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Episode 45

The National Gallery Podcast

In the July 2010 podcast, faking it: how Gallery experts spot forgeries. Plus Andrew Graham-Dixon on Caravaggio, and Canaletto’s view paintings (the ultimate status symbol).

18 min 35 sec | July 2010

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. This is the National Gallery podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this month’s show: a sneak preview of our big autumn exhibition, ‘Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals’ and Andrew Graham-Dixon gets his teeth into Caravaggio’s ‘Boy bitten by a Lizard’.

‘Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We start with news of a show that’s just opened at the Gallery. Exhibitions tend to celebrate the big names of art, but this time the focus is on the people behind the scenes. ‘Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries’ explores how our scientists, curators and conservators turn detective to reveal the truth about paintings that aren’t all they seem. Sometimes they’ve been misattributed to the wrong artist, sometimes they’ve been altered to suit the tastes of the day, sometimes they’re out-and-out fakes.

Curator Betsy Wieseman told me a few of their tales, beginning with a painting acquired by the Gallery in 1990. Said to be a portrait of Martin Luther by Hans Holbein the Younger, something wasn’t quite right...

Betsy Wieseman: When this painting was acquired by the Gallery in 1990 it originally had a bright blue background and the man’s hat was not this sort of conical shape, but more like a skull cap fitted very closely to the top of his skull. When the painting arrived in the Gallery it was examined very closely and it was realised that the blue background had been added later, that it wasn’t original to the painting. So some cleaning tests were done, a cross-section was taken and examined very carefully and two things were found out. One, that the blue lay on top of a layer of varnish (which is usually the last thing you put on a piece of painting), so it was not original to the painting, and when the pigments were analysed it was found to contain Prussian blue, which was a pigment only discovered in the 18th century, so more than 200 years after the painting itself was made.

So when scientists and conservators started their work on restoring the painting, it came up as you see now, that the background is a light brown in colour, with this horizontal grain to imitate wood, which was a very common background in 15th-century German portraits. And you can also see that the man’s hat has now been revealed to have this funny conical shape.

One of the things that researchers were intrigued to try and find out is why these changes might have been made. The use of Prussian blue indicated that they were done after about 1710. A reproduction of the painting done towards the end of the 18th century showed it in its earlier state with the blue background and the round hat. So it must have been changed sometime in the 18th century, and it was probably done to increase the appeal of the painting, because obviously a painting of someone as famous as Martin Luther by an artist as famous as Hans Holbein the Younger was going to bring a much higher price.

Miranda Hinkley: So, we now know it’s not by Hans Holbein, but we still don’t know who the artist is...

Betsy Wieseman: No, absolutely not. He’s identified as the ‘Master of the Mornauer Portrait’, because we know that the sitter in the portrait is Alexander Mornauer, but we don’t know who the artist is by name.

Miranda Hinkley: So how will the works be displayed, Betsy? Are we going to be able to see some of this scientific work in progress?

Betsy Wieseman: Absolutely. We’re hoping that in the exhibition, the visitor can in a way trace the steps of the researcher. So in the case of the ‘Portrait of Alexander Mornauer’, we’ll show an image of the painting with the blue background, we’ll show the infrared reflectogram which reveals the underdrawing, the preliminary sketch he made, and we’ll also show you the large blow-up of the paint cross-section which shows very clearly that the blue paint was applied over a layer of varnish. So we’re hoping that people will be able to make their own discoveries and feel as if they’re following the detective stories.

Miranda Hinkley: And of course the thing about these detective stories is that they’re ongoing, so that at any point in the future as works go in for conservation more stories will come out… 

Betsy Wieseman: Absolutely, and even as we were putting the exhibition together we discovered new things and surprising things about the paintings that caused us to rethink; for me as a curator it’s been fascinating to work with colleagues in the Scientific and Conservation departments because I’ve really found out so much about the paintings.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Betsy Wieseman. If you’d like to try your own hand at spotting fakes and mistakes, come along to the National Gallery. The exhibition is open until 12 September and admission is free.

Coming soon: ‘Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Now for a preview of a major exhibition that’s opening at the Gallery in October. It’s called ‘Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals’ and it celebrates the flowering of ‘vedute’ (or ‘view’) painting in Venice in the 18th century. Canaletto is perhaps the best remembered ‘vedute’ painter today. But as the show will reveal, there were many other brilliant artists working in Venice, all producing views for foreign tourists. To accompany the exhibition, the Gallery is making a film that explores the experience of these visitors to the city. Leah Kharibian went to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Well, I’m delighted to say that the National Gallery podcast is on its travels again and I’m here beside the waters of the Bacino di San Marco in Venice, with one of the presenters of the film to accompany ‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals’, the Italian-born art historian and 18th-century expert, Adriano Aymonino. Adriano, even at this early hour we’re surrounded by tourists and travellers, and being here it’s not hard to see why they’ve come. But in the 18th century, when travelling was so much more difficult, why did foreign visitors and the British in particular come to Venice?

Adriano Aymonino: First of all I need to say that in the 18th century very few people could afford to come to Venice, so it was really the chosen few, not as you can see nowadays, we’re surrounded by thousands and thousands of people. In the 18th century, only the aristocracy or the upper classes could afford to come to Venice. And Venice was, with Rome and Florence, really the centre of the Grand Tour. They would have gone to Rome for antiquity and culture, and to Venice for completely different reasons which were mainly basically the entertainments of Venice. So Venice was really the stage of Europe, a city where you could gamble, enjoy the carnival, enjoy the festivities, and mix with the local population and the local aristocracy, something that in Rome was much more difficult to do.

Leah Kharibian: Now you’re here to film the modern revival of a civic festival held on Ascension Day called the Festa della Sensa and in the 18th century this really was one of the highlights of the Venetian calendar. What went on?

Adriano Aymonino: Basically, where we are now (we’re on the Bacino di San Marco in front of the Piazzetta), the ‘bucintoro’ – this huge galley which was completely gilded and enormous (the one that you see nowadays, it’s nothing compared to the one that you could have seen in the 18th century) – this huge ship, would have hosted the doge, the senate and members of the Maggior Consiglio, the Great Council of Venice, and the rowers were the citizens of Venice. So basically all the people, the whole structure of Venetian society, would have been symbolised in the ‘bucintoro’.

Then this huge parade, with the ‘bucintoro’ in the middle and other ships and galleys, would have gone to the lido – the lido is basically the only strip of land dividing the lagoon from the main sea, the Adriatic sea. They would have reached the open sea, the Adriatic, and the doge would have given to the sea a gold ring as a token of the wedding of the Venetian power with the sea. And really this was a matter of the dominion of Venice over the east Mediterranean.

Leah Kharibian: So for foreign visitors this event had quite a lot of significance, didn’t it? I mean, what were they drawing from this idea of the ‘bucintoro’ sort of encapsulating the whole of Venetian society?

Adriano Aymonino: Especially for the British, and especially in the first half of the 18th century, Venice on paper was the perfect society – the society that Aristotle devised. So basically a mixture of the one, the few and the many – a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, which in the Venetian constitution was represented by the doge, the senate, and the Maggior Consiglio and the fact that, through a complex system of controlling, the doge didn’t have any power. So for the British it was really important because – especially for the Whigs, who were the dominant party of the first half of the 18th century – it represented the ideal way of ruling a country.

Leah Kharibian: Now the exhibition, I know, is going to have a number of spectacular depictions of the festa, which in light of what you just said, are obviously more rich in meaning than we might at first think. Is this true of ‘vedute’, or ‘view’ painting made in Venice, both for people who bought them and people who saw them when they were on display back home? Were they actually more than just simply views of Venice, like elaborate postcards?

Adriano Aymonino: Absolutely. On one hand you can consider the Canaletto ‘vedutes’ as simple souvenirs of their experience of the Grand Tour in Venice, but of course they also bore a symbolic meaning – ‘actually I’ve been on my Grand Tour, I’ve been back so I’m already part of the establishment, of the ruling classes, and of the chosen few in this country…’ Having a Canaletto view, or many of them, even better, on your walls was really a symbol of belonging to the ruling classes of the nation. And, remember, this is absolutely fundamental, Canaletto was only part of a system of cultural references; so, you would have hanging in your country houses, or in your urban houses of London, Canaletto with Panini, with Batoni, with Old Masters etc...

So Venice was only one of the elements in this mosaic of cultural references to Italy, but it was one of the most important. So, having a Canaletto on the walls, alongside something else… but really, having a Canaletto on the walls, especially a good one, or many of them as a set, was a status symbol, more powerful than anything else in the 18th century.

Leah Kharibian: Thank you very much indeed.

Adriano Aymonino: You’re welcome.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leah Kharibian talking to Adriano Aymonino. ‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals’ doesn’t open until October, but, as it’s likely to be very popular, tickets are already on sale. See for details.

Andrew Graham-Dixon on Caravaggio

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio lived perhaps the darkest and most dangerous life of any of the great painters. He was notorious for brawling, and at the height of his fame killed a pimp, Ranuccio Tomassoni, and was forced to flee from Rome. The art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, puts this murder at the centre of his new biography of the artist, exploring how Caravaggio’s violent life fed into his work. He spoke to me about one of the most popular pictures by Caravaggio in the collection – ‘Boy bitten by a Lizard’.

Andrew Graham-Dixon: One of the documents I came across in the course of researching my biography of Caravaggio describes a man, very angry with another man, who’s his enemy, biting his finger at him. And what this symbolised was: ‘if I ever catch up with you late at night, I’ll get out my knife and I’ll emasculate you.’ It’s symbolic of castration, of injury to the sexual parts, and that language of the streets was something that Caravaggio also brought into painting. He famously put real people into paintings, posed them, painted them, and that’s what he’s done here, he’s taken a young model and posed him in his workshop. He’s painted him, it’s a picture painted for sale.

The scene draws on that language of popular vengeance or injury, in the sense that this young man has been enjoying apparently unalloyed, sensual pleasures, eating fruit, and he’s reached into this innocent looking collection of fruit and his finger’s been bitten by a lizard. I think one of the things that’s interesting about the picture is the flowers; there’s a jasmine and a rose, and the flowers symbolise love but more specifically they symbolise carnal love. Fillide Melandroni who was Caravaggio’s possibly favourite female model, probably his lover, possibly a whore for whom he pimped in his spare time, carries a jasmine at her breast in a famous portrait that sadly was destroyed in the Second World War.

So I think if you put that together with the boy’s suggestive undress, what Caravaggio’s suggesting – and remember, counter-reformation you have to be a bit careful about what you paint – that this boy has fallen victim to the blandishments of love and in the process has caught what in Italy they called the ‘French Disease’; in France they called the ‘Italian Disease’. The lizard that is biting his finger is a symbol of, as it were, the poison chalice of his lover who has given him the clap, which was a very common thing to get in Rome in the 16th century because… I shouldn’t laugh, it’s no laughing matter; Montaigne noted that very few women in Rome were not engaged in the oldest profession in the world and noted that in his day – he was writing just shortly before Caravaggio arrived in the city himself – a lot of the nobility were so fond of ogling the prostitutes as they stood at their balconies that they actually lopped the tops off their carriages. They created, as it were, the world’s first convertibles for the purpose of being able to look up at the ladies.

I mean, it’s a slight picture, it’s not one of Caravaggio’s greatest paintings. It’s painted for sale early on when he’s struggling, and according to his biographers pictures like this he struggled to sell; he was living in rags and not living very well. I think he ran a team of prostitutes. I can’t prove it for sure, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that may have been what he was doing late at night. He was always out with his sword, he’s always in the company of prostitutes; it’s not a great stretch that, you know – it’s quite hard to get models – he paints them, looks after them, gets a bit of free sex on the side. His fight with Ranuccio Tomassoni – the man he kills… Ranuccio’s a pimp, Fillida was one of Ranuccio’s girls – I think maybe Caravaggio persuaded her to work for him. So this fight could be about that. It could be about Ranuccio’s wife, who Caravaggio may have had something with, or may have insulted. Caravaggio kills him with a sword blow to the groin. We know from a barber surgeon’s report that he bled to death from the femoral artery, so again, it’s a low blow. In boxing terms, it’s definitely below the belt. But this again suggests that Caravaggio was attempting to inflict a sexual wound. So again in a way we come back to that image of the man biting his finger at another man.

There’s an extraordinary legal document where it actually says  ‘if I cut out your eye I’ve got to pay you £100, if I cut out both eyes I’ve got to pay you £500, if I cut off one of this chap’s testicles I’ve got to pay him £200, if I cut them both off I’ve got to pay £1,000’. The fact that the punishments were specified means that these things obviously went on, so I’m not being controversial for the sake of it, I think this is what actually happened. Sex was at the root of it with Caravaggio and Tomasoni; in a sense, everything that went wrong in his life stemmed from that moment... but what a great artist. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Andrew Graham-Dixon, whose biography, ‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’, is out this month. Come along to the Gallery if you’d like to see ‘Boy bitten by a Lizard’ for yourself. We’re open 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays. And don’t forget, if you can’t make it along, you can find images of all the works in the National Gallery’s collection online at

That’s it for now; until next month, goodbye!