Why A Major Art Heist In Italy Robs Us All

This past Thursday, November 19th, what may turn out to be the biggest art theft in Italian history – apart from Napoleon’s efforts of course – took place at the Museo Civico di Castelvecchio, in the city of Verona. Three armed men overcame the museum’s security guard at closing time, and stole 17 paintings from the museum’s collection, before making their getaway in the security guard’s own car. So far, the robbers have not been apprehended.

Some in the press are suggesting that, as in the famous heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the paintings stolen from the Castelvecchio were taken to order. Presumably, given the list of what was taken, the underworld kingpin who selected these items has a particular penchant for Venetian art. The majority of the works stolen were by the great Venetian Old Master painter Jacobo Tintoretto (1518-1594), and of the remaining pieces, three were by his son Domenico (1560-1635) or his associates, another by Jacobo Bellini (c. 1400-1470), the progenitor of the Renaissance style in Venice, and another by Bellini’s son-in-law, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506).  

The stolen works are estimated to be worth between $11-16 million, but this seems a figure based purely upon conservative speculation. For example, works by Mantegna are not only rare in themselves, they almost never come up for sale on the open art market. Mantegna’s painting of “The Descent of Christ Into Limbo”, a very interesting picture but certainly not pretty to look at, sold at Sotheby’s over a decade ago for around $28.5 million. The work of Antonio di Puccio Pisano (c. 1395-1455), or “Pisanello” as he is commonly known, is even rarer: apart from some of his bronze medals and drawings, I could not even find a recent auction result for one of his paintings.

You can see photographs of each of the stolen paintings by visiting this link. I imagine that they will soon appear on the Art Loss register, if they have not already. Here’s a translated list of what was taken:

The Madonna of the Quail by Pisanello

St. Jerome Penitent by Jacopo Bellini

The Holy Family with St. Mary Magdalene by Mantegna

Portrait of a Child Showing a Child’s Drawing by Giovanni Caroto

Portrait of a Young Benedictine Monk by Giovanni Caroto

The Madonna Nursing the Christ Child by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Carrying of the Ark of the Covenant by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Banquet of Belshazzar by Jacobo Tintoretto

Samson by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Judgment of Solomon by Jacobo Tintoretto

Portrait of a Man by Circle of Domenico Tintoretto

Portrait of a Venetian Admiral by Studio of Domenico Tintoretto

Portrait of Marco Pasqualigo by Domenico Tintoretto

The Lady of the Campions by Rubens

A Landscape by Hans de Jode

A Seaport by Hans de Jode

Portrait of Girolamo Pompei by Giovanni Benini

I chose the missing Tintoretto “Samson” to illustrate this post, because he accurately reflects in this picture the attitude of frustration we all ought to have toward stolen art. Certainly, the loss of these works highlights the ongoing problem of art and antiques theft in Italy and elsewhere, which is quite a lucrative black market business and often used for money laundering purposes. Yet more importantly, this act removed from the shared patrimony of both the people of Verona and indeed of the world, the opportunity to study, appreciate, and learn from these paintings.

These works of art not only represent people and events important to the Catholic faith and to Italian culture, they are also tangible fragments of our shared human history. Each tells a story of how and where they were made, by and for whom, using what materials and methods were commercially available and scientifically understood at the time, and what happened to them after they left the artist’s studio. Without the paintings themselves, we may still have words on a page to tell us these things, but words alone cannot make up for their loss as objects of both visual beauty and historic significance.


Detail of "Samson" by Tintoretto

The Lady Who Taught Van Dyck To Paint

We often think of the Old Master Painters during the Renaissance and Baroque eras as being just that: masters, rather than mistresses. Yet there are exceptions to this, as you learn when you begin to delve more deeply into art history. While most of these ladies are not household names today, during their lifetimes some of them were very popular and well thought of, indeed. So today I wanted to draw your attention to one in particular, whom I was reminded of yesterday, in the context of news about a pretty amazing art discovery.

One of the most remarkable finds in the art market in recent years occurred on the British Antiques Roadshow, when an Anglican minister from Derbyshire learned that the painting he had purchased for 400 pounds in an antique shop a decade earlier was by the great Flemish Baroque painter, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The work turned out to be a study by Van Dyck for a larger work, “The Magistrates of Brussels”, which was destroyed in 1695 during a bombing of the town hall of that city. Several other preparatory paintings survive, including one in the British Royal Collection. The rediscovered painting has just gone on view at the Rubens House in Antwerp, where it is on permanent loan from the collector who purchased it.  

Between 1621-1627 the young Van Dyck was living and working in Italy, earning his keep by painting the nobility in places like Genoa, such as the enormous portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo now in the National Gallery here in DC. He was also taking time to study and travel throughout Italy, sketching and talking to other artists as he went. One of those whom he met, and whose ideas were to have a significant influence on his own development as an artist, was a lady then her 90’s and suffering from an eye ailment which prevented her from painting the portraits that had made her famous.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was the eldest of seven children born to members of the minor nobility in Cremona, Italy. Unusually for her sex and class at the time, she became a highly accomplished artist, to the point that she engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Michelangelo on art and technique, after he praised a drawing she sent him. Her early paintings of herself, her brother, and her five sisters showed a remarkable directness and lack of sentimentality.

Eventually Anguissola was called to Spain to be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel de Valois, the third wife of King Felipe II, who was a decade younger than the Italian painter, but also a painter herself. The two became close friends, and no doubt for Anguissola it was in some respects like being the big sister again. During her time in Madrid she painted the Royal Family and their courtiers many times. While in Spain her style changed as she matured, in part to adopt to the formalities required of court life and her own place within it, and her figures similarly adopted a certain hauteur.

A very famous painting in The Prado of Felipe II in middle age for example, once attributed to other artists working in Madrid at the time, has now been credited to Anguissola. Dressed completely in black, the most powerful man in the world is portrayed gently holding a rosary in his left hand, with his right hand resting in the carved grooves of his armchair. His expression is one of quiet, complete self-confidence: here is a man who knows exactly who he is, and feels absolutely no need to apologize to anyone for it. This is a remarkable psychological study of a figure who changed the course of world history.

It is some indication of the esteem in which Felipe II held Anguissola that following the untimely death of Queen Isabel in childbirth, he provided for his wife’s dear friend and companion by not only giving her an annual pension, but also a substantial dowry so that she could marry into the nobility. Anguissola married the son of the Spanish Viceroy to Sicily, and with her husband’s encouragement continued to paint. After his death in 1579, with the King’s permission she sailed back home to Italy; on the journey, she and the ship’s captain fell deeply in love with one another, and the two eventually married. Like his predecessor, Anguissola’s new husband encouraged her to continue painting. When it became impossible for her to paint due to her deteriorating vision, she supported the arts through philanthropy, collecting, and by meeting with younger artists who wanted to learn from her experiences.

In July 1624, a young Van Dyck showed up to visit the now very elderly Anguissola, to look at her paintings, hear her stories about some of the great artists she had met and corresponded with, and to come to understand some of her ideas about how to engage in the art of painting. He wrote of their conversations in his notebooks, now preserved in the British Museum, and drew a sketch of her which he later turned into an oil painting, now in the collection at Knole House. In it, we see a very old woman, bowed by age, but still as sharp as ever – as Van Dyck himself described her – her large, searching eyes no longer seeing clearly, but still peering into the person sitting before her.

Who knows – but for that deeply perceptive understanding of how to convey, in portraiture, the dignity of the sitter, Van Dyck might never have emerged from Rubens’ shadow. Whatever the case, Van Dyck acknowledged that he learned an enormous amount about the art of painting from Anguissola, particularly with regard to how to treat his sitters. Had this tiny Italian lady not made such an impact on the man who became the most popular and influential painter in England for well over two centuries, British and indeed American art would have been something else entirely.


Self-portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola (1558)

Scientists Reveal A Major Art Fake…Or Copy?

We all know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Someone who likes your mobile or your jacket, then goes out and gets the same one, is paying you a great compliment. In consumer culture, this is not difficult where many copies of the exact same thing are easily manufactured and purchased. In the collecting world however, when works of art are rare, things can prove a bit more tricky. Fortunately, scientists are stepping up to help historians sort out the flatterers and the fakers.                          
It is no exaggeration to state that the work of the Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450-1516) is among the most recognizable in Western history. Love it or hate it, once you have seen one of his paintings, Bosch’s work is virtually impossible to forget. His visions of Heaven and Hell, and his pictorial commentaries on human foibles and failings, are often crammed with action, like a “Where’s Waldo?” for adults. They have even found their way into popular culture, being referenced by everyone from Metallica to Michael Jackson to “The Simpsons”.

Although Bosch’s work was prized during his own lifetime, it was not until the reign of Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) that owning a Bosch painting became a significant international status symbol. Spain ruled The Netherlands at this period – as well as about half the planet for that matter – and being very interested in the arts, Philip kept aware of what his wealthier subjects were collecting. He himself decided to collect several of what he was told were Bosch’s most seminal works, and eventually found himself in competition with other wealthy and powerful individuals who wanted to copy him and emulate his taste.

The problem with this, as you might perceive from the dates when these two men lived, is that by the time Philip came to the throne, Bosch was long dead. The king was obviously unable to meet or commission works from the artist directly, meaning he had to rely upon the representations of others that a particular work was by Bosch. And as we have just learned this week, on at least one significant purchase, His Most Catholic Majesty got duped.

The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) is a group of international experts who have spent the past six years studying every available painting, drawing, and sketch known or suspected to be by Bosch. The researchers used not only their own experience and judgment as art experts, but also worked with closely with scientists to take advantage of technological advances available for the study of objects.  By using means such as infrared reflectography, high-resolution scanning and photography, and high-powered microscopic analysis, they were able to get as close a look as possible at these works of art.     

Although they will not formally publish their findings until January 2016, the BRCP has now determined that one of the major works purchased by Philip II for his collection is not actually by Bosch. Based on their analysis, the BRCP believes that the painting “The Seven Deadly Sins and The Four Last Things” (c. 1500), currently hanging in The Prado Museum in Madrid, was painted by one of Bosch’s pupils, rather than by the master himself.  The work of this student was so superficially similar to that of Bosch, that he often signed his pieces with his teacher’s name. Closer scientific examination enabled by the technology described above revealed that this work was not by Bosch himself. As of yet, The Prado has not commented on the BRCP’s announcement.

It could be that this unknown painter exercised that impulse which we considered above, i.e., that copying someone else is a way of flattering them. Yet here, one suspects that the artist was not so much interested in flattering his teacher, but rather in taking advantage of the desire of collectors to flatter each other. Because everyone wanted a Bosch painting, but Bosch himself only produced a limited number of paintings during his lifetime, this unknown artist was able to fill a commercial gap. True, it was not at all unusual at this time for popular artists to have studios filled with assistants, copying their works for sale to collectors, with the artist himself putting on the final touches. However in this case, it doesn’t seem as though Bosch himself had anything to do with this particular piece.

While for Bosch scholars and museums which own works purported to be by him the BRCP study will prove to be of major significance – no doubt The Prado, which has not yet commented, is hugely disappointed – discoveries like this are not really all that unusual anymore. For the past decade or so, it seems as though major findings in the art world are being announced practically every week, thanks to working collaborations between the art and science communities. Such research adds greatly to our knowledge about the works of art which we preserve in our museums and galleries.

Perhaps more importantly, these discoveries force us to reexamine what we think we know about the people who created, commissioned, and collected these pieces. We may never know for certain if this was intended as a copy or a fake. However from what we are able to piece together about the story of this particular work of art, we can see how human nature, particularly when it comes to flattery and acquisitiveness, does not change very much, no matter how many centuries go by. And that is something which Bosch himself, that master of portraying man’s weakness, would no doubt appreciate.