Article Index

Giovanni Gasbarri (“La Sapienza” University, Rome)
Early Christian and Byzantine fakes at the turn of the twentieth century:a note on Giancarlo Rossi’s Tesoro Sacro

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars interested in Byzantine art history did not necessarily have to travel to the East to get in touch with its culture and artistic heritage. Throughout Europe there existed not only numerous examples of the influence of Byzantine on Western monumental art, but also many smaller fragments of the lost Empire of Constantinople, including illuminated books, jewels, ivory carvings, icons, textiles and enamels. These so called ‘minor arts’ constituted a strong presence in treasuries, libraries, private collections and museums, and an increasing number of recent researches, as well as the 2011 Before the Blisses Exhibition at Dumbarton Oaks Library1, have all highlighted the importance of these objects in shaping scholarly opinions about early Christian and Byzantine art. Pioneering contributions like the Histoire de l’Art by Jean-Baptiste Seroux D’Agincourt, together with other seminal studies by scholars such as Jules Labarte, Emile Molinier, Nikodim Kondakov and Ormond Maddock Dalton2, clearly show how Byzantine objects started to be considered essential to fully understand the development of European artistic culture.
One of the most difficult challenges faced by scholars has been the increasing circulation of fake ‘early Christian’ and ‘Byzantine’ artefacts. This phenomenon became widespread in particular during the late nineteenth century: forgers took advantage of the growing commercial interest in those particular kinds of products, and many different fakes were gradually put on the international art market. While the practice of searching for forgeries was well established within the scholarly field of classical art, these methods had not previously been systematically applied within other historical areas. Consequently, archaeologists and art historians were required to develop new skills and instruments for detecting fakes, not only to ensure accuracy within academic scholarship, but also to protect collectors and museums from unintentionally acquiring unauthentic objects.  The case of the fake enamels owned by artist and collector Mikhail Petrovich Botkin is a well-known example of this kind of misinterpretations3. The enamels – which were originally published in 1911 by Botkin himself4 and were afterwards shown in temporary exhibitions – are actually imitations of famous authentic Byzantine works, such as some figures in the Limbourg Staurotheca and others from the Pala d’Oro in Venice’s San Marco treasury. In 2008, the Italian scholar Fabrizio Crivello was presented with a golden enamelled plaque that contained the bust of Pantokrator5, which was probably produced by the same artisans who created the Botkin’s enamels: these forgers, who worked in St. Petersburg from the last decade of the nineteenth century, were apparently connected with the Fabergé workshop. It seems probable that their activity drew inspiration from the coeval Antonio Pasini’s dissertation on the Venice Pala d’Oro in 1885 and Nikodim Kondakov’s essay on Byzantine enamels in 18926. The detailed colour plates included in these publications could easily provide excellent models for the fakes.
The situation with ivory carvings is sometimes more complicated. This is due to the larger amount of pieces that were still circulating in public and private collections at the turn of the twentieth century, and the permanent difficulties that exist in detecting ivory and bone imitations, even after the most advanced of scientific analyses7. Detection of new forgeries remains, therefore, a frequent phenomenon. The Làzaro Galdiano collection in Madrid, for example, has recently revealed a remarkable and mostly unpublished group of fakes that imitate early Christian and Byzantine works such as the Barberini ivory in the Paris Louvre Museum and the Veroli casket in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum8. During the last few decades, scholars like Anthony Cutler have invested considerable effort into developing new methodological approaches for recognizing the main features of authentic Byzantine ivory pieces: a careful examination of the quality of the material and the carving techniques has become essential to distinguish a fake9. Discerning the extent to which these unauthentic pieces are deliberate is, however, a difficult task. At least some of the carvings that are now considered counterfeit were probably created with the intent of being simple copies, without necessarily being deceptive. The case of two bone reliefs (a diptych and a Pantokrator) now in the Bologna’s Musei Civici provides a clear-cut example. The former owner, painter and collector Pelagio Palagi (1775–1860), who apparently bought the pieces before 1832, was probably well aware that both of them were modern works10. An artisan in Milan seems to have been the main architect for a certain number of these copies, some of which are still easily detectable, like the two fragments imitating the Barberini Ivory that are now preserved in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum11.
One of the most interesting examples of falsification of early Christian and Byzantine works of art is the case of the so-called 'Tesoro Sacro Rossi’, or ‘the Rossi Treasury’. This episode is almost forgotten by the modern literature12, since the fakes seem no longer traceable. However, at the end of the nineteenth century, the story became a very high profile case, one which involved a high-pitched scholarly debate and which provides a relevant example of the evolution of the critical approach towards early Christian and Byzantine minor arts. The affair officially began in 1888–1890, when a sumptuous catalogue of 25 luxurious engraved plates was published by Danesi Press in Rome13. These plates, drawn by Pietro De Simone, illustrated the collection of precious gold and silver pieces that comprised the Rossi Treasury, all of which were claimed to have been produced during the “primissimi secoli della Chiesa”: the very beginning of Christianity. The catalogue was supported by a long essay written by three different authors: theologian Luigi Di Carlo, archaeologist Giacinto De Vecchi Pieralice and the treasury owner Giancarlo Rossi14, who was previously known in Rome as a coin collector15. In total, the Rossi Treasury consisted of 58 metalworks: chiselled foils, disks and bookplates, cups, belts, head ornaments, brooches, little crosses or encolpia, a mitre, a chalice, and – as the most important piece of the collection – a lamb-shaped Eucharist vase that had been welded onto a tray and was surrounded by twelve small glasses.
The catalogue, which accurately described each piece, also reported how the treasury had been discovered. According to this official version16, an anonymous peasant working in an unspecified field in the Marche region in 1880 discovered a large grave with a sarcophagus under the ruins of a country building. When he opened the sarcophagus, the corpse of an ancient bishop appeared, together with a wealth of gold and silver objects, and some parchment books. At that exact moment, a gust of wind passed over the grave, which caused the corpse to disintegrate. The peasant then mysteriously decided not to reveal the place where the treasury had been discovered. Soon afterwards, he gave the surviving pieces to a Franciscan monk, whose identity remained unknown as well. Following several such handovers, the collection eventually reached Pietro Guarantini, an antiquarian and goldsmith working in Rome who specialised in early Christian and Medieval art. Four pieces were bought by Count Grigorij Stroganoff, the famous Russian nobleman who was known as one of the most passionate collectors of antiquities in Rome17. After a few more months, Giancarlo Rossi acquired the remaining 54 pieces in early 1882. The finding was preliminarily announced in February of the same year by Luigi Bruzza, president of the Società dei Cultori della Cristiana Archeologia in Roma18.
The unexpected arrival of this new collection caused a major sensation. According to Rossi’s report19, several of the most important Italian specialists – such as Luigi Bruzza and Raffaele Garrucci – showed great enthusiasm for the uncommon subjects presented on the pieces, which they claimed opened up new perspectives about Christian archaeology and art history. The reception given by international scholars was also largely positive: Jules Helbig and Xavier Barbier de Montault from the Revue de l’Art Chrétien, and Anton de Waal from the Römische Quartalschrift, for example, dedicated contributions to the Rossi collection and praised the significance of its discovery20. The flashy originality and the unusual stylistic features of the pieces were hardly comparable to the traits usually associated with early Christian antiquities, and the descriptions provided in most important publications at the time. It is not surprising, therefore, that specialists advanced very different hypotheses about the treasury’s origin and dating. The owner of the collection, Giancarlo Rossi, was convinced that the pieces dated back directly to Constantine’s empire, mainly because of the abundance of early Christian symbols such as fishes, doves, peacocks, and even crosses, all of which could be related to Helena’s finding of the True Cross in Jerusalem21. A radically dissimilar interpretation was put forward by other scholars like Anton de Waal or Barbier de Montault22. They noticed an anomaly between the aforementioned symbols and the style of the decorations, which seemed to be too modern to be fit within fourth century norms. Considering that the treasury was supposed to have been buried in an area that was once part of the Byzantine Pentapolis, they inferred that it could have formed part of a local bishop’s burial from the Exarchate, dating back to the seventh or the eighth century. They further hypothesized that the coexistence of Lombard-style decorations and Greek-inspired costumes could be explained by the cultural and artistic exchanges that would have been commonplace in a territory still politically dominated by the Byzantine Empire.
In 1895 a paper published in the German Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie journal (and later printed in French and Italian23), marked a turning point in this debate. The author was the theologian and historian Hartmann Grisar, professor at Innsbruck University. In his essay, Grisar stated boldly that the entire Rossi treasury was a forgery. He recalled that a new critical examination had been strongly encouraged by Count Stroganoff who, just a few years after purchasing four items from the collection, had become suspicious about their authenticity. Grisar had had the opportunity to work directly on Stroganoff’s collection and to publish a clear and faithful photographic reproduction. A preliminary examination of the pieces’ condition proved that they had been produced using a very flexible metal – too supple to be dated back to the early Medieval centuries – and that their surfaces had been exposed to an artificial aging process. As for the overall iconography and style, Grisar had noticed many irreconcilable contrasts between the overpopulation of very archaic Christian symbols and the decorative patterns, which seemed to have been roughly copied from Lombard and Carolingian ornamental sculptures. Most of the details on the pieces could not have plausibly been conceived by artists, even as late as in the eighth or the ninth century: the liturgical garments and the mitre worn by several bishop figures provided good examples of these anachronisms. Grisar argued that the absence of any kind of nimbus or monogram – both of which would have provided important clues for dating the pieces – represented an intentional choice by the forger, who probably wanted to offer a generic kind of product, which could easily adapt itself to many possible interpretations.
Grisar’s conclusions were largely well-accepted: even the scholars who had previously admired the Rossi treasury, such as Helbig, de Waal, De Rossi or Marucchi, admitted their mistakes, and praised Grisar for his intuition. Many announcements appeared in the most relevant specialized journals, including the Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana and the Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft24. A particularly condemning appraisal was made in the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, in which Karl Krumbacher stated that “the treasury’s issue can be considered dismissed once and for all”25.
The owner of the treasury, Giancarlo Rossi, was however understandably dissatisfied by this conclusion and the tirade of his irritated denials, which first appeared in local newspapers, were collected in a new book that was published in 189626. Grisar answered these with a new short essay27, in which he referenced the positive reviews he had received from his colleagues and advised Rossi to dampen down the tones of his polemics to avoid further damaging his reputation. Two years later, Rossi suddenly died, and his controversial treasury was rapidly forgotten28.
The identity of the forger who created these fakes has never been revealed. As Grisar suggested in his first paper, it is quite plausible that Rossi was innocent and that someone had took advantage of his good faith by selling him the treasury. Consequently, suspicions could fall directly onto the sellers, and feasibly even to Guarantini, who originally owned the pieces in his workshop in Rome. While it is not possible to produce concrete evidence, the fact that Guarantini was a goldsmith by trade, combined with the way in which he tried to exonerate himself after the scandal by accusing an obscure associate who was immediately declared dead29, do suggest that he may have in some way been culpable for the forgery. Regardless of who was responsible for creating the fakes, it seems reasonable to suppose that the items were produced in Rome. During the second half of the nineteenth century the Italian capital provided the largest quantity of possible prototypes for imitation. In addition to a rich diversity of sculptures and reliefs from the eighth and the ninth centuries, there also existed an increasing number of illustrated journals and monographs which were dedicated to early Christian and Medieval art and were either printed or widely available in Rome. The forger of the treasury could have taken inspiration from the engravings published on the Storia dell’Arte Cristiana by Raffaele Garrucci, or the Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana by Giovanni Battista De Rossi. The distinctive style of the fakes’ figures and decorations, so linear and essential, could be partially attributed to the use of printed reproductions rather than original works.
The precious materials from which the fakes were made meant that they could not reasonably have survived long after Rossi’s death in 1898, even if some pieces seem to have been still circulating after the Second World War30. Engravings and photographs remain, therefore, probably the only witnesses of this peculiar case of falsification, which in just a few years was almost able to shake the very foundations of archaeology and art history to its core. Although still relatively unknown in modern scholarship, Grisar’s essay provides an outstanding example of the modern kind of methodological approach that characterized a new generation of scholars. Their competence and ability in recognizing the true identity of the objects, and consequently their authenticity, came to transform the history of early Christian, Byzantine and Medieval scholarship at the turn of the twentieth century.