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January 7, 2013
Moments in Art
Renaissance Impersonator, Part 3
by Lawrence Jeppson

The previous two Moments in Art dealt with the fake terracotta busts created by Giavanni Bastianini (1830-1868) and the great brouhahas which erupted when he was exposed as the creator of these supposed Quattrocento masterpieces.

Terracotta was not Bastianini’s only medium. Some of his best forgeries were in marble, and others were fashioned from wood.

Closely related to limestone, marble varies greatly from quarry to quarry and, with modern laboratory procedures, the origin of a marble piece can be traced as accurately as a typewriter can be identified by its keys. A hundred years ago the typing of marble was not so far advanced, but even so, Bastianini had to be careful to use a variety that would not arouse suspicion because of general characteristics. He also had to age it carefully.

Freshly quarried marble has a glistening freshness the forger cannot ignore. The early Greeks did not like this freshness; perhaps it made the statue look too glitzy and artificial. Since the golden age of Attica, methods of artificially aging the appearance of marble have been part of the sculptor's discipline. Marble can be immersed in urine or in corrosive ashes; hung in a smokehouse; buried in sour earth (as Michelangelo did with his Cupid); washed with a solution of copper, iron, or zinc sulfate; or treated in other ways. A washing with weak green vitriol (from iron sulfate) penetrates so deep that even laboratory observers have been deceived.

The forger may vary the strengths of his solutions and may incorporate into them coloring agents to impart a variegated surface and make his work appear even more authentic.

Painters can sometimes mask the age of their fakes by using old canvas from the period and making paints by ancient methods. A forger of documents will search for papers which are as old as the bogus document is supposed to be; a frequent source is the blank end pages from old books.

In overcoming problems of ageing, a sculptor can't take an old piece of marble – like a painter of forgeries can take an old painting and scrape away an image – and cut away a lot of it because the exposed marble then becomes shiny new.

One of Bastianini's better pieces was a statuette, Giovanna Albizzi, which he made from worm-eaten wood glued and bolted and rough shaped into a female form by a joiner. After completing the figure, Bastianini covered it with gesso paste and gilded it in the sixteenth-century manner. Again it went north, where a French collector paid a substantial sum to buy it.

Even more beautiful was La Chanteuse Florentine [The Florentine Singer]. Dressed in elegant floor length robes, she was a graceful lady. You can hear her singing a nativity carol from the music she is holding. The subject may have been inspired by a Domenico Ghirlandaio fresco.

The piece was acquired by a French friend of the composer Giacomo Rossini. Rossini was so taken with the statuette that he wrote, “It pleases me to declare that this adorable statuette. . .does not sing my cavatina Di Tanti Palpiti, which made Venetians happy in 1813; she hums a melody of the celebrated composer Ludrone, who was born in Padua in 1500; that means (thank God) that she does not sing the seductive music of the future.”

Two days later the friend sold La Chanteurse Florentine as a work of the fifteenth century to the fabled French collector Edouard André, and she went into the Jacquemart-André Museum, as did the letter, and they were displayed together.

When Paul Dubois, who was a sculptor and director of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and an authority on early Italian Renaissance sculpture, declared that La Chanteuse Florentine was so completely in the spirit of the Quattrocento that no nineteenth-century artist could have done it, everyone believed him. Everyone wanted to.

The statuette aroused pangs of covetousness in another French collector, Edmond Bonnaffe. Since the subject was Florentine (and he probably had discussed the piece with its owner) he wrote a plaintive letter to Freppa, Bastianini’s Fagan:

“I should like to inquire, dear sir, whether you might indicate to me an interesting terracotta bust of a young man or a young lady, in short a pleasing subject. I need not stress I am looking for something beautiful by the hand of an artist of the Quattrocento. I should be most grateful if you could give me details of any such bust you may know of, together with its price. A terracotta statuette in the style of the figure brought to Paris by M. Castallani about forty centimeters high, would also be most acceptable, providing the subject were interesting and the statuette in a fine state of preservation.”

Hard as it would have been for anyone in Paris then to have believed that either statue was fake, no one would have believed that Benivieni, which I wrote about in Part 1 of this series on the Renaissance Impersonator, and La Chanteuse Florentine, which hit Paris at the same time, were produced by the same person.

In the weeks following Bastianini's death, more of the truth about the sculptor, his various works, and the people who had manipulated him or made bags of money selling and reselling his art slowly came out.

What do you do when you discover you’ve been duped by forged art?

The Victoria and Albert Museum simply moved the Bastianini pieces acquired at considerable expense into the room for moderns and continued to purchase his works, which they exhibited as nineteenth-century neo-Renaissance sculpture.

In 1922 Paris's original Benevieni and London's Baron von Jenison, another Bastianini marble done about the same time, were brought together for the first time in a False or True exhibition shown in Europe and the United States. Expert and layman alike could see that both works were by the same hand, even though the two busts were of men from different periods and places.

The exhibit was another proof that a copyist and a forger functions in his own culture, in an orbit of fashion which is not the same as it was a year before or will be a year hence. Subconsciously, the imitator emphasizes qualities currently esteemed and inevitably neglects and dilutes other aspects that his culture cares little about. Because experts, too, are often prisoners of these same forces, they may not recognize the disparity between genuine and imitation today – but they will tomorrow. Since tomorrow is already here for yesterday's forgeries, it's easier for us to spot them.

Another phenomenon haunts most forgers. The faker, historically, often succeeds with his first good copy, but as his works begin to appear here and there they become susceptible to comparison with one another. When these comparisons start, the creator's idiosyncrasies are discovered, and once they are known, they are likely to be spotted in other works which until then have gone unassociated.

Even if Freppa hadn't blown the whistle, eventually the fakery would have been detected, if not the faker.

There are two other patterns to this three-part story which are frequently duplicated in the lives of other forgers and fakery rings.

First, Bastianini was not the person who incised the inscription Benvieni into the marble bust. It may not have been Freppa. All too often a creator of fakes, who may be creating something “in the style of,” is manipulated by unscrupulous dealers. At first he may not know what they are doing, or what is being done to his work – the addition of signatures, the creation of attributions, the falsification of provenances. But once caught in such a situation, it is difficult for the exploited artist to extricate himself. (Or he may not want to.)

The other, a forger or a dealer who is misused, or not appreciated, frequently wants to have the record straight, not because of any great sudden wash of honesty, but a hunger for recognition – or a need for retribution.

As I have written about several times in my out-of-print book The Fabulous Frauds, Fascinating Tales of Great Art Forgeries, whenever there is a falling out – among forgers and dealers or between a forger and a victim – there is going to be scandal – in the case of Mark Hofmann and his Mormon papers forgeries, even murder!

Another fake sculpture by Bastianini

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