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Moments in ArtRenaissance Impersonator, Part 1
by Lawrence Jeppson
Although Michelangelo was not his buddy, the mad monk Girolamo Savonarola did have a famous friend in Florence who was a poet, philosopher, and sculptor: Hiermus Benivieni, born in 1453. Even though his name was scratched into the base, Benivieni was not the subject of an acclaimed terracotta bust which appeared four centuries later.
A Florentine antiquities dealer named Vincenzo Capponi regularly rummaged the dusty bins and flea-market stands of other dealers seeking things he could sell and, if good fortune would strike, the unrecognized treasure. In the cluttered premises of Antonio Freppa, nominally a picture dealer, Capponi found the terracotta bust. Freppa didn't seem to know much about it--he was, after all, not a specialist in antiques.
Pretending not to be much interested in the object, Capponi made off with it for 640 lira. But his fortune had struck! He turned around and sold the bust to two Roman dealers for 10,000. They immediately put it on exhibit in the Palazzo Riccardi in Florence as a genuine work of the Renaissance.
The next year this uncataloged terracotta bust of Hiermus Benivieni, became the sensation of the Exposition de l'Union Central des Beaux Arts, Paris. The bust was loaned by one of the most famous collectors in Paris, the Count de Nolivos. Adulating crowds jammed the Salle de l'Industrie to gawk at it. Far and wide, it was hailed as a masterpiece.
Writing in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, critic Paul Mantz declared: "All the subtlety of the Italian character is disclosed in this expressive countenance. It is marked by both good humor and deeply felt experience. The creases at the lips, the precociously furrowed brow, and the intent gaze betoken amazing vitality. Every feature bears the stamp of a striking personality. . . The age of the subject and above all the style of execution suggest that the work should be dated at the earliest in the last years of the fifteenth century or preferably at the beginning of the sixteenth."
Who was the real creator of this masterpiece? Arguments raged in favor of Donatello, Andrea del Verrocchio, Desiderio da Settignano, Mino da Fiesolle, Antonio Rossellino, Benedetto da Maiano, and Lorenzo di Credi. The last was known to have painted Benivieni, and some of his drawings in the style of the bust were still extant. He was known to have tried sculpture. His nomination by Mantz drew the widest support.
Shrewd De Nolivos decided there was no better time to sell and get a big price.
At the Hotel Drouot in January, 1866, the bust went on the block. The two main pursuers were Count de Nieuwekerke, who was the director of the Imperial Museum (The Louvre), and Duke of Aumale, who had a baron doing his bidding. The count got it for 13,250 francs plus another 1,000 francs in auctioneers' fees. (Earlier in the century the fabulous Venus de Milo had been acquire for less than half as much.) Immediately the marble was enshrined in the Louvre between works by Michelangelo and Benvenuto Cellini.
Everything about it had been sensational: the first showing, then the heated battle for it by well-known rival collectors, its awesome price, and its Louvre enshrinement. It was the hot topic of the day, and the notoriety swept past French frontiers.
The Italian newspapers were scrutinized by Freppa--the same, unimportant, not very bright Freppa who had let the terracotta bust slip through his hands for a paltry price. He had been victimized again! He had sold Benivieni to the Count de Nolivos for only 700 francs. He was incensed by the price de Nolivos got for it.
And what stuck most in his craw was that de Nolivos had promised to pay him an additional 1000 francs if he sold the bust at a profit.
Poor Freppa. He had to decide whether to wait patiently for the Count to fulfill his bargain or to incur the risk to himself by calling down vengeance on the count. For nearly two years he waited. And then he blew up.
He took his snarl to Chronique des Arts, a Paris journal. There, for the world to see, he declared, "It's only three years old, your bust. I know the man who made it. I watched him do it. I bought it for 350 francs, and I sold it for 700. The bust does not depict Benivieni at all but Giuseppi Bonaiuti, a tobacco-factory worker."
Freppa identified the sculptor as Giavanni Bastianini.
That's nothing but the outcry of a crank, the Louvre answered. In a later century the situation might have been called Benivienigate.
There was no official investigation. The French and Italian press went at each other's throats. French journals supported the authenticity of the sculpture. The Italians chortled at how the French had been so easily deceived.
A French sculptor, Eugene Lequesne, was so disdainful of the Italian putdown that he offered to roll Bastianini's clay for the rest of his life if the Italian could prove that he had done the bust. Lequesne published his attacks in the Paris Patrie. Bastianini, realizing that he had been used, replied in the Gazzetta de Firenze.
Lequesne declared that the bust was produced by an antique process which required the clay be pressed into a mold and then modeled. Proof: seams were visible on both shoulders and the neck where sections of the model came together. The hair showed traces of liquid clay which had been smeared on the interior of the mold.
Bastianini replied that he had modeled freehand. As much as possible he left the bust hollow. The seams and slip were evident because the cast was taken after firing.
Lequense said that an original fingerpint shows where one of the curls on the head had fallen off and been pressed back on.
Bastianini asked, "Aren't fingers always used for modeling?"
Lequesne said the clay in the bust was not the clay of today, and it had become porous with age.
Bastianini answered that Lequesne didn't know what he was talking about. He would send him the clay he used everyday. Chemically and artistically it would be the same clay as the bust.
Lequesne said no one would be fooled by a patina applied by tobacco smoke.
Bastianini chided--he could hardly believe the French would use anything as silly as tobacco smoke to make a patina. He was certainly not going to tell the French his secrets. But he would apply his secret patina to any piece of terracotta the French might wish to submit.
One of Bastianini's Florence friends published an account of the scandal entitled "The Tower of Babel."
In Paris J. Charvet struck back with a pamphlet "The Ass in the Lion's Skin: a Florentine Hoax."
Winning bidder Count de Nieuwekerke wearied of the battle. No contemporary artist could possibly have sculpted so perfect a masterpiece. Unwilling to deal directly with the craven upstart, he made an anonymous offer in the Journal du Nord, a daily newspaper published in Lille, far away from the center of the controversy. The offer was so incredible that the count was forced to come out in the open and repeat it in the Paris press with his name attached. He would pay 15,000 francs for a companion piece of equal merit.
Bastianini answered by delivering a letter published in La Nazione:
"Deposit your 15,000 francs in safe hands. We will then choose between us a jury, not composed entirely of Frenchmen, and I will for my part guarantee to make a bust, for 3,000 francs, as good as the Benivieni. As for the other 12,000 francs, I will be very generous with you, as you are one of the pillars of the Second Empire, by modeling for you busts of the Twelve Caesars at the price of 1,000 francs a piece."
The offer was made in February, 1868. It went unanswered. In March Bastianini repeated the offer in the Gazetta di Firenze, again without answer.
Three months later Bastianini, who was only thirtyseven, was dead.
The controversy was not.
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