ART / A question of attribution: Is it a Michelangelo or a Bandinelli? Either way, a National Gallery under siege is not a pretty picture. Charles Hall reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Michael Daley's claim, in this month's Art Review magazine, that the National Gallery's The Entombment of Christ is not in fact by Michelangelo has caused a predictable stir. His suggestion that it doesn't even belong to the Gallery hasn't gone down too well either.

Not that his theory, that the painting is by Baccio Bandinelli instead, is exactly new - it was floated by J C Robinson in a letter to the Times back in 1881. The painting is, as Daley says, largely executed in oils, a medium loathed by Michelangelo but explored by his rival. Its composition, imagery and unfinished state sound suspiciously like a Bandinelli described by his contemporary, Vasari. And, while the National can point to stylistic links with other works by Michelangelo, his oeuvre is almost as disputed as Rembrandt's. Even his Manchester Madonna, also in the National, used to be ascribed to 'The Master of the Manchester Madonna' (Daley does not say so in his piece, but he disputes this attribution, too). Lastly, the composition, the relationship of the figures and even the draughtsmanship all seem untypically awkward.

Professor James Beck of Columbia University told the Times that 'to make The Entombment a Michelangelo diminishes the creativity of Michelangelo. It means placing a third-rate work at his door-step.'

But then, The Entombment was left unfinished - presumably because the artist was aware of its failings.

The idea that great artists only ever produce works of genius is manifestly false. Yet, one suspects, beneath the scholarly zeal of Daley and Beck lies a sentimental attachment to their idea of what 'a Michelangelo' ought to be. Their assault on the restoration of the Sistine Chapel - claiming that glazes designed to soften the colours had been removed along with the dirt - stemmed from a love of a sombre Michelangelo worlds away from the vibrant flamboyance revealed by cleaning.

Just so, when Daley first clashed with the National over The Entombment, it was on the grounds that the picture's cleaning in 1969 had removed, not dirt, but grey paint used by the artist to 'tone down' his colours. The gallery invited Daley, with the expert of his choice, to inspect samples taken from the canvas. According to the Art Newspaper, these proved 'that no original paint could have been removed, as the samples clearly indicated the presence of dirt and residue of varnish on the paint surface'. Could it be that, having found that this was not the Michelangelo he liked, Daley convinced himself that it was not Michelangelo at all? Might his judgement even have been blurred by his antipathy towards the National and its staff?

Daley and Beck have a long history of clashes with the gallery. (Beck, for example, recently claimed that their portrait of Pope Julius II, ascribed to Raphael, was actually a copy, leading David Lee, editor of Art Review, to comment, 'Beck can't pass a boat without rocking it until it capsizes'.) When their book, Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal, is reissued in January, it will include a chapter on techniques which, they say, the gallery has used to discredit its critics since the 1840s. 'Step 1: they take no notice. Step 2: they attack you by proxy. The third stage is ironical dismissiveness, the fourth open hostility. Fifth and last comes character assassination. They reach that stage,' says Daley, 'quite quickly.'

The gallery refuses to comment, insisting that all relevant questions will be addressed in the catalogue for a new exhibition, Making and Meaning: The Young Michelangelo (19 Oct- 15 Jan), which, together with all sorts of new evidence, scientific and documentary, will include preparatory drawings 'by Michelangelo' for two of The Entombment's figures - 'one,' says Daley, 'is irrelevant; the other by Bandinelli' - and a cast of a related Pieta in the Vatican.

The exhibition has been curated jointly by the National's Dr Nicholas Penny and the Courtauld's Dr Michael Hirst, generally acknowledged as Britain's leading authority. As Robin Simon, editor of Apollo magazine, says, 'Anybody proposing to argue with Hirst has to be on extremely solid ground. Daley's evidence is interesting, but it is circumstantial. His real argument is stylistic, so it comes down to a matter of connoisseurship.'

Weary though the art world is with yet another public row, Daley has obviously hit a very raw nerve. 'The real question,' as one authority put it, 'is what's got up his trousers.' 'He's not really an art historian,' said another; 'he's a journalist.' It would be merely mischievous to list such sneering put-downs, were they all as independent as they might seem. But the Art Newspaper's spectacular four-page attack on Art Restoration was written with the active, but uncredited, assistance of the National Gallery.

While galleries allow critics to question the thinking behind exhibitions, they can't just declare all decisions regarding conservation and attribution beyond criticism. The National's response to the current rumpus is hardly reassuring. Calls to Dr Penny were diverted to the Press Office. In the course of half an hour, Penny was said to be successively 'at lunch', 'away for the day', and 'on holiday'.

Daley's hitherto overlooked remarks on the painting's provenance may yet cause even greater outrage. 'It's contraband,' he says, 'smuggled out of Rome in 1845 by Robert MacPherson, a Scottish painter who found it being used as a fish stall in a street market. When a Vatican official slapped seals on it and forbade export, he simply stuffed it in a packing case, 'tipped' an official, and smuggled it home. Then, when he fell on hard times, he sold it to the National Gallery.' The Italian media are already interested: 'A reporter from La Stampa spent the best part of a day trying to find out if the Vatican seals are still on the back - but the gallery won't answer.'

Until the opening of the National's new exhibition, it's hard even to guess at the relative merits of the arguments. But that doesn't excuse the Gallery's attempts to pretend that the arguments are not worth hearing.

(Photographs omitted)