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CHAPTER XVI THE ARTISTIC QUALITIES OF IMITATORS
  Sculptors—A few notable examples—Bastianini’s art and the adventures of his Girolamo Benivieni—A modern imitation of Renaissance art entered at a Munich museum as a genuine antique—The sculptor’s art and method—The Verrocchio, Robbia and Co., Ltd.—Signor Natali’s art and Signor Bonafedi’s patina—Various methods of would-be makers of old masters—Painting—The Sienese imitative school—Mr. Salting’s experience—Professor Ezio Marzi’s imitation of the Flemish school—Stone and ornamental work—Professor Orlandini’s art—Iron work—Weapons, etc.

From the point of view of art, the creator of “finds,” the imitator of masterpieces, and faker of sham “chefs-d’œuvre” are not attractive personalities. The value of their art—if it deserves so noble a title—is likely to vanish as soon as the scheme is detected and to leave us with something of the disillusionment experienced when viewing a set of stage scenery by broad daylight.

The simple imitator, the man who honestly declares his work to be modern, though of a higher moral standard than his comrade the forger, is no more likely to win our admiration. The difference between the two, artistically speaking, is that the one is apt to irritate us from the first, the other only after we have been “taken in,” the first cheats himself alone when he believes his patchwork to be good art, the second is ready to deceive any and everyone who credits his artistic lies. High above these two classes, however, stand a few gifted beings who seem to have actually imbibed the artistic qualities of Renaissance art to such an extent as to have attained a new and genuine personality—modern in date but old and faithful to the past in creative conception.182 In this case, imitation becoming creative, as we have said, it rises to the rank of real art.

Up to the present, since Bastianini’s excellent work was first launched, many of the imitators who followed and who have successfully duped museums and art lovers, belong to the commonplace order. Their success is chiefly due to the deficiency and lack of practice among curators, collectors and connoisseurs at large.

The more recent imitations that have deceived some of the most experienced eyes in Florence, Munich and Paris have revealed the names of two sculptors, Zampini and Natali, who apart from their imitative ability may, like Bastianini, be studied and admired per se.

Both these artists have some points in common with the sculptor who puzzled all the French connoisseurs of the Second Empire. Both, like Bastianini and other good and honest imitators, have made the fortunes of others, not their own; like him, too, have sold their products as modern, only to realize that as soon as believed antique they reached fabulous figures.

The portrait bust of Girolamo Benivieni—for which Bastianini received 350 francs—was finally sold to the Louvre for 14,000 francs. Before landing in the Paris Museum it had passed through the hands of Freppa—a Florentine antiquary—Nolives, a connoisseur who travelled in Italy in search of “finds,” and Nieuwerkerque, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte’s all-powerful protégé, who was responsible for its acquisition by the Museum.

This classic piece of fakery is worth recalling in all its details, together with the stir succeeding Bastianini’s declaration of himself as the author of the Benivieni bust and the humiliating figure cut by the officially recognized connoisseurs and art critics after the dénouement.

Contrary to the general mode adopted by imitators and fakers of copying the various parts here and there from Renaissance work, welding them into a would-be tout ensemble of originality, Bastianini had so imbibed the character of183 the fifteenth century that he was able to work without immediate suggestions other than the influence of the recollections and skill he had acquired by copying from good old models in his preparatory period. Thus the work was done straight from nature, the model chosen being an old man nicknamed the Priore, employed in a cigar factory. When the clay was still fresh, struck by the unusual Renaissance style of the bust, someone suggested the name by which it was finally christened, and Bastianini inscribed the words: HierMUS Benivieni.

The name of Girolamo Benivieni, Savonarola’s poet friend, was in keeping with the austere features of the portrait, and the modest employé of the Florentine cigar factory well represented one of the most illustrious types of Republican Florence.

When Nolives exhibited Bastianini’s work in 1867 as a specimen of Renaissance sculpture at the Retrospective Art Show of the Palais des Champs Élysées, an influential art critic wrote:

“We have not known Benivieni, but are prepared to swear that this portrait must be extremely like him. Who is the artist that modelled it? We are almost tempted to label the work with a string of names from the glorious period of Florentine art.”

Noting, incidentally, that the art critic’s temptation to go through a long litany of names by way of attribution is simply delightful, we may state that the illustrious writer was not the only one to be caught and duped by Bastianini’s capital work. The supposititious Girolamo Benivieni had turned the heads of all the art intellectuals of Paris.

Later on, when Nolive’s collection was put up to auction the bust was acquired, as we have already stated, by Nieuwerkerque for the sum of 13,600 francs and was finally placed in the Louvre Museum.

It is said that, believing the bust to be antique, Nolives wrote to Bastianini bantering him upon his gross error in letting such a stupendous “find” slip from his hands.

184 Finally the name of Bastianini as the author of the bust leaked out. Admiration began to cool, opinions as to the genuineness of the work were divided and a long polemic over the case ensued.

When Bastianini, up to then an obscure Florentine artist, finally declared in a letter sent to the Diritto, an Italian newspaper, that he himself was the author of the Benivieni, he was supposed to be an imposter.

Among others to contest Bastianini’s assertion was the talented sculptor Lequesne, who went so far as to call the Florentine artist a liar, maintaining that the men who could mould clay into such forms as that of the bust were no more of this world, having long since disappeared. At the end of his invective against the Florentine sculptor, M. Lequesne swore that should Bastianini be able to prove himself to be the sculptor of the Benivieni, he himself would be willing to serve such a sculptor, if only to mix his clay.

It would be tedious to follow the long and spicy polemic from which Bastianini was perforce to issue triumphantly. Pamphlets and articles were written on both sides, Bastianini himself taking part in the controversy and showing himself to be a wit worthy of those old Florentines whom Dante designates as having a “spirito bizzarro.”

Irrefutable proofs—the first plaster-cast of the head which had been kept by the sculptor, witnesses who had seen Bastianini at work, the assurance of the model and his true resemblance to the pseudo-Benivieni—cut short all possibility of further discussion. The actual author of the Renaissance bust that had puzzled the learned public of the French capital, was beyond all doubt Bastianini.

Naturally this was not Bastianini’s first essay. In the year 1864 a bust by him, an effigy of Savonarola, had been exhibited at the Palazzo Riccardi in Florence. This work, too, was taken for antique. Vincenzo Capponi, a Florentine dealer, secured it for 640 francs and sold it for ten thousand. Another work, a charming type of Florentine youth, a girl singing, was sold to M. Édouard André of Paris.
Resurrection.

By Signor Ferrante Zampini, bought at Munich as work of the XVth Century. Zampini was a clever Italian artist, who possessed the rare gift of imitating Renaissance work. He never deceived anyone with his imitations, but his work passing through several hands eventually deceived the connoisseurs of the Munich Gallery.

Pietà.

By Sig. Ferrante Zampini.

185 Bastianini’s imitations are of such excellency that they are now held in high esteem by collectors and are bought by museums at extremely handsome prices. The Victoria and Albert Museum has one of the most complete collections of Bastianini’s art, where the whole range of this genial imitator of the Renaissance can be seen almost au complet.

Signor Ferrante Zampini, whose imitations deceived the museum of Munich and many good connoisseurs and specialists, worked with different methods.

The Pietà—the large lunette which together with other works deceived the art authorities of Munich so completely—had passed in Florence from the studio of Ferrante Zampini to the well-known atelier of Signor Bonafedi, a painter of uncommon talent whose ability in colouring and in giving a proper patina to clay is unrivalled. This work was afterwards sold (for the sum of 1200 francs), as modern, to Professor Paolini, a violinist, who also sold it for modern to a German, and finally, through a string of collectors, the Pietà landed in the Munich Museum for 14,000 francs.

It is said that the discovery of its modern authorship was due to a successful antiquary of Florence, a collector who has sharpened his natural alertness after a sad experience when he bought a bronze by a living German artist as Quattrocento work, and who is in a position to know more than one histoire through a regular network of informants. On this occasion his informant, it seems, was close to hand in the person of his packer.

As for other antiquaries who had had no forewarning from kind informants, they have been more or less taken in by Signor Zampini’s works which have appeared now and then on the market since the year 1904. Less exception seems to have been taken to the work of the other modern imitator, Signor Natali. His imitations, made previously to his best one, bought by the Louvre Museum, appear to have travelled very far; some of them are still in undisturbed enjoyment of honour as Renaissance work in private collections.

186 Ferrante Zampini’s first work was a portrait of a lady, a finely executed head evidently made under the direct impression of those busts attributed to Laurana, those that Courajod insisted upon calling death masks. This piece, however, had no fortune in the world of antiques, it travelled from place to place, and finally, as faithful as a carrier-pigeon, returned to the man who had bought it from the sculptor.

A strikingly fine clay head followed. It closely resembled the portrait of Colleoni, though giving the general of the Venetian Republic a more aged appearance than that of the equestrian statue in Venice: it was readily bought as a Verrocchio.

Since then Zampini has produced several works of his peculiar art. Although they have realized large sums of money his own gains were but small.

A curious proof of Zampini’s excellence in imitating the Quattrocento is given by the following incident. A French collector bought from a Florentine dealer a genuine piece of Renaissance, and a work by Zampini. After taking the two purchases to Paris the collector sent back the real article as a fake, keeping the Zampini bust as a recognized authentic object of art. A Munich princess possesses one of the finest works of our sculptor which still defies all evidence—even now after the Munich disclosures have enlightened the Bavarian connoisseurs.

Professor X. of Florence, a connoisseur whose ability is beyond question and whose experience is highly esteemed among art lovers, bought a clay bust by Zampini, believing it to be work of the fourteenth century. Some time after he had transferred the object to his collection the clay began to peel off and show signs of the progressive scaling usually called sbullettare.1

1 “Sbullettare” signifies the scaling of terra-cotta by which it becomes full of little holes, as though pitted by small-pox. The word is derived from bulletta (a nail or tack), the poor victim looking as though nails had been roughly drawn out.

187

Zampini, it must be said, often uses Impruneta clay (that used by della Robbia), and he was not aware that to prevent scaling—a phenomenon that may set in months after the work is baked—this peculiar earth must be moistened as soon as it leaves the oven. Had this been done the work would have been saved that curious scaling which in the end told the truth about the bust. But for this unforeseen circumstance the work might still be playing its part in the world of antiques.

Professor X., however, knew that antique busts are not liable to suffer from this peculiar kind of small-pox and called the go-between who had helped in the conclusion of the business and a friend who had shared his admiration and to them he confided his suspicions. The bust then disappeared for some time. Later, however, the same friend of Professor X. who had admired the bust before it began to scale, was called in to admire it again in the collection of Professor Y., another noted connoisseur, who had bought it as antique. For reasons of his own, possibly so as not to spoil the new owner’s pleasure, the friend did not reveal the secret of the make-up. But Impruneta clay se............
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