in art schools for fifteen years before practicing as an illustrator (principally with the Financial Times, the Times Supplements, the Independent and, presently, Standpoint magazine), will suggest that the principles of sound connoisseurship in making attributions and appraising restorations are implicit in fine art training and practice, and will discuss the trial in Italy of Professor James Beck on a charge of aggravated criminal slander brought in Italy by a restorer against the scholar but not against the newspapers which had carried his reported comments.

9.25-9.40: Euphrosyne Doxiadis, “Perception, Hype and the Rubens Police.”

Euphrosyne Doxiadis (Greece), a painter/scholar whose 1996 book The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt won the won the Prix Bordin, the Prix d’ ouvrage by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Institut de France, and, the 1997 “Prize of the Athens Academy”, will challenge the Rubens attribution given to the National Gallery’s oil on panel Samson and Delilah in the 28th year of her researches. Astonished at her first sighting of this painting in the National Gallery, the author will discuss both its manifest artistic disqualifications and the edifice of support that surrounds an attribution first made in 1930 by a leading Rubens scholar who today is notorious for his many excessively-generous certificates of authenticity.

9.40-9.55: Jacques Franck, “Why the Mona Lisa would not survive modern day conservation treatment.”

Jacques Franck (FR), an art historian and a painter trained in Old Master techniques, is the Permanent Consulting Expert to The Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at The University of California, Los Angeles, with its European headquarters at the Centro Studi Leonardo da Vinci e il Rinascimento, Università degli Studi di Urbino, and an editorial consultant to Achademia Leonardi Vinci. He was a curator/exhibitor in the Uffizi’s exhibition La mente di Leonardo (2006) and will draw on experiences as an adviser to the Louvre’s restorations of Leonardo’s St Anne and Belle Ferronnière, and his current PhD investigations on Leonardo’s sfumato technique at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, to demonstrate the threats presently facing the Mona Lisa in a museum conservation system that he considers inadequate to preserve the masterpiece in the event of it being cleaned at the Louvre.

9.55-10.10: Ann Pizzorusso, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”

Ann Pizzorusso (US) is a professional geologist and a Renaissance scholar whose work focuses on Leonardo da Vinci as a geologist. She has written numerous scholarly articles on Leonardo and his students, and the artists who preceded and followed him, analyzing the use of geology in their works. Her landmark article, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of The Virgin of the Rocks” compared the two versions of the paintings. Demonstrating geology as a diagnostic tool – which was in fact Leonardo’s trademark – she will attribute only one of the two versions to Leonardo. Her new, four gold medals-winning book, Tweeting Da Vinci, discusses how the geology of Italy has influenced its art, literature, religion, medicine.

10.10-10.30: Discussion/Questions: – Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law, Moderator

10.30-11.00: COFFEE

11.00-11:15: Segolene Bergeon-Langle, “Can science deliver its promises to art?”

Segolene Bergeon-Langle (FR), France’s Honorary General Curator of Heritage, is both a scientist and an art historian. A former Head of Painting Conservation in the Louvre and the French National Museums, and a former Chair of the ICCROM Council (Rome), she is presently a member of the Louvre’s preservation and conservation committee. She will discuss various restoration cases showing how scientific analysis can fail properly to understand painters’ techniques and the deterioration of paint layers when questions are inadequately framed or when the interpretation of scientific reports is inadequate. Such difficulties can be overcome when connoisseurs themselves ask for scientific analysis to clarify some problem they have encountered, or when they can examine technical reports together with their scientific partners so as to avoid otherwise possible misinterpretations.

11.15-11.30: Michel Favre-Felix, “Overlooked Witnesses: The Testimony of Copies”

Michel Favre-Felix (FR) is a painter, the president of ARIPA (association for the respect of the integrity of artistic heritage), the director of the review Nuances, and the 2009 recipient of the ArtWatch International Frank Mason Prize, will present two restoration cases, studied from the French Museums’ scientific files, illustrating how restorations fail by not heeding the testimony of historical copies. He will stress the importance of disciplined arguments and of expert guidance from art historians, in a critical approach, rather than as the endorsement of “discoveries” claimed during restorations by restorers. His cases will demonstrate how successive restorations can impose fresh and compounding misrepresentations on art when supposedly correcting previous errors.

11.30-11.45: Kasia Pisarek, “How reliable are today’s attributions in art? The case of “La Bella Principessa” examined.”

Kasia Pisarek (Poland/UK), an independent art historian and research specialist on attributions, took an MA at the Sorbonne and a PhD at the University of Warsaw. Her doctoral dissertation “Rubens and Connoisseurship ~ On the problems of attribution and rediscovery”, identified many recently fallen Rubens attributions. She will set out a number of interlocking aesthetic, art historical and technical arguments against the recently claimed attribution to Leonardo of the drawing “La Bella Principessa”, which work appeared anonymously and without provenance in New York in 1998. Her findings were published in the June 2015 Artibus et Historiae.

11.45-12.15: Discussion/Questions: Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law, Moderator

12.15-1.15: LUNCH

Part II: Righting the Record – Diverse Experts as Authority

1.15-1.20: Introduction: Tatiana Flessas, Cultural Heritage Law, LSE Law, Moderator

1.20-1.35: Brian Allen — “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater – the Demise of Connoisseurship since the 1980s.”

Brian Allen (UK) is a former Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and is now Chairman of the London Old Master dealers Hazlitt Ltd. He will speak about the gradual demise of connoisseurship in academic art history (especially in the UK) over the past three decades and will consider the effect of this on the study of art history and the art market. Up to the early 1980s few questioned the importance for young art historians of acquiring the skills to determine authorship but as the discipline of art history evolved from its amateur roots in Britain so too did a determination to adopt the theoretical principles of other areas of study. Only now are we witnessing the consequences of this change of emphasis.

1.35-1.50: Peter Cannon-Brookes, “Reconciling Connoisseurship with Different Means of Production of Works of Art”

Peter Cannon-Brookes (UK) turned from natural sciences to art history and has been active as a museum curator with strong interests in conservation and security. Connoisseurship has been undermined by the decay of museum-based pre-Modern Movement scholarship leading to the growing corruption of reference collections and of connoisseurship enhanced by the detailed study of them. Can the systems of stylistic analysis evolved from the 1940s and social anthropology be reconciled with the actual processes of production of works of art throughout the ages? The business models adopted by Raphael, El Greco and Rubens are by no means exceptional, and the evident disdain of Rodin for those prepared to pay high prices for indifferent drawing-room marble versions of his compositions, encourage re-evaluation of connoisseurship as an essential tool.

1.50-2.05: Charles Hope, “Demotion and promotion: the asymmetrical aspect of connoisseurship”

Charles Hope (UK) is a former Director of the Warburg Institute and will discuss the tension that exists between connoisseurship as a type of expertise acquired by long experience and as an activity based on the use of historical evidence and reasoned argument. Will claim that, in practice, these two aspects are often in contradiction to one another, and that many connoisseurs have been unable or unwilling to provide clear arguments about how they have reached their opinions. Too often, judgements about authorship are decided by appeals to authority, and almost by vote, rather than by evidence.

2.05-2.20: Martin Eidelberg, “Fact vs. Interpretation: the Art Historian at Work”

Martin Eidelberg (US), professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, will discuss the reliability and fallibility of provenance and scientific analysis of pictures in determining the authenticity of paintings. Using case histories that he has gathered from his research in preparing a catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), he will consider whether such supposedly factual data is reliable, or whether it is subjective and open to the interpretation of scholars.

2.20-2.40: Discussion/Questions: Tatiana Flessas, Cultural Heritage Law, LSE Law, Moderator

2.40-2.55: Robin Simon, “Owzat! The great cricket fakes operation”

Robin Simon (UK) is Editor of The British Art Journal and Honorary Professor of English, UCL. Recent books include Hogarth, France and British Art and (with Martin Postle) Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting. He will report his discovery (in 1983) that many of the paintings depicting cricket in the MCC collection at Lord’s were fakes, most of them made by one person between 1918 and 1948 but purporting to date from the 16th century to the 20th. They had been presented to MCC by Sir Jeremiah Colman (of the mustard family) who acquired them from a variety of agents and dealers. It is quite a tale and turns, among other things, upon an ingenious manipulation of provenance.

2.55-3.10: Anne Laure Bandle, “Sleepers at auction: Boon or bane?”

Anne Laure Bandle (CH) is guest lecturer at the LSE, director of the Art Law Foundation, and a trainee lawyer at the law firm Froriep in Geneva. She wrote a PhD in law on the misattribution of art at auction and more specifically on the sale of sleepers. She will discuss the creation of sleepers at auction by means of different cases, and focus on the attribution process of auction houses and their liability when selling a sleeper.

3.10-3.25: Elizabeth Simpson, “Connoisseurship: Its Use, Disuse, and Misuse in the Study of Ancient Art”

Elizabeth Simpson (USA) is a professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, NY; a consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, PA; and director of the project to study and conserve the collection of wooden objects excavated from the royal tumulus burials at Gordion, Turkey.She will address the use and misuse of connoisseurship in the study of ancient art, the scholarly and methodological divides between archaeology and art history, and the current trend away from connoisseurship in the study of ancient art and artifacts. She will also show how connoisseurship is used to fabricate narratives for looted objects in order to validate unprovenienced works in private and museum collections.

3.25-3.45: Round table discussion: Tatiana Flessas, Cultural Heritage Law, LSE Law, Moderator

3.45-4.15: TEA

Part III: Wishful Thinking, Scientific Evidence and Legal Precedent

4.15-4.20: Intro by Session Moderator, Charles Hope.

4:20-4.35: Irina Tarsis, “Reputation is no Substitute to Due Diligence: Lessons from the closure of the Knoedler Gallery (1857-2011) ”

Irina Tarsis (USA), is an art historian and an attorney based in Brooklyn, NY. Founder and Director of Center for Art Law, Ms. Tarsis is an author of multiple articles on the subject of restitution, provenance research, book history and copyright issues. With degrees in International Business, Art History and Law, in her practice Ms. Tarsis focuses on ownership disputes surrounding tangible and intangible property. She will discuss the history of the Knoedler Gallery that closed after more than 160 years in business having sold a cache of misattributed forgeries. Short of a dozen lawsuits were brought against the principles and staff of the Gallery for selling works attributed to the blue chip artists. Ms. Tarsis will discuss the responsibilities of dealers, collectors and art advisors to their clients and the scholarship when handling art in business transactions.

4:35-4.50: Nicholas Eastaugh, “The Challenge of Science: Does ‘Fine Art Forensics’ Really Exist?”

Dr Nicholas Eastaugh (UK), Founder/Director, Art Analysis and Research Ltd., London, originally trained as a physicist before going on to study conservation and art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, where he completed a PhD in scientific analysis and documentary research of historical pigments in 1988. Since 1989 he has been a consultant in the scientific and art technological study of paint and paintings. A frequent lecturer, he is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. In 1999 he co-founded the Pigmentum Project, an interdisciplinary research group developing comprehensive high-quality documentary and analytical data on historical pigments and other artists’ materials. This led to the publication of The Pigment Compendium in 2004, which quickly became a standard reference text in the field. In 2008 he identified the first of the forgeries to be recognised as by Wolfgang Beltracchi, the now infamous ‘Red Painting with Horses’.

4.50-5.05: Megan Noh, “Trends in Authentication Disputes”

Megan E. Noh (USA) is the Associate General Counsel of Bonhams, one of the world’s largest international auction houses. Based in the New York office, Ms. Noh practices in a global hub for art transactions, and is uniquely poised to observe the numerous transactions conducted by Bonhams which require its specialists’ assistance with the authentication process, as well as the growing body of caselaw and legislative efforts emerging from this key jurisdiction. Ms. Noh’s presentation will cover trends in authentication disputes, including the cessation of artists’ foundations and authentication boards to issue opinions confirming attribution, as well as increased litigation and reliance of parties on scientific evidence and testimony. She will also elucidate the position of auction houses as a liaisons or “middlemen” in this process, facilitating the flow of information as between collectors (sellers and buyers) and third party authenticators.

5.25-50: Final Discussion/Questions: Charles Hope, Moderator.

5.50-5.55: Closing Remarks: Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law.

6.00-7.30: RECEPTION


Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship

30 September 2014

“Buy land”, Mark Twain advised, “they’re not making it anymore”. This logic ought to apply to the old masters but does not. Land makes sound investment not only because of its scarcity and its potential for development but because, in law-abiding societies, it comes fixed with legally defendable boundaries. Karl Marx, plundering English classical economists, held that all value is unlocked by human labour – but all labour does not generate equal values. In given periods and places all painters work pretty much with the same materials but their artistic transformations of those materials are various and unequal in accomplishment and merit. Such differences drive reputations and hence the market value of artists’ works but they do so in ways that are intrinsically problematic.

Artists’ reputations may or may not endure. With many surviving works the identities of authors are either not securely established or entirely unknown. In such cases paintings are appraised and then attributed to particular artists or schools. Attributions, however, are neither guaranteed nor immutable. They are made on mixtures of professional judgement, artistic appraisal, art critical conjecture and, sometimes, wishful thinking or deceiving intent. They remain open to revision, challenge, manipulation or abuse. The experts who make attributions exist in professional rivalry with one another (sometimes with vehemence) and while their disagreements are signs of art critical health, a consequence is that legal guarantees for attributions are untenable and non-existent, as some buyers later discover to their costs. Buyers are advised in the small print to beware and to proceed on their own judgement. With art, as we recently pointed out (see Endnote 1) it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting (- and few people would dream of buying a house without legal searches and a structural survey.)

“Scientific” red herrings

In recent years attempts have been made to impart quasi-legal assurances to attributions by appealing to the authority of supposedly “scientifically verifiable” technical proofs. The exercise is vain and, technically, philistine: by its very nature, art is not reducible to scientifically quantifiable component parts. The technical evidence cult reflects a collapse of confidence in powers of connoisseurship on the one hand and a grab for cultural and institutional power by technocrats and bureaucrats on the other. The new hybrid discipline “Technical Art History” in which restorers, conservation scientists and curators pool expertises in attempt to arrive at professionally impregnable positions, has proved pernicious. Art-politically, this united front seeks to neutralise all charges of art critical and methodological failure with professional mystification and displacement activities – by fostering a “closed-shop” mentality and claiming that its mysteries are beyond the reach of any outsiders [2]. The new technocrats insufficiently appreciate that paintings are no more and no less than the products of artists who, working by brain, eye and hand, fix values and the relationships between values so as to produce specific and unique artistic effects that can be comprehended by others using eyes and minds in response. In the visual arts the visual should remain paramount – what you see is what it is about. Art loving viewers and professional art experts alike might be said to have duties of appropriate response to art itself and not to its shadows and encumbrances. It is the optically perceived quality of artists’ artefacts that drives reputations and market values. Understanding art is not the same thing as poking and poring over the component parts of its fabric – let alone presuming, as “restorers” (or now, “conservators”) perpetually do, to undo and redo its features at regular intervals. What matters is what you see, not what might be said or thought to lie under the surface.

Managing lapses of connoisseurship

This is not, of course, to say that technical examinations can serve no purposes. Rather, it is to say that in matters of art attribution and appreciation technical examinations of the physical composition of works might supplement informed visual appraisals but they cannot stand in lieu of them. Nor can the supposedly disinterested and neutral character of technical examinations themselves be taken at face value. In practice, with every technical investigation and its resulting “findings”, someone, some institution, some interest group, has commissioned/conducted the exercise and controlled its dissemination. Paintings in powerful institutionally-protected locations (particularly major museum) can be afforded dispensations from otherwise injurious findings [2]. It sometimes seems that just as banks are now too big to be allowed to fail, so big museum attributions cannot be allowed to fall, whatever evidence and arguments accumulate against them [3], for fear of undermining public, political and art market confidence.

Follow the money and look at the drawings

Concerning the frequency of art world upgrades, it would seem easier to grow old master drawings than paintings. Where only 250 sheets of drawings were attributed to Michelangelo in the 1960s, today that oeuvre has been expanded to over 600 sheets. Although drawings do not command the high prices of paintings they can greatly assist their attributions. In the late 1920s a firm of antiquarian dealers in Holland, R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam, sold a number of old master drawings some of which have ended in museums, and two of which concern us here (Figs. 1 and 2). Neither of these had a provenance (i.e. a proven history of previous ownership). Both had simply materialised in the dealers’ hands with old master attributions. The first sold in 1927 for 26 florins (guilders), some € 235.80 at today’s values. The second sold two years later for 750 florins, some €6,801.91 today. The first was attributed to van Dyck, the second to Veronese. Neither attribution survived and the original perplexing ratio of value between them (which approached thirty to one) has reversed dramatically.

The Veronese attribution crashed in 1984 when Richard Cocke published his catalogue raisonné Veronese’s Drawings and dismissed the drawing with the single (apt) sentence: “The heavy forceful cross-hatching in the drapery and the forms of the head and hands have nothing to do with Veronese.” That drawing sold in 1991 at Christie’s for £7,000 as “attributed to Agostino Carracci”. In contrast, the former van Dyck drawing morphed into the work that sold at Christie’s on July 10th as an autograph Rubens ink sketch for a world record Rubens drawing price of £3,218,500. The former “van Dyck” has thus enjoyed a 14,000-fold increase of value since 1927.

The extraordinary success of the van Dyck that is now a Rubens was due only in part to Christie’s masterful promotion. It was very much on the strength of its current art-historical position that the drawing was drum-rolled as the starred lot in a sale of part of the prestigious I. Q. van Regteren Altena drawings collection. Most helpfully of all, the drawing was precisely characterised as Rubens’s “first thought” preparatory ink sketch for the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah painting (Fig. 4). Notwithstanding its anomalous traits (see our previous post), its artistic shortcomings and its dubious provenance, the drawing remains bolstered by its crucial allotted role in a sequence of three Samson and Delilahs, two of which have been acquired by museums (Figs. 3 & 4). Although Christie’s July 10 sale realised more than twice its highest estimates and broke many records for individual artists, only one of the top ten works went to an art gallery or museum. Two were sold on to the trade. Seven, including the Samson and Delilah drawing, went to anonymous individuals.

Making four Rubens’s

Christie’s catalogue entry burnishes the drawing’s pedigree with upbeat optimism. It is said for example: “When I. Q. van Regteren Altena bought the drawing in 1927, he listed it in his inventory under its traditional attribution to Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). That attribution also accounts for an earlier owner’s inscription of the letters ‘V.D.’ in the lower left corner.” What traditional attribution? Which earlier owners? Christie’s account of the provenance begins: “with R.W.P. de Vries Amsterdam; from whom purchased by I.Q. van Regteren Altena on 20 December 1927 for 26 guilders (‘387.t. A. v. Dijck. Samson & Delilah’)”. And that is all. There had been no previous owners and no evidence exists of any “traditional” reception as a van Dyck – or anything. Any suppositions aside, all that can safely be said is that this drawing emerged from nowhere at a time when forgery was rife and the art world suffered from what Bernard Berenson [!] described as “the universal tendency to ascribe a given work of art to the greatest artist to whom wishful thinking and excited imagination can ascribe it.” (“Essays in Appreciation”, 1958, p. 95.)

Christie’s entry continues: “With the emergence of the finished painting and the connected oil sketch the drawing’s significance rapidly became apparent.” There was no rapidity and the claimed significance is mythic. The supposed second stage oil sketch or modello did not appear until 1966. The claim that, “The picture of Samson and Delilah was only rediscovered in 1929”, also misleads. The painting was not “rediscovered” as a Rubens. It had never been a Rubens. When it appeared in 1929 it was, just like the ink drawing three years earlier, without provenance and it was not judged a Rubens by its German dealers, Van Diemen and Benedict, who were offering it as a Honthorst. It was later upgraded to Rubens in a certificate of authenticity by Dr Ludwig Burchard and it then sold in 1930 to August Neurburg, a German tobacco magnate.

Burchard was a leading Rubens scholar, but today his attributions have a notoriously poor record [4]. Far from the ink drawing being corroborated as a first stage sketch by the arrival of the painting, Burchard had upgraded the painting on the authority of the drawing which he had himself upgraded to Rubens in 1926. In Christie’s catalogue the drawing’s “Literature” begins with Burchard’s attribution: “L. Burchard, ‘Die Skizzen des jungen Rubens’ in Sitzungsberichte der Kunstgeschichtlichen Gesellschaft, Berlin, 8 October 1926, p. 30, no. 2.” At that date no one had previously owned or discussed the work. Burchard thus upgraded a drawing that had never been exhibited and was in a dealer’s hands without any provenance. Notwithstanding his claims on behalf of the drawing, in 1927 both the dealer selling and the collector buying still held it to be a van Dyck.

When the modello eventually appeared in 1966 it had no provenance. Its history consisted of a hearsay account (from the anonymous lady vendor) of an ancestor said to have bought the work for a few shillings in an antique shop in York during the 1930s because she liked the frame. This supposed Rubens oil sketch had been painted on a support that is found in none of the artist’s oil sketches – on a soft, conifer wood, not on his customary oak panel. Its appearance was, for a Rubens oil sketch, disturbingly close in design and effects to those of both the ink drawing and the finished painting (see Figs. 2, 3 and 4). Its arrival completed an unicum in Rubens’ oeuvre: a suite of stages of work without evidence of development. Notwithstanding that problem, the modello on the wrong wood was given to Rubens by Christie’s themselves, to join the company of a panel painting whose back, it later emerged, had disappeared in an operation for which no one acknowledged responsibility, and a drawing whose back was concealed by being pasted onto a second sheet even though it bore drawing itself. The modello sold to a London gallery for £24,000, going to a private collector before passing through Agnews to the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1972. The last of the trio to emerge, this technically problematic work-without-provenance was the first to achieve museum status. At some point, pieces of wood were removed from its sides (creating a closer compositional alignment with what is now the National Gallery painting) and, at another, the Cincinnati museum claimed the panel to be oak. Presently the wood is not identified, the work being described as on “panel”.

Why? Why? Why? Delilah?

In July 1980, the supposed third stage, the Samson and Delilah painting, was sold by Neurburg’s heirs through Christie’s to Agnews, acting on behalf of the National Gallery, for a then Rubens world record price of £2.53m. In 2002, with two parts of the Samson and Delilah trio now secure in museums and the third in a respected private collection, Sotheby’s sold a painting, The Massacre of the Innocents (see Fig. 13), as an autograph Rubens on the back of its perceived shared characteristics and collections history with the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah for £49.5m, to Lord (Kenneth) Thompson. Even though those paintings are riddled with problems (see “Is this really a Rubens?” Michael Daley, Art Review, July/August 1997, and “Is this a Rubens?” Michael Daley, Jackdaw, October 2002), and the Samson and Delilah had been challenged for over a decade [5], the price was an outright old masters’ world record. Thompson loaned the Massacre to the National Gallery and then bequeathed it to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, thereby making it publicly available and greatly enhancing its pedigree. Thus, today, three high valued well-placed but individually problematic museum Rubens’s owe their positions to a belated acceptance of Burchard’s initial attribution of what is still a privately (but now anonymously) owned ink drawing.

Who cut Samson’s toes?

The reason why all of these subsequent Rubens upgrades rest on the authority of this ink drawing is because of a glaringly anomalous feature in the National Gallery painting – the fact that the toes of Samson’s right foot are cropped by the edge of the picture. This was not because the panel had been trimmed at some point. Rather, it is because the painting simply stops disturbingly, inexplicably, at the beginning of the toes. Thus, without the drawing’s seeming testimony that Rubens had planned to crop Samson’s toes by cropping his own initial design within a precisely drawn ruled box that anticipated (even before he had executed an oil sketch) the final format of what is now the National Gallery painting, that painting could never have been attributed to him. This is so for reasons that are implicit in Burchard’s 1930 certificate of authenticity. It read:

“The photographed painting on the other page is one of Peter Paul Rubens’ major works from the time of the master’s return from Italy. It must have been painted in 1609 or 1610. With Rubens’ agreement, Jacob Matham reproduced the painting with a copper engraving around 1615. As witnessed by the inscription of the painting, the picture at that time was in the possession of Antwerp mayor Nicolas Rockox. Indeed, the inventory of Nic. Rockox’ estate, dated 19 Dec. 1640, lists the picture as “Eene schilderne…(Annales de l’Academie d’Archaeologie de Belgique, Anvers 1881, p. 437). On pp. 143-44 in vol. I of 1886, the five-volume catalogue of Rubens’ work by Max Rooses, the painting is described in detail as number 115, based on the Matham engraving and mentioning the Rockox inventory. The picture itself remained as unknown to Rooses as to all literature since. It is further notable that a picture of an interior by Frans Francken (Pinakothek Munchen No 720), which appeared to be of mayor Rockox’s living room, showing the painting in pride of place above the mantelpiece, while in an adjoining room is the picture of the “Doubting Thomas” which we know Rubens painted for Rockox. According to S. Hartveld of Antwerp, the room with the mantelpiece exists even today in the Kaiserstraat in Antwerp where Frau Gruter-Van der Linden now lives in the Rockox house. A sketch for the Samson picture (pen, varnished, 16.4 x 16.2) is in Amsterdam in the collection of Mr J.Q. Regteren, Altena. The picture is in a remarkably good state of preservation, with even the back of the panel in its original condition.” [By courtesy of the National Gallery Archives Department.]

Note, even as Burchard asserts that this is the original painting of the subject that Rubens is known to have made shortly after 1608, he acknowledges that the original painting itself had universally been understood to have been lost since 1641. (To this day, despite detailed and sustained searches, nothing connects the present version to the original painting.) Crucially, Burchard also acknowledges that the appearance of the original Samson and Delilah had been recorded in two contemporary copies, one of which had been supervised by Rubens. Both of these copies by two artists who likely worked decades apart, testify that Samson’s original right foot had not been (improbably) cropped at the toes, as in the National Gallery version, but had originally been painted intact and set comfortably inside the composition and consistently with the artist’s known manner. See, for example, the almost contemporary, probably pendant (and near mirror-image compositional group) Cimon and Pero – “Roman Charity”, at Fig. 9.

A perplexing silence

It was in defiance of such hard historical testimony that Burchard claimed his own upgraded ink drawing to be not only by Rubens but, specifically, to be his preliminary sketch for the former Honthorst painting that is now in the National Gallery. When attributing that painting to Rubens Burchard executed a sleight of hand by implying but not stating that the ink drawing (which had only recently been sold as a van Dyck) was by Rubens. The truth is this ink drawing-from-nowhere and without-history had needed to exist if the Berlin Honthorst were to be presented remotely credibly as a Rubens. Had Burchard sincerely believed that the cropped-foot drawing was Rubens’ original ink sketch, he would have felt himself the agent of a remarkable double art historical coup: first, for having identified a famous masterpiece that had been lost for 289 years; second, for having further established that both of the contemporary copies of that original Rubens’ painting (through which it had been known for centuries), had been compositionally misleading in identical manners.

Conspicuously, Burchard trumpeted neither of these “discoveries” [6]. His diffidence contrasts markedly with the reaction of the day’s leading Vermeer scholar, Dr. Abraham Bredius, who believed in 1937 that he had found an unknown Vermeer (in what was the first of a stream of Han van Meegeren fakes). Firstly, Bredius’ certificate of authenticity was ecstatically and unreservedly fulsome: “…I found it hard to contain my emotions when this masterpiece was first shown to me and many will feel the same who have the privilege of beholding it. Composition, expression, colour – all combine to an unity of the highest art, the highest beauty”. Secondly, he rushed news of his discovery onto the scholarly record via the Burlington Magazine (“A New Vermeer”, November 1937).

If Bredius betrayed credulousness as an eighty-two year old scholar, what of Burchard’s manoeuvres as a forty-four year old at the peak of his powers? It can only be said that suspicions are in order. When, shortly after the First World War, the great German scholar, Wilhelm von Bode, was reproached for having certificated an implausible Petrus Christus, he replied, “You don’t understand the intricacies of the German language. After a brief description of the subject I say ‘I have never seen a Petrus Christus like this!'” (- “The Partnership”, Colin Simpson, 1987, p. 240). One must suspect that Burchard’s twinned and circular Rubens attributions were made sotto voce out of fear that his “attributional” heist might be exposed by anyone with an alert eye who appreciated that it is surprisingly common for later copies of original works to be cruder compositionally cut-down and abridged versions – and who would, therefore, recognise the “Honthorst” as a prime member of that type.

We have found that not only are such insensitively truncated pictures frequently encountered (in Rubens twice-over with the Samson and Delilah and the Ontario Massacre, and in artists like Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci – see opposite) but, also, that with a little effort they can in almost every instance be shown to post-date the superior models and prototypes from which they derive. As shown opposite, in copyists’ hands, no part of an original composition can be considered sacrosanct. As well as toes, dogs’ noses and cupids’ wings, even portions of dead infants have been cropped to fit pre-existing images to new supports and formats. Mistaking a copy for an absent original is one thing. Disregarding clear and contrary historical evidence, as Burchard would seem to have done, is another altogether. Knowingly elevating adulterated versions to a master’s oeuvre pollutes the well of scholarship and ultimately threatens the credibility of the field.

Such lapses of critical judgement are as common in appraisals of restorations as they are in the making of attributions. How much or little of an original surface has survived the vicissitudes of time and “conservators” attentions might seem a lesser matter but it is not. Professional art critical failures to spot the tell-tale differences between autograph and studio works are the twins of failures to recognise restoration-induced injuries. The differences of states within individual works can be as pronounced as the differences between autograph and studio works (see Figs. 28a, 28b, 29 and 30). Failures of judgement in both areas are frequently found in even the most high-ranking individual scholars.

Making two Caravaggios in one decade

Within little more than a decade the late Sir Denis Mahon upgraded two pictures to autograph Caravaggio status. This might seem unremarkable given that Mahon was a prolific finder/maker of old masters. What is remarkable is that he did so with two versions (of more than a dozen) of the same painting – Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. This Caravaggio survives in two formats, one being a truncated version of the other. Mahon managed to endorse one version of each type, doing so in the wake of two “investigative” restorations in which each team claimed revealed authenticity on the basis of its own “discoveries”. (Mahon had serious form in the double attributions stakes – we discuss opposite a painting of Annibale Carracci where he authenticated one version and later suavely switched to another, less abridged, picture. See Figs. 25-30.)

During the first restoration in 1993 in Dublin, a long-attributed Honthorst copy was found to have been made largely without revisions and it was declared the original autograph Caravaggio by Mahon precisely by virtue of its revisions-light painterly fluency. This version was of the truncated type. In Rome in 2004 Mahon conferred autograph Caravaggio status on a work from Florence (where acquired from the Sannini family) that was found to have been made with many and major revisions taken to be “serious afterthoughts as was Caravaggio’s wont”. This version was composed in the larger format and Mahon reportedly said he had “no doubt that this was now the original work”. Dublin was not best pleased and Mahon promptly rowed his position back and claimed that both versions were now original but that one was rather more so than the other. (See “New twist in the tale of two Caravaggios”, Daily Telegraph, 17 February 2004; “A dangerous business”, Michael Daley, letter, Daily Telegraph, 19 February 2004; and, “The real Caravaggio is . . . both of them” Daily Telegraph, 20 February 2004.)

Like the two R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam drawings, the two “autograph” Mahon Caravaggios have enjoyed unequal fortunes. In 1993 the (revisions-light) Dublin Caravaggio was loaned to the National Gallery in London and then, permanently, to the National Gallery in Dublin. The later 2004 Florence/Rome Caravaggio with numerous major revisions and other “cast iron” technical proofs enjoyed no institutional protection, being still in private hands. Its cause seems to have fallen into abeyance following legal disputes over ownership. In 2005 the initial 1993 “discovery” of the now institutionally protected Dublin Caravaggio (Mahon enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the National Gallery in London, as a trustee and as a generous benefactor-in-waiting) became the subject of an illuminating, if somewhat parti pris book, “The Lost Painting”, by Jonathan Harr.

In an epilogue, Harr has described a falling-out over the ownership of the Florence/Rome version. Technical examinations of the painting were ordered by court prosecutors without the knowledge of the owners. They were carried out by Maurizio Seracini, a leading private technical diagnostician who has examined something like half of Caravaggio’s output. The pigment Naples Yellow, which contains the metal antinomy, was found. Because that pigment is presently said not to have been used on paintings before 1630 (or “from around 1620”, according to Wikipedia), and therefore twenty years after Caravaggio’s death in 1610, Seracini held the painting inauthentic. Harr accepts the force of this technical testimony and, concluding that Mahon had demonstrably blundered in his support for the Rome/Florence painting, imagines that that old scholar’s long-time adversary, Roberto Longhi, might now be enjoying “a mirthless laugh” over Mahon’s discomfiture. The conclusion was hasty and perhaps too trusting of technical testimony.

It is certainly the case that the presence of a modern, manufactured pigment within the fabric of a supposedly old painting can safely be considered fatal to an attribution. However, Naples Yellow is not a product of a known and precisely dated modern manufacture – such as Prussian Blue of 1704 – it is ancient and greatly pre-dates Christ. Harr acknowledges that the pigment is found on a painting of 1615 by Orazio Gentileschi – just five years after Caravaggio’s death. Harr further reports that traces of this pigment had been found on another Caravaggio, his Martydom of St Ursula, which is owned by Banca Intesta in the Palazzo Zevallos, Naples. He reports a suggestion that the offending material might have come from an 18th century restoration that had subsequently been removed. Such hypothetical exculpation would only be necessary if claims that Naples Yellow could not have been used by anyone before 1630 were Gospel and if the painting’s attribution was insecure. Neither is the case. The Martyrdom is one of Caravaggio’s most reliably and completely documented works so there can be no question about its authenticity. Further, it was almost certainly his last work. It was recorded as still being wet in May 1610. If this painting contains antimony, and unless evidence exists to support the former existence of a now entirely disappeared 18th century restoration, we should accept that this material has now been found in two Caravaggio paintings and adjust the technical literature chronologies accordingly.

In this episode, we see that negative hard “scientific evidence” can be discounted on the basis of assumptions, hunches, and suspicions. We also see that the claimed chronologies of materials within the literature of technical analysis are moveable and, only ever, provisional feasts. (For such chronologies to be considered reliable it would be necessary for every painting in the world to be analysed at the same time by the most advanced technologies – and even then, subsequent technical advances would require further examinations: it is common for old formerly “advanced” tests to be re-run in conservation departments when new and improved apparatus become available.) We have asked Seracini, in the light of Harr’s comments, if “it is still the case that the presence of antimony is considered an absolute technical disqualification in paintings made before 1630?” Meanwhile, Jacques Franck, the Consulting Expert to The Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at The University of California, Los Angeles, advises that:

“The best scientific bibliographic reference concerning the history and chemistry of pigments over here is: J. Petit, J. Roire, H. Valot, “Des liants et des couleurs pour servir aux artistes peintres et aux restaurateurs”, EREC éditeur, Puteaux, 1995. Regarding Naples yellow, it says: ‘(Lead antimonate yellow) was rediscovered in Europe at the end of the Middle-Ages and was later mentioned in a document dating from 1540, “Pirotechnia”. The oldest recipes, written in 1556-1559, were supplied by Cipriano Piccolpaso…who was a painter of ceramics”

Although those recipes were indeed written primarily in connection with ceramics, given that they existed before Caravaggio’s birth (1571) it should never have been insisted that knowledge of them could not have been obtained by contemporary painters. As it happens, a study on Lorenzo Lotto’s pigments was made in connection with the exhibition “Lorenzo Lotto” (Venezia, 1480 – Loreto, 1556-57) at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome in spring 2011. On that occasion, more than fifty Lotto paintings spanning from 1505 to around 1556 were studied using non-invasive techniques by Maria Letizia Amadori, Pietro Baraldi, Sara Barcelli and Gianluca Poldi. The authors’ report (pages 2 and 19):

“About yellows, he uses both lead-tin and lead-antimony (Naples yellow) pigments, the latter found by XRF, in works starting from 1530 to the last years: it can be related to the ‘zalolin da vasarj’ cited by Lotto in 1541 in his account book (Libro di spese diverse)”, and, “As XRF analyses show, in some works, starting from 1530 to the last years of the century, also lead-antimony (Naples yellow) pigments, can be found, together with the previous yellow or almost alone: they can be related to the “zalolin da vasarj” cited by Lotto in 1541 in his account book (Libro di spese diverse).”

Thus, the presence of antimony would seem not to have given grounds for dismissing the Florence/Rome version of the Taking in the courts. Perhaps we can see that it might have been more to the point for the courts to require the production of the best possible photographs of as many of the versions as possible to permit visual comparisons of the two rival versions. There are many indications of the limitations of modern conservation practices to be had in Harr’s fascinating account. On page 169 he describes an encounter between the Dublin National Gallery of Art’s two picture restorers, Andrew O’Connor and Sergio Benedetti (who had re-attributed the Hontorst Taking to Caravaggio, and who had experienced “a fleeting moment of doubt” about his attribution while cutting ever larger ‘windows’ through the painting’s varnish):

“One day, about three weeks after the painting’s arrival, O’Connor and Benedetti crossed paths in the studio. Benedetti was staring at the painting. He stood with his arms crossed, his eyes narrowed in concentration, his mouth compressed into a frown. ‘Look at the arm of Judas’, Benedetti said to O’Connor. ‘What do you think?’ O’Connor studied the painting. ‘What are you getting at?’ he asked. ‘It seems too short, doesn’t it?’ said Benedetti. It did…O’Connor realised that Benedetti was wrestling with his doubts. ‘Well’, said Benedetti finally, ‘he wasn’t a perfect anatomist. He made other errors like this. In the Supper at Emmaus, the apostle’s hand is too large.’”

In this recollection we might be witness to a double failure of art critical methodology. Given his doubts, Benedetti might have assembled all available photographs of the many versions of this painting to determine whether or not the short-coming that concerned him was unique or common to (some or all) other versions. A greater lapse may be evident in the fact that while Benedetti expressed anxiety over the arm of Judas, he seems not to have done so over the compositionally and emotionally more important advancing left arm of the fleeing St John who is seen behind Christ and Judas. In the Dublin version, the arm of St John is cropped above the elbow and not above the wrist as it is in the Florence/Rome version. (On the compositional function of the arm in the Florence/Rome version, see comments at Figs. 21 and 22.)

To repeat what should be self-evident: pictures are made to be looked at. When, as with this Caravaggio, multiple versions exist we should make hard detailed visual comparisons of each against the others, if necessary (and it could hardly be otherwise when so many versions exist) by photographic means. When later copies or engravings exist we should make careful comparative estimations of their relationships to the various contenders. Whenever there are cut-down versions of more expansive compositions, we should always consider which state is likelier to have been the primary and which the secondary one. Visual comparisons in attributions, as in restorations, are of the essence. They should never be neglected, let alone discounted, on the authority of some technical evidence that may or may not be soundly framed; that may or may not be selective or loaded in its presentation; and, that will, in any event, soon be rendered obsolete by more up-to-date equipment. The informed human eye is our best “diagnostic tool” in the study of art and will remain so no matter how much money and resources might be thrown into technical studies. It remains the greatest tragedy that Bernard Berenson so badly debased his own critical currency with his shady Duveen dealings. On the primacy of the visual in visual art forms he was peerless:

“I am here concerned with names in painting. When I pronounce the words Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Giorgione, Durer, Velazquez, Vermeer, Ingres, Manet, Degas and hundreds of others, each stands for certain qualities which I expect to find in a painting ascribed to them. If the expectation fails, then no argument, no documentary evidence, be it biographical, historical, psycho-analytical, or radiological and chemical will persuade me.”

That was and is how it should be.

Michael Daley

ENDNOTES:

1 The Times, letter, 13 August 2014:

“Sir, Gerald Fitzgerald (letter, Aug 12), misses an important point when calling for a tiny levy on art sales to fund an independent centre for provenance research. Although such a levy might cost only .05 per cent of annual art sales, currently standing at some $60 billion, if effective, such a centre would reduce the supply of works on the market by something like 40 per cent – at least in the view of the late Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The art world is very quick on its feet: when calls were made in the 1930s for an independent centre of art restoration research, then director of the National Gallery in London, Kenneth Clark, promptly established a department of conservation science in order, as he later confessed, to ‘have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to “prove” that every precaution had been taken’. Although self-policing may be an unrealistic ambition, governments could help considerably and at little cost by making it a statutory requirement that vendors should disclose all that is known and recorded about the provenance and the restoration treatments of works of art. As things stand, it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting.”

Michael Daley, Director, ArtWatch UK, London

2 The Massacre of the Innocents which came up at Sotheby’s on 10 July 2002 as a very recent Rubens upgrade is a case in point of misleading assurances and over-ridden technical evidence. In a long sale catalogue entry it was said that technical analyses and condition reports had been commissioned and that these were available on request. The implication was clear: we have exercised all possible due diligence and this painting has emerged with flying colours. That implicit reassurance evaporated on a close reading of the material – as we reported in the October 2002 Jackdaw (“Is this £49.5 million painting by Rubens?”). The reports were, by their nature dense and couched in technical language. Nonetheless they clearly contained information that was highly injurious to the attribution and to the picture’s claimed early dating of c. 1609-11. One technical fact alone should have sunk the attribution. It was found in the last paragraph of the last report. As we put it: “The author of a report on the tree-ring dating…concludes that a date of execution for the picture only becomes ‘plausible from 1615 upwards’.” In other words, the panel on which this picture was painted could not have been manufactured at the time the picture is said to have been painted – and this dating could not be amended because, like the Samson and Delilah, the picture was only remotely credible on stylistic grounds if seen as the product of a (fancifully claimed) brief stylistic abberation in Rubens’ oeuvre said to have occurred on his immediate return from Italy in 1608. As well as being on wood that was too recent, the picture contained the wrong materials: “A pigment, orpiment, that is found in no Rubens is present here. A second pigment, smalt, said to have been in use ‘mainly in the mid-seventeenth century’ and which seems only to be found in Rubens’ later works is also present. The orpiment yellow is anomalous not only in its presence but in its manner of application – it is mixed with lead-tin yellow. Such a combination is said to be ‘unusual since it was considered unstable’ and, even, to be a practice ‘not encountered in 17th century works’”. This was not just a twice-over dead attribution: “Speaking of Rubens’ debt to classical sources, the anonymous author of the catalogue entry correctly concedes, ‘one of the background figures appears to derive from the Borghese Gladiator’. There follows immediate self-disavowal: ‘it cannot’ so derive, he/she contends, because ‘though famous in subsequent centuries, the Borghese Gladiator was not excavated until late in 1611”. This painting on the wrong (too recent) wood, with what would normally be considered disqualifying (out of period)materials, and which contained a miraculous allusion to a future event, was presented to the world as a major art historical discovery. That “discovery” had taken place very shortly before the sale. The upgrading of this centuries old studio work had been made by just five experts only three of whom were identified. We put the question: “Can it be right that we are all being asked to share this leap of faith when the experts, displaying a seeming ignorance of – or disregard for – so much germane material evidence, have yet to declare their hands or publish accounts of their vital endorsements?”

3 Jonathan Harr reports in his 2005 account of the upgrading of a Honthorst to Caravaggio (“The Lost Painting” p. 222) that when the picture, The Taking of Christ, was examined at the National Gallery in London it was found that its ground (priming layer) was anomalous: Ashok Roy, the head of science, observed, as Harr reports, that “the composition of this particular ground was strange – ‘bizarre’ was the word used. It contained reds and yellows and large grains of green earth, a pigment composed of iron and magnesium. Grounds usually contained lead-based pigments and calcium, which dry quickly. Green earth dries slowly. This primer looked to Roy like a ‘palette-scraping’ ground – the painter had simply recycled leftover paints from his palette board to make the priming layer.” Well, yes, someone evidently had – but what in Roy’s detailed technical analysis of the ground might have suggested that on this occasion Caravaggio had departed from his own habits in order to do so? When the painting was exhibited in a special exhibition (“Caravaggio ~ The Master Revealed”) at the National Gallery of Ireland in 1993, the catalogue gave a different spin to Roy’s research: “Analyses have shown that the ground is composed of a brown pigment, heterogeneous and unevenly applied. Several pigments were mixed with it: lead white, red and yellow ochre, umber and large granuli of green earth.” On a casual reading: impressive and reassuring technical detail and expertise. No mention of bizarreness. No acknowledgement of what was for Dr. Roy, a perplexing departure from Caravaggio’s known practices. On page 160 Harr reports that Sergio Benedetti (the Dublin National Gallery of Art restorer who first made the attribution)“saw immediately that the painting had been relined at least once before” and judged the present lining canvas to be at least a hundred years old. In the National Gallery catalogue Benedetti reported that “the picture has undergone at least three interventions, probably accompanied each time by a relining of the canvas. One of these linings caused a shrinking of the surface in some limited areas.” What is not said is that Benedetti two of the three-plus hypothecated linings had been made by Benedetti himself the first having caused cracking. Harr reports that after the first lining “There is much dispute about what happened next. For Benedetti, restoring the Taking of Christ was the greatest moment in his professional career, and to this day he adamantly denies that he had any problem relining the painting. O’Connor and others at the gallery, however, tell a very different story. According to them, he came close to ruining the painting.” Andrew O’Connor, the Gallery’s chief restorer, said that Benedetti had elected to use a densely-woven Irish canvas rather than wait for an appropriately matching loose-weave canvas to arrive from Italy. When Michael O’Olohan, the gallery’s photographer, who had made detailed photographic records of every inch of the picture’s surface, saw the painting immediately after its first relining, he could not believe his eyes and recalled “There were areas that had hairline cracks, like a sheet of ice that has started to melt, a flash of cracks all over it. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.” O’Connor explained that because the Irish canvas was densely woven, “it did not absorb the [water-based] glue at the same rate as the old Italian canvas. It had not dried properly and had contracted, pulling with it the Italian canvas and raising ridges, small corrugations, in the paint surface. Along these corrugations, the paint layer had cracked and lifted.”

4 In the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21, (“The ‘Samson and Delilah’ ~ a question of attribution”), Kasia Pisarek wrote: “Dr. Ludwig Burchard was an active Rubens attributionist in Berlin before the Second World War and in London afterwards. Several paintings formerly attributed to Rubens’s school or studio or even to another artist (such as Sampson and Delilah), were reinstated by Burchard as by the master. I traced many of his attributions – he was not infallible in his judgement and changed his mind. Surprisingly, over 60 pictures attributed by Burchard to Rubens were later down-graded (in Corpus Rubenianum) to studio works, copies or imitations.”

5 The principal challenges to the attribution came from two artist/scholars, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, author of the award-winning 1995 book “The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt”, and Kasia Pisarek whose 2009 doctorate dissertation was entitled “Rubens and Connoisseurship ~ On the problems of attribution and rediscovery in the British and American collections (late XIX – XX c.)”. In 1986 Euphrosyne Doxiadis began researching the painting’s credentials with fellow art students Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson. Their findings were compiled in a report submitted to the National Gallery in 1992 and which is now held in the painting’s dossiers. (It is also available online at this site: www.afterrubens.org.) Their challenges to the attribution were covered in reports in the Times (“Artists raise fresh doubts on gallery’s Rubens masterpiece”, 22 September 1996, and “Expert denounces National Gallery’s Rubens”, 25 November 1996), and in The Independent on Sunday (“Tell-tale sign that £40m Rubens could be a copy”, 21 May 2000). Researches begun in 1990 by Kasia Pisarek prompted two articles on 5 October 1997 by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak (“A Rubens or a costly copy?” and “National’s £40m Rubens could be fake”). In the latter article, the then director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, conceded that “the scholar raises some serious questions that I cannot easily answer”.

6 As Dr. Pisarek put it in the ArtWatch UK Journal 21 (“The ‘Samson and Delilah’ ~ a question of attribution”): “Both the rediscovery and the sale of this early Rubens masterpiece should have been well publicised in the press, yet there are no records of it in any art magazine (I checked most art journals published in 1929-30). However, other, even minor, Rubens discoveries could easily be traced (‘Forgotten Rubens found in Austria’ – Art News, 1930; ‘Van Diemen sells notable Rubens’ – Art News, 1931 etc.) Strangely, the Samson and Delilah was not even included in Valentiner’s ‘Unknown Masterpieces’, co-edited with Burchard, and published in 1930, which presented important little-known and rediscovered paintings. Dr. Burchard only wrote about it briefly in 1933, and only in a short note.”

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Above, Fig. 1: A chalk drawing that originated with the firm R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam in 1929 and sold as a Veronese for 750 florins (guilders) or some €6,801.91 at today’s exchanges.
Below, Fig. 2: An ink and wash drawing that originated with the firm R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam in 1926 and sold the following year as a van Dyck for 26 florins (guilders), or some €235.80 at today’exchanges
Above, top, Fig. 2: The ink and wash drawing sold on 10 July 2014 as a preliminary ink sketch for Rubens’ Samson and Delilah painting.
Above, middle, Fig. 3: An oil painting on panel that sold at Christie’s for £24,000 in 1966 as Rubens’ oil sketch (or modello) for what is now the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah painting.
Above, Fig. 4: The oil painting on panel sold for £2.53m at Christie’s in 1980 to the National Gallery as Rubens’ original Samson and Delilah.
The three works above are claimed to comprise an entirely autograph suite of successive stages of Rubens’ treatment of Samson and Delilah.
Above, top, Fig. 5: An engraved copy (here as a mirror image) made in c. 1611-14 of Rubens’ (now lost) original Samson and Delilah painting.
Above, Fig. 6: A detail of a painting (made before 1640) by Frans Francken of the original Rubens Samson and Delilah as it was displayed in the home of his friend and patron Nicolaas Rockox. This painting and the engraving above both show that Samson’s right foot was originally intact and set comfortably away from the edge of the painting.
Above, top, Fig. 7: A larger detail of Frans Francken’s c. 1630-35 oil painting A Feast in the House of Nicolaas Rockox, showing the original Rubens Samson and Delilah in pride of place in Rockox’s home.
Above, Fig. 8: The National Gallery Rubens’ Samson and Delilah when on loan in 2007 to what is now the Rockoxhuis museum, Antwerp.
Above, top, Fig. 9: Rubens’ painting Cimon and Pero – “Roman Charity” of 1611-13 (here as a mirror image) in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
Above, Fig. 10: The National Gallery Samson and Delilah painting.
Comparison of the two works shows in the former, the exceptional grace, composure of design and warmth of colouring for which the artist is revered, while the latter asserts an uncharacteristic stridency that required the National Gallery to posit a “special-but-brief” stylistic Rubens interlude.
Above (left) Fig. 11a: Cimon’s feet, as painted by Rubens. Above (right) Fig. 11b: The right-hand edge of the National Gallery Samson and Delilah.
It is not credible to suggest than an artist so brilliantly attentive to feet and hands might have painted the foot encountered in the National Gallery.
Above, top, Fig. 12: The version of Rubens The Massacre of the Innocents that is owned by the Musée des Beaux-arts in Brussels.
Above, Fig. 13: The version of Rubens The Massacre of the Innocents loaned to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
Just as the National Gallery’s The Virgin of the Rocks (below) is a cut-down replica version of the Louvre’s Leonardo original, so the Ontario Massacre of the Innocents is a cut-down version of the larger canvas at the Musée des Beaux-arts in Brussels. Although now said to be a “studio replica” the latter was judged original by such eminent Rubens authorities, as Gluck, Held, Van Puyvelde and Michael Jaffé.
The cropping of motifs in the Ontario version seems particularly insensitive as it includes the two murdered infants who, in the Brussels version, were depicted whole and set (like Samson’s original toes) comfortably inside the edge of the painting. How likely is it that Rubens would have cropped his figures in this manner or, if by chance he had, that a copyist would presume to extend and make whole his composition ?
Above, Figs. 14a and 14b. The regretably unequal photographic quality of this comparison does not mitigate the disturbing cropping of the infants in the Ontario version (left) which, like the National Gallery Samson and Delilah, spent many years as studio copy in the Liechtenstein Collection.
Above, top, Figs. 15a and 15b: Left, the Louvre’s original Leonardo da Vinci The Virgin of the Rocks; right, the National Gallery’s later version of the painting.
Above, Figs. 16a and 16b: The infant St. John in Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks (left) and (right) the infant in the National Gallery’s later version of the painting.
In the latter we encounter an uncharacteristic indifference to design, sloppiness of treatment and iconographic brutality in the depiction of an infant saint. While the securely autograph Louvre painting has never been in question, considerable argument has arisen over the extent to which Leonardo’s hand is present in the National Gallery version.
In the catalogue to the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci ~ Painter to the Court of Milan”, the gallery’s head of restoration, Larry Keith, (who had restored the Virgin of the Rocks prior to the exhibition), was in no doubt that the London version was entirely autograph. He wrote of “discoveries” made in the course of restoration:
“…What we discover is a painter firmly grounded in traditional practice who was able to stretch his methods and materials to express unprecedented intellectual and artistic concerns. However, these painterly interests were only a part of a larger pursuit; he believed that careful observation of all manner of natural phenomena was essential for both new knowledge and a deeper understanding….The National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks is a painting that is at once unique and highly representative of how Leonardo worked. Produced in fits and starts over the last 15 or so years of a commission that took 25 years to complete, it is a composition of the most artful complexity and an image where local colour was sublimated to the newer demands of tonal unity…The National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks…is manifestly uneven in finish and execution but, perhaps, paradoxically, this quality allows us to explore key issues in his painterly practice – methods, materials, collaboration, delegation and finish – and thereby understand better the larger question of the relationship between his painting techniques and his artistic intent…”
Needless to say, this conviction that the picture is an entirely autograph, unique-but-representative Leonardo is not universally accepted. Even at the National Gallery, Leonardo’s authorship has not always been accepted. In 1947 the curator Martin Davies took issue with the picture’s very many doubters (who included the recently former director of the gallery, Kenneth Clark):
“It has to be admitted at the outset that the identification of Leonardo da Vinci’s pictures is by no means the sure and simple thing one might think. It is a fact that there exists no picture of his Milanese period that has not at one time been rejected by famous critics; except for the Cenacolo, which is ruined, and hardly suitable for stylistic criticism at all! The whole subject of Leonardo’s style is therefore somewhat doubtful; but in the particular case of the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery, there has been a good deal of agreement that Leonardo himself painted little or none of it…”
Davies believed the critics to be wrong, but in making his case he conceded many things germane to our concerns here. He acknowledged that this painting was a replica and that it was “quite likely under these circumstance that he [Leonardo] had no great interest in the work”. Although a replica in the sense that Leonardo had been obliged to paint a second version of a commission, Davies draws an ingenious distinction: “the picture is not simply a replica” because so much time had passed that Leonardo had left one artistic era and entered another, making “the picture […] the replica of a work in an older and different style”. Leonardo’s new style “was perhaps expressed rather imperfectly, because the picture is a replica.”
The National Gallery’s suggestion that its “Rubens” Samson and Delilah does not look like any of its twenty-odd secure Rubens’s because he had worked for a brief period in a style like none of his others was a desperate denial of the fact that its “out-of-style” traits stem from its true status as a replica. A more frank acceptance of the Virgin of the Rocks’ acknowledged replica status might might have spared decades of convoluted apologias. Where Larry Keith sees in the Virgin of the Rocks material evidence throughout that “careful observation of all manner of natural phenomena was essential for both new knowledge and a deeper understanding”, another student of Leonardo and Nature, Ann Pizzorusso (who trained as a geologist before becoming an art historian) took an entirely contrary view. For Pizzorusso, the gallery’s claims of some radical shift of style as a means of accounting for the London picture’s problems were entirely and demonstrably without foundation. She was clear on this site that no shift of style could account the picture’s problems because none had occurred:
“Using a date of 1510 for the Virgin and St. Anne and a date of 1483-86 for the Virgin of the Rocks, both in the Louvre, we have proof that Leonardo did not change his style, and that, if anything, he became more fanatical in his quest for geologic accuracy, developing new paints and techniques for natural depiction and driving his students to deliver the most accurate depiction of nature in their own works. So we must ask the question ‘How and why could Leonardo have changed his style to produce a work so lacking in geological and botanical accuracy as the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery in London?’ There is no evidence Leonardo changed his style and now, with the recently cleaned Virgin and St. Anne, we have that proof. We also know that his students were inculcated with his passion for accurate depiction of natural objects so we must also exclude his students as authors of the National Gallery work.”
Writing nearly a decade earlier than Davies, Kenneth Clark, discussed the head of the angel in the London Virgin of the Rocks in his 1938 book of (marvellous black and white comparative photographs) “One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery”. Of the angel’s head, he wrote “This is the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable…” For Clark, changes in Leonardo’s work over the years were evident, but unlike Davies later and Keith much later, he seems not to have seen evidence of the Later Leonardo equally and everywhere across the painting. For Clark, this curate’s egg of a picture was, in only select parts, very, very good indeed. Of the angel’s head:
“Beautiful as it is, this angel lacks the enchantment of the lighter more Gothic angel in the Paris version. It embodies the result of Leonardo’s later researches in which ideal beauty and and classic regularity of chiarascuro were combined, with a certain loss in freshness, but with an expressive power which almost hypnotized his contemporaries.”
Clark was onto something interesting when speaking of Leonardo’s “hand” – the characteristic touch and surface of his paintwork. It so happens that there was a tool to hand that could have been the greatest boon to those charged with making attributions: high quality micro-photography. Clark, as his own two books of National Gallery details show, was certainly alert to the potency of high quality photographs but he used his comparisons of details to flag up differences between artists in their treatments of similar subjects. That was a perfectly interesting and instructive application. He overlooked, however, the possibility (and the great profitability) of taking, assembling and collating many thousands of details from the most secure, “Gold Standard” paintings, so as to create visual benchmark indicators of artists’ distinctive methods. (Just imagine Morelli and His Ears in an era of digital photography and computers.) If the failure to pursue such programmes in the immediate impoverished years after the Second World War might be excusable, what excuse exists in today’s digital era? The pioneering photographs (shown here at Figs. 18 and 19) by Professor A. P. Laurie in his 1949 book “The Technique of the Great Painters” constituted a perfect template for a means of more accurate visual appraisals – we surely have fewer excuses today than any generation in history for stumbling as if half-blind through the minefield of attribution?
Below, Fig. 17: Martin Davies’ 1947 large format essay on the gallery’s Virgin of the Rocks carried 16 highly informative plates (including this one below of the infant St. John which appears to suggest multiple but vain attempts to keep the toes within the picture?
Above: an unexplained cropped foot
DOGS THAT DON’T BARK
Below: an almost never-used photographic method of comparing brush strokes
Above, Fig. 18: Professor A. P. Laurie explained the significance of this pair of spliced photographs in his 1949 book “The Technique of the Great Painters”:
“This illustration is a photomicrograph of the highlight on the shoulder of [Rembrandt’s] Woman Bathing, National Gallery, No.54. The patch pasted on is from a photomicrograph of a picture whose attribution had to be tested. It will be seen that the brushwork is identical in both cases. It is possible for a skilled forger to imitate a signature, but it is quite impossible to combine the quality of the paint, the nature of the brush, and the handling of the painter, so as to reproduce this complete identity.”
Below, Fig. 19: Prof. Laurie explained the significance of the brushwork below in these terms:
“There is a very interesting portrait of Verdonck [in the National Gallery of Scotland] holding in his hand the jawbone of an ass. It was known from an engraving that such a picture must have existed, but it had apparently disappeared. The Edinburgh gallery possessed a picture by Frans Hals of a man holding a wine glass in his hand. An X-ray revealed that underneath the the wine glass was a painting of the jawbone of an ass which had been painted out by some restorer and replaced by the wine glass. On careful cleaning, the restorer’s work was removed…[this photomicrograph reveals] the rapidity with which Frans Hals laid in stroke after stroke with absolute certainty. In fact the painting seems to be alive, and one can almost see the brush moving over the surface. it would be impossible to mistake this work for the brushwork of Rembrandt…”
Above, Fig. 20:“From Duccio to Raphael ~ Connoisseurship in Crisis”, James H. Beck, Florence, Italy, 2006
In this his last book, the late Professor James Beck of Columbia University, and the founder of ArtWatch International in 1992, wrote:
“Two paintings, a mini aspiring Raphael da Urbino Madonna and an equally tiny aspiring Duccio di Buoninsegna Madonna were sold for record prices in 2004. The first was bought by London’s National Gallery and the second by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. These objects and the mode in which their attributions to their famous presumed authors were achieved document a breakdown in modern connoisseurship. The two objects represent a total expenditure of public money exceeding 100 million dollars for pictures the size of a sheet of paper. These remarkable sales could not have transpired without the participation of art experts whose role was indispensable in offering authentifications of the pictures. This book will seek to define the system of attributing works of art, examine the methodology, treat in depth case studies of recent connoisseurship including the two pictures just mentioned. In addition to what is regarded as a monumental failure on the part of the experts, the use and misuse of public funds is an issue that lies just beneath the surface.”
Above, top, Fig. 21: The version of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ in the National Museum of Art, Odessa.
Above, top, Fig. 22: The version of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ that was formerly in the Ladis Sannini collection in Florence; was then restored in Rome and authenticated by Sir Denis Mahon; and, is presently being held during legal proceedings.
This small pair of photographs from 1967 is sufficient to show the profound compositional consequences of an extension of one work or a truncation of another. Regardless of the photographs’ poor quality and regardless of the paintings’ relative merits, (both of these, incidentally, have been supported as autograph), the question can be posed in the abstract: Which of the two compositional formats is likelier to be the prime version? Further, if Caravaggio had painted in the truncated format, would he or a copyist then likely have added an extension to the arm of the fleeing disciple in another version? Our feeling is that the Florence format has to be considered to be superior compositionally; more dynamic dramatically; less like a stiff and claustrophobic tableau; and, altogether more expressive of the magnitude of the pandemonium and horror that attended Judas’ fateful act. Whether the Florence picture is the original autograph version has to be established but reports of its pronounced revisions weigh in its favour. Desperately needed is a collation of high quality photographs of all the versions of the paintings, along with detailed photographs of the same, or greater, quality of those published by Prof. Laurie.
Above, Figs. 23 and 24: The Dublin and Rome/Florence versions of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, as reproduced in the Daily Telegraph. Sir Denis Mahon deemed both of these works – at the same time – to be the Caravaggio original.
Above, Figs. 25 and 26: The Prado’s Annibale Carracci’s Venus, Adonis and Cupid, of c. 1588-90, top, as photographed in 1965 (by Hauser y Menet) and before restoration; and, above, as seen after a restoration funded by The Fundación Reale.
Of the two versions (see a detail of the rival Vienna picture below at Fig. 28b) Mahon has supported both as the authentic original work – but this time did so consecutively, not simultaneously, as with the Caravaggio Taking. He championed the Vienna picture until the Prado one emerged. Unabashed, he saw merit in his own mistake, saying (in the 2005 exhibition catalogue) of his critical re-positioning :
“When I first wrote about this composition, some fifty years ago, my observations on style and chronology were based not on the Prado painting, since this was as yet unknown, but on the excellent early copy in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and on the preparatory drawings for the figure of Adonis in the Uffizi. When the Prado painting was first published in 1965, by Pérez Sánchez, it was gratifying to realize that, although all those of us who concerned ourselves with Emilian painting had mistakenly assumed that the Vienna picture was Annibale’s original, one’s intutitions about the importance of the work and where it fitted in the artist’s evolution were confirmed.”
This was dissimulation: had Mahon been alert to what might be called The Problem of Arbitrary and (otherwise) Bizarre or Inexplicable Croppings, he would have spotted the tell-tale warning in the cropped nose of the hound on the right of the Vienna version. This would have been the more likely had he consulted, as well as figure studies in the Uffizi, the etched copy of the original made in of 1655 by Luigi Scaramuccia (see Fig. 27, below). This delightful record shows not only that the hound’s head (like Samson’s toes elsewhere) had been set comfortably inside the picture, but, also, that the landscape at the top right was more extensive and contained an architectural feature (doubtless of some iconographic significance). Curators and restorers too often disregard the testimony of graphic artists, when, within their limits and styles, they are essentially respectful of the works they were paid to copy. (A copyist inclined to go his own way would likely get less not more employment.)
Below, Fig. 27: Luigi Scaramuccia, Venus, Adonis and Cupid, 1655, second state, The British Museum (here mirrored).
Above, Figs. 28a and 28b: Details of the Prado’s Carracci Venus, Adonis and Cupid (left), and the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum version (right).
If Mahon corrected one error with this painting, he perpetuated others. The catalogue to the exhibition that celebrated the Prado’s restoration, produced the customary self-congratulatory sponsor’s waffle (here The Fundación Reale). Less forgivable was Mahon’s claim that the restoration helped establish the date of the original work. Mahon had been a belligerent champion of National Gallery restorations when at their worst in the post-war years, mocking, in tandem with the gallery’s head of science, the objections of scholars like Sir Ernst Gombrich (who had to wait a third of a century for a full technical vindication of his objections – see How the National Gallery belatedly vindicated the restoration criticisms of Sir Ernst Gombrich and 24 November 2011)
What is unsaid in the hype of big business-sponsored restorations, is that a restorer can never recover what has been lost and that by cosmetically dressing up degraded works, imparts a spurious simulation of health and historical veracity. No restoration exhibition should ever take place without the inclusion of all extant visual records of the work(s) in question. If we disregard the testimony that exists in this area, we enter a world of “art conservation” make-believe. In doing so, we leave ourselves ill-quipped to address the most urgent questions of attribution and condition. Sadly, with this Carracci painting, the two versions have experienced what restorers euphemistically call “different conservation histories”. Which means is that they have suffered to varying and unequal degees, physical assaults on their fabrics and their pictorial skins. We are all obliged to acknowledge and address these terrible truths. Not least because all the inherent difficulties of making attributions are exacerbated by these various histories of “treatments”. On the testimony of the etching, it would seem that the Vienna hound lost considerable shading to the side of his head, while his elaborately jewelled collar survived much better than that seen in the Prado version. This tells us that neither work remains a true witness to its own original self and that, therefore, theories and judgements made on the basis of the pictures’ present selves should come with careful qualifications and health warnings, and not with some facile celebration of glorious recoveries.
The differences that restorations make to individual pictures can be as great or greater than the differences that might originally have existed between an authentic original work and an extremely high quality copy of it. It should be accepted that one of the consequences of past restorations is that making sound appraisals of the merits of once closely related versions of paintings is made the more difficult. Some indication of how dramatically transforming restoration treatments can be can be might be gauged by the pair of details below (Figs. 29 and 30) from the Prado’s records of the same painting. Properly read, their inclusion, and that of the two states of the Scaramuccia etching in the Prado exhibition catalogue might constitute a most useful contribution to knowledge and understanding in this arena.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


“Pick Up A Pencil”

17th December 2012

The theme of the new ArtWatch UK members’ Journal (see right) is “The Primacy of the Visual”. Failures to acknowledge, address, or even recognise visual evidence are examined. The text of Charles Hope’s 2011 James Beck Memorial Lecture is carried in full. Professor Hope cites failures of the National Gallery’s curators and restorers to address opponents’ arguments or to recognise the import of key historical documents on artistic practice. When Professor James Beck, the late founder of ArtWatch International, lent support to artist-critics of the Sistine Chapel restoration he came under vicious attacks from some scholarly peers – for all the world as if he had betrayed a priesthood of the visually ignorant. Prof Hope cites a letter of that kind. If artists do sometimes discomfort scholars, it is no presumption: knowing how art is made they are precisely the best qualified to detect its un-making. Here, the painter (and photographer) Gareth Hawker discusses both fundamental differences between painting and photography and the widespread failures to recognise these differences. His demonstration is timely. If (as we have argued elsewhere), art schools have given up the ghost with regard to teaching the traditional skills that formerly equipped artists to recognise restoration blunders, in the wider world of commercial film-making there are signs – notwithstanding giant leaps in the powers of digitalised image-making – of a renaissance in traditional art practices. We discussed this paradoxical relationship in connection with the extraordinary accomplishment of the hand-crafted animated film Frankenweenie. Another such heartening case is discussed opposite. [M. D.]

A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation, Gareth Hawker writes:

…we have realised that we should give more attention to photography”. So wrote the Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, in his introduction to the current exhibition, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present [1]. Several reviewers seem to agree. Tabish Khan wrote that, “…photography is a contemporary art form that can be just as inspiring and impressive as painting” [2]. But photographs do not incorporate the high-level thinking that paintings do. It would be misleading to put them in the same category.

The difference between painting and photography is frequently glossed over. For example, many people suggest that the camera is a tool just like brushes and pencils. At first sight, this may appear to make sense. The photographer decides what to include in the picture, in the same way that a painter often does. He chooses where to place the camera; in which direction to point it; how far to zoom in on a subject; and when to press the shutter. He may select models, costumes, and arrange lighting. All these factors contribute to what is called the ‘scene’ – the image in the viewfinder. The ‘scene’ may be recorded by a photographer just as well as by a painter, so the argument goes: they just use different tools in order to complete the same task. However this is to ignore what the tools are used for. The camera is used to record the scene, while the brushes and pencils are used to analyse it. The importance of this analysis is often overlooked.

Photographers who have wanted to claim equal status with painters have made various approaches, all ignoring this analytical element. At first they blurred and smudged photographs in order to make them look like paintings. Then photographers claimed that theirs was a totally separate art form, a pure record of the scene. Some argued against this, saying that if a photograph were pure, it could not be artistic. Before this issue could be resolved, some writers swept it aside. They suggested that what mattered was, “conceiving an image in the brain and finding some way of expressing it” [3]. What counted was the viewer’s response – whether a work, “spoke” to the viewer [4]. This disregarded a significant factor: people do not respond to paintings in the same way as they do to photographs, especially if they can see that a painting provides evidence of thinking, in a way that a photograph does not.

Paintings look different from photographs because they are made differently. A painting is constructed from brushstrokes; each stroke the result of a decision. A painting may represent a scene, or it may represent nothing at all. A painting is an independent creation, whereas a photograph is dependant on the scene. A photograph can be made only if there is a scene to be copied.

A representational painting may be compared to the summary at the beginning of a scientific paper – the paragraph which is entitled, “Abstract”. Its writer makes a personal judgment about which are the most important topics dealt with in the paper, and writes a brief account of his own. The “Abstract” is a new and independent piece of writing, just as a representational painting is a new and independent analysis of the scene. In contrast, a photograph is like a photocopy of the whole scientific paper. The photocopy shows no analysis, and no judgment.

Brushstrokes are only the most basic way in which a painter’s analysis or abstraction may be seen. Another is in the simplification of the human figure – in its reconstruction in terms of geometrical solids, such as eggs and cylinders. Even a simple tracing – the lowest form of analysis – shows which lines the painter has considered to be more important than others.

To give a computing analogy: a photograph is like a bitmap image (which records only pixels – spots of colour), but a painting is like a vector image (which records instructions about where lines are to go). A tracing programme can convert a bitmap file into a vector file. The computer makes a simplification which looks similar to a paint-by-numbers drawing. This computer drawing may be thought of as the beginning of an attempt to imitate human analysis – a type of artificial intelligence – though the computer has a long way to go before it catches up with the human brain in this respect (Fig. 1). If anything may be thought of as being a tool comparable with brushes and pencils, it is a tracing programme (which helps to analyse), not a camera (which does not).

To express the difference in another way: Scene = Photograph (Scene = Photograph) × Analysis = Painting

Analysis is an essential part of what makes a representational painting interesting to look at; whereas what makes a photograph interesting to look at is the scene, not its treatment.

Analysis demands abstract thinking – whether it is done well or done badly. What distinguishes the great painter from the mediocrity is the quality of this thinking, not any manual skill. Anyone who can sign his name, already has enough manual skill to make a great drawing. (This includes drawing in its wider sense: deciding where to place marks made by the pencil or the brush, even when no outlines may be involved).

The modern digital camera provides the most effective means for recording the scene that has ever been devised. Strangely, many photographers want to use it for a different purpose, to express an interpretation – a purpose for which it is singularly unsuited. Some photographers deliberately introduce all sorts of inaccuracies which mean that the result is neither a pure substitute for the scene, nor an independent creation.

The classical case for photography’s status as an equal to painting was put forward by the man who was perhaps, “the most important figure in the history of the visual arts in America” – Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) [5]. In his usage, the word ‘artist’ meant someone who, “got the spirit of the truth” [6]. He held that only 0.1% of painters were artists, and only 0.1% of photographers were artists. But not everyone takes such an exalted view. For example, a tax inspector wants to know whether a painter is a house-painter or an artist, not whether he has, “got the spirit of the truth”. So when a painter says that he is an artist, he is simply describing his activity. He is not claiming to be either good or bad at his job: that is for others to decide. But when a photographer says that he is an artist he is claiming to be in the top 0.1% of his profession: he is pushing others to accept the valuation he has placed on his own work.

By using the word ‘artist’ in this way, Stieglitz moved attention away from a vital distinction; that between creating something new (a painting) and making a copy (a photograph). He persuaded many viewers to ignore analysis, and to concentrate on the selection and arrangement of a scene – on pointing and shooting.

Stieglitz’s advocacy, along with that of other theorists, seems to have desensitised many viewers. They see only the subject which has been represented. They fail to notice that a painting exhibits the working of a mind – not just in the choice of subject, but in every single stroke. One consequence of this desensitisation became apparent when the Sistine ceiling was treated by restorers, and much of the best painting ever produced was wiped off. The picture of a man looks like a man, whether it is drawn well or drawn badly. Most historians were satisfied with what remained after the paint-stripping because they could still identify the subjects which had been depicted. Very few noticed how drastically the quality of the drawing had been reduced.

Many people were better informed about these issues in the days when Michelangelo painted his great work. Contemporaries who saw it for the for the first time commented at least as much on the power of its drawing, as on its subject matter [7]. The way in which influential men looked at nudes in those days may be compared with the way in which they look at motor cars now: with an appreciation of the beauty of engineering and construction – an appreciation which derives in part from an understanding of how all the parts connect together.

The paint-stripping made nonsense of some of the connections in Michelangelo’s nudes. His contemporaries would have been appalled, but most of today’s historians and television presenters do not even notice. They focus on the imagery and the iconography, not on the drawing. It is as if they were waiting for the work to ‘speak’ to them – for the artistic content to make itself felt. But, being sensitive only to subject-matter, that is all that they are able to see. Such narrowly prepared minds will respond only to the crudest visual stimulus (the colours looking brighter after the top layer of paint has been removed, for example).

Just as the critical response to painting has become limited, so the meaning of the word Art has expanded – to such a degree that almost anything seems to be embraced by it, including photography. However painting remains distinct: it is a creation which is independent, and which can embody the kind of analysis described above. This is why painting may be categorised with the higher expressions of the human mind, along with poetry and philosophy. Photography does not fit into this category because it cannot display abstract thinking.

But painting is now so little appreciated that, to many people, it seems comparable with photography. This has allowed photography to be called Art, and so to enter the National Gallery. Arguably this is the same lack of discrimination that has allowed paint-stripping to take place, not only on the Sistine ceiling, but on almost all the great works of painting in the Western World, including those in the National Gallery.

Giving more attention to photography”, seems to be one more example of this downward trend, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. When a great artist’s paint has been removed from a picture, the decline in its artistic quality is irreversible; but a decline in critical awareness is different: it can be reversed. At present, many people are only distantly aware that, in every brushstroke, a representational painting gives evidence of analytical thinking. Perhaps the exhibition at the National Gallery will help to promote this awareness. If so, it will have served a very useful purpose.

ENDNOTES:

1 The National Gallery, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, Yale University Press (9 Oct 2012), ISBN-10: 1857095456, ISBN-13: 978-1857095456 The exhibition runs from 31 October 2012 to 20 January 2013 2 londonist. Art-review-seduced-by-art-photography-national-gallery. Retrieved 8 November 2012 3 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p23 4 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p24 5 Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p ix 6 Alfred Stieglitz, Is Photography a Failure?, The Sun, New York, March 14, 1922 – reprinted in, Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p 229 7 http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/12th-november-2012/ Retrieved 12 November 2012

Gareth Hawker

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Above, the covers of the new AWUK Journal. In 2013 two further James Beck Memorial Lectures will take place.
In New York in April, Professor David Freedberg, Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, will speak on Morality and Movement in Renaissance Art.
In London, in October, Jacques Franck, the Leonardo specialist and Permanent Consulting Expert to the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, will speak on Painterly Practice and its Light on the Old Masters.
(For information on these events, or on Artwatch membership details, please contact the Membership and Events Secretary, Helen Hulson – hahulson@googlemail.com.)
In the Daily Telegraph Magazine on 15 December, Georgia Dehn reported a visit to the animation studios of a new animated film, The Snowman and the Snowdog, based on Raymong Briggs’s The Snowman:
“…a team of about 40 people is busy colouring in with Caran d’Ache pencils…Eight people who worked on the original film are working on The Snowman and the Snowdog. ‘We had to get them out of retirement…A lot of the others hadn’t used drawing skills like this for years because now they are all drawing on tablets straight into the computer – and we’ve trained some new people as well’, [Camilla] Fielding says. Lupus [Films] has employed 78 renderers in total…As a lead animator, [Pete] Western was responsible for four ‘key’ drawings per second, which plot out the main action of the shot. An animation assistant – or ‘inbetweener’ – does the remaining eight drawings per second to fill the gaps…’ We had a debate about all the programmes you can use to make something seem handmade’ [Joanna Harrison, the art director, co-writer and and co-owner of Lupus Films] adds, ‘but I think if you go to all the effort of getting something to look as if you have picked up a pencil, why not just pick up a pencil?'”
Above, Fig. 1: Photograph by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve 1854. Tracing by Delacroix.
Delacroix made a tracing, perhaps from the back of the photograph held up against a window. I flipped the photograph horizontally to make comparison easier. I placed a semi-transparent image of the drawing on top of the image of the photograph. The lines correspond with the painting almost exactly, thus confirming that the drawing was in fact a tracing, not simply an accurate drawing. Tracing may seem to be a task which is almost mechanical, requiring little mental input, but when the task really is done by a machine – a computer – the tracing is far less informative than the one made by a human.
For example, Delacroix has outlined the arms and hands in a way which is impossible for the computer. The computer divides the image into areas which are equal in tonal value, then places a line around these, whereas the human can discern the meaning that these tonal areas have structurally, even when they are the same in tone value as adjacent areas. For instance, the arms and some parts of the costume are clearer in the drawing than in the photograph. In the tracing made by the computer some of these lines are missing altogether.
Above, Fig. 2: Standing man looking to the right. Drawing by Delacroix.
This pairing of photograph and drawing presents a rare opportunity to view exactly the same photograph as a great artist did when he made his drawing. We can compare the analysis which he made with the analysis which we might make. It is as if Delacroix had constructed the figure out of egg-shaped lumps of clay, which he pressed into shape to conform to the structure of the body; but he has not pressed and smoothed to such an extent that the original eggs become invisible.
After a few days training, most 10 year old children would be able to draw more accurately than this, in the sense of making an outline which resembles a tracing; but accuracy of this kind was not of primary importance to Delacroix. His outline forms a clearer description of a three-dimensional construction than a tracing would have done. In some ways it is harder to draw like this from a photograph than from life. In life the model and the artist move slightly, which makes the construction easier to see and to draw.
Above, Fig. 3: Heads by Memling and Stieglitz.
On the left a detail from a portrait of a man by Memling, the “first photographer”, according to Alfred Stieglitz; and, on the right, a detail from a portrait by Stieglitz. The comparison is not on a perfectly equal basis, because the subject of the Stieglitz is a woman (Georgia O’Keeffe) but it was the closest I could find which might bear comparison with the Memling.
Notice how the painting clarifies the structure of the head, while the photograph does not. It would be easier to make a sculpture based on the Memling than on the Stieglitz. Even a very exact copy of a photograph shows some kind of analysis (although it may be of a poor quality).
Above, Fig. 4 Nude drying herself by Degas.
Degas may well have taken this photograph at about the same time as he made the painting. This does not necessarily mean that he worked from the photograph. Quite often painters take photographs of the subjects they paint, only to have historians jump to the conclusion that they must have painted from the photographs. (An historian did this with my work on a couple of occasions. He suspected me of hiding my modus operandi, even though I was quite happy to point out paintings of mine which I really had painted from photographs).
This comparison shows the type of departure Degas would have made from a literally accurate tracing. In the computer tracing, the form of the model is difficult to discern. The painting contains about the same number of lines or edges as the computer tracing, but Degas’ lines give a clearer idea of the model’s shape.
Those who believe that the camera is a tool just like pencils and brushes tend to think that analysing a scene is a mechanical process, done equally well by a machine as by a human. That is a fallacy, as this comparison shows. The translation of a scene into a painting is not a mechanical process: it involves making choices – choices which are different from the mechanical ones which might be made by a computer.
Above, Fig. 5 Kneeling woman by Delacroix.
It is possible to see exactly where Delacroix has departed from literal accuracy. In its place he has provided some clarification of the three-dimensional structure of the model, though not as successfully as in the previous drawing (Fig.2).
Delacroix has brought to the photograph his knowledge of the figure, and how its parts fit together. Note, for example, how the small of the back links the back with the hips, something which is almost invisible in the photograph.
Even so, he seems to have had difficulty with some of the forms. The position of the woman’s shoulder-blade, for example, is not clearly expressed, and in many places the shading is not very informative about the construction. Compare this with Figs. 2, 6 and 7, all of which are better drawn in this respect.
These are the sort of deficiencies which one frequently sees in the drawings which students make in life classes. Even a great artist like Delacroix could sometimes make drawings which fell below his customary high standard.
Above, Fig. 6 Drawing of a seated man by Delacroix.
Notice how Delacroix has outlined the volumes, rather than making the equivalent of a tracing. Given the task of constructing the figure out of pieces of plasticene, the drawing would explain where to put them better than would the photograph.
Delacroix has found a clear place for the ridge of the shoulder blade and the muscles on the man’s side, all of which link together logically; but he seems to have lost his way along the spine. It almost looks as if he has introduced a distant arm behind the man’s back.
This illustrates the sort of intellectual exertion which is needed when making a drawing or a painting (and when viewing one). The drawing informs the viewer about Delacroix’s analytical thinking (whether of high quality or low), while the photograph does not.
Above, Fig. 7 Delacroix (1798 – 1863), Liberty Leading the People, 1830 (detail).
Photograph by courtesy of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Analysis has formed the main topic under discussion so far, but this example illustrates its complement, synthesis – drawing from memory and imagination. The approach to drawing is similar. Delacroix has drawn lines around volumes, and they represent equivalent volumes in the subject. But while a drawing from life or a photograph may be checked against the scene to see whether it is a reasonable summary (Fig. 6), the construction of an imaginary scene may be checked only in so far as it strikes the imagination of the viewer.
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Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration

28 April 2012

ArtWatch has been haunted for two decades by a nearly-but-not-made restoration disclosure. In the 1993 Beck/Daley account of the Nippon TV sponsored Sistine Chapel restoration (Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal), we reported that in the late 1980s Leonetto Tintori, the restorer of Masaccio’s “Trinity” in the Santa Maria Novella, Florence, and a member of the international committee that investigated the controversial cleaning, had “urged the Sistine team privately to preserve what he termed ‘Michelangelo’s auxiliary techniques’ which in his view included oil painting as well as glue-based secco” (p. 111). What we had not been able to say was that Tintori (who died in 2000, aged 92) had prepared a dissenting minority report expressly opposing the radical and experimental cleaning method.

Shortly before the press conference called to announce the committee’s findings, Tintori was persuaded by a (now-deceased) member of the Vatican not to go public with his views. He was assured that his judgement had been accepted and that what remained on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo’s finishing auxiliary secco painting would be protected during the cleaning. With a catastrophically embarrassing professional schism averted, the restoration continued and the rest of what Tintori judged to be Michelangelo’s own auxiliary and finishing stages of painting was eliminated. Without knowledge of Tintori’s highly expert dissenting professional testimony, the public was assured that despite intense and widespread opposition the cleaning had received unanimous expert endorsement. Critics of the restoration were left prey to disparagement and even vilification.

On January 4th, we noted that in the widely reported schism that emerged at the Louvre with the resignations of Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s international advisory committee on the restoration of Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, it had been recognised that the resulting crisis of confidence was of a magnitude not seen since the Sistine Chapel controversy. Restoration advisory committees are not imposed on museums and customarily they serve as political/professional fig leaves. In the wake of the Louvre committee resignations, embarrassed and perhaps panicky members of the museum’s staff offered self-contradictory and unfounded assurances (see below). In January, the Louvre’s head of painting, Vincent Pomarède reportedly claimed that “The recent cleaning was absolutely necessary for both conservation and aesthetical reasons.” This assurance proved unfounded on both grounds. Pomarède added that no member of the committee “has ever said that the cleaning was not prudent and had gone too far technically.” One has now done so – publicly – and left museum restorations under an unprecedented spotlight.

During an earlier cleaning controversy at the Louvre, Edgar Degas threatened to produce an anti-restoration pamphlet that would be what he termed a “bomb” – but he never did so, so far as we know. Now, as Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian, the French Le Journal des Arts yesterday published an interview with Ségolène Bergeon Langle of truly momentous if not incendiary consequence (see below). We learn that her resignation came after no fewer than twelve letters requesting information on the restoration’s course went unanswered; that it was made in specific and pointed protest against the use of retouching pigments whose safety had not been proven; and, that the Louvre’s public claims of some pressing conservation need to remove the varnish were false, having been made despite it being known within the museum that any potential threat to the paint came not from the varnish but from a single faulty board in the picture’s panel which was reacting to the museum’s insufficiently stable environmental conditions. Perhaps most disturbingly serious for art lovers are Bergeon Langle’s disclosures that along with old (but nonetheless still protective) varnishes, original material of Leonardo’s was removed – against her advice – from the painting; and, aesthetically, that it is confirmed that the modelling of the Virgin’s face was weakened (see Figs. 1 and 2; and, for weakening to the modelling of St. Anne’s face, Figs. 12 and 13).

That the Louvre authorities would not inform even so distinguished a member of its own advisory committee might suggest either that the restorers had not known in advance what they would be doing to the painting; or, they feared that disclosure of their intentions would provoke opposition within the advisory committee. Either way, this was clearly an unacceptable (if not improper) way for a museum to execute irreversible alterations to one of Leonardo’s most advanced sophisticated, complex and problematic works. To Bergeon Langle’s now public “insider” criticisms, additional detailed material to highlight further Louvre procedural shortcomings and misrepresentations to the press and to the public will shortly be presented by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix is also to call formally for the establishment of a national scientific ethics committee that would be independent of museums and their restoration teams and be charged with re-examining the conservation file on the challenged St. Anne restoration.

A second member of Louvre’s advisory committee, Jacques Franck, the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique, has said to the Guardian that a restoration likely to generate such disapproval from leading figures should never have been undertaken in the first place and, given that Ségolène Bergeon Langle is unquestionably France’s highest authority on restoration matters, her alarmed protest is therefore one that should mean a lot to both Leonardo scholars and art lovers the world over.

Unfortunately, the restoration-induced changes on the St Anne are not unprecedented. It is Art’s general tragedy that while scholars have quietly enlarged the oeuvre of Leonardo over the last century and a half, restorers have repeatedly swabbed and scritched away at the surviving fabric of those precious works – sometimes to an astounding degree, as with the “Last Supper” in Milan. With the National Gallery’s substitute version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” we have seen how the distinctive Leonardesque expression on the angel’s mouth was altered (without any acknowledgement) despite the fact that a distinguished scholar and former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, had seen the angel’s face as being “the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair”. It is a matter of note that four of the most enthusiastically supportive members of the Louvre advisory committee were drawn from the curators and restorers who were directly responsible for the London and Milan Leonardo restorations.

Of Leonardo’s accepted earlier paintings, in 1939 Kenneth Clark lavished especial praise on the treatment of modelling found on two portrait heads – and in his enthusiasm, he awarded the palm of best preservation to both of them. The “Ginevra Benci”, then in the Liechtenstein Collection but now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was judged “the best preserved of all Leonardo’s early pictures”; one that “shows most clearly his intentions at this period”; and, one where “within the light oval of the face there is very little shadow, and the modelling is suggested by delicate gradations of tone, especially in the reflected lights.” Clark thrilled to the great refinement of execution: “We see a similar treatment of form in Desiderio’s low reliefs, controlled by the same sensibility to minute variations of surface. There are passages, such as the modelling of the eyelids, which Leonardo never surpassed in delicacy, and here for once he seems to have had none of that distaste for the medium which we can deduce from his later paintings, no less than from contemporary descriptions of his practice.” Ever aesthetically alert and deft, Clark saw all of these ultra-refined technical devices as being entirely “subordinate to the feeling of individual character with which Leonardo had been able to charge his portrait, so that this pale young woman has become one of the most memorable personalities of the Renaissance.” (We are grateful to Carroll Janis for drawing attention to this passage.)

Clark’s alertness to the physical/aesthetic characteristics of Leonardo’s hand was to the fore in his reflections on the “Portrait of a Musician” at the Ambrosiana in Milan. In the “subtle luminous modelling” of its head and its “delicate observation of light as it passes across the convex forms”, this work could only be “by Leonardo’s own hand alone and unaided” and it was “very similar to that of the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks”. As it stood before 1939, this too was “perhaps the best preserved of Leonardo’s paintings”, and in it we were then able to “learn something of his actual use of pigment, elsewhere obscured by dirty varnish, and we see that it was less smooth and ‘licked’ than that of his followers.”

Ironically, Clark, with his pathological aversion to “dirty” varnish (which is to say, old varnish on an old painting on an old support), was more responsible than anyone for the subsequent museum restoration/stripping mania. Looking around today’s museums, it is hard not to conclude that Clark might have been more careful in his wishes. Bergeon Langle’s warning against the modern addiction to penetrative imaging systems is particularly apt and timely: the hyper-active restoration changes (see right) made to the modelling and to the expression of those precious living Renaissance faces have cumulatively thinned and abraded pictures surfaces and material components and thereby remorselessly pushed great paintings into sad resemblances of their own infra-red under-states (see particularly, Figs. 4-11 and 19 & 20). Technical curiosity kills more than cats. In the case of Leonardo it has contrived to pull that artist back from his own increasingly lush highly-wrought subtly atmospheric shading towards the brilliant but thinner decorous linearity of Botticelli, when any comparison of the “Mona Lisa’s” hands with those of Leonardo’s “Annunciation” would have warned precisely against such perverse and regressive adulterations.

The interview given to Le Journal des Arts of 27 April, by Ségolène Bergeon Langle read as follows:

Why resign from the Louvre’s scientific advisory committee for the St Anne? “In January 2011 the committee had agreed on a gentle cleaning of late varnishes and the removal of the stains on the Virgin’s cloak. Yet, between July and October 2011 a more pronounced cleaning was done and presented as ‘necessary’, which I objected to. I was then faced with people who would oppose my position, which is technical and not based on aesthetics. My 12 letters [to the Louvre] asking for precisions on some aspects of the cleaning process and on the materials to be used for retouching, remained unanswered. I had to resign (on December 20th, 2011) to be heard just on one specific point: the Gamblin retouching pigments were not to be used since their innocuousness is not proven. Right from the beginning, false ideas have been put forth, like calling ‘repaints’ original retouches by Leonardo in the work’s early stages, or to attribute flaking in the paint layer to the ‘contracting varnish’, a [consequence that was] actually due to the sawing up of the wood [panel]…”

What do you think of the work done? “In my opinion, the precautionary principle hasn’t been respected. We must face the fact that the Virgin’s face is less modelled now. The cleaning should never have gone so far. However, I was happy that the grove [of trees] be preserved and, also, the ground’s material constituents that some ‘felt’ not original (though between January and April 2011 a brown-greenish section of the ground, located below St Anne’s elbow had been removed already). Besides, another matter of much controversy, the whitened layer on Christ Child’s body, has mistakenly been understood as a late varnish [that has] gone mouldy. I’m inclined to believe it was an irreversibly altered [original] glaze and, therefore, I have recommended that it be preserved, but nobody would hear me.”

The current Leonardo exhibition implies that his other paintings in the Louvre should be cleaned also. How do you feel about that? “Just not to do it, by all means! The original flesh paint in the St John-the-Baptist, being rich in oil, displays a significant network of drying cracks and might be fragile in the event of cleaning. For sure, scientific methods are essential but they need sound interpretation and wisdom dually… To date, there is too much boldness originating mistakes and an alarming fascination for infra-red investigation whereby are revealed under-layers that were never meant to be seen.”

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: The Virgin (detail) from Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, before restoration.
Above, Fig. 2: The Virgin (detail) after restoration.
Above, Fig. 3: Left, the short Louvre catalogue, published in 2012 after the restoration; right, a plate of the same heads published in 1992.
Above, left, Fig 4: Leonardo’s “The Musician” as published in 1945. Above, right, Fig. 5: an infra-red photograph of the musician published in 2011.
Above, Fig. 6: The musician, as in 1945. Above, right, Fig. 7: the musician, as published in 2011. By any optical appraisal, it can be seen that Leonardo’s painting presently stands somewhere between its 1945 self and an infra-red photograph of itself.
Above, Fig. 8: The musician, detail, as recorded in 1945.
Above, Fig. 9: The musician, detail, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 10: The musician, detail, as recorded in 1945.
Above, Fig. 11: The musician, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 12: The eyes of St. Anne, in Leonardo’s “Virgin and St. Anne”, before its cleaning at the Louvre.
Above, Fig. 13: The eyes of St. Anne, as found after the picture’s cleaning at the Louvre.
Above, Fig. 14: The eyes in Leonardo’s “Ginevra Benci”, as seen in Bode’s 1921 Studien über Leonardo da Vinci.
Above, Fig. 15: The eyes of “Ginevra Benci”, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 16: Andrea del Verrocchio’s “Flora”.
Above, Fig. 17: “Ginevra Benci”, detail, as seen in 1921.
Above, Fig. 18: “Ginevra Benci”, detail, as seen in 2011.
Above, Fig. 19: The musician, detail, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 20: The musician, detail, as found in 2011.
Can all the photographs in the world be wrong?
Might anything ever count as a fair demonstration of a restoration-induced injury?
Can no curator or trustee appreciate the inherent physical dangers when allowing restorers, who work with sharp instruments and highly penetrating solvents from the top down, to act upon pictures which artists have built from the bottom up in order to leave their finest and most considered effects exposed at the picture’s surface? Can no one in authority appreciate that every authorised restoration is an accident waiting to happen?
Does no curator ever wonder what has happened to eyebrows and the shading around eyes – and mouths, and nostrils – when pictures are “cleaned” or “restored”? Does no curator appreciate the vital function that shading serves for artists who are attempting to capture from nature, or to evoke imaginatively, a precise and specific personality, state of mind, engagement with the world? Does no curator recognise the tell-tale signs when restorers subvert artistically conjured forms and change the expression on subjects faces?
Would Kenneth Clark, if he were alive today, still consider “Ginevra Benci” and “The Musician” to be Leonardo’s best preserved works – and if not, why not? In the art trade it is recognised that the best preserved works are those that have been preserved least often by “conservators” and “restorers”. Why do people who are charged with protecting art in within the museum service so often take a contrary view? What supports their apparent belief that a much or a radically restored work may count as a “best preserved” specimen?
They all use the words freely, but do any Leonardo scholars, or Leonardo exhibition organisers, truly comprehend the vital conceptual connection between an artist’s system of illusionistic shading and the forms that sculptors literally build? Are any scholars prepared to discuss the manifest changes to Leonardo’s works that emerge in each successive monograph? The elephant in the art restoration room is this: while photography and book reproduction methods improve ceaselessly (see in particular the excellent and instructively enlarged photographs in Giovanni Villa’s Leonardo da Vinci – Painter, The Complete Works), authors themselves habitually refrain from discussing the nature of the often profoundly altered states to which their photographs testify. Ségolène Bergeon Langle, a conservation scientist, has bravely lifted the lid. Will others now discuss what lies below?
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Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre…

8 April 2012

The penny dropped last week in Paris: museum picture restoration is becoming a money-making machine in which the artistic sums may not necessarily add up. The Louvre’s restored Leonardo “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” re-appeared in a series of openings for a swish exhibition-of-celebration, “La Sainte Anne l’ultime chef-d’oeuvre de Léonardo de Vinci”, sponsored by the Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo (whose 2012 fashion show is to be held within the Louvre). The official defences of the restoration are found in the exhibition literature and in a DVD film (“Leonardo de Vinci The Restoration of the Century”) celebrating “The spectacular operation, the likes of which occurs only once a century”. Although there may be a touch of “The Official” in the film, acknowledgement is certainly made of opposition to the course of the restoration that came from within the advisory committee itself. Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, is seen to speak with great eloquence on the option of, essentially, leaving well enough alone. Reference is also made to wider opposition that was reported in what is described as “a virulent press campaign”. The organisation of the exhibition itself is seen to testify to the rapid growth of mutual support systems within the international museum community. At the same time, we can now better gauge the restoration’s artistic consequences and better appreciate why two eminent art authorities, Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, resigned from the restoration’s international advisory committee.

As with the Credit Suisse sponsored exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan” which gathered £1.5bn worth of Leonardos in celebration of the National Gallery’s restored “Virgin of the Rocks” (see Figs. 17 & 18), this Ferragamo/Louvre exhibition has drawn masterpieces by Raphael, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto and others. The National Gallery (two of whose staff members served on the St. Anne restoration’s international advisory committee) loaned its hitherto unloanable Leonardo “Burlington House Cartoon” in a straight swap for the Louvre’s earlier loan of Leonardo’s original “Virgin of the Rocks” to the London Leonardo-fest. It would seem that in this international bonanza, one restored Leonardo begets another and each begets a plumply lucrative exhibition and catalogue. The current escalation in travel and restoration risks for works of art is terrifying.

The Louvre’s current exhibition is said by the curator, Vincent Delieuvin, to comprise “a science workshop”. But this “workshop” could not inform the treatment of the painting because it followed, not preceded, the restoration. Moreover, the exhibition itself imposed a guillotine on the restoration. Members of the international advisory committee who wished for more tests, for more consideration of vexing issues, felt thwarted by the Louvre’s need to finish the restoration in time for the arrival of the stupendous borrowed treasures. The cumulative assembled testimony of the exhibition’s many borrowed copies and derivatives of the “St. Anne” might well have been instructive, but, not having been seen, it finds no reflection in the restored Leonardo which artistically has pulled away from its own off-spring (see Figs. 13-16). Delieuvin’s reported twin claims that the restoration “is a true resurrection of the ‘St. Anne’” and that “The painting has recovered a depth and a relief almost like sculpture, with an intense palette of lapis lazuli blue, lacquer red, grays and vibrant browns”, seem both rather tastelessly hyperbolic and at variance with visual evidence (- see right).

Certain structural stresses in the over-heating art economy have become visible. At the exhibition’s epicentre the “Burlington House Cartoon” and the “St. Anne” (for which picture the drawing was a study), have been brought together side by side in a spectacular but counter-productive coup de théâtre (see Figs. 13 & 14). The drawn study, now discoloured but sombrely potent in a magnificently worthy black frame, conjures a breath-taking orchestration of monumentally poetic forms, forms that rightly have been seen to rival the pedimental female groupings of the Parthenon sculptures. Since the Second World War there has been no drawing in existence to rival this fragile and brittle manifestation of the grandeur of Leonardo’s thoughts. (If lost – and in recent years lorries have been burnt-out in the Channel Tunnel and a ferry and its lorry cargo was lost in the Channel – no insurance money or state indemnity could acquire another of its kind.) In contrast, the restoration-weakened “St. Anne”, with its now arbitrarily floating, obtrusively abstract and glitzy lapis lazuli blue drapery, has departed from its formerly-realised self, as the adjacent cartoon and the exhibition’s many derivative pictures mutely testify. To see strong colours subsumed within tight sculpturally integrated groups, we must now look to derivatives of Leonardo rather than to their progenitor (see Figs. 15 & 16).

As if to inoculate the exhibition viewer against this back-firing juxtaposition, the wall immediately opposite the cartoon and the “St. Anne” carries a portentous notice headed “A fundamental restoration”:

A fundamental restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s St Anne was initially envisaged in the 1990s when a few quite conclusive cleaning tests were carried out.

The picture’s dull appearance, its hues discoloured and distorted by numerous repaintings of the sky and the Virgin Mary’s blue mantle, demanded the intervention that finally began in 2009. Minute bulges, very probably caused by the stress exerted on the picture layer by the hardening of old restoration varnishes rendered the restoration inevitable.

Preceded by an exceptional series of preliminary examinations and scientific imagery analyses carried out by the laboratories at the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (C2RMF) and generously financed by Mr Barry Lam, the restoration itself began late in 2010. The restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, was chosen following an invitation to tender and worked for more than a year at the C2RMF in the painting workshop in the Pavillon de Flore.

The restoration comprised two principle problems: the removal of the discordant repaintings, some resulting from very ancient and thick accumulations of retouches, the thinning of restoration varnishes oxidised and deteriorated by too many partial cleanings, the moving of excess varnish from one area to another using solvents, retouches and refixings down the centuries throughout its long history, the picture had obviously been devarnished and revarnished many times but fortunately the picture layer had been sufficient robust to resist this. The extremely irregular and oxidised state of the surviving varnishes distorted all the tints and, by a well-known physical effect, ‘decolourised’ and yellowed the original hues.

The gradual thinning of these varnishes to a uniform level was therefore the restoration’s major challenge. During this process, resin analyses and measurements of varnish thickness, conducted by new techniques developed at the C2RMF enabled an extremely precise approach to the thinning, which had to be undertaken delicately, both to preserve a degree of patina on the picture and protect the painting itself from any contact with the solvents used. This extremely gentle cleaning process revealed a painting in vivid colours and resuscitated the splendid lapis lazuli blues and refined violet reds and crimson kermes gum lacquer.”

In this classic museum PR conflation of aesthetic and conservation “needs”, we are variously told that aesthetic changes had been necessary on urgent conservation grounds; that the restoration was “envisaged” some time ago and that this aspiration had been reinforced by the picture itself whose dull appearance “demanded” a restoration. Meeting this demand from the inanimate is said to have been made “inevitable” by a mysterious conservation ailment in the form of “minute bulges” which “very probably” were being caused by the varnish itself.

“Very probably” is a distinctly weasel-phrase and seemed the more so because Ségolène Bergeon Langle had very recently pointed out that the minute manifestations were confined to a single board (which had been badly cut when first made) within the panel, and therefore could not have derived from overall varnishes which some were itching to remove. This analysis of the actual cause was accepted on the DVD film where it was claimed that the restoration had had to proceed because of “lifting due to contraction of the wooden panel”. That raised the larger restoration question: if the varnish was not causing the lifting, was there any conservation reason for removing it at all? A frankly negative admission on that point would, of course, have greatly strengthened the position of the “moderates” on the advisory committee who were, under any circumstances, urging restraint and caution. We now hear that not only is it admitted that the liftings of paint were indeed caused by this plank, but also that they had easily been repaired locally. In hope of preventing future liftings, the panel painting is to be encased in framing that will incorporate a suitable micro-climate designed to stabilise the offending wood. On the face of it, this is good news but, in today’s museum practice, a risk removed often seems to make space for another to be incurred. And, sure enough, we also hear it is now thought that, with the provision of its own micro-climate, this great picture can be regarded as safely peripatetic – and that as such it is to be despatched in the first instance to an annexe of the Louvre at Lens, in northern France. But then where next – Tokyo? Dubai? California? And on what tariff? Perhaps in addition to adding this “restoration of the century” to our list of cleanings sold on misleading conservation-necessity prospectuses, the picture should also be put on our Now At Grave Risk of Travel Injuries category? We trust that the Louvre authorities will amend their misleading wall notice on the restoration.

The material on the picture’s surface is said to have been the accumulated product of many and various previous restorations (some with caustic substances), throughout all of which Leonardo’s original paint had suffered no injury. What chance, therefore, could the last restoration’s highly advanced, “extremely precise” techniques have produced anything other than an “extremely gentle” cleaning? Well, first of all, the proof of the pudding is in the appraising of the result – see right. Second, it is never wise to take restorers’ own prognoses at face value. Errors can occur at any point of the restoration process. The suggestion that a uniform layer of varnish had been left in place might surprise members of the international advisory committee who had been under the impression that varying thicknesses of varnish would be left in place according to specific needs for caution (as with the especially vulnerable face of “St. Anne” – see right).

Further, questions arise in terms of conservation methodological practice. In restorations, paintings are stripped down and then reassembled by repainting. Where, then, are the detailed photographic sequences showing the painting before cleaning; after cleaning but before retouching; and, after cleaning and retouching? Without such hard visual documents the path of the restoration cannot be retraced. It was only when the National Gallery kindly provided such photographs that we were able to identify an unacknowledged change that had been made to the angel’s mouth in the London “Virgin of the Rocks” (see comments at Figs. 17 & 18).

In the two versions of the Louvre exhibition catalogue (one of 52 pages at 8 Euros and one of 448 pages at 45 Euros) there are not even any facing images showing the picture before and after restoration. Such a pairing is found in the (excellent) Beaux Arts special “Léonard de Vinci – Les secrets d’un génie” at 6.90 Euros (a similar comparison is shown here in Figs. 14 & 16). There is also a helpful before and after restoration record of the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks” (see Figs. 17 & 18).

The Louvre and the National Gallery leonardo restorations share a common methodological feature: in both cases it is said that old varnishes were thinned but not completely removed. This claim creates a conundrum because in both cases changes have taken place which seem inexplicable in terms of a mere thinning of varnish. When explanations are sought or when appraisals are attempted, restoration authorities sometimes take fright, retreating behind claims that theirs is a highly specialised technical field whose mysteries are simply unfathomable to outsiders. Restorers themselves often don the proverbial doctors’ white coat and claim to have acted on not aesthetic grounds at all but on (quasi-) medical ones. For the “St. Anne” restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, this restoration was not made for aesthetic reasons. Instead: “This was about caring for a sick patient. From the conservation point of view we had to intervene, primarily to address a cracking of the varnish that could leave the paint exposed to damage.” Well, we now know that in this particular case the patient was not as sick as had been thought. But more importantly, we should remember at all times that works of art are made by people to be looked at by people. They are not created as laboratory specimens. Artists work with materials so as to produce values and relationships between values. No scientific test can analyse a value, let alone an inter-related group of values. To its maker, the professional test of a work of art is how it looks – the painter stops working precisely when the picture looks right.

In the realm of art and away from corporately funded museum politics, the ultimate test of a restoration is also how it looks – but that is to say, not how it strikes the passing viewer (who may or may not be thrilled by solvent-brightened colours) but how it looks now as compared with how it looked previously; how it looked not just immediately prior to restoration but in its successively recorded history; and, most especially, how it looked the last time it was cleaned. If picture cleanings did no harm, if they were as simple and non-destructive as cleaning a window, each restored work would return to its appearance when last cleaned, and there would be no surprises, “discoveries”, “revelations”, “restorations of the century” – or controversies. While no one ever berates a window cleaner for ruining the views, restorations irreversibly change a picture’s “view” on to the world. Restoration is a one-way street that runs away from history, away from the original work.

All cleaning controversies turn on the extent to which pictures suffer during restoration. Even among those who authorise restorations, some concede that there are losses as well as gains and frankly admit to seeking the best trade-off between improved legibility and pictorial injury. Defensive restorers insist that pictures cannot be harmed by their own “advanced”, “gentle” and “scientifically underpinned” methods. Making a fetish of the “safety” and the “science” of restoration methods attempts to shelve restorers responsibility to identify and account for all material and aesthetic changes. Given that all restorers’ methods cannot be superior, none should be held beyond question. With the physical alteration of art, aesthetic appraisal is essential to scholarship and art’s protection. In appraising restorations, the comparison of like with like is of the essence.

In visual arts, appraisals are necessarily made by visual comparisons. Pictures are made by eye, hand and mind, to be viewed by eye and mind. Because each cleaning destroys the earlier state, comparisons can only be made between pre and post-restoration photographs. While straightforward cleaning might always be expected to achieve a greater vivacity of pictorial effect, it should never be made at the expense of the pictorial relationships, patterns, or gradations made in the service of modelling, that can be seen to reside in the uncleaned work. If the relationships can be seen it is because they are there – whatever chemical analyses might suggest to the contrary. The aesthetic production of pictorial values by artists is the proper science of art. Unfortunately, in such terms, the values that were formerly evident in this great picture seem not to have fared well in this last cleaning.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, before cleaning. Note the artist’s very selective and artfully focussed disposition of his brightest lights, and, at the same time, the extremely subtle but sculpturally effective modelling of the Child’s right shoulder and arm. Note too, the careful placement of tonal values throughout this grouping and how successfully these values contribute to a general sense of sculptural placement in space – for example, how the Child’s left forearm recedes behind the bright wooly top of the lamb’s head, and how appreciably it recedes from the Child’s nearer right arm.
Above, Fig. 2: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, after cleaning.
How to explain the differences between these two greyscale versions above, of Figs. 3 and 4 below? It has been said that the restorer left a thin layer of varnish over the paint throughout the picture. It is hard, on the face of it and given the scale and nature of the changes that took place in this single restoration, to see how they might have resulted from a reduction rather than an elimination of the varnish (but see below). And it is hard, too, to see how a restorer, cleaning freely by hand with nothing more precise than a cotton wool swab (evidently dragged not rolled in this instance) might differentiate perfectly between the lowest level of a varnish and the upper level of an old glaze of similar colour and tonality at every point. When previous restorers had applied their varnishes, often, presumably, after harsh cleanings, would those then-new, solvent-saturated varnishes not have integrated themselves to any degree within whatever material was to hand? One question that might always be borne in mind when evaluating pre and post-cleaning states, is whether or not the cleaned (altered) state looks more or less characteristic of the artist’s known traits. (This might be held a perilously subjective notion to conservators of a certain “scientific” bent, but without such an artistic navigational system, how might any restorer proceed?) Does this after-treatment Fig. 2 detail look more Leonardesque than the before treatment detail at Fig. 1? It is hard to see how this question could be answered in the affirmative. The melting of the Child’s limbs into and out of the artist’s light in Fig. 1 seems quintessentially Leonardesque, while the after-cleaning state of Fig. 2 might be thought rather more Michelangesque by comparison. A key difference between these two great Renaissance figures (and sometime rivals) was that Michelangelo was not averse to autonomously forceful contours. Leonardo, of course, wished to out-sculpt the great sculptor with shaded simulations of form on the picture plane; with forms disposed within an envelope of space and light that was entirely of his own shaping and in no way dependent on the contingencies of the real world in which sculptors’ productions must always take their chances. The existence of the surface upon which paint was applied was a fact to be denied or concealed by the sheer force of artistry. One consequence of this cleaning is that the painting’s picture surface comes further to the fore. The restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, attributes this to the fact that although the work was known to be unfinished, “now we can actually see it”, as if that might be considered some kind of gain, but anything that causes the picture surface to compete for attention with the intended illusion upon it can hardly be thought characteristic of Leonardo’s wishes or intentions, and anything that causes a picture to seem unfinished and less resolved than previously was the case, might more realistically be taken as an aesthetic alarm call than as a vindication of raw method.
Above, Fig. 3: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, before cleaning. Work on this section of the painting produced one of the strongest and most keenly contested controversies within the international advisory committee. A “varnish” on the Child’s body was taken by the restorer (and others) to be an earlier restorer’s decayed varnish. This reading was challenged by the student of Leonardo’s painting technique, Jacques Franck, who noted that this material had contributed to the modelling of the Child to a substantial degree and in a manner that went beyond any straightforward varnish layer. He felt, therefore, that it should be preserved until no doubt existed about its precise function and date of making. He and others of this opinion called for the disputed coating to be revived rather than removed, but they were over-ruled on the committee. Analytical tests were made on the material and these were said to have proved on chemical grounds that the material taken to be constructive orginal glazing by Leonardo was in fact only a later varnish. But if this chemical analysis is held to have provided an indisputable basis for excluding the possibility that the material was original, then it is incumbent upon those who removed it to explain how the various apparently artistic effects that it had contributed, had been achieved. In a nutshell the problem is: How might an overall “varnish” as opposed to a glazed layer, contribute differently in local areas that happen to coincide with discrete parts within an artist’s design? In effect, this is the same challenge that we mounted over two decades ago to the restorers at the Sistine Chapel who held that sculpturally-enhancing shadows on Michelangelo’s frescoes were the happy consequence of soot from candle smoke that had accumulated on the ceiling over many centuries.
Above, Fig. 4: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, after cleaning. Visually, it would seem clear that the ground around the lamb’s tail has been in effect “scoured”; that darkened passages which threw the lamb into relief and prominence have been in effect “abraded”. Is it possible that a mere thinning of an overall varnish could have been responsible for such a transition?
Above, Fig. 5: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 6: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. The changes in this face can only thought alarming and deleterious. Vincent Delieuvin’s claim that cleaning has enhanced the sculptural effects of the picture seems plain wrong. For any draughtsman or sculptor, the image at Fig. 5 would have to be considered to hold more “information” than that at Fig. 6. The shadows contribute to a far greater sense of sculptural relief and surface relationships. One might say that the cleaned state now appears to be modelled in shallower relief than that found before treatment. Before the cleaning, the plaited braid of hair running over the top of the head, partook of a general system of shading. After cleaning it has emerged generally lighter and, on the viewer’s left side, no longer tucks into the general ensemble that comprises the more shaded side of the head. Moreover, of the shading on the face, it can immediately be noted that a certain transparency has been introduced – it is now possible to see under St. Anne’s (true) right eye, an earlier positioning of the iris by Leonardo. It is a commonly encountered consequence of picture cleanings that they take works further towards the condition of transparency that is seen in infra-red photographs, where the light penetrates the surface of the paint. While that kind of “imaging” is very useful in terms of identifying earlier stages in a work’s genesis and, specifically, in identifying an artist’s own under-drawing, it cannot be a good thing for works of art themselves to be rendered transparent.
Above, Fig. 7: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 8: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. This issue and the artistic dangers of increased transparency had been raised on the international advisory committee by Jacques Franck who had urged that a sufficiency of varnish be left on the face of St. Anne to prevent the inevitable consequence of age-induced transparency in Leonardo’s paintwork from emerging. He has described the peculiarly heightened dangers that were to be expected because of Leonardo’s method on flesh passages at that late stage in his career (when the “Mona lisa” was being produced). He paraphrases his submissions to the committee on the constructive use of “velatura” in the St. Anne head in the following terms: “In Leonardo’s time, those ‘velature’ were meant to interplay optically with the undermodelling and a more roughly worked state of the image. It resulted in opalescent flesh tones linked to the shadows very gradually, thus producing the typical smoky effect called “sfumato” in these sections. The ageing of the binding agent through time has made the opalescent micro-layers become increasingly transparent: details like the eyebrows, some sharp accents in the mouth, in the nose’s end seem to have been executed in the final state of the Saint’s head but have not. They are parts of the underdrawing that are emerging in the visible light due to increased transparency now.The same with the undermodelling. To date, the soft transitions having lessened markedly, the contrasts between light and shade are much stronger, inevitably so. More microns of old brown varnish left [in place] would have compensated for the now missing opalescent subtleties of Leonardo’s “sfumato”. Hence the difference to be observed between before and after cleaning.The Louvre was advised by me not to thin too much for that very reason. Leonardo’s subtleties need a substantial ‘veil’ of old varnish left over them, a situation clearly respected by Alfio del Serra in cleaning [Leonardo’s] Annunciation in the Uffizi, for the picture’s atmospheric effect is beautifully preserved.”
Above, Fig. 9: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 10: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. One sees in this comparison of the eyes, not only the emerged iris but also a substantial degree of lost shading around the eyes. This is very commonly encountered in restored faces. The eye is best understood anatomically as a ball set in a hollow (a hollow that is formed by the brow/nose/cheekbone configuration), and its surface is only made visible through lids that close for protection and during sleep. The “eye” that is defined by the aperture of the opened lids is properly to be understood as a part of the surface of the larger eyeball. The relationships between these component parts are very distinctive to individual heads (or to the idealised “types” of heads devised by artists). Anything that reduces the original artist’s construction of those relationships (made by shading essentially) is extremely harmful to the “plastic” properties of the head as well as to its characteristic expression. A commonly encountered feature of restored faces is that the shading around the eye, which “sets” it properly in its recessed protective zone, is so diminished that the more precisely delineated parts – the shapes of the eyelid apertures and the iris/pupil – of the eye become more apparent, become over emphatically drawn. With regard to the level of cleaning that is said to occurred on the St. Anne, Franck had been assured that varnish would be left in place to a thickness of 18 to 20 microns. A micron is only one-thousandth of a millimetre or 0.001 mm. It might be wondered how a restorer working with solvent-laden cotton wool swabs (as seen in use on the DVD film, for example) might ever be able reliably and predictably to operate evenly to such ultra-fine tolerances. In the event, Franck was told that on the St. Anne the level of varnish that had been retained was of only 12 – not 18 to 20 – microns depth, or in other words of 0.012mm. This raises the question: Was this, as had been promised, the area of greatest varnish thickness that was left in place, or was this, in fact, the “uniform level” to which the painting had been cleaned throughout, as is described in the exhibition on the wall notice?
Above, Fig. 11: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 12: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. It would seem inconceivable, to any sculptor’s trained-eye that this section of the face, after cleaning, might be considered to enjoy enhanced sculptural values. In purely formal terms, what is seen here is an advance and an expansion of the lights at the expense of the darks – which darks had comprised in this working method the “constructive” component of Leonardo’s “modelling” on the light ground of his picture. The lights had not been painted as values, they were merely the sections of ground left unmodified by Leonardo’s meltingly applied shadows.
Above, left, Fig. 13: “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant St John the Baptist”, (“The Burlington House Cartoon”). Above, right, Fig. 14: “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, before cleaning.
Above, left, Fig. 15: “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, copy, c. 1508-13, Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Calif., US. Above, right, Fig. 16: The “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, after cleaning.
Above, left, Fig. 17: “The Virgin of the Rocks”, the National Gallery, before cleaning. Above, right, Fig 18: “The Virgin of the Rocks”, the National Gallery, after cleaning. As with the Louvre’s St. Anne, the varnish (which had been described as having come to constitute a threat to, as well as a disfigurement of, the paint) was said to have been thinned not removed. Indeed, when shown the painting part-cleaned, and when it was lit with an ultra-violet lamp, remains of (patchy) varnish were to be seen on the picture. Against that evidence, we face the problem of how the changes that manifestly occurred (as seen above) could have arisen. For example, how was the angel’s mouth changed if it remained under a film of varnish? What accounts for the fact that after the last cleaning the picture did not return to anything like its condition when previously cleaned sixty years before? Specifically, what accounts for the great lightening of the sky seen in the top right, as opposed to the sky seen on the left? What accounts for the great change in the Virgin’s blue robes?
Above, Fig. 19: The short Louvre catalogue, left; right, an illustration published in 1992 of the principal heads in the “St. Anne.” The emerging chasm between such photographic records of the same painting has yet to be addressed by scholars and curators.
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