“La Sapienza’’ University, Rome
Byzantium in Objects and Objects from Byzantium. Doubts, Fakes and Misunderstandings in Historiography
at the Turn of the 20th Century
This contribution aims to offer an original overview on the rise of the “identity” of Byzantine works of art in historiography at the turn of the 20th century.
In the wake of some pioneering researches published by Russian scholars in the last decades of the 19th century, specialists from France, Germany, Great Britain, US and Italy focused their interest on Byzantine art, which was still considered as a complex and mostly unknown field of studies. A relevant part of scholarly opinions about “Byzantine style” came from the knowledge of the so-called minor arts: jewels and metalworks, ivory carvings, icons, textiles etc. Generally small-sized and easily transportable, these pieces were a significant presence in European museums and private collections. Specialists like Charles J. Labarte, Georg Stuhlfauth, Nikodim Kondakov, Raffaele Garrucci, as well as curators like Émile Molinier, Ormonde M. Dalton or Eric Maclagan had dealt with the problem of the correct interpretation of these works: they were commonly investigated as part of larger studies devoted to “industrial arts”, influenced by a strongly positivist attitude. With the borders of a new discipline still to be fixed, mistakes and misinterpretations were frequent, also because of the persistent use of hand-made illustrations to reproduce works of art, even after the rise of modern photographic techniques. The critical approach towards fakes deserves a special attention. The practice of recognizing falsifications, in fact, was widespread as far as classical art was concerned, but it was still poorly applied to Early Christian and Byzantine works. The Palagi ivory carvings, the Botkin enamels, and the bizarre metalworks in the so-called “Tesoro Rossi” are stunning examples of these difficulties in distinguishing authentic pieces from imitations. At the beginning of the 20th century, international exchanges between scholars from different countries became thus crucial for establishing new attempts of identifying Byzantium in objects, and objects from Byzantium.