Known as La Fornarina * ('little baker girl'), Margherita's portrait was painted c. 1518 by the 'prince of painters', Raphael -- who was undoubtedly her lover. Appropriately, it is one of Raphael's most seductive portraits. Marguerita gazes prettily to one side, presumably at the artist himself; a smile plays at the corners of her lips. We can well believe, as Giorgio Vasari tells in his Lives of the Artists, that Raphael “could not give his mind to his work because of his infatuation for his mistress”.
Aside from a fashionable silk turban, all she wears is jewellery: a tiny ring on her left hand and a blue armband that bears the artist's name—Raphael of Urbino—in gold letters. She pulls a diaphanous veil over her belly with a gesture derived from classical sculptures of the Venus pudica (modest Venus), and suggestively cups her left breast. Her other hand rests between her legs, the fingers splayed and outlined in a deep red.
That's the hand we want!
The splay of its fingers may be thought to offer a blatant suggestion of sexual possibility -- or it may just be a way a hand lies, relaxed. Like one of the several hands (below), carefully drawn and shaded, and seen from a variety of angles, on the spectacular 1st C BC papyrus roll which also hosts the giraffe; specifically, the limp hand appearing centre left.
How can that be BC? It's a very Renaissance-looking hand; isn't it?
In fact, all these sketches of hands and feet could easily pass for Renaissance drawing exercises.
'Aha' cried the Italian classical scholar Luciano Canfora,* clearly someone was copying La Fornarina's hand on the papyrus! Needless to say, if true, there is only one possible conclusion: the papyrus is a forgery.
Is this papyrus a fake? And what is this all about?
The case for the defence.
The story begins mid-first century BC, when a scribe in Alexandria, Egypt, began working on a very big piece of blank papyrus (nearly 32.5 cm [13 "] tall and over 2.5 meters [8'] long). His task was to copy the geography of the Mediterranean world from the 11 books written by Artemidorus of Ephesus, who lived at the turn of the 1st century BC. He got as far as writing a preface and the beginning of Book II (about Spain), neatly leaving a space between the third and the fourth columns where two maps were to be inserted.
He probably didn't plan to draw the maps himself but took the papyrus to a painter's workshop to have the job done. Alas, 'tis many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip -- and what would have been (and, in a way, still is) the earliest Greek map to survive was never finished. It does show roads and rivers, but none of them have names, and, anyway, it seems to be the wrong part of Spain; at least it's not the place described in the text.
The stupid painter had ruined the papyrus ... and consequently stopped working on it. But papyrus is expensive and you don't throw it away .
What was to have been an édition de luxe became instead an exercise book for the workshop's artists practising their draughtsmanship. The whole of the left-hand margin and any empty spaces were completely filled with sketches of hands, feet, and heads. The heads are extraordinarily vivid (left), presumably based on, or even copied from, statues of gods, philosophers, and perhaps even prospective patrons.
At much the same time, the entire back of the papyrus was covered with small drawings of birds, fish and animals, real and imaginary. Some are extremely lifelife and strongly reminiscent of a medieval bestiary -- such as the haughty giraffe above, the rampant tiger below, elephants, and griffins (if a mythical creature can be described as 'lifelife'), a winged horned lion (below left) and a strange crocodile-like monster and a dragon biting each other's tails (way below, centre). The drawings were presumably displayed as a 'pattern book', an index of mosaics and frescos that the painters would offer to their customers.
After using it for decades (the roll was mended after the animals were drawn), the papyrus was sold as pulp to be turned into mummy-cartonnage -- torn or cut up, and glued together like a kind of papier mâché.
Almost two millennia later, local excavators recovered and sold the mummy wrapping to an Egyptian collector who owned it until the mid-20th century. After passages around Europe, a German collector bought it, opened the cartonnage (soaking it an enzyme solution, which dissolves the glue) and recovered about 200 fragments of papyrus. Fifty of these have been pieced together to make the Artemidorus roll.
The case for the prosecution
Not only has the forger copied La Fornarina's hand but the animals, according to Luciano Canfora, are copied as well -- in this case from drawings of constellations in early modern star-maps.^ Hence, the papyrus which combines an ostensibly early script (the animals are dated to the end of the first century BC by the written names which accompany them) with demonstrably later drawings, must be a fake.
But who could have faked both the script and these graphics?
Canfora has a culprit in mind -- a man whose name "deserves a whole page in the golden book of chutzpah", Constantine Simonides, Dr. Ph. (Moscow).
He was undoubtedly the greatest forger of the last century (1820? - 1867?). Even 19th century critics, who knew styles of writing Greek, the colours of the ink and paints of different times, and the kinds of parchment and papyrus used, were often fooled by his skills. Simonides combined intellect with versatility, and industry with ingenuity, such as is rarely found. His stock-in-trade was a large number of both genuine manuscripts, many obtained from Mount Athos, and of forged ones written by himself. In 1846, he was reportedly in possession of 5000 manuscripts, which he exhibited to savants at Athens.
His known scams include an incredibly ancient copy of Hesiod's Theogony, marked up with pseudo-ancient musical notes plus three indecipherable 'ancient' poems; a parchment which carried a hitherto unknown history of the kings of Egypt by Uranius of Alexandria; a papyrus with an early and 'corrected' copy of Hanno's Voyage Round Africa; and a text of St. Matthew's Gospel dictated by the apostle himself to Nicholas the Deacon. Finally, in a triumphant display of chutzpah, Simonides falsely claimed to have forged the genuine Codex Sinaiticus (the Book from Sinai: one of the two earliest Christian bibles, 694 pages of which were acquired by the British Museum in 1933 for £ 100,000).
Even if he didn't forge the fabulous Codex Sinaiticus, had he the skills to create the drawings and recreate the text of a shadowy geographer in first century script?
Peter Parsons, for many years director of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, and unquestionably one of today's cannier experts , sees no compelling reason to doubt the papyrus (Forging Ahead, TLS 22 Feb. 2008): To my eye the script of 'Artemidorus' looks unexceptionable, both in quality of line and in delicacy of execution, and much more accomplished than any sample of Simonides that I have yet seen.
His judgment got an unexpected boost with a letter published in the TLS on 14 March from a Greek architect, Ms. Haris Kalligas:
...as my family originates from the same island (Symi, near Rhodes) as Simonides, I had the fortune to come across some new material, including his father’s will, when I was writing a short article on his family house, of which some parts are still standing....Luciano Canfora shot back an angry reply (published in the TLS on 11 April):
Simonides forged his own descendancy, claiming that his ancestors originated through a direct line of eighty-eight generations from Stageira, the city Aristotle came from, and gives lots of other false facts. Apparently, as a young man he tried to poison his parents, and this was the reason he had to leave the island around 1840. He also forged Symi’s past, having composed a totally imaginary history: “Symais, or History of the Apollonias School in Symi … ” (1849), claiming that the author was a certain monk called Meletios, from Chios.During my term of office as Director of the Gennadius Library in Athens, I had the chance to examine in detail various holdings of the Library referring to Simonides. To my great surprise his forgeries are so evident and so clumsy that I was really mystified as to how it could have been possible for him to fool eminent philologists of the nineteenth century, who should have been familiar with authentic manuscripts.
It was with great surprise that I read the letter on Simonides from the architect Haris Kalligas. Her assertions strike me as faintly comical....
... I must, anyway, confess to being greatly impressed by the palaeographic skills which, as an architect, Kalligas demonstrates in her letter.
But time had already run out for Prof. Canfora. On 12 March, 2008 , it was reported that the Laboratory for Cultural Goods (LABEC), Florence, Italy, of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics had dated the Artemidorus Papyrus. According to the analyses, the Papyrus dates back approximately 2,000 years.
LABEC used the ultrasensitive technique of accelerator mass spectroscopy to perform carbon-14 dating on three tiny fragments from different points on the Papyrus. The analyses consistently showed that the fragments are from around the 1st century A.D., with a 95% probability that they date back to between 40 B.C. and 130 A.D.Why this matters
And the ink, too is consistent with ancient inks:
Another important analysis conducted by LABEC was that of the ink used to write the Papyrus, performed using Ion Beam Analysis. According to the results, the Papyrus was definitely not written with iron-gallic ink (which is based on metal salts and was commonly used in the 19th century) but with an ink with a purely organic base.
The drawings on the Artemidorus Papyrus, while not in themselves masterpieces, are the first solid evidence of the quality of draughtsmanship that underpinned the easel paintings of the famous painters of the Greek and Roman world. The celebrities of classical and Hellenistic Greece -- Zeuxis, Parrhasios, Apelles, Protogenes, Sosos -- are but names today, their works known only from glowing accounts by ancient writers.
While we need not believe (with Quintilian) that a single man, or even a single generation of painters were responsible for creating the illusion of 'space enveloping light and air', there's little doubt that this is what happened in Greek art around the time of Zeuxis (c 464 - 397? BC) and Parrhasios (d. 388 BC):
Of these, the first invented the systematic calculation of light and shade, the second, according to tradition, brought great refinement to draughtsmanship.
Zeuxis was responsible for a chiaroscuro that, like Parrhasios' linear method, suggested both the three-dimensionality of the parts we see as well as the continuation into space of the parts we do not see. So the sketches from the Artemidorus Papyrus are like living fossils, missing links between the lost masterpieces of ancient painting and the generally workmanlike pictures that 'till now have actually survived.
We End As We Meant to Begin
The Artemidorus Papyrus sketches come so close to quattrocento art that one almost believes that the painters of the Renaissance must have known and studied ancient prototypes -- and that these prototypes have, somehow, again vanished into dust. But, in truth, they had nothing to guide them besides the same written descriptions that we have today, plus some ancient reliefs and a few carved gems -- and their own genius.
And vice versa.
So when we see this incredibly Raphaelesque head of a woman in this painted stele of the 3rd C BC (left) from a site near Verria in Macedonia,^^ we can only marvel at the coincidence.
As a good Tuscan, Marguerita would have cried out, "Madonna Patata!"
Given a similar canon of beauty, is it true that the solutions that emerge are somehow natural and inevitable?
* Wikipedia wrongly describes Margherita as his "semi-legendary Roman lover". Of course she did exist -- and her family was Sienese, not Roman (which counts in Italy), though her father's bakery had moved to Rome at the time she met Raphael; more at Raphael's other woman.
** The True History of the So-Called Artemidorus Papyrus (Bari) 2008.
^ There are certainly some striking resemblances -- but I'd wager that the winged horned lion, at least, is an amalgam of Greek and Achaemenid-Persian images and styles. Winged lions are of ancient Babylonian lineage, but the horned variety, afaik, first appears in the Persian period (for example, a gold plaque from the Metropolitan Museum, and another gold jewel from the Oriental Institute collection). So this post is very slightly on-topic after all: although I've been unable to work into the story Zenobia or Palmyra, try as I might, I'm at least back in almost the right time and place with this Persian note.
^^ Stele found near Verria, Macedonia. Photo (and musings) from Vincent J. Bruno, Form and Colour in Greek Painting (London) 1977, Pl. 5a.
Update 23 May 2008:
An Artemidorus Papyrus One-day Conference will be held at St John's College, Oxford on Friday, June 13th, 2008.
The conference aims to bring together specialists on all aspects of the papyrus - the text, the map, and images. Scholars from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the UK and the USA have agreed to participate. Luciano Canfora, should he be unable to come, will send a written statement. The aim of the conference is to study the artefact, and its text, map, and images, as "gobbets"* first (in a well-established Oxford tradition), thus contributing to a deeper understanding of what the papyrus presents, before discussing probabilities and authenticities.
*For those who do not know Oxford-speak, 'gobbets'are raw lumps of texts cut into bite-sized chucks, which can then be munched by scholars; they become morsels to be analysed as to (1) the source: what has the document or picture to "say" and how is it "said"? (2)who produced it ? What is being said/shown? Who was it intended for?
Update 17 June 2008:
An excellent close-up of one of the heads (above) drawn on the Artemidorus papyrus; via PHDiva.
Update 15 July 2008:
Everything you ever wanted to know about the Artemidorus Papyrus
Il papiro di Artemidoro : (P.Artemid.) has just been published. Six hundred and thirty pages, with full reproduction of the scroll in the original Greek, a translation into Italian, reports on all scientific tests, plus illustrations of the drawings in 40 folded leaves of plates. This important, finely produced work (edited by Claudio Gallazzi, Bärbel Kramer, and Salvatore Settis), is the complete critical study of the papyrus of Artemidorus.
You can read part of the study on the web.
And enjoy a few of the illustrations, such as this excellent reproduction of the two battling monsters:
Of course, the accompanying text also has a learned discussion of what the draughtsman thought he was drawing. The left monster is labelled as a Xiphias -- the usual word for swordfish; the snout may be vaguely right but a fish is hardly a quadruped. The dragon-like creature coiling about the Xiphias is called a Thunn[o] Prist[is], a combined tunny sawfish (if ever there were such a thing). Yet, the artist was not entirely wrong: to my surprise, there once were sawfish in the Mediterranean, though they are long extinct in such waters. If, as I imagine, the artist lived somewhere in the Nile valley, he must have heard of such beasties but, to him, they were just as much a part of fantasy as dragons and chimeras.
That doesn't mean that they are not accurately drawn -- down to every detail. And I wouldn't want to tussle with either of them.
(Via What's New in Papyrology, where you can find more information; and gasp at the price)
Update 13 November 2008:
Luciano Canfora Strikes Back
Backed into an academic corner by the sheer weight of Il papiro di Artemidoro published in July (discussed above), Professor Canfora has come out fighting, wielding heavy cudgels of his own -- and in English, this time, so that his arguments will be read by the whole international papyrological community.
He hasn't backtracked one bit.
Translating from the publisher's blurb (why in Italian only?), he declares the big papyrus in every respect dubious (inverosimile): its script, its contents, the pictures of humans and animals, as well as the famous "first-ever Greek map" of an unidentifiable country -- the lot. In short, the papyrus cannot be Artemidorus in any shape, way, or form.
The True History is the "definitive word" and is intended to put an end to the passionate quarrel that has consumed reams of paper in cultural supplements in Italian and foreign newspapers.
But buy it by all means: it's a very modest Euro 18. A snip compared to the opposition's Il papiro di Artemidoro, at a hefty Euro 480.
My thanks again to What's New in Papyrology for alerting me to this new book.
Double Update 1 November 2009
An online review of Il papiro di Artemidoro by Arthur Verhoogt has just appeared in The American Journal of Archaeology. Prof. Verhoogt neatly sums up the significance of P. Artemid.
"This papyrus reminds us that our knowledge of antiquity is incomplete and based on sources that have survived....Whenever something falls through the cracks of selection and survival, so to say, we may not like what we see because it does not fit what we have, but we have to deal with it."In other words, it's not a forgery: get on with studying it even if that means changing some long-held assumptions.
And that's exactly what is happening. Just yesterday, I received this report from What's New In Papyrology :
The book of the conference at St John’s College, Oxford (see my update of 23 May 2008) has now been published. Read all the lively and impassioned debates by the international panel of scholars as they discuss the artefact, the images, the map and the texts on the papyrus. And, yes, it does include the promised papers by Luciano Canfora and other opponents of authenticity although they did not attend the Oxford conference.
Kai Brodersen &Jas Elsner (eds.)
Images and Texts on the "Artemidorus Papyrus"
Working Papers on P. Artemid.
You can buy the book at Franz Steiner Verlag, € 50,00
The book also contains, courtesy of the original publishers, black and white photographs of the whole papyrus -- which makes it a very good deal compared with the whacking price of € 480 for the major publication.
Update 7 October 2010
An excellent on-line review of Images and Texts on the "Artemidorus Papyrus" by Stanley M. Burstein appears today at Bryn Mawr Classical Review: "Papyri always produce something new and surprising, but surely nothing was more unprecedented and unexpected than the Artemidorus Papyrus...." For those who can't or won't read the book, this review will bring you up-to-date on the state of scholarly play. An important shift: it now seems unlikely that the papyrus was originally intended to be a deluxe edition of Artemidorus, but instead its layout is more compatible with it being a notebook created by several scribes with varied interests.