Who’s That? Let’s Play Art Detective

Recently a reader asked if I could help identify a painting of an unknown lady. The woman in the picture bore many of the hallmarks of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, but I could not be sure that it was her. I also, rather cheekily, disagreed with an expert who had previously looked at the painting and concluded that it was 17th century, when to my eye it looked more like a 19th century Elizabethan Revival painting, designed to evoke the Tudor era for the purposes of interior decoration. I will always defer to an actual art expert of course, as I sit back and scoff in my big leather armchair, but in my response I had to explain to my interlocutor that it is often very difficult for any art historian to figure out who is being represented in an older work of art, unless the sitter’s identity has been clearly marked or documented.

Today being the birthday of Jacopo “Tintoretto” Comin (1518-1594), it seems appropriate to select a work by this Venetian Old Master painter to illustrate just how difficult identification in art can be. The painting I’ve chosen is artistically interesting, particularly for those of you interested in military history, but as we shall see we often can’t answer the question, “Who’s that?” – even in the case of an artist as famous as Tintoretto.

The portrait shown below dates from about 1555-56, and is in the collection of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. It depicts a gentleman in his 30’s or 40’s with a slightly reddish, forked beard, wearing steel armor with gold decoration, who is standing before an open window in a palace. In the background, a Venetian galley and another ship are heading out to sea under stormy skies. At the base of the column on the right we can see part of a date, but the picture appears to have been trimmed down slightly, so we can’t be sure of the exact number written there.

One possible reading of this painting by art experts, including the Kunsthistoriches Museum, is that the date on the column originally read “1540”. In looking at the historical record of what was going on in Venice at the time, this date could mean that the painting was related to the signing of a peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice in that year, which brought to an end what was known as the Third Ottoman-Venetian War (1537-1540). However as this treaty marked a humiliating defeat for Venice at the time, this hypothesis seems unlikely to me.

More likely – said the armchair historian – this painting has something to do with the founding in 1550 of the “Fanti da Mar”, the Venetian Marines Infantry Corps. They came to be as a reaction against the military losses that Venice had been suffering at the hands of the Turks during much of the 1500’s. Interestingly enough, the Fanti da Mar later became the San Marco Regiment, which itself was the foundation for the modern-day Italian Marines.

The armor depicted in the painting is that traditionally worn by commanders of the Fanti da Mar at the time, as shown in a later painting by Tintoretto of Sebastiano Venier, commander of the Venetian Marines at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and future Doge of Venice. This portrait cannot be of Venier himself however, since at the time it was supposedly painted he was already in his 60’s. Moreover, at this point he was not yet commanding the Venetian Marines. 

A more likely candidate would be the condottieri (mercenary) Astorre Il Baglioni (1526-1571), who was hired by Venice in 1556 to fortify the Venetian mainland against the Turks and made Governor of Verona. That would make him exactly the right age and general profession for this picture, and a somewhat crude portrait of Baglioni from this time shows a man in his 40’s with a distinctive, receding hairline, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait. Another portrait of Baglioni much later in life shows him with a forked beard, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait, but now gray with age.

However, as fascinating as this speculation is, there is a more fundamental problem with this identification. Although Baglioni was a military man, he does not appear to have been a member of the Venetian Marines, let alone a commander of them. So unless new research shows up indicating that he was made a Marine Corps commander, we are left at a dead end with this line of inquiry, as far as identification of the subject is concerned.

Art appreciation involves not just looking at images of famous kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, but rather about staring into the eyes of people from long ago who became successful or well-regarded enough in their profession to have their picture painted. Before the dawn of photography, painting, sculpture, and engraving was how these people were commemorated for their contemporaries and for future generations. Even with all of our knowledge, resources, and technology, there are many great, portraits of unidentified people from the past like bankers and bakers, soldiers and scholars, and unknown Venetian Marines, whom we may never be able to conclusively identify. But the detective work that goes into trying to identify them is endlessly fascinating.

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

Our Body of Work

Regular readers know that I often encourage you to look more closely at the environment you live in, and observe the details around you. This is part of your ongoing duty as an educated adult. I realize that a number of my readers are not Christians, let alone Catholics, but I hope you will bear with me in today’s post, and consider some of the points I raise herein about why it is so important to continue to educate yourself, if we are to preserve the body of Western culture which has been handed down to us as a priceless gift from previous generations.

The more you study subjects such science, architecture, literature, and so on, the more you realize that you are surrounded by reminders of our collective past. For example, if you give yourself a break with a Kit-Kat bar, you are eating something originally invented in England in the 1920’s, but named for a prominent London club of the 18th century. Or you might live in a town named for a Catholic saint, such as St. Louis, Missouri, or San Francisco, California. And since today is the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, he is a good jumping-off point for our consideration.

We can point to many works of art, musical compositions, schools, buildings, streets, and even entire towns named for this 1st century Jewish man, who became an important figure of the early Church. For example, Saint-Marc is an important coastal city in Haiti; Saint Mark’s Place is a popular tourist trap in the East Village in Manhattan; and the oldest military fort in the United States, the 17th century Castillo de San Marcos or “Castle of St. Mark”, is located in the city of St. Augustine, Florida – which of course is named for another Catholic saint. Bach wrote a Passion Oratario based on St. Mark’s Gospel, which composition sadly has been lost, while Irish composer Charles Wood wrote his own version while at Cambridge in the 1920’s.

For those of my readers who are not familiar with him, St. Mark was one of Jesus’ youngest disciples, a friend to St. Paul, and author of one of the Gospels. Although St. Mark was martyred in about 68 A.D. in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and buried there, in the 9th century his remains were stolen by a group of Venetian merchants and taken back to their city. The legends surrounding how this took place are interesting in and of themselves, but more importantly they created a narrative for Venice and for its empire, which was reflected in things such as city planning, public celebrations, music, literature, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, and so on.

As a result, there is probably a greater concentration of art related to St. Mark in Venice than in any single other city in the world. Not only is the city Cathedral, the Byzantine-Gothic style Basilica of San Marco, dedicated to him, as is the famous piazza or square in front of it, with its flocks of pigeons pooping all over the tourists, but he represents the Venetian Republic as well. Throughout Venice and in the territories which it used to control, the winged lion of St. Mark was used as the emblem of the old empire on the Adriatic, much as the bald eagle represents the United States, today.

In the books of Ezekiel and Revelation in the Bible, their respective authors wrote of heavenly visions involving four winged creatures which surround the throne of God. Christian interpreters of Scripture came to believe that these represented the four canonical Gospel writers. That which is believed to represent St. Mark, the winged lion, was chosen because St. Mark begins his Gospel with the voice of St. John the Baptist crying out in the desert, like the roar of a desert lion. Thus, Venice adopted this symbol of its patron saint as its own.

When it comes to Venetian art portraying St. Mark, the great master Tintoretto (1518-1594) is not one of my favorite painters, truth be told. I do not generally care for his work, since I often find his pictures too messy and busy, and his palette can sometimes be rather muddy. That being said, I recognize his importance in art history, both in the influence he had on the work of subsequent artists I do like, such as El Greco, but also in that he did paint some interesting works from time to time.

In the mid-16th century, Tintoretto produced a rather brilliant series of four paintings on scenes from the life of St. Mark for the Scuola di San Marco charitable institution, which of course was named for the saint.  One of the paintings from this series which has always fascinated me is Tintoretto’s portrayal of the stealing of the Evangelist’s body from its tomb in Alexandria.  It is a dramatic scene, but an example of how the artistic imagination can take a story and run with it, not seeking to portray reality but rather to explore different ideas and concepts in art, architecture, and science.

Rather than have the figures in the scene carrying a coffin or reliquary containing the bones of St. Mark, Tintoretto portrays them as carrying the full-sized body of the saint, who is looking rather buff despite being dead for over 800 years. Alexandria itself looks nothing like 9th century Egypt, and more like the stage set of an idealized city by the great Venetian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, a contemporary of Tintoretto’s – all perfect proportions, arcaded palaces, and vanishing sight lines. A further dramatic touch is provided by having the night sky split with threatening thunderstorms against a blood-red sky, including a rather spectacular display of lightning which is causing passersby to flee to the colonnades for shelter in what looks like a choreographed dance.

After considering all of the forgoing, the reader can see my point about why there is so much more to be seen in something like a painting than might first meet the eye. If you were to go to the Accademia and admire this painting, you might be able to appreciate it for what it is, and decide whether or not you like the picture based purely on aesthetics. However, a student of cultural history realizes that there is a great deal more at work here than simply the creation of an image. In this one piece one can point to all sorts of threads that led to its creation: The Bible, optics, linear perspective, anatomical study, Mediterranean trade routes, the decline of the Byzantine Empire, and so on.

This is why it is important not just to accept what you see at face value, but to take some time to think about what you are seeing. Otherwise, we reach the point where people wallow in their stupidity, being unwilling to acknowledge with humility that they have more to learn, rather than seeking to do their best to overcome it. We have been given a rich inheritance of human achievement, which will be lost if we do not study and preserve our culture for future generations, and by adding to it ourselves. Otherwise, the body of work which we hand on to them really will be putrid and decayed.

“The Theft of the Body of St. Mark” by Tintoretto (1548)
Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice