The art world’s kosher Sherlock Holmes

The continual news that maintained the spotlight on the artist’s controversial life kept coming from Michelangelo himself. Here are just a few examples.

THE TERRACOTTA after the first layer of paint was removed (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE TERRACOTTA after the first layer of paint was removed
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After publishing The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican, I thought that I was done with Michelangelo. But apparently, he wasn’t done with me.
In the book, co-author Rabbi Benjamin Blech and I revealed the Jewish and neoplatonic messages hidden by the great maestro Michelangelo Buonarroti in the famous Sistine Chapel frescoes. A flood of comments followed: condemnations on neo-Nazi sites; eyewitness reports from people who found aliens in Michelangelo’s frescoes; and claims by others who said they had the Holy Grail in their grandma’s cupboard. Fortunately, there were far more messages of congratulations from many experts and art historians, plus many invitations to do interviews and lectures in museums, universities, embassies and religious centers all over the world. I attribute the passionate response to the book to the greatness of Michelangelo and the very high reputation of Rabbi Blech.
The continual news that maintained the spotlight on the artist’s controversial life kept coming from Michelangelo himself. Here are just a few examples.
• A few months after the book came out, the Vatican announced the discovery of the last design of Michelangelo, drawn just a few months before his death at almost 89 years old: an architectural detail for his design of the pilasters on the “Cupolone,” the gigantic dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
• In New York, Sir Timothy Clifford, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, made the announcement that he had accidentally found a design by Michelangelo of a menorah. It had been in a dusty box in a closet in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design.
• Another discovery was made by the American scholar Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, when she noticed in the vestibule of the French Cultural Center a marble figure that had lost its arms and lower legs – it turned out to be the young Michelangelo’s long-lost Cupid the Archer.
FINALLY, IN the spring of 2010, there was a break in the action – no interviews, no lecture tours or book signings – just a heavenly peace, content to have a time-out from anything to do with the Renaissance and Michelangelo.
And then, a new enigma – a question too intriguing to refuse. One evening, an email arrived from a private collector. The letter recounted the story of a terracotta statue found in a miserable state of disrepair in a small antique shop. It was a Christian sculpture, portraying a dead Jesus lying in his mother Mary’s lap. Since its purchase by the collector, it was undergoing a long process of restoration. The email went on to say that the top experts, after having seen photographs of the statue as it emerged from this restoration, had attributed the work to the Lombardian sculptor Andrea Bregno, who ruled over the world of sculpture in Rome in the second half of the 1400s.
So far, there was nothing surprising in this email. I had already heard from so many people who wanted me to put my “stamp of approval” here and there on a painting, a statue, a sketch in order to declare it as a masterpiece that was both historic and lucrative. (I never validated any of these requests and, in fact, did not even respond to most of them.) I was just about to close the email when suddenly a sentence jumped out from the last paragraph:
“The latest restoration brought to light some mysterious markings on the back of the statue – they seem to be Hebrew letters.”
Linked to the email was a high-definition, extreme close-up photo of strange markings on the back of the statue, which could possibly have been a large letter Shin flanked by Reshes or Yuds. Below the signature of the collector, there was a telephone number. I called him immediately.
I told him that one couldn’t say yes or no from a photograph, even one of high definition. It was vital to see the object in person. This collector was very jealous of his privacy (and rightfully so, given the value of the statue, even as an anonymous 15th-century work), and he told me that other experts had already previously evaluated the statue only through photos. However, this mystery of strange letters on the statue got the better of him. In the end he invited me to examine the terracotta piece in person.
The mysterious markings on the back did indeed seem to be Hebrew letters, especially the letter Yud and in the middle a large letter Shin.
Up to this point, no expert had come to view the piece in person. The owner, a surgeon and amateur art collector, eagerly offered to pay for the long train and bus trek to his home. He was shocked when I replied, “Thank you but no. According to the Talmud, if I am to evaluate your property, I cannot accept as much as a cup of coffee from you.”
The good doctor, a Catholic, had never heard of the Talmud before. I told him it was too much to explain over the phone, but I would do so later in person if he wished. Armed with my various magnifying lenses, I went to see the statue.
THE STATUE was on his tiny breakfast nook table, covered with some mail and his son’s homework papers from high school. After he “unveiled” it by clearing off the papers, my first impression was of an art work of breathtaking beauty. I was speechless – which, believe me, is a very rare event. Then came a methodical examination of the piece from every angle for over an hour.
At the end, I asked: “Sir, are you sure that this terracotta is from the late 1400s?”
“Yes,” he replied, “the top forensic labs have done all the forensic analyses, which pin it down to the last quarter of the 15th century. Why do you ask?”
“Because this is a pietà, a theme that is not found in southern Italian sculpture in the 1400s. It became popular only after the success of the Pietà of Michelangelo, which was only unveiled in Rome in 1499.”
“No, all the analyses have set the date for the late 1400s.”
“I see. Well, sir, I have some bad news and perhaps a small consolation for you.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“These markings are not Hebrew letters, in my view. There is a resemblance, but not enough.”
“I understand,” he sighed. “And the small consolation?”
“It seems to me that you, sir, have found an art work by the young Michelangelo Buonarroti, perhaps a pietà actually predating the one in the Vatican.”
The collector sat down in silence. Then he told me, “You are not the first person to tell me this. There have been one or two other experts that said it, but had no concrete method that could render a definitive attribution.” He let out a melancholy sigh and shrugged. “I guess it will remain a mystery forever.”
I answered, “Maybe there is a solution. Remember that you asked me about the Talmud, the commentaries on the Hebrew Bible?”
“Yes, but where does that come in?”
“It might be possible to apply a procedure from 2,000 years ago to a mystery six centuries old.”
I proposed a test to him, to try using the rules from the Talmud to solve this mystery – a sort of intellectual bet. What had come to mind was the first Talmudic text that traditional students usually learn: Bava Metzia, Chapter 2. This deals with tracking down the owner (or creator) of an object found by others. If the analytic process of the ancient Talmud succeeded in finding a solution to the enigma, I would have permission to write a book about it. If, instead, it did not result in obtaining a true definitive conclusion – well, I would just have to keep my big mouth shut and not write a thing, other than perhaps one big question mark.
Seeing that you are reading this story, let’s just say that something did indeed happen...
THIS WAS a leap of faith on the doctor’s part, if you are familiar with the usual European method of attribution, the method for deciding which artist created an artwork. First and foremost, it is usually more subjective and personal, oftentimes resolved when a big-name expert says, “The fold in this Mary Magdalene’s gown reminds me of this artist’s Madonna,” or “The red in this painting makes me think of Caravaggio.” Yes, this is a bit exaggerated, but only to underline how irregular the process can be. The ideal situation of art detective work is documentation, when you can find a paper trail that can link a piece to a specific time, place and artist. Even finding just one such text is akin to winning the lottery for an art historian.
When I explained the Talmudic procedure to the collector, he was astonished by how logical and orderly it was. However, he was still unsure if this process – developed over 2,000 years ago by a people who did not depict human figures in their artwork – could solve the mystery of a Catholic statue from 500 years ago. I was also not sure if it would work, but we both decided to give it a try.
The Talmudic Tractate Bava Metzia teaches us how to track down the owner or creator of a found object, and if you are even obligated to announce the find. The procedure is a series of criteria:
• Where was the object found?
• How was it wrapped, if it was wrapped?
• Quantity – one object? A random few? Many?
• What does it weigh?
• What are its measurements?
• Does it have simanim – special identifying marks or symbols?
The amateur collector had found the clay statue in a small antiques shop near Bologna, a city in the center of the Italian “boot.” It was in a moldy cardboard box on the floor, wrapped in yellowed newspaper. Since it was covered in layers of awful gaudy colors, the shopkeeper assumed it was a piece of kitsch from Naples in the early 1800s. Still, the perfect anatomy of the body of Jesus captured the surgeon’s attention and he bought it for a paltry sum.
He decided to hire a top art restorer to clean up the poor pietà (Italian for “pity” or “compassion”). It took more than three years to carefully remove nine layers of paints and enamels. They discovered that this was no Neapolitan tchotchke, but a masterpiece from the Renaissance. The statue was put through a long barrage of laboratory tests (reflectography, radiography, thermoluminescence, etc.) that fixed the date of the piece to the last quarter of the 1400s, the temperature of the kiln where the terracotta was fired, and even the rare composition of the clay that was used.
The location of the piece (Bologna) and its humble wrappings seemed to be dead ends. Besides the textbook accuracy of the anatomy and the gorgeous details of the piece, there was another singularity: Someone had mixed just the right amounts of minerals into the clay that made it look more like smooth, shiny white marble rather than baked clay. This allowed the artist to give it extraordinary detail and fire it at about half the normal heat.
THE FIRST “Aha!” moment came when I checked the measurements of the statue: 58.3 cm. wide by 45 cm. tall. Of course, it had been measured before, but only the Talmud said that it could be a major clue. Sure enough, it was something that had slipped by the other art historians. In the 1400s, Italy was a patchwork quilt of different city-states, each with their own government, cuisine, dialect, currency and measurements. Only one city, Florence, had as its standard length the braccio Fiorentino, or Florentine arm, a cubit just over 58-cm. long. This meant that the creator of the statue would have been a proud Florentine. After much research, I found documents stating that Michelangelo made all his terracotta works one Florentine braccio long. But this siman, this sign, was still not strong enough to prove the case.
It took a year of research to line up all the other simanim. Here are just a few of them:
• A neoplatonic pagan Cupid that only a stubborn Florentine from the court of the de’ Medici would have dared to insert in a Catholic work for the Vatican. The Cupid was soon censored, its head and wings carefully cut off in the terracotta, and completely absent in the final marble version of the piece.
• A knot of the left hands of Jesus, Mary and the Cupid – a hidden “signature” of Michelangelo, known to be left-handed.
• The secret minerals mixed into the clay came from Michelangelo’s favorite quarry.
All these clues led me to take the next step, according to the Talmud: announcing the find. How, though? And where? The interested parties had been dead for centuries.
I wrote up a book about my investigation, aimed at the world of Italian art history: critics, restorers, archivists, curators, etc. A short time after it was published, I got an email from the UK. A student from the University of London had been working on inventories from the powerful Casali family’s art collection from 1591 to 1620. She had been puzzled by references through those years to a “model of the Pietà in terracotta, made by the hands of Michelangelo Buonarroti.” Most art experts knew that Michelangelo had made a bozzetto, a clay scale model of a proposed artwork, in order to win the highly prestigious and lucrative commission to carve the marble Pietà. It is the world famous statue still on view today in the Vatican, seen by millions of visitors each year. However, the common wisdom was that the original clay model had been destroyed. The British archival student had no idea of what the inventories were describing.
When she Googled “terracotta Pietà” and “Michelangelo,” my name and the book title instantly popped up. She said that she had devoured my book (my “announcement”) in one sitting and was convinced that all these documents were referring to the terracotta I had found. She sent me everything she had, in high definition. Besides that, other documents were found discussing the vicissitudes of the statue. As said above, finding just one single document is a win. We now have a complete paper trail of the statue from 1497 up through 1610, when the Casali family lost their power, money and art collection. By the way, where was the Casali’s palace that held all their art acquisitions? Bologna, where the doctor found the lost statue years later.
Thanks to a mix of Talmud and Italian art detective work, this anonymous pietà is now the most documented terracotta in the Renaissance. Recently, a group of top experts published an anthology of academic articles confirming my attribution. I was flown to Rome for the special celebration, where I was nicknamed by the international press as “the kosher Sherlock Holmes.” At the end of my speech, I expressed my gratitude to the Original Artist Who forms us all, for the unforeseeable opportunity of a religious Israeli Jew to restore to the Italian people a precious part of their artistic heritage.
The author has an extensive background in theater, film, Jewish history, art history and foreign languages. He is an international lecturer on many subjects and the first Orthodox Jew authorized by the Vatican to give VIP tours there.