Pieta （ It. ）：痛苦之母雕像；必哀大（音譯）：描繪聖母瑪利亞緊抱耶穌屍體之像，最出名者有米開朗基羅（ Michelangelo ）十字架下的痛苦聖母雕像，現存羅馬聖伯鐸大殿。原字為義大利文，意為母子之情。
The Pietà Behind the Couch
By KEVIN FLYNN and RANDY KENNEDY
Published: May 26, 2011
IN 1885, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art was young and New York was home to much new wealth but only a few old masters, the museum showcased a painting on loan from Europe that created a minor stir.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
It was a small wood-panel Pietà depicting an earthy-looking Virgin Mary holding her dead son, assisted by two muscular angels, a tableau widely acknowledged to have been created by Michelangelo, though the Met’s catalog went only as far as saying that the painting had been attributed to him by its owner.
That owner was a German baroness who had sent the painting to America in the hopes of selling it. But it never found a buyer and eventually passed into the hands of acquaintances, members of an upper-middle-class Rochester family who hung it for many years above a fireplace, referring to it with great affection — but little direct evidence — as “the Mike.” After it tumbled from its perch while being dusted one day in the 1970s, the painting was moved from the mantel to a safe spot behind the couch, where it effectively disappeared from awareness, both scholarly and otherwise.
The kind of work the family believed it to be — an easel painting by Michelangelo — is among the most elusive treasures in Renaissance art. Michelangelo probably made only a handful, is not known to have signed any, and broad consensus has formed around the attribution of only one, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Tonawanda, N.Y., a faded mill town north of Buffalo, might be the last place on earth scholars would begin the hunt for another. But over the last decade, thanks almost entirely to the stubborn crusading of a retired fighter pilot there named Martin Kober, who inherited the Pietà, the painting has re-emerged as the main character in a compelling art-historical mystery.
It is the subject of “The Lost Michelangelos,” a book just published in English by a respected Italian conservator, Antonio Forcellino, who has specialized in Michelangelo works and is convinced the painting is authentic. It has undergone its first thorough cleaning and an infrared examination of its underdrawing, which one Renaissance scholar, Kristina Herrmann Fiore, a curator at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, said is conceivably by the hand of Michelangelo. And in the next few weeks it will be taken to Rome, where the Rome Foundation, a philanthropy that supports scientific, medical and art initiatives, has agreed to pay to conserve the painting and to include it, along with the questions surrounding it, in an exhibition called “Rome in the Renaissance, from Michelangelo to Vasari,” opening Oct. 25 at the foundation’s museum.
For Mr. Kober and Mr. Forcellino the painting’s transformation from family keepsake to object of historical scrutiny is as much a story about the intransigence of the art establishment and the gaps in its tradition-bound methods for considering authentication claims as it is about the ultimate fate of the painting itself. Curators at the Met and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, without seeing the painting firsthand, have turned Mr. Kober away.
Other experts have been point blank in their assessment. “It is a copy of a Michelangelo composition,” said Alexander Nagel, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts who has written about the artist’s late Pietàs.
Mr. Forcellino, who acknowledges that he runs a risk of professional embarrassment by championing the painting, said he decided to write a book about it in part “to start a debate on the mechanisms of subject specialization, which often undermine rather than foster an expansion of knowledge.”
Mr. Kober — who has amassed an extensive body of documents related to the painting, hired forensic specialists, built an impressive Renaissance art library, hectored and cajoled dozens of curators and experts and tracked the painting almost town by town through Italy and Croatia — is more straightforward, and humble, about the years he spent fighting to get anyone to pay attention to his painting.
“I didn’t expect anyone to take what I was saying on faith,” he said recently, in his modest brick-and-siding-covered home in Tonawanda, overlooking part of what was once the Erie Canal. “I know I’m a nobody in this world. I just wanted someone to look at what I’d found and maybe get a couple of Ph.D. students to take it on as a project, people who would know what they were doing. But I couldn’t even get that far.”
For all his talk of the art establishment’s aversion to outsiders, Mr. Forcellino nearly dismissed Mr. Kober’s claims too. Then he took a look at an e-mailed attachment of an infrared image showing the painting’s underdrawing and agreed to travel from Italy to see the work himself.
From a family of stonemasons, Mr. Forcellino is mostly known for his sculptural conservation work. He had a lead role in the restoration of Michelangelo’s “Moses” in Rome and the Piccolomini altar in the cathedral of Siena, which includes four Michelangelo figures. In 2005 he published a biography of Michelangelo and as a result has fielded more than his share of claims of unbelievable discoveries.
“It is astonishing how many people convince themselves they own a Michelangelo or a Raphael, inherited from some old aunt or picked up from a dealer in the ill-founded belief that some dealers, even antiques dealers, have less of an eye than they do,” he writes in his book about Mr. Kober’s painting.
But he also knew of the several letters that make it plain, he says, that Michelangelo had created a painting like Mr. Kober’s. One was a letter to Michelangelo from his close friend the poet and noblewoman Vittoria Colonna, acknowledging his gift to her of a Pietà, a token of their mutual membership in a group of Roman Catholic reformers who became known as the spirituali. In the letter, Colonna wrote that she found the figure of Jesus to be “perfectly painted.”
For years scholars, beginning with Vasari, the father of Renaissance biography, have interpreted the wording in the letter as referring to a drawing, not a painting, some asserting that the word “depinto” — or painted — carried a broader meaning during the Renaissance. Despite Vasari’s many well-documented factual errors and fictional flourishes his accounts have long carried an almost biblical weight, and the main body of Michelangelo research about the existence of easel paintings has followed Vasari’s lead.
But a letter from 1546 solidified Mr. Forcellino’s belief that Colonna was referring to a painting, not a drawing. The letter from the cardinal of Mantua, Ercole Gonzaga, to another cardinal discusses whether Gonzaga should accept the gift of a Pietà, which Mr. Forcellino identifies as the same one owned by Colonna. In the letter Gonzaga, who appears never to have received the Pietà, refers to it as a “quadro,” or painting.
The letters and other documents leave what Mr. Forcellino says is a substantial trail for the painting from Colonna to an English cardinal, Reginald Pole, a cousin of Henry VIII and another member of the spirituali, who appears to have taken it with him as a devotional object when he attended the Council of Trent, the 16th-century Catholic ecumenical conclave that began the Counter-Reformation.
The trail grows murkier afterward, but Mr. Forcellino cites circumstantial evidence in arguing that, after Pole’s death, the painting ended up with the Archbishop of Ragusa — now Dubrovnik, Croatia.
One of the eureka moments Mr. Forcellino cites in his book involves a dark-red wax seal on the back of the painting’s spruce panel, whose origins had never been identified by Mr. Kober’s family. The seal had lost much of its shape, but a low-tech detective’s trick by Mr. Forcellino — making a rubbing with a piece of paper and pencil — revealed a crest with three stars, which he was later able to identify as that of the family of Fabio Tempestivo, who served as archbishop of Ragusa until 1616. At his death Tempestivo’s estate was sold off to pay his debts, and many of the possessions went to a wealthy Italian family, which held it for many generations.
The line between that family and Mr. Kober’s is clear in a number of documents from the mid-19th century through the 20th century that mark previous efforts to have the painting validated as a Michelangelo. One in 1865 involved Hermann Grimm, a revered scholar of the Renaissance, who wrote that he had seen the Ragusa Pietà and thought it could well be by the master’s hand.
William E. Wallace, one of the foremost American experts on Michelangelo, who examined the painting in 2005, said there is at least enough evidence to merit a more extensive examination. “I have no doubt whatsoever that we’re dealing with a 16th-century object, and something with a very close connection to Michelangelo and his circle,” said Mr. Wallace, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
But Mr. Wallace also knows the pace of Michelangelo attribution claims is relentless (on average two a year for the last century, he once calculated), almost all quickly dispatched. And even if more compelling evidence emerges, he said, the Kober painting’s attribution could remain in limbo for decades, if not much longer. “The weight of consensus moves very slowly,” he said, “and building it takes a very long time.”
Despite advances in forensic science and computer-assisted examinations of disputed works of art, the tradition of connoisseurship — the individual “eye,” a scholar’s ability to identify the real thing based on years of looking — continues to hold great sway. Museum credibility and auction prices often rest on the word of a relatively small number of experts who can say that a painting with a spotty paper trail is authentic, based only on their close examination.
The tradition, an art in itself, has by and large served the art world well. But history is littered with instances in which the certainty of the establishment — based on extensive knowledge, gut instinct, wishful thinking or, in the worst cases, greed — has turned out to be embarrassingly unstable. Misattributions languish for decades, often longer. A generation of art historians flips the attributions made by its predecessors, making or unmaking fortunes and reputations.
At one time more than 600 paintings were attributed to Rembrandt, a number that has been cut in half by Dutch scholars since the late 1960s. Two years ago a Goya that had hung for more than half a century at the Prado was determined not to be by Goya, a conclusion many casual observers had reached long before. In many cases mountains of art scholarship are found to rest on erroneous assumptions or evidence, but the mountain proves almost impossible to move.
Such glaring mistakes have fueled another longstanding tradition: distrust of the art establishment, much of it class based, by those outside the establishment’s tight circle. And it has long elevated examples of discoveries made outside that circle into near-heroic tales, like that of the painting that hung for 60 years, all but ignored, in a Jesuit’s residence in Dublin that was found to be a Caravaggio.
In that case, told in Jonathan Harr’s 2005 best seller “The Lost Painting,” a restorer with scholarly ambitions, like Mr. Forcellino, not a curator or art historian, saw the painting, argued that its attribution to a follower of Caravaggio was wrong, and the notion was confirmed through historical research by two graduate students. The painting had been bought by a pediatrician in the 1920s for less than $1,000. It is now on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland and said to be worth tens of millions of dollars.
Mr. Forcellino, a talkative, persuasive presence, has traveled a rougher road trying to convince scholars about the Kober painting. In April 2010 he met with Keith Christiansen, the Met’s chairman of European paintings, but the meeting lasted just a few minutes, as he recalls.
The previous June Mr. Christiansen had announced that another painting the museum had taken in to restore appeared to be the first easel painting ever made by Michelangelo. He predicted that the attribution might elicit disagreement, and it did (and continues to), in part because the Met made no move to acquire the painting, which was bought by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
Now, fresh from that experience, Mr. Christiansen was being offered a role in the restoration of another proposed Michelangelo, one that had been stored behind a couch upstate.
The museum turned down the painting as a conservation project. Mr. Christiansen, who said he does not recall his meeting with Mr. Forcellino, declined to comment.
The Met is not alone in harboring serious doubts about the Kober painting. Michael Cole, an expert on the Italian Renaissance who teaches at Columbia University, said he believes Vasari’s account that the Pietà in Vittoria Colonna’s letter is a drawing, not a painting. And while he has seen only a photograph of Mr. Kober’s painting, he said that some of the anatomy was too awkward to be by Michelangelo. More likely, he said, it is one of the many copies, both painted and drawn, of Michelangelo’s Pietà composition that were made in the 16th century.
“To me the painting in the photo does not look good enough to be a Michelangelo,” he said.
Ms. Herrmann Fiore, of the Borghese Gallery, who said she is willing to entertain the view that Michelangelo did the underdrawing, is also of the view that some proportions in the finished painting seem off and are likely the work of someone else.
Mr. Forcellino acknowledged that honest disagreements can occur as people try to untangle the histories of paintings hundreds of years old with precious little documentation to go on. But he said he believes institutional bias has worked against close consideration of the Pietà, in part because it has surfaced in an unlikely place and has so unlikely a champion as Mr. Kober.
“This is not an art history book,” Mr. Forcellino said of his account of the painting. “It is a book about prejudice in this world.”
“It’s been a few months since I’ve seen it,” Mr. Kober, 54, said, smiling nervously one rainy morning inside his house, which sits behind a shopping center.
His painting used to hang in the dining room of the home, where he has lived since he retired and began following his father’s advice finally to figure out once and for all whether “the Mike” really is what the family has long imagined.
For the last several months, though, Mr. Kober has kept the painting in a bank vault. Earlier that morning he had taken it out and driven it home. After putting on a pair of white gloves, he opened the black valise made to carry the panel and carefully loosened the protective paper around it. He set an easel that Mr. Forcellino had made for him on his dining room table, with a kitchen towel to cushion it, and then propped the painting on the easel, opening the blinds and throwing back the curtain so that the morning light could play on its surface.
“I was worried I might open up the case and see mold growing on it or something,” Mr. Kober said. “But it looks just fine.”
“I’ve been looking at it for too long now, decades,” he continued. “I know every inch of it, so it’s hard to be objective. But I can’t sit here with it in front of me and figure out how anybody could think it’s an inferior copy.
“Look at it.”