2007-02-05 Duccio di Buininsegna Madonna and Child
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Duccio(?) at the Met

In 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, following the lead of Director Philippe de Montebello, made their most expensive acquisition in the history of the institution when they purchased a small painted panel attributed to the late Gothic Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna.

This past summer, a debate ensued when ArtWatch President and Columbia Professor James Beck questioned the authenticity of the work, and the Met presented its case via the press. In response, Professor Beck sent the following letter to the New York Times, in an attempt to rectify certain fallacies that had appeared in an item printed on 8 July. It never appeared in the Times, nor was the letter acknowledged by its editors.

JULY 15, 2006

To the Editor,

Mistakes of fact and interpretation in the July 8 Times item entitled “Authenticity of a Met Masterpiece is Challenged” require comment.

(1) The Met’s claim that “virtually every scholar of Duccio accepts this picture as Duccio” is misleading. One expert, Professor Florens Duechler, who was himself a curator at the Met’s Cloisters, did not in his monograph of 1984. In 1997, a monograph by Andrea Weber (Cologne: Könemann) omits the picture altogether from his catalogue of Duccio’s works. In fact, the first known published reference to the painting was in 1901, at which time it was attributed not to Duccio of ca. 1300 but to Sano di Pietro, a 15th century Sienese artist.

(2) The central interview in the item was with Luciano Bellosi, one of the world’s few bona fide Duccio experts. He is quoted as highly enthusiastic about the Duccio attribution. What the item failed to report is that Bellosi has never actually seen the painting. In an interview with Lee Rosenbaum published July 10, 2006 (culturegrrl.blogspot.com) he admitted as much:

“No, unfortunately I didn’t see it with my own eyes, only by photographs….I know it is a very important question. It is always necessary to see the works of art in reality to be sure what they are….Art historians like Keith Christiansen and Everett Fahy [of the Met] are very capable to judge the works of art with their eyes. I know their capacity. I trust in them for that.”

Actually, none of the experts who have written monographs on Duccio over the past 50 or more years ever saw it! As Bellosi himself acknowledges, it is of major importance from the point of view of proper connoisseurship.

(3) To support its Duccio attribution, the Met claims that the parapet or perspective shelf in their painting influenced a picture located in the Museo Civico of Montepulciano. The item failed to include my response, namely that the pictures are diverse in size, scale, format, function and derive from different artistic traditions. The Montepulciano Madonna and Angels has three standing figures within an arch, while the Met’s tiny picture is a rectangular tableaux with a single group, a conception congenial to 15th century Flemish and Italian portraits, where the parapet functions spatially as a plane in front of the sacred images. In making this claim, the Met asks us to believe the impossible: that an anonymous pupil copied the notion of the parapet from the master, yet it never again appears in any of Duccio’s
works, nor in the works of any of his great pupils, Pietro Lorenzetti, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. That scenario would be unique in art history.

(4) Contrary to the item, I first expressed my doubts about the authenticity of the painting directly to the curator Mr. Keith Christiansen in an exchange of e-mails one year ago this month. [Full text of e-mails available on request.]:
(4) Contrary to the item, I first expressed my doubts about the authenticity of the painting directly to the curator Mr. Keith Christiansen in an exchange of e-mails one year ago this month. 
[Full text of e-mails available on request.]: 
Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2005, 2:28 PM
To: Christiansen, Keith
Subject: RE: greetings from Italy
Dear Keith: ……I would be dishonest if I did not mention to you that I personally have some problems with the painting….

(5) The item also failed to include my response to the Met’s suggestion that its scientific testing proved the Duccio attribution. To begin with, it is most indicative that these tests were conducted after the purchase, not before. Besides these tests cannot prove an attribution—they can at best rule out certain kinds offorgeries or misattributions.

(6) The item failed to include my reasons for bringing the Duccio error to public attention. I believe that when a mediocre object is classified as a great work by a great artist, that artist is unfairly diminished and the public is misled.
Sincerely,

James Beck (Professor)

2006-06-22 - European University Florence
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The European University in Florence

Piero Pierotti

The European University in Florence, which occupies several buildings in Fiesole, including the Badia Fiesolana, has decided to construct additional housing in the surrounding area, land which has traditionally been protected. From what has so far appeared in the press, the Comune of Florence appears willing to grant permission.

Firenze, 20 giugno 2006

L’Università Europea, che ha preso sede a Firenze nel vecchio convento dell’abbazia fiesolana, ha necessità di dare ospitalità permanente ai propri professori e pertanto ha deciso di costruire 60 villette nei terreni di sua pertinenza. Questi terreni si trovano appunto alla base delle colline fiesolane, in un’area sinora protetta. Il Comune di Firenze, per quanto si apprende dalla stampa, si è dichiarato favorevole alla richiesta e si appresta ad approvare una variante al piano strutturale che consentirà l’operazione. In cambio – sempre secondo notizie di stampa – riceverà un ettaro di terreno libero da destinare a verde pubblico. Non è dato di sapere che cose ne pensa la Soprintendenza, che per il momento tace.
Assisteremo perciò probabilmente a una gara, certo non nobile, per decidere chi, fra Comune di Firenze, Unione Europea e Soprintendenza fiorentina ha meno scrupoli nell’invadere con una distesa di nuove villette il paesaggio delle colline fiesolane.

prof. Piero Pierotti
Presidente di ArtWatch Italia
artwatch@tin.it
pierotti@arte.unipi.it

 

2006-06-20 Andrea Mantegna Hermitage Museum
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Andrea Mantegna at the Hermitage

Piero Pierotti

To coincide with the G8 Summit, the Hermitage Museum has planned a series of exhibitions, including one in honor of the 500th anniversary of the death of Andrea Mantegna. For this exhibition, the city of Mantua will loan two paintings to the museum. ArtWatch Italia has criticized this practice of using works of art for political reasons, while subjecting the objects to all of the risks that accompany their transportation.

2006-06-20 Andrea Mantegna Hermitage MuseumFirenze, 20 giugno 2006
Dalla stampa nazionale si apprende che Mantova “regalerà” all’Hermitage una mostra con due opere del Mantegna (è il cinquecentenario della morte dell’artista) per le riunioni del G8 che si terranno a luglio in Russia (Cinzia Dal Maso, “La Repubblica” del 9 giugno 2006). Si tratta di un nuovo episodio di uso improprio delle opere d’arte in Italia.
In termini specifici si tratta di un’operazione inutile. Se l’Hermitage ha interesse a mostrare ai membri del G8 esempi di pittura veneta deve solo ricorrere alle opere conservate nelle proprie sale o nei propri magazzini, che ne sono ricchi. Non c’è necessità di integrare ciò che già vi esiste in funzione di un evento che non ha finalità culturali.
In termini operativi l’operazione comporta i consueti rischi: movimentazione di pezzi delicatissimi, possibilità di incidenti e furti, disadattamento climatico, disambientamento nelle nuove sedi espositive e altri pericoli a tutti noti. I trasferimenti delle opere d’arte dalla loro sede abituale dovrebbero limitarsi solo a poche, pochissime occasioni, e sempre in via assolutamente eccezionale. L’uso diplomatico delle opere d’arte è solo segno di malcostume politico, dal momento che tali opere sono patrimonio dell’umanità, non di questo o quel governo, né tanto meno di questo o quel comune, e come tali vanno considerate.
Sul piano culturale l’impresa, sempre complessa e assai e costosa, non ha nessuna rilevanza ed è, anzi, da considerare diseducativa, dal momento che si affrontano rischi e onerii non indifferenti per compiacere un gruppo così ristretto e non necessariamente qualificato di fruitori.
Non è dato di sapere se l’iniziativa è partita col consenso del precedente ministro dei Beni culturali o di quello attuale: in entrambi i casi non si tratta, per il presente governo, di un buon avvio.

prof. Piero Pierotti
Presidente di ArtWatch Italia
artwatch@tin.it
pierotti@arte.unipi.it

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Letter to the Mayor of Florence: Michelangelo’s “Victory”

In an open letter to the Mayor of Florence, ArtWatch is calling for an immediate halt to the restoration of Michelangelo’s statue group known as “Victory”.

James Beck June 22, 1998

Dear Honorable Mr. Mayor,

On behalf of ArtWatch International, Inc. and its affiliate in Italy, ArtWatch Italia, I am asking at this time for an immediate halt to the projected restoration of Michelangelo’s sculpture group known as Victory, presently in Palazzo Vecchio in the Salone dei Cinquecento. In our opinion the matter is most urgent because scaffolding have already been constructed around the sculpture, making it ready for the intervention.

ArtWatch, a watchdog organization with nearly 1000 associates worldwide, has taken a stand against drastic and/or unnecessary treatments of our artistic treasures. Activity on the Victory should be halted until information about the projected intervention is made public. Among the points that require full disclosure are:

  1. an explanation of the assumed need for such an intervention or treatment at all;
  2. the goals for the intervention and what is hoped to be attained;
  3. the proposed methodology of the intervention, i.e. what techniques are planned, for example, with the restores use scalpels, mico-sand blasters, lasers, chemicals?

Once the data is made available ArtWatch also calls upon the Mayor to organize an open public debate, preferable in the Salone dei Cinquecento, in which international experts on Michelangelo, specialists devoted to Renaissance sculpture and Italian Renaissance art in general, specialists on marble restoration, as well as all interested parties may participate. ArtWatch believes that, as in the field of medicine, second and third opinions are essential before a restoration is undertaken. In fact, sometimes the most effective cure has been to leave the patient alone. ArtWatch makes these requests on the basis of the operative assumption that works of art of the caliber of Michelangelo’s Victory do not, strictly speaking, belong to the city of Florence, nor, to the government of Italy, but ultimately belong to the entire world, and that the city and state officials in charge are guardians whose role it is to preserve the objects in their trust for future generations. To take any action in relative secrecy is effectively a violation of that trust.

Thanking you for attention to this matter, I am Sincerely Yours,

(signed James Beck)