The old master in the kitchen: Is the Cimabue find all it seems?

When a long-lost masterpiece miraculously turns up, awkward questions must be asked

Rare find: the 13th-century painting attributed to the Italian master Cimabue. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

Rare find: the 13th-century painting attributed to the Italian master Cimabue. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

 

It’s amazing what you can find in an old French house. A painting attributed to Cimabue, the 13th-century Florentine genius who started the Renaissance, has turned up in the French town of Compiègne, just north of Paris, where its elderly owner hung it for years above a hotplate between her kitchen and lounge.

This is the second such discovery of a lost masterpiece by a golden name of western art in France in the last few years. In 2014 a painting of Judith and Holofernes turned up in an attic in Toulouse and was sensationally attributed to Caravaggio. This summer it was sold in a private deal. And wait: the same expert who has authenticated this domestic discovery and is selling it together with Actéon, a French auction house, is also the man who defied doubters to successfully promote the Toulouse Caravaggio.

Clearly, Eric Turquin has a very good eye for world-class treasures hidden in plain sight in sleepy French homes. Or has he got a breathless tendency to overenthuse about “discoveries” that may be more complex than they seem?

The identification of old paintings is and always has been fraught with peril. It shouldn’t be accepted solely on the seller’s say-so, or because it makes a good story

This has all the hallmarks of the marketing campaign that made the “Caravaggio in the attic” such a hit. The magic of finding a masterpiece in (or close to) a kitchen is an irresistible story. So irresistible it makes sceptics sound like spoilsports. We do not need to question Turquin’s good faith. But we do need to stand back and recognise the astonishing nature of the claim being made.

If this is truly a Cimabue, it is a rare surviving work by the painter credited by Giorgio Vasari, in his 1550 book The Lives of the Artists with liberating Italian art from starchy Byzantine formality by making human figures more alive and objects more three-dimensional. Those traits do appear in his “new” painting The Mocking of Christ: a crowd of impassioned people surround Jesus in front of two buildings that are shown in depth and shaded. Not much, but a beginning – the start of the discovery of real life in art that would lead to Leonardo da Vinci.

The identification of old paintings is and always has been fraught with peril. It shouldn’t be accepted solely on the seller’s say-so, or because it makes a good story.

Yet any unsigned painting found in a kitchen corridor surely needs lengthy appraisal by many experts. What’s worrying is the way this painting, like the Caravaggio from the loft, is being boldly called a Cimabue without wider discussion. This is the new norm at the profitable end of the old-masters market. Great stories about unlikely discoveries sweep all before them, but art experts have recently been fooled by proven fakes.

Art expert: Eric Turquin with the Toulouse Caravaggio. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty
Art expert: Eric Turquin with the Toulouse Caravaggio. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty

Shouldn’t the whole business of identifying masterpieces be a little more nuanced when there are known to be actual forgers out there doing uncannily convincing work? Not that I am saying this is a fake – just that the identification of old paintings is and always has been fraught with peril. It shouldn’t be accepted solely on the seller’s say-so, or because it makes a good story.

It’s hard to be certain about Cimabue’s style. He is a near-legendary figure. Fewer than 20 of his paintings survive, and they show just the rudiments of an artistic personality. His contemporary Dante wrote that he was made to look old hat by his younger and much more characterful rival, Giotto. Vasari falsely claimed he painted the Rucellai Madonna, a famous altarpiece in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence that is credited today to the Sienese artist Duccio.

This wasn’t an innocent mistake: Vasari was court artist to the Medicis and wanted to credit Florence with starting the Renaissance. He therefore bigged up Cimabue and downplayed the equally pioneering painters of Siena.

Are we doing the same to excitedly call this painting a Cimabue? Could its mixture of mystical gold space and real-life detail be by someone else? If attributed to a “follower of Cimabue”, or even to a Sienese master, it would be less glamorous and less coveted than an original by this revered painter.

Anyway, those people crowding Christ look a bit postmedieval to me. Maybe this painting was heavily restored at some time in the nearly 800-year history being credited to it, another potential complexity that would make it less supremely marketable. A historical work of art is necessarily mysterious: the more chiaroscuro you admit, the less of a drop-dead, solid-gold commodity it becomes.

But questions are boring, and hesitation is dull. This is the Cimabue in the kitchen, and it’s yours to buy for about €6 million. – Guardian

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