Real ? Fake ? The Italian Primitive Was almost Perfect

Ajaccio, Palais Fesch - Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 29 June to 1st October 2012.

1. Bernardo Daddi (1290-1348)
A Saintly Bishop
Tempera on Panel - 101 x 53 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch - Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais Fesch - MBA

"Raphael did not just suddenly fall down from the sky to honor the century of Julius II and Leo X.". With this assertion taken from his Considérations sur l’état de la peinture en Italie, dans les quatre siècles qui ont précédé celui de Raphaël Artaud de Montor, one of the first scholars to every study and collect Italian Primitives, explained a fact which seems obvious to us today but less so at the time. Until the second half of the 18th century, paintings from the 13th to the 15th century were not very well considered and their rediscovery was just beginning in 1808. For this very reason, the Musée Fesch, made up mainly of works then thought to be less important in the collection belonging to Napoleon’s uncle, holds a rich selection of paintings from this period.
The exhibition organized here this summer now highlights this rediscovery of Italian painting before the 16th century. The items presented are not an anthology but, more subtly, a questioning of the notion of authenticity of these panels whose return to fashion gave rise to an intense production of fakes.

The visit is thus divided into sections which range from the perfectly authentic work to fakes fabricated as real. Hence the title of the exhibition : Le Primitif italien était presque parfait.. An amusing choice but a bit misleading since some "perfect" Primitives are indeed presented, indeed the first three, examples of works from pioneering collections in this field, that of Artaud de Montor mentioned above, François Cacault’s, a generous donor to the Musée de Nantes and of course Cardinal Fesch’s, the proprietor himself (ill. 1).

Designed so that the public can grasp a complicated notion in an easy manner, signs are scattered throughout the exhibition with simple explanations of at times difficult concepts as seen sometimes in media headlines where the difference between a fake and a mistaken attribution is not well defined. In over half the visit, there is not a single fake painting, but there are very many questions concerning attributions.
The first of these notions is that of signed replicas or those in which members of the studio collaborated in a more or less significant way. Certain compositions were so popular that the painters had them produced on demand, with slight variations, in their workshop. This practice had always existed (and of course continued well beyond the 15th century), but in a catalogue essay, Matteo Gianeselli explains that it took on considerable importance at the end of the 15th century, notably in the studio of Andrea del Verrochio, the master of Lorenzo di Credi and Leonardo da Vinci. Here we see variations on the same subjects by Lorenzo di Credi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli and their studios. An exhibition like this is sometimes a perfect opportunity to show paintings which are usually hidden away in storage. This is the case for a panel by the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio from the Musée Fesch, too flawed to be presented permanently, in juxtaposition with another studio version held a the Musée Thomas Henry in Cherbourg (ill. 2 and 3).

2. Studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494)
The Virgin and Child with the
Young Saint John the Baptist and an Angel

Oil on Panel - D. 79 cm
Cherbourg, Musée Thomas Henry
Photo : Musée Thomas Henry

3. Studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494)
The Virgin and Child with the
Young Saint John the Baptist and an Angel

Oil on Panel - 87.5 x 57.8 cm
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch - Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais Fesch - MBA

4. Attributed to the Master of Memphis
(second half of the XVth century)
after Filippino Lippi
The Wounded Centaur
Oil on Panel - 80.2 x 67 cm
Chambéry, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
Photo : J.C. Giroud/J. Bouchayer

As these are authentic works, dating more or less from the same period, a good eye is an essential element in judging the quality. This is the art of being a connoisseur, a specialist who can help in establishing their status. For instance, a Wounded Centaur from the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Chambéry, a faithful copy of a prototype by Filippino Lippi (an artist who was known to never paint the same work twice), was attributed to one of his students whose production has been classified under the conventional name of Master of Memphis (ill. 4).
At times, the paintings are authentic but signed by a master who did not produce them. Therefore, only the signature is false, no matter when it was placed there. This was a very old practice found more in certain artists. The introductory essay uses the example of Giovanni Bellini whose name often appears on paintings which are undeniably by less important figures ; only one example is presented in the exhibition, that of a painter usually known by the name of Tommaso (perhaps Giovanni Cianfanini), active in Florence around 1500. The fake Verrochio signature, in this precise case, has nothing to do with the work.

5. Bartolo di Fredi (known from 1353 to circa 1410)
and/or Giovanni di Paolo (c.1399-c.1482)
The Virgin of the Annunciation
Tempera on Panel - 46 x 30 cm
Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais
Photo : RMN-GP/F. Raux

When a painting repeats a known composition, it is hard to determine if this is a studio version or perhaps a fraudulent copy. Certain works were first thought to be real when in fact they turned out to be later imitations.
A particularly interesting example is that of the Virgin of the Annunciation (ill. 5) painted after a detail from a large altarpiece by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (Annunciation in the Uffizi). Previously considered to be false, in fact the face had been entirely repainted. A first wipe revealed another state which was still not satisfactory and a third layer was glimpsed below, of much finer quality. The decision was made to eliminate the intermediate state thus disclosing a very beautiful face attributed to Bartolo di Fredi. Other questions also rose concerning the rest of the painting (hands, veils, etc.) but it appears that these areas are indeed contemporaneous to the head of the Virgin. Currently, the attribution still wavers between Bartolo di Fredi and Giovanni di Paolo, or perhaps a collaboration between the two, following the model set down by Martini and Memmi.

This type of restoration at times poses ethical dilemmas not addressed here in the exhibition : how far can one go in order to find the original pictorial layer, and so doing, eliminate perhaps a later but historic state ? We might wonder about the case of the Annunciation from the Musée Jacquemart-André exhibited here and whose restoration, carried out in 1976, was in our opinion a mistake. The lower part presented in fact a later decorative fabric, dating from the second quarter of the 15th century and prior to the mid-18th. It was removed in order to find... next to nothing or rather a few figures so badly damaged that they detracted from the painting instead of adding something to it, except for an archeological trace (ill. 6 and 7). Thus, an old repainted area of good quality was removed, resulting in an original work but with now serious flaws.

6. Giovanni di Tommasino Crivelli
(known in Perugia from 1434 to 1481)
Before « restoration »
Tempera on Panel - Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André
Photo : D. R.

7. Giovanni di Tommasino Crivelli
(known in Perugia from 1434 to 1481)
After « restoration »
Tempera on Panel - Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André
Photo : D. R.

8. Various Authors
Composite Polyptych
Tempera and Oil (?) on Panel - 219 x 140 cm
Lyon, chapel of the Centre Saint-Marc
Photo : D. R.

This Annunciation is presented in a very interesting section called "cabinet de gothicité", that is the taste for Neo-Gothic, expressing an interest not only in the Primitives but also their staging in a universe which recalls Gothic art. However, these Italian paintings were often fragments resulting from vandalism for commercial purposes (another point also covered in the catalogue) which consists in taking apart large polyptychs, at times even cutting painted panels into several pieces so as to make more money. The frames therefore had to be redone, imagining how to put back altarpieces from very different elements.
The Neo-Gothic frames, reflecting also the taste of a certain period, alas often disappeared in the second half of the 20th century. The exhibition shows several examples of paintings having preserved the later frame. It also presents an unpublished polyptych (ill. 8) belonging to the chapel of the Jesuit college in Lyon (centre Saint Marc). This recently restored work is quite fascinating. In the center, we see a Virgin with Child of rather beautiful quality which has not yet been identified (Lucca or Romagna (?), late 15th or early 16th century), above a Crucifixion by the Bolognese artist Simone dei Crocifissi. On either side, there are small 15th century panels from Umbria (on top) and Bologna (on the bottom). The entire work is framed with an ensemble of fragments of various origins, essentially dating from the 19th century. In short, this is an improbable object but it does have a certain charm and interest.

9. Icilio Federico Joni (1866-1946)
Virgin with Child
Fake in style of Pietro Lorenzetti
Tempera on Panel - 46.5 x 67 cm
Buonconvento (Sienna), collection Meoni
Photo : D. R.

10. Bruno Marzi ? (1908-1981)
Christ Entering Jerusalem
Tempera on Panel - 67.5 x 54.5 cm
Geneva, Musée d’art et d’histoire
Photo : Genève, Musée d’art et d’histoire

The most extensive part of the exhibition looks at the question of fakes, of course, the real fakes if we may, those produced in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, to dupe potential buyers all for commercial purposes. Some are of excellent quality and we can see how they were able to take in collectors as well as specialists (including for example Berenson), even museums. Several of these establishments have lent works which joined their collections as authentic works which then turned out to be fakes. This was the case for the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva who received a donation just before the Second World War which was quickly found to contain many dubious paintings. It also happened at the Louvre which has sent no less than three works, including a small panel from the Edouard Gatteux collection reproducing part of a predella by Fra Angelico.
However, the most interesting accounts are those presenting the forgers who excelled in appropriating the Primitive manner to the point of creating original compositions. Some of them are well-known and even studied, such as Icilio Federico Joni, who painted a Siennese Virgin with Child which seems totally real (ill. 9), Umberto Giunti who in his youth specialized in fake fresco fragments and Bruno Marzi who painted between 1930-1935 a Christ Entering Jerusalem inspired from several scenes by Pietro Lorenzetti (ill. 10).

11. Anonymous, second half of the XIXth century
after Fra Angelico
Tempera on Panel and Gold Backing - 29 x 37 cm
Paris, church Saint-Louis-en-l’Île
Photo : D. R.

12. Anonymous, c. 1900
after the Lombard School (?), 1507
Portrait of a Young Man
Tempera (?) on Panel - 48.5 x 38 cm
Vevey, Musée Jenisch
Photo : Vevey, Musée Jenisch

Other fakes are clearly less convincing such as an Annunciation (ill. 11) which was passed off as a Fra Angelico only to its first owner, Abbot Bossuet. He left his entire collection to the church of Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile in Paris : there were several fakes but, fortunately, also some authentic Primitives.
True, we could say on a reassuring note that fakes never fool anyone for long and that the fraud is always discovered sooner or later. But when reading a text from the early 20th century [1] which asserts that Italy is "a factory of old objects", a statement demonstrated with many examples, we wonder if perhaps some of the Primitives hanging in museums today are not actually fakes.

We will conclude our article with a painting from the Musée Vevey de Jenisch. Supposedly painted in the taste of the Lombard Renaissance, this portrait of a young man (ill. 12), undeniably bears the mark of its period : we could swear it was painted by an English Pre-Raphaelite !

Curator : Esther Moench.

Under the supervision of Esther Moench, Primitifs italiens, le vrai, le faux, la fortune critique, 2012, Silvana Editoriale, 376 p., 32€. ISBN : 9782913043367.

Visitor information : Palais Fesch - Musée des Beaux-Arts, 50-52 rue du Cardinal Fesch, 20000 Ajaccio. Tel : +33 (0)4 95 21 48 17. Until 30 September : Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 10:30 am to 6 pm ; Thursday and Sunday from 12 noon to 6 pm ; Friday from 12 noon to 6 pm, until 8:30 pm in August ; closed on Tuesday. As of 30 September : Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm ; Thursday and Friday from 12 noon to 5 pm ; Sunday from 12 noon to 5 pm. Admission : 8€ (reduced : 5€).

Museum website

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 14 août 2012


[1] Italo Mario Palmarini, "Fabbrica di oggetti antichi", Il Marzocco, 1st December 1907 (this text is quoted in the catalogue, p. 261).

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