[Paleopsych] NYT: An Ancient Masterpiece or a Master's Forgery?
checker at panix.com
Mon Apr 18 19:05:13 UTC 2005
Arts > Art & Design > An Ancient Masterpiece or a Master's Forgery?
By KATHRYN SHATTUCK
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.
"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,
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."
More information about the paleopsych