Fingers: limp and sticky

In 212BC the Roman Republic sacked Syracuse. They plundered the city and returned to the capitol with a great big stash of Hellenistic art. According to Plutarch the reason why proconsul Marcellus brought these Greek statues and paintings back to Rome in the first place was to make ‘a visual impression of his triumph and also be an ornament for the city’ (Marcellus 21.1). Yet the sack of Syracuse did more than promote warfare and prettify Rome; it launched the Western world’s craze for collecting.

Proactive Romans gradually realised that they no longer needed to accumulate functional art in order to show off their wealth and erudition. What better way to boast about your sticky-fingered stake on art history than to lead your friends through a room bursting with the spoils of war? Marcus Agrippa even instigated what some would call a “promo museum” at the front of his house, inviting members of the elite to view his impressive Hellenistic horde[1]. As the rich collection of Greek masterpieces morphed into the urban scene of Rome so too developed a desire for a certain “cognitive” awareness in art analysis.

Therefore what happened at Syracuse in 212BC drove pleasure in conspicuous consumption to the fore, instigating the psychological impudence that has continued through to today. A “specialised” competent training, which has become fundamental to the attitude of connoisseurship, blossomed here. As Pollitt surmises in his research on the impact of Greek art on Rome: there is probably no aspect in this period that has a more modern ring, ‘All the familiar features of today’s market were there: passionate collectors, dealers (some unscrupulous, some reliable), smugglers, forgers, restorers, appraisers, fads and fashions, and inflated prices. All this emanated from the fact that upper class Romans who had once been free to seize Greek art were now content to buy it in order to adorn their townhouses and villas.’[2]

The level of proficiency required of an expert, whereby cognitive ability gives way to natural and automatic reflexes, takes several years of competent training[3]. Intuition is, as Ginzburg and Davin attest, ‘the elastic rigour…of the conjectural paradigm… It’s a matter of kinds of knowledge which tend to be unspoken, whose rules, as we have said, do not easily lend themselves to being formally articulated or even spoken aloud’[4]. Yet connoisseurship can also be seen to conserve the providence of the trained imagination and/or memory to better explain the means employed in a work of art. Art crime is scattered with stories of experts who “got it wrong’, and not just wrong, but terribly wrong’ but common law recognizes the need for experts to make judgment calls on matters of dispute – so where can we find a happy median? [5]

An interesting argument developed from this point in class a couple of weeks ago. By employing the criminologist’s “eye” to understand a crime scene we scoured the compositions of three works by Caravaggio. I’ll briefly describe our process, using the most ambiguous example to point out the flaws in art historical analysis.

Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew depicts Chapter 9, Verse 9, in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him ‘Follow me’, and Matthew rose and followed Him.’ Several art historians have further construed that the bearded man, third from the left, is Matthew – his limp finger pointed gently towards his chest, startled face illuminated by the radiant light pouring in from the right. This popular interpretation has been accepted, published and repeated time and time again but, as our lecturer Dr. Noah Charney purposed with raised brow, art historians often fall for Caravaggio’s so-called “red herrings”. By putting on our criminological specs and viewing the work with a critical eye our class arrived at an entirely different conclusion. I’ll talk you through it.

Figure 1: Caravaggio, 1599-1600, The Calling of St. Matthew

Take a look at the painting pictured above and visualise the dark interior of its surrounding context, the Contarelli Chapel. Imagine viewing the work from below, the nearest point of the work being the bottom left corner. This angle was specifically chosen to enhance the real and painted light that would amalgamate quite harmoniously, owing to the window’s architectural location within the Chapel (beyond the painting to the top right). Following the orthogonal line from a two-dimensional and three-dimensional plane the beam should direct you to the figure furthest from Christ: a hunched adolescent completely immersed in the glittering silver coins in front of him. Aha! Could it be…?

The next question we asked ourselves is: if Caravaggio’s language is visual, what elements align to symbolically identify this individual as the St. Matthew? Before his appointment into the apostolic club Matthew was a tax collector working in Capernaum. His sin, therefore, was greed. In fact all the apostles had sinful backgrounds prior to meeting the Son of God. Caravaggio would represent them with varying physiological differences before and after becoming the 12 Disciples – the most common attribute being the growth of a beard to indicate seasoned virtue. To summarise: limp fingers + orthogonal line + sun beams + hairless chin + obsession with money = are we looking at Mr. St. Matthew? If you need more proof then please take a good long look at our culprit’s hands: one appears to be sneaking a coin up his sleeve, whilst the other slips a coin into his vest pocket. Are you convinced? I’m sure equally conceivable arguments exist for the other bearded/non-bearded chaps, but I suppose that’s the point: it’s all up to interpretation.

In art crime the argument over what the connoisseur sees and how they make an attribution is also followed up with how they know they’re right. Quality and qualities lie at the core of subjective response – indeed, connoisseurship is a form of etiology: ‘the inference of an artefact’s spatial and temporal point of origin on the basis of morphological (“stylistic”) criteria’[6]. A recent debate between two prestigious representatives at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen presents this point perfectly. Ernst van de Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project and Museum curator Jeroen Giltaij expressed contradictory opinions when asked whether or not the painting Tobit and Anna should be attributed to artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Two short films verging on the comical capture the debate. The clips titled ‘Rembrandt? No, I don’t recognise him!’[7] and ‘Rembrandt? Yes, it has to be him!’[8], are accessible on Youtube.

Figure 4: Rembrandt, 1659, Tobit and Anna

Giltaij’s proclamation that Anna’s spinning wheel is ‘nothing more than a flat pancake’ contrasts Wetering’s report, which has him revering the wheel as ‘one big, beautiful, nicely painted blur’. Speaking on behalf of the Rembrandt Research Project he claims that this indication of movement typifies Rembrandt’s obsession with light and form within a space. ‘Forget the apparent crudeness of execution…the underlying vision of Rembrandt manipulating light and shade and form will always shine through if we are perceptive enough to recognise it’. So, who’s right? Both experts deploy their arguments in ways that can be seen to establish the very essence of what makes connoisseurship controversial: they are only looking for information that will positively feed a hypothesis. In this vein incorrect over-valuations of works occur because, hey, lots of people will benefit at the reach of a conclusion – just look at Salvator Mundi…is it a Da Vinci or isn’t it?

Therefore, what is the standard by which connoisseurship can overturn doubt and uncertainty in place of verifiable fact? This very question has been on the tips of tongues since the Romans pilfered Syracuse – but are we any closer to answering it?


[1] Charney N 2019, ‘Provenance Trap: Understanding the Modus Operandi of Art Forgers’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 25 June 2019.

[2] Pollitt J J 1978, ‘The Impact of Greek Art on Rome’ in Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014), Vol. 108, The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 162

[3] Ashley-Smith J 2016, ‘Losing the Edge: the Risk of a Decline in Practical Conservation Skills’ in Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 39, No. 2, p. 121.

[4] Ginzburg C, Davin A 1980, ‘Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method’ in History Workshop, Oxford University Press, No. 9, p. 28.

[5] Nall S 2014, ‘An Australian Art Dealer’s Perspective on Art Crime’ in (Eds.) Chappell D, Hufnagel S, Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Company, Surrey, England, p. 107.

[6] Neer R 2005, ‘Connoisseurship and the Stakes of Style’ in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 32, No. 1, Autumn 2005, p. 3.

[7] Museum Boijmans van Beuningen 2012, Rembrandt? No, I don’t recognise him! 20 March 2012, viewed 25 June 2019 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfE73puKbSU&gt;

[8] Museum Boijmans van Beuningen 2012, Rembrandt? Yes, it has to be him! 27 March 2012, viewed 25 June 2019 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJ6oX8XWDPk&gt;