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From Modigliani Fakes To Michelangelo The Forger: Italy's Most Ingenious Art Pranks

Even the art world is not immune to pranks.

Three Italian college students posed with Modigliani's fake head and the tools with which they made it.

Three college students pose with their sculpting tools and one of the fake Modigliani heads.

Emanuela Minucci

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.

Photo of Antonio Canova's forged self-portrait of Giorgione.

Self-portrait of Giorgione

Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

"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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

A Russian Nuclear Bluff Or The Very Dangerous End Of "Mutually Assured Destruction"?

Retired Major-General Alexander Vladimirov wrote the Russian “war bible.” His words have weight. Now he has declared that the use of nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine is inevitable, citing a justification that consigns the principle of deterrence to the history books.

Photograph of a Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile system showcased during the annual Victory Day military parade.

May 9, 2023, Moscow: A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile system during the annual Victory Day military parade.

Gavriil Grigorov/Kremlin Pool/ZUMA
Slavoj Žižek


LJUBLJANANuclear war is the “inevitable” conclusion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That's the opinion of retired Major-General Alexander Vladimirov, from an interview he gave last week to the journalist Vladislav Shurygin, and reported by the British tabloid The Daily Mail.

The retired general and author of the General Theory of War, which is seen in Moscow as the nation's "war bible," warned: “For the transition to the use of weapons of mass destruction, only one thing is needed – a political decision by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [Vladimir Putin].” According to Vladimirov, “the goals of Russia and the goals of the West are their survival and historical eternity.”

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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That means, he concludes, that they will use all methods at their disposal in this conflict, including nuclear weapons. “I am sure that nuclear weapons will be used in this war – inevitably, and from this, neither we nor the enemy have anywhere to go.”

Recently, Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer sparked outrage in India because it contained an intimate scene that made reference to the Bhagavad Gita. Many people took to Twitter to ask how the censor board could have approved this scene. A press release from the Save Culture, Save India Foundation read: “We do not know the motivation and logic behind this unnecessary scene on life of a scientist. A scene in the movie shows a woman making a man read Bhagwad Geeta aloud (during) sexual intercourse.”

My response to this scene is precisely the opposite: the Bhagavad Gita portrays cruel acts of military slaughter as a sacred duty, so instead we should be protesting that a tender act of bodily passion has been sullied by associating it with a spiritual obscenity. We should be outraged at the evil of “spiritualizing” physical desire.

Isn’t Vladimirov doing something similar in this interview? He is seeking to somehow elevate a (self-destructive, murderous) passion by couching it in obtuse terms such as “historical eternity.”

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