There was a time, not too long ago, when ripping off other people was a lot easier … and a lot more rewarding. We’re not talking about bad rap or tween country rock stars, we’re talking about actual artists: the talented liars, the meticulous copycats—the forgers. With an eye for detail and stunning ability to trick even the buffest history buffs, they sold popular Renaissance busts and paintings to unsuspecting buyers, even our very own Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Instead of getting pissed off (as most of us would), Gardner still appreciated the talent behind these forged busts, and continued to display them in some of the most prominent places in the museum. Discovering a fake requires some detective work, but unlike in CSI, it took about 30 years to draw a definitive conclusion. “There are a few ways of testing dates,” says Alan Chong, the museum curator. “There’s something called thermoluminescence, which is a way of testing fired clay. It provides an approximate firing date, so we can tell roughly if something was made in the 15th century or the 16th century, or 100 years ago.” Though almost all of the busts in the museum checked out, a few looked suspicious. Years and years of scholarly speculation has led to the verdict that the busts are, in fact, fakes. At the turn of the century, forgeries were often bought and sold to Renaissance superfans … some with possible knowledge of the forgery, some without. “I think people wanted to have really nice-looking examples of the work, so they were attracted to these copies that were in better condition,” says Chong. “They were buying a McMansion version of the work of art, I suppose.”
What once would have been a source of embarrassment now offers an opportunity to study preservation and re-creation during the museum’s Italian Renaissance and terracotta sculpture exhibition. The works, divided into two distinct types (religious figures and busts), are all made with similar terracotta clay. The artist molded the clay when it was still wet, allowing a freer, more adaptable medium. “Unlike carving marble, you can choose things along the way, so it is easier to capture emotion more directly,” says Chong. “You can see the blood and tears on the Christ figures. I think it is a more direct way of communicating religious meaning.”
Scientists and curators have been working diligently for the past three years to preserve many of the most monumental pieces, restoring them to their original splendor. These include works from Matteo Civitali and Giovanni de Fondulis … the latter was discovered only recently. “His work has always been respected,” says Chong, “however, it was only recently discovered to be done by this man that no one has ever heard of. Pretty exciting.”
The beauty and elegance of the Italian Renaissance restored, the museum encourages art lovers to experience the emotionality and turmoil of the sculptures. Feel free to fake it, too.