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HOME > Short Stories > The Gentle Art of Faking > CHAPTER V INCREASE OF FAKING IN ROME
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    Increase of Faking—Imitation precious stones—Cameos—Restorers and copyists.

It is evident that in a society like that of Rome and an artistic milieu such as we have tried to depict, comprising a few good collectors among a whole hoard of fools setting up as full-fledged connoisseurs, deception and fakery must have been rampant. The large profits promised by a trade in sham art must have helped to perfect those enslaved Greeks in methods of taking an artistic revenge upon their oppressors. Romans, especially in art matters, must have seemed to them mere parvenus. The practised eclectic qualities and adaptability of those græculi delirantes (crazy paltry Greeks), so active in Rome, must have helped matters. In time there was nothing they could not produce for the benefit of their patrons, and often to such perfection as to deceive even keen-eyed connoisseurs. As a consequence, already in Rome the imitation of art and curios produced a certain perplexed feeling even among people who claimed to be acquainted with the business of buying art and antiques. Pliny, who was somewhat of a connoisseur, more especially in bronzes, writes to a friend that he has bought a charming statuette of Corinthian bronze, and in confessing that he likes it, “no matter whether modern or antique,” seems to reveal the cautious attitude of a man who does not wish to be caught in error, a fear and uncertainty that very able forgers had created in Rome.

Beyond a few hints and gibes about certain collectors and art lovers and a few comments of Pliny and others we have58 no detailed account of the part that imitation and faking played in Rome, but it is to be presumed that the latter especially found numerous and ever-ready clients, and that it was able and prosperous beyond the dreams of modern art duping.

According to Pliny the favourite article, the one to which fakers and forgers gave their utmost care and attention, was the article that was in vogue at the moment and therefore promised the biggest return. Thus murrhines did not escape this fate, they were imitated with obsidian. Pliny also adds that all kinds of precious stones were imitated in Rome, not only by coloured glass but also by a selection of stones that, though rare, were of less value comparatively than the types they imitated.

The most esteemed kinds of sardonyx were counterfeited by joining various pieces of the cheaper jaspers or onyx, cleverly alternating red, white and black, and joining the pieces in such a manner that it was most difficult, Pliny tells us, for a connoisseur to detect a fraud. The same writer, who gives valuable hints on the imitation of precious stones, says that in his time there were even books from which one could learn the art of counterfeiting precious stones, that all of them could be imitated, topaz, lapis lazuli, and amethyst; that amber could be coloured, obsidian used to counterfeit hyacinths, sapphires, etc. Speaking of the sardonyx, more especially, Pliny says, “no fraud brings so much money as this.”

In this line there were also other kinds of fraud. One of the most profitable was the imitation of precious stones with paste ones. There are some imitation cameos that are a puzzle even to-day. Commenting upon this fraud, Winkelmann benevolently points out that we owe to this unscrupulous commerce of false cameos the preservation of the casts of some precious originals now lost. The marvellous part of these imitation cameos is that the faker was not only able to imitate the plain stone of the original but all its characteristic veining and peculiarities.

59 With regard to bronzes and other metal works it is to be presumed that not only could the Nobilis ærugo of Horace be easily counterfeited, as it is to-day, but the work as well. Pliny the Younger gives us valuable hints about the perplexity that fakery had generated among the connoisseurs of his time.

The Greek artists in particular showed themselves most versatile, they reproduced in Rome the most esteemed originals and could to a certain extent imitate the most appreciated types of art. Zenodorus, for example, copied for Germanicus a cup by Calamis in such perfect imitation of the chiselling that the copy could not be told from the original.

Fraudulent masterpieces of painting and sculpture, often with the forged signature of some great artist, as at present times, were already on the market in Cicero’s time. His “Odi falsas inscriptiones statuarum alienarum” is eloquent enough.

Phœdrus seems to complete Cicero’s information about Roman art faking.

“It is in this way,” he says, speaking of faked paintings and sculpture, “that some of our artists can realize better prices for their work: by carving the name of Praxiteles on a modern marble, the name of Scopas on a bronze statue, that of Myron on a silver-piece, and by putting the signature of Zeuxis to a modern painting.”

We do not intend to confound fakers with honest restorers of works of art, but in Roman times, as is often the case in our own, faking learned no small lesson from the deft hand of the restorer. The same may be said for imitators and copyists who even in ancient Rome followed their trade openly with no intention of cheating. Copyists in particular were very active and their work was certainly appreciated by a certain class of citizens. The fact is proved by the numerous copies of Greek masterpieces that have been unearthed in Rome and elsewhere. When an original was not to be had, a copy was often ordered. Lucullus sent an artist expressly to Athens to60 make a copy for him of a work by Pausias, the portrait of Glycera, the artist’s lady love.

Restorers of works of art were, in Rome as elsewhere, the nearest relatives of fakers; their ability to imitate antiquity must have proved a great temptation, and the enormous sums paid for certain objects, and the gross ignorance of some of the buyers, must have paved the way to more than one passage from honesty to dishonesty.

There were many restorers’ workshops in Rome, and one has been discovered near the Forum, where apparently new limbs and heads were provided for damaged statues. Many an antique statue has come down to us already repaired. Evander Aulanius, says Pliny (XXXVI, 5), restored the head of Diana, in the temple of Apollo, on the Palatine. Like modern restorers, their forefathers of Rome had not always the delicate hand needed for such operations. When the Prætor Julius ordered the cleaning of the paintings in the temple of Apollo it was done in such a rough manner that all the charm of the works disappeared. A fact that may have induced some good connoisseur to advise leaving untouched the Venus Anadyomene of Apelles, the masterpiece placed by Cæsar in the temple of that goddess, and to let it be damaged by age rather than allow the sacrilegious hand of a restorer to maim the divine painting of the Greek artist.

From what we have been perusing we may conclude that the Roman artistic world was not entirely different from the artistic world of to-day. Certainly the city must have been of a magnificence of which no conception is given by its grandiose ruins. But the artistic life, and the narrow path of the collector, were somewhat similar to those of to-day. Some of the characters we have quoted would seem to be alive to-day, a change of name and a milieu of more modern colouring and they would provide ground for an action for libel. We feel quite familiar, in fact, with the characters described by Seneca. Even to-day the world possesses collectors of rusty nails and other worthless objects—mere61 cult of fetishism. We feel no less acquainted with some of the other types to whom Martial pays his attention. The man who gathers ants fossilized in amber, the collector of relics who glories in owning a fragment of the Argonauts’ ship, might both be alive to-day. So might Lycinius the demented, Codrus the penurious and dissatisfied, Eros the enthusiast and dreamer. They still exist and are well represented in their various shades of foolishness down to that Mamurra who used to upset all the shops of the Roman antiquaries without buying a single thing. Would you resuscitate Tongilius to our modern society just substitute a bright motor-car for his rich and cumbersome lectica and, for a certainty, the name of some modern collector of art, some up-to-date Mæcenas, will come to your mind.

Of course, though Mr. Cook had not yet alighted to relieve itinerant humanity from many troubles, tourists existed even at the time when Rome did not possess the modern type of traveller. According to Titus Livius many foreigners used to visit the temples of Porta Capena, regular museums of art. The tourists of that time followed a routine, as we can gather from Pliny and other writers. They were taken to the Palatine, to the Via Sacra to admire the temple of Apollo with its peristyle of fifty-two columns, adorned by the simulacra of the Danaides and fifty equestrian statues, one of the finest sights in Rome and which inspired Horace with an ode. This temple of Luni marble with ivory doors, surmounted by a quadriga in gilded bronze carrying the god, was also a museum, containing among other things a fine collection of gems, and a room lined with silver in which the Sibylline Books were kept. The Domus Aurea, the paintings of Apelles exhibited in the Forum of Augustus, the temple of Venus, one of the finest emporiums of art, that of Ceres which contained the celebrated “Bacchus” of Aristides of Thebes, the “Marsias” in the temple of Concord, and in the Capitol the “Theseus” of Zeuxis, in Pompey’s portico the “Soldier” by Polygnotus, in the temple of Peace the “Hero” by Timante and another famous work by Protogenes.

62 There were of course foolish tourists who, like to-day, insisted on being fed with more or less authentic anecdotes of relics of an impossible character, who believed the unbelievable. Thus, according to Procopius, who evidently believed the genuineness of the relic, many tourists went to see the boat, still moored in the river, from which Æneas had landed in Italy, etc. This kind of tourist must have inspired Lucian with the comment that Greek guides in Rome might have starved but for the nonsense and legends with which they enriched their descriptions of the city. “But what of that,” remarks Lucian, “visitors like to hear such things, and do not seem interested in the truth even if offered to them free of charge.”

The revival of the past needed this slight touch to show that the artistic world of two thousand years ago was not, after all, dissimilar to that of our enlightened days.

Need we repeat that the phenomenon of art faking for the benefit of foolish lovers of art generally appears when the passion for collecting takes that Byzantine attitude which makes it ripe for decay and degeneration, when mania, fashion and snobbery chiefly hold the ground instead of taste and genuine love of art, in fact when the parvenus or the lunatic submerge the intelligent collector. It follows consequently that the decline of Collectomania heralds the decline of Forgery. The latter, its errand over with the cessation of the demand for antiques and curios, disappears to await a fresh chance. But the fake-festival and carnival will revive, phœnix-like, with the awakening of a new artistic world—just as though faking at certain moments answered to a sore need of society.


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