How To Tell a Fake 101

It's a very pretty ring, and when I was in Paris someone Tweeted a photo of this Greek 2nd Century BC ring in the Benaki, and trying to stay positive I RTed it. Almost immediately I thought "no!" ... I undid the RT and made a passing remark that it was interesting that the ancient Greek creator had knowledge of the work of Michelangelo.

Recent events have made me realise too few people spend enough time with originals, and so I thought it might be worth taking the time the explain my thought process.


First thought: "I don't like jewellery but that's an interesting scene"

Second thought: "those breasts are very Michelangelo!"

Michelangelo preferred men, and was notorious for carving sculptures of women that were basically men with strange breasts added to the chest, which looked worse and faker than any bad boob job you can imagine. The example most people see is from the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence:

I present Michelangelo's female Night ...

(Her breasts look like sacks of silicone done by a cut-rate surgeon)

... and his female Dawn.

Obviously there is the odd similar ancient depiction, one of which Following Hadian had tweeted around that time (incidentally she is very much worth a #FF on Twitter), but there are not that many that depict a woman's breasts quite a strangely as this Thetis:

Third thought: "Michelangelo created a Leda and the Swan"

The painting by Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) is lost but preserved in drawings, which were widely copied by artists from his time onwards, and then in turn copied as sculptures and prints.

First the Michelangelo drawings, which is more likely to be preparing for the painting than of the finished work itself. Hugo Chapman seems to see this as the only study by Michelangelo's hand (left; Casa Buonarotti, Florence; info).

This close contemporary copy by Rosso Fiorentino (d. 1540) is in the Royal Academy (below):

The Michelangelo two-dimentional image in turn soon inspired to carve sculptures of Leda and the Swan, inspired by it. This one is by Bartolomeo Ammannati (1511 – 1592).

 The angle of the Renaissance head differs, and the swan kisses her mouth rather than her nipple, but the influence of Michelangelo on whoever created the ring should be clear.

For me this was enough evidence for me to call "bull" on the Benaki ring being ancient Greek. For the purposes of explaining how to confirm a gut feeling I will make a few more points.

I looked the image up today on the Benaki Museum's web site, and it says:
Gold signet ring from Thessaly. On the bezel, an intaglio representation, either Leda and Zeus transformed into a swan, or Aphrodite and Ares. Pictured in the background are a helmet, a tree, a square column with a lion-head and a temple or sanctuary. On the lower part of the representation are two spears, a shield and the inscription OMOΛΕΙΙΑΙΩΝ. 2nd c. BC or later. H. of bezel 0.022 m. (ΓΕ 1612)
Then I looked up the references. The "Thessaly" provenance seems to be hearsay. Rings like this were pretty much almost all found in tombs (sometimes in votive deposits), as those that remained above ground tended to be melted down by later generations, and the gold re-used; this one has very pagan iconography unlikely to have been popular during the Byzantine era and the condition does not show centuries of use. The ring has no real provenance before entering the Benaki collection. The phrasing "2nd c. BC or later" is also unusual, and suggests a cataloger unwilling to rule out the modern period.

Hugo Chapman pointed out that there is proof Michelangelo had knowledge of ancient images of Leda and the Swan (source):

The problem is that the lost sarcophagus formerly in the Quirinal with Leda is preserved in drawings that all greatly post-date Michelangelo's work (so the Census mistakenly includes the Rosso Fiorentino drawing above), and are rather unhelpful.

For example this is Luca Cambiaso (1527 - 1585), Leda is right (Ganymede is left):

And this is Giovanni Battista Montano (1534-1621), even more clearly influenced by the Michelangelo (see also JSTOR here):

The earliest drawing in date is by Marcantonio Raimondi (c. 1470 - 1534), and shows a very different Leda on the sarcophagus:

Like the Michelangelo this Raimondi drawing shows the swan kissing the mouth of Leda who is reclined, but that differences are great enough to show that Michelangelo was influenced by it and not making a direct copy. The Cambiaso is interesting in that as on the Benaki ring the swan kisses Leda's nipple, but the poses are otherwise very different both from it and from the Michelangelo.

It should also be noted that Leonardo also produced a now lost Leda and the Swan, which was also highly influential, but like most Roman statues and paintings showed Leda standing upright not reclining. This figure - the drawing to the left was a copy made by Raphael, now in Windsor (source) - would also have had a great deal of influence on artists' loose copies of antiquities but was more contemporary in the way Leda was depicted, as opposed to Michelangelo's deliberate classicism.

(This standing Leda is known from two dozen Roman statues, and is after Timotheos's Leda).

Then we come onto the cameo now in Naples, which Michelangelo could have seen:

This is the only Leda gem with a solid old provenance, and most such cameos were greatly copied hence my suspicion of all others. As Chapman noted, Michelangelo used her pose for the Night and Leda - but the hair is very different, and I'd say it suggests Alexandria as the origin of the design if the gem is ancient.

My feeling is that the Naples cameo is indeed ancient, partly as they were not quite skilled enough to fake them this well in 1471, nor was there quite the market for fakes that there was in the following centuries. Cameos would have been shown off, and since Michelangelo worked for the Medici extensively, he almost certainly saw it and was inspired by it.

Also the pose shown on the Naples cameo is known for a number of Roman terracottas, some of which were found in secure archaeological contexts, for example these (left is from the Agora in Athens, Inv. no. L 519; source for others):

The Naples cameo and the Athens lamp both show the swan kissing Leda on the lips, as in the Michelangelo. The Naples cameo and the Athens lamp are ancient, the former could possibly be late Hellenistic, but is hard to date, and the later is 3rd century AD Roman. Since the hair on the cameo is similar to the hair on the lamp, as is the motif of the hand grasping the cloth in ecstasy (missing in the Michelangelo and the Benaki ring), the lamp and cameo copy the same original work. A third century AD style agate version of the cameo is known.

Bibliography: the Leda lamp is number 36 in the little Agora Picture Book on Lamps from the Athenian Agora (available as a PDF here). It is number 781 in Judith Perlzweig's Agora VII (available as a PDF here; attributes the lamp to Preimos as the maker). Other possible Leda lamps from the Agora of Argos feature in a Swiss PhD by Lambrini Koutoussaki (available as a PDF here): 219 (?); and unlikely but maybe on 222.

This Roman mosaic from North Africa is Blanchard-Lemee fig. 196-97, found here.

Perlzweig mentions a relief in Alexandria confirming that as the likely source of the original; this, several from Heracleopolis Magna and other towns in Egypt, a Coptic relief now in Oxford, and a strange Coptic relief now in Brooklyn are contra my earlier point about Leda and the Swan unlikely to be popular iconographic motifs during the Christian Byzantine era. These Byzantine reliefs are far less sexual, and a rather localised motif; the theory is that during this period the Coptic Church interpreted Leda as a precursor of the Immaculate Conception.

It is possible that the Benaki ring copied a lost original work of which Michelangelo saw a different Roman copy preserved and known in the Renaissance, but the Benaki ring is claimed to be much earlier by centuries than all the other known examples of this type of Leda, and differs from the ones with proper contexts. The ring just about seems possible for the later Roman Empire, but otherwise something about it just feels off, mostly because it seems too influenced by the work of Michelangelo.

The setting of the scene on the Benaki ring is also odd, with a priapic Silenos - not normally found in scenes showing Zeus' seduction of Leda, in fact the norm really from the post-Renaissance period onwards ...  not in ancient images - and stranger still this 'new' figure holds a helmet. It could perhaps be Zeus' but again this is not the norm, and speaks to me more of a post-Renaissance mentality. The unusual iconography was noted by Electra Georgoula in her 1999 catalogue, Greek jewellery from the Benaki Museum Collections:
The Benaki was a titillating little piece and the buyer didn't look too closely. Sometimes we see what we want to, not what is there.

Years ago, when I was doing my PhD, a lecturer tagged along on to my appointment at the Vatican Museums and ... couldn't tell the difference between the marble and restored plaster parts of sarcophagi, despite having written a book on them. Many scholars are good at gathering evidence, but not at analysing it. The best advice I was given was to look at what is in front of you rather than reading the label, and if you don't know what it is without the label then ... keep practicing!

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