From Modigliani Fakes To Michelangelo The Forger: Italy's Most Ingenious Art Pranks
Even the art world is not immune to pranks.
TURIN — Summer, 1984. Three sculptures are found in a canal in Livorno, Italy.
Experts and art critics Giulio Carlo Argan and Cesare Brandi agree that the sculptures are the work of famous Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, who had written that he threw some sculptures that didn’t turn out as he'd wanted into the river.
But the sculptures were all fake. It was one of the greatest art hoaxes of all time. The prank of Modigliani’s False Heads is the story of three university students and an artist from Livorno who didn’t know each other, but all had the same idea: on the year of the centenary of Modigliani’s birth, as the city of Livorno dredged a nearby river to find the lost sculptures Modigliani had written about, defied the art world. It was courageous, and reckless.
After the four made the sculptures and threw them into the river at night, they waited for critics and experts to comment on their authenticity and quality. Then, they went on television and revealed the hoax — for the students, a prank, and for the artist, a performance.
Even the art world is not immune to pranks, and some of those who indulged in these hoaxes were later remembered as some of the most important and influential artists of all time.
Michelangelo, the forger
The mastermind of one of the most famous scams in art history was none other than Michelangelo Buonarroti. At just over 20 years old, the Renaissance art genius created a Sleeping Cupid that, through various tricks, looked like a piece of ancient artwork.
To make it appear older, Michelangelo buried it, giving the sculpture an “archaeological” patina and aura. The Cupid found a buyer on the Roman antiquities market: the Cardinal of St. George, Raffaele Riario.
Realizing the deception, the cardinal demanded a refund from the seller, but was so impressed with the illusion Michelangelo had created that he didn't ask anything of the artist.
Instead, he invited Michelangelo to Rome, where he commissioned another work: a statue of Bacchus. In the end, he wasn't happy with the work, which was later acquired by banker Jacopo Gallo.
The Sleeping Cupid statue was lost in the late 1600s, but over the years other similar statues have been identified as the possible original. The Bacchus, on the other hand, is kept at the Bargello Museum in Florence and is commonly known as the “Drunken Bacchus” because of its staggering posture and inebriated expression.
Self-portrait of Giorgione
"Self-portrait" of Giorgione, by Canova
Around the end of the 18th century, Italian sculptor and painter Antonio Canova — best known for his statue of Cupid and Psyche — forged a painting that was later passed off as a self-portrait by 15th-century Venetian painter Giorgione.
The prince knew it was a forgery, as he had commissioned it from Canova.
During a reception at his home, Roman senator Prince Abbondio Rezzonico showed the painting to artists and art historians, presenting it as a previously unknown self-portrait of Giorgione. The prince knew it was a forgery, as he had commissioned it from Canova, but the expertise with which the artist created the work, and the use of a period-accurate frame, deceived the experts.
The deception was perpetuated until a few years ago when the piece was attributed to Canova by art historian Fernando Mazzocca. In 2018, it was the work was exhibited and then sold at the TEFAF art fair in Maastricht, Netherlands.
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