The Fraud ― il Falsario
or, Bernardo De Dominici and the Art of Faking Art History
There is good news and bad about historical biographies of artists, that is, the lives of painters and sculptors. The good news started with Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574). He was a painter, architect, and art historian. Today he is remembered for his Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori [Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects] a series of biographies that covered artists in those fields between the 1300s and 1500s. It was published in 1550 and updated by the author in 1568. The work was very popular both in Italy and abroad and was called simply The Lives. Everyone knew what you meant. It started a wave, both in Italy and abroad, of biographies of artists by would-be "Vasaris," who were often nicknamed "the (nation) Vasari". There was the 'Spanish Vasari' (Antonio Palomino), the Dutch Vasari (Karel van Mander ), the German Vasari (Joachim von Sandrart), etc. Sure, some of them (even Vasari himself) took a few liberties by juicing up their bios with unlikely anecdotes about the lives they were relating, but no one questioned that those persons existed. That's the good news.
The bad news was from Naples. It was in the form of Vite dei Pittori, Scultori, ed Architetti Napolitani, a three-volume collection of biographies of Neapolitan painters, sculptors, and architects. It was written by Bernardo de' Dominici (or De Dominici, 1683–1759 [image, above] and was published in Naples in 1742. De Dominici was an aspiring painter and studied under the great Neapolitan painter, Luca Giordano. In 1727 he published a biography of that artist. De Dominici is remembered, however ―one way or another― for his art history. After his Lives came out, he was called the "Neapolitan Vasari." For a while. Then (it took a while) people took a closer look.
It seems he made up (!) a lot of artists, dates, names of paintings, and clever anecdotes about persons who had never lived, especially in the first two of his three volumes. He claimed that so many southern Italian artists, especially in the 1400s and 1500s had been overlooked by Vasari that he was obliged to give readers their first-ever look at some of them. The volumes were published unevenly: 30 names in vol.1, 80 in vol.2, and 16 in vol. 3. All of the names in vol. 3 are legitimate (many are indeed from De Dominici's own day and age, the first half of the 1700s, and are verifiable from other sources. But as you move back, it gets shaky. There seem to be at least a couple of dozen fictitious entries.
Il Falsario was the Italian title of an essay by Benedetto Croce (image, left) in one of the first issues of the cultural journal Napoli Napolissima (1892 pp. 122-126 and 140-144) (journal details, first item above). He starts strong and stays that way. It's as close as Croce ever comes to being angry in print. Falsario is the word for "counterfeiter". I chose 'Fraud' because it's snappier. Maybe "The Fake" would do, too. The first sentence is this:
"You can't have a precise discussion of art history in the South [lit: "our provinces"] without first taking care of this fraud ― this person who poisoned our sources ― by getting him out of the way and breaking any claim to authority he has ."Croce's goes on for eight pages like that. He never says "I have shown... ." That wouldn't be Croce, the careful, picky-picky researcher. He just grinds out name after name, art historian after art historian, and critic after critic, from as early as 1830 when German critics started noting that De Dominici had padded his biographies with entries that no one had ever heard of. ("Hey, Fritz, you know this painter? Me neither. And here's another one. Let's saddle up and ride down to Naples and see what's going on... No, the Internet is down. Come on, Napoleon is dead.")
When Croce wrote his article in 1892, De Dominici's reputation was still somewhat intact; that is, there were still some who cited his Lives in good faith. Croce polished off those people in short order (well, eight pages). What is wrong with you people?! His explanation makes sense. First, he doesn't spare Vasari, who ignored some early southern artists from the 1400s and 1500s. You solve that problem with careful research and corrections to Vasari, says Croce. But no, he says, we wind up with this failed, mediocre painter who just sits down and makes up junk. ("He not only knows artists no one has ever heard of, but he knows stories about their families, too!") Croce says the worst thing in all of this is that the Falsario sidetracked serious scholars for a century, distracting them from getting on with real research in art history. Now it's like looking down at the gaping hole in the ground left by an explosion. It's empty and we have to start filling it in properly.
My thanks to Selene Salvi for calling my attention to the 1892 Croce article. Much later (1919) Croce published his book Curiosità storiche (Historical Curiosities) with a chapter on "False leggende popolari" ("False Popular Legends") in which he tells (pp. 158-163) the story of Bernardo De Dominici.
p.s. Yeats was going to write about this in 1892, calling it "The Golden Pickles of the Art Critic" but he changed his mind.
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added Dec. 1, 2019
Can't Anyone Take a Joke?
Lighten up, Benny!
Benedetto Croce (alias "Blessed" or "Well-Said") was a world-class scholar and, yes, Bernardo de' Dominici (entry above this one) was a fraud who shouldn't have done what he did ― "...padded his biographies with entries that no one had ever heard of" (and, heavens to Murgatroyd!* I'm not defending it!) but come on, can't anyone take a joke?! Such shenanigans are not rare. I call your attention to Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature by C.C. Bombaugh (1828-1906), especially to the edition beautifully annotated by Martin Garden (Dover Publications, New York, 1961.) (Ask for it by name! Accept no substitutes!) The Bonbaugh work had a chapter dedicated to "Fabrications," including the infamous Shakespeare forgeries of 1795-96. One William Henry Ireland "found" plays of the Bard entitled Vortigern [a 5th-century warlord in Britain ― don't worry, in 1796, the English knew who he was!] and Henry the Second. The plays were printed, and one was even produced. It flopped and enough critics finally forced Ireland to admit the fraud. Gardner's annotations (pp.363-365) include the following:
Et very cetera. Literary fraud is big business. The most interesting ones are those that still confuse. It's still not clear whether the so-called Diary of Jack the Ripper, which surfaced in 1992, is or is not what it claims to be. Chemical tests indicate it might at least be from that era (the 1880s), so maybe. (If it is, indeed, the diary of one James Maybrick, and if he, indeed, was really Jack the Ripper, it's a consolation to know that his wife poisoned him!)
Some unknown practical joker sent at least 84 imaginary biographies to the editors of Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography where they appeared in the 1886 and 1888 editions. Nobody noticed it until 1919 when a bibliographer discovered fourteen of them. Seventy more were found by 1936 and there may be others still undetected.
Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters, 1780, by William Beckford, includes details about the lives of such ghost painter as Blunderbussian of Venice, Herr Sucrewasser of Vienna, Watersouchy of Amsterdan, Og of Bason and others. Some unsung fake biographies have been written by Noel Coward. In his Terribly Intimate Portraits, published in 1922, you can read all about the lives of Julie de Poopinac, E. Maxwell Snurge, Jabez Puffwater and other unusual personages. In 1932 Coward edited an anthology called Spangled Unicorn that includes in addition to specimens of verse by ten widely unknown poets, with photographs and biographical sketches. Crispin Pither, Jane Southerby Danks, and Tao Lang Pee are among the poets here immortalized. In 1925 Coward also edited Chelsea Buns, a collection of poems by Hernia Whittlebot, with an introduction (in French) by Gaspard Pustontin.
It's not necessarily about money. In the 19th century the Russian Imperial government released the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, supposedly the minutes of 24 secret meetings held by Jewish wise men plotting to take control of the world. It was a fake with obvious anti-Semitic motivation. The ones for money can be pretty good, though! The Hitler Diaries were a series of sixty volumes of journals purportedly written by Adolf Hitler, but they were forged by Konrad Kujau between 1981 and 1983. He suckered the West German news magazine Stern into shelling out almost five million dollars for this great scoop. Stern licensed the rights to publish the diaries to gullible and greedy outlets all over the world before a technician in a West German police lab looked at the paper, ink, binding, etc. and said "...uh...this stuff was written yesterday." Don't worry. There'll be more.
added 4 Dec 2019
Some hoaxes are just fun, nothing more than good pranks. There's no real harm in them, no one cheats others out of money, there is no evil intent, no slander or racist agenda. (Eventually there may be egg on the foolees' red faces but that's a charming color combination!) A worthy sample to study is Mark Twain's parody in Huckleberry Finn of Hamlet's soliloquy. It starts:
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin/
that makes calamity of such long life/
For who would fardels bear, til Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane,/
But you know it's a hoax because ... wait, you know it's a hoax, right? OK, just checking (I've got this bridge...). It's a famous example of what is called "patchwork" verse (also called a cento* or mosaic poem. You can even use lines from different authors. Bombaugh-Gardner (p.73, see first paragraph) cites:
I only knew she came and went Lowell
Like troutlets in a pool; Hood
She was a phantom of delight, Wordsworth
And I was like a fool. Eastman
*A cento is a poetical work composed of verses or passages taken from other authors, especially Homer and Virgil, written in a new form or order. The word cento is from the Latin cento, an article of cloth that has been patched together from smaller pieces, such as a quilt. In other words, these fraudulent bastards go back a long way.
But surely no one will actually be fooled, right? Wrong. Bombaugh-Gardner (p. 350) says that the most successful hoax of modern poetry was in July, 1944. An avante-garde literary review in Australia, Angry Penguins, published the works of an unknown poet, Ern Malley. The editor fell for it. The poems had really been pieced together from lines taken from various sources. One poem, "Culture and Exhibit", was really from a U.S. report on mosquitoes:
Swamps, marshes, barrowpits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding grounds.
The poems were praised (by some claiming to be familiar with the poet's works)! When the editor realized he'd been royally had, he doubled down and said that the authors had "unwittingly written great poetry"! (Gardner cites the New York Times, July 3, p.6 and July 4, p.18, 1944.)
You can do this yourself, you know ― be a fraud. Find a great line of romantic poetry and tell the woman you love that "I wrote this just for you." Careful, though. Don't pick W. B. Yeats, your obvious go-to choice for lines to melt a woman's heart: "The stars live but to light your passing feet." Come on, she's a cheerleader. She won't know. Right, if she leads cheers for Neander Valley Jr. College, she might not know it. But what if she's majoring in English Literature?! If she finds out, you're done. No, forget that, too, you bogus creep, and don't you ever speak to her again! So, here's a line for you she won't know:
"Thou art the star for which all evening waits." (Look it up.**)
She won't know it. Or if she does, hang on to her and wait for her to stop laughing. Then marry her. She's intelligent, well-read, and has a sense of humor. You fraud!
Besides Oddities and Curiosities (cited), I have relied on The Game of Words by Willard R. Espy, Wings Books, New York and Avenel, New Jersey. 1994 edition, originally published in 1972.
I thought you'd never ask: Verweyen, Theodor and Gunther Witting. "The Cento. A Form of Intertextuality from Montage to Parody" in Intertextuality. De Gruyter, Berlin 1991. pp. 165–178. Nope. Didn't touch that one, but it exists. No kidding.
*The phrase "Heavens to Murgatroyd!" first appears in the 1944 MGM film Meet the People, where it was spoken by the character of 'The Commander' played by Bert Lahr. Murgatroyd is a surname from old English aristocracy, the first use of the name is Johanus de Morgateroyde, a constable in Yorkshire, in 1371. Several characters in Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera, Ruddigore, are named Murgatroyd: two mortals and ten immortal ghosts. Look, it's complicated. Ruddigore was first performed in the Savoy Theatre in London on 22 January 1887. Composer Sir Arthur Sullivan is not to be confused with his U.S. contemporary, heavyweight champion boxer, John L. Sullivan, or one of them will come and beat you to a pulp.
** OK. George Sterling (1869–1926). Not only are you a fraud, you're lazy. Don't tell her that he killed himself.
p.s. Hey, dear Well-Said, now that is research!