[Paleopsych] NYT: An Ancient Masterpiece or a Master's Forgery?

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Arts > Art & Design > An Ancient Masterpiece or a Master's Forgery?

    A scholar has suggested that "Laocoön," a fabled sculpture whose
    unearthing in 1506 has deeply influenced thinking about the ancient
    Greeks and the nature of the visual arts, may well be a Renaissance
    forgery - possibly by Michelangelo himself.

    Her contention has stirred some excitement and considerable
    exasperation among art historians in the Classical and Renaissance
    fields. Many other challenges to accepted attributions have faded
    quickly into oblivion.

    The scholar advancing the theory, Lynn Catterson, a summer lecturer in
    art history at Columbia University, presented her argument in a talk
    at the university's Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America on
    April 6. Maneuvering through a wealth of material - including
    Michelangelo's drawings, records of his banking activity and his
    acknowledged reputation as an avid seeker of renown and wealth - she
    said, "He had the motives and the means."

    The strikingly naturalistic sculpture, 951/2 inches tall, depicts a
    deadly attack on the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons by
    writhing sea snakes dispatched by Athena - or, some say, Poseidon -
    after Laocoön warned against admitting the Trojan horse during the
    siege of Troy. It resides in the Vatican Museums in Rome.

    In a telephone interview, Dr. Catterson cited a pen study by
    Michelangelo dating from 1501 depicting the rear of a male torso that
    resembles the back of the "Laocoön" - and Michelangelo's documented
    finesse at copying.

    "That the Laocoön was carved by Michelangelo explains why then, and
    why now, its effect is mesmerizing," she said.

    Richard Brilliant, Anna S. Garbedian emeritus professor of the
    humanities at Columbia and an authority on classical antiquities - his
    works include "My Laocoön: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of
    Artworks" (University of California Press, 2000) - said that Dr.
    Catterson's contention was "noncredible on any count."

    For one thing, he said, "she made absolutely no reference to ancient
    sculptures that could be related to the 'Laocoön,' " including a large
    body of ancient fragments found just before World War II at Sperlonga,
    a site near Rome where Tiberius had a luxurious villa, that refer
    specifically to episodes of the Trojan war.

    Some scholars have also found fault in relating the "Laocoön" to the
    Michelangelo drawing of a torso, now at the Ashmolean Museum at

    "To my eye, the Michelangelo drawing does not bear a close resemblance
    to the torso of the Vatican Laocoön," said Katherine E. Welch, an
    associate professor at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts
    and an expert in Hellenistic and Roman imperial antiquities, in an
    e-mail message. "The latter is distinguished by a vigorous torsion or
    twist, which is lacking in the drawing."

    The "Laocoön" was placed at the Vatican Museums by Pope Julius II not
    long after it was discovered on Jan. 14, 1506, on the Esquiline Hill.
    Upon hearing the news, the pope immediately dispatched the architect
    Giuliano da Sangallo to view it; Sangallo brought along his colleague
    Michelangelo Buonarroti. The men identified the statue as that
    described by the first-century Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder in
    his "Natural History," who called it "a work superior to any painting
    and any bronze," one "carved from a single block in accordance with an
    agreed plan by those eminent craftsmen Hagesander, Polydorus and
    Athenodorus, all of Rhodes."

    Dr. Catterson, 48, said she did not set out to debunk scholarship on
    the "Laocoön" when she settled on a dissertation topic seven years
    ago: "How come Michelangelo was a sculptor? Who trained him?"

    Her curiosity was soon aroused. As a young artist under the patronage
    of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Michelangelo had witnessed the Medici
    family's willingness to spend considerable sums on ancient Greek or
    Roman objects, which he would have had ample opportunity to study and
    perhaps try to recreate, she said.

    He was an astute forger who earned his Bacchus commission after a
    carved sleeping Cupid that he had buried in the ground to "age" had
    been sold to a wealthy cardinal in 1495.

    Then there was recent scholarship on bank withdrawals and deposits
    between 1498 and 1501 that suggests that the sculptor was buying
    chunks of marble while accumulating substantial income that could not
    be accounted for, Dr. Catterson said, and several letters from
    Michelangelo to his father that spoke of some marbles but failed to
    explain how he was using the others.

    Dr. Catterson suggests that Michelangelo, a manic worker who carved on
    as few as three hours of sleep a night, would have had the time to
    create the "Laocoön" while working simultaneously on the "Pietà," for
    which he signed a contract in 1498 and which he completed by July

    He had his own house, which included ample work space, and a trusted
    assistant, Piero d'Argenta, she said. He also had access to Greek
    marble, found in excavations around Rome.

    That the "Laocoön" is made of seven pieces of marble may suggest that
    Michelangelo needed to transport the finished work unnoticed to its
    point of discovery, where it could have been assembled and joined on
    the spot, Dr. Catterson added.

    William E. Wallace, a professor of art history at Washington
    University in St. Louis and the author of several books on
    Michelangelo, was not as quick as other art historians to dismiss Dr.
    Catterson's claims.

    "Until I read the full argument in a reputable academic publication,
    I'm going to reserve a final judgment," he said, noting that since
    1996, 17 discoveries of or attributions to Michelangelo have made
    national news - and then been discredited or forgotten. "My first
    reaction was: 'Oh, come on. Not another.' However, the more I thought
    about it, the more intrigued I became. I think this one has the
    greatest lasting power."

    For Dr. Catterson everything was just a little too perfect about the
    discovery of the "Laocoön," which was in fairly good shape after
    presumably some 1,500 years when it was found by a farmer more or less
    where Pliny had predicted.

    "It's almost as though it was discovered to order," she said.

    But to Leo Steinberg, a prominent Michelangelo scholar, the evidence
    simply does not add up - neither the time nor the bank receipts nor
    the secretiveness. "We know that at least a dozen different people
    would have been involved in the process," he said. "And we know that
    Michelangelo made many enemies who would have been delighted to accuse
    him of a forgery of that scale. All of this strains credulity that in
    an Italian community at that time in the 1490's, there was no gossip,
    no squealing."

    Professor Wallace agreed that hard proof was lacking but said he was
    willing to consider Dr. Catterson's argument. "We'll never have the
    certitude a scientist gets," he said. "It can only be tested by the
    weight of scholarly opinion and time.

    "But Lynn is an excellent scholar and well trained. And the intriguing
    thing is that nobody who studies classical art in a way wants the
    'Laocoön.' They find it kind of a Hellenistic embarrassment, maybe
    because it really doesn't look like anything else comparable in the
    history of classical art."

    "And besides," he added, "we can never prove that Shakespeare really
    wrote 'Hamlet' at this point. They're still arguing about it."


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=KATHRYN%20SHATTUCK&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=KATHRYN%20SHATTUCK&inline=nyt-per

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