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October 2019

Etruscan Forgeries: Inscriptions and the Penelli Sarcophagus

A few weeks ago I attended the Ridgway Lecture in archaeology at the University of Puget Sound. Dr. Richard Daniel De Puma spoke on Etruscan forgeries, which included a discussion of two authentic Etruscan sarcophagi and one fake sarcophagus.1 I really appreciated learning about this art from an archaeologist’s perspective, and also how archaeological finds and fakes prompted the interest in forgeries.

Annio da Viterbo, fragmentary inscription in alabaster, late 15th century (Museo Civico, Viterbo)

Annio da Viterbo, fragmentary inscription in alabaster, late 15th century (Museo Civico, Viterbo)

To start off, De Puma discussed one of the earliest documented Etruscan forgeries, which was made by Annio da Viterbo in the Renaissance. Annio da Viterbo was a Dominican friar and in 1493 he invited Pope Alexander VI to watch him excavate a site. Beforehand, da Viterbo planted an “Etruscan” tomb with five broken inscriptions, and he conveniently was able to “find” these inscriptions in front of the pope and deceptively suggest they were authentic. Da Viterbo began to “translate” such inscriptions, claiming that the text spoke of his hometown of Viterbo. If anyone had looked closely, though, they would have seen that the inscriptions were a jumble of Etruscan, Greek, Latin and hieroglyphs all mixed together.

According to Annio da Viterbo, the text included information about how the city of Viterbo was the center of the universe, how Noah’s ark actually had landed in Viterbo and not Mount Ararat, and how Noah was the first pope (not Peter!). Regardless of how ridiculous these claims seem today, da Viterbo’s findings were celebrated and he found himself promoted within the papal court. He also started to give public lectures and had immense influence on the thinking of educated Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries.It took over one hundred years before his forgeries were proven as fakes.

Edgar Degas, "Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery," 1879-80. Soft-ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Image in public domain.

Edgar Degas, “Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery,” 1879-80. Soft-ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Image in public domain.

Another forgery in the Etruscan style is a sculpture, not just an inscription, and it was made in the 19th century. But the story begins with an authentic work of art: the Sarcophagus of the Spouses at Ceveteri, was excavated in the winter of 1845-46 and immediately drew attention. The sarcophagus, which was found in fragments, entered the Louvre collection in 1861 and was restored by Enrico Penelli. This sarcophagus was a prized addition to the Louvre collection, and Degas even included a depiction of Mary Cassatt looking at the sculpture in one of his prints (see above).

If this Louvre restorer, Enrico Penelli, had been an honest man, the story might have ended there. But Enrico, along with his brother Piero Penelli, decided to make a forged “Etruscan” sarcophagus that they claimed was excavated in Caere. This sarcophagus entered the collection of the British Museum in 1873.

Penelli Sarcophagus, c. 1873 (forgery made to appear in the style of 550-525 BCE). British Museum.

Penelli Sarcophagus, c. 1873 (forgery made to appear in the style of 550-525 BCE). British Museum. Image courtesy of British Museum via Creative Commons license

In their desire to have a sarcophagus that was somewhat similar in size  and decoration to the one in the Louvre, the British seemed all too eager to accept this sarcophagus as authentic. However, a few decades later another authentic Etruscan sarcophagus (also called “Sarcophagus of the Spouses,”) was discovered at Ceveteri in 1898. This second find, which is now in the Etruscan National Museum in Rome, is very similar in composition and style to the Louvre sarcophagus. These striking similarities made it seemed more certain that the British Museum sarcophagus was a fake. However, it took more than sixty years for the British Museum to take it off of display, despite that the Enrico Penelli had confessed his misdeed to the archaeologist Solomon Reinach.

There are several things that suggest the Penelli Sarcophagus is not authentic: the man’s hair is cropped very short, which is different from the braided hair typically shown; the woman is wearing clothing that looks like nineteenth-century undergarments; the man is nude; the poses (including the propped up knee) are unlike Etruscan examples. There even is an inscription included that was directly copied off of a gold pin from the Louvre, so the dedicatory inscription about a fibula doesn’t make sense in the context of a sarcophagus.3 Even the sphinx-like sirens at the feet are unusual for an Etruscan sarcophagus, and the frieze underneath reminds me more of Greek imagery on vases and relief carvings.

The British Museum has now accepted the “fake” status of this sarcophagus, and even brought it back out on display. Dr. De Puma said that he remembered that the British Museum put the sarcophagus on display in a show dedicated to fakes from all kinds of periods, and I believe he was referring to the 1961 exhibition “Forgeries and Deceptive Copies.” Do you wish that this sculpture was back on display? It is pretty terrible aesthetically, I think, but its history is interesting!

1 Dr. Richard Daniel De Puma, “Etruscan Forgeries.” Lecture, The Ridgeway Lecture 2019-2020 from University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA, September 28, 2019.

2 Walter Stevens, “When Pope Noah Ruled the Etruscans: Annius of Viterbo and His Forged “Antiquities,” MLN 119, no. 1 (2004): S201-223. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.seattleu.edu/stable/3251832.

3 The inscription says “I am the fibula of Arathia Velasvna and Tursikina gave me [to Arathia].” 

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Sutton Hoo Burial Ship Anniversary

One of the best blog posts that I read this past summer was on the British Museum blog site. It was written by curator Sue Brunning on the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The post was not only informative, but it was also engaging and written in a way that channeled excitement in me. I was reminded of the reason why I started blogging in the first place.

Brunning’s post was written to commemorate the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, which took place eighty years ago in 1939. This discovery was monumental and was unprecedented in many ways, since it is one of the most intact burials that has been found in Europe. This ship – which was almost 90 feet long (27 meters), served as the burial place for some extremely important individual (possibly the King of Anglia) in the 7th century. There is some old film footage of the excavation that shows helps to showcase the scale of this find. Probably the closest find in terms of historical weight and scope, I think, was the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt seventeen years earlier, in 1922.

The Sutton Hoo is sometimes called “Britain’s Tutankhamun,” and an even more recent discovery of a different tomb of a 6th century Anglo Saxon prince has been hailed in the media as “UK’s answer to Tutankhamun.” However, I think that it will take a lot of work to have these British examples overshadow King Tut. It was a King Tut exhibition in the 1970s which created the sensation of the “blockbuster exhibition” in museum culture, and I think this event further helped to solidify the boy king’s status in modern culture today.

In terms of scholarship and archaeological trends, King Tut’s tomb might have gotten more attention because the Egyptian mummy was still intact in its sarcophagus, whereas the remains in the Sutton Hoo ship had decomposed. Without tangible, display-able human remains, there may have been less of a motivation to create an impressive display for the Sutton Hoo items (although in more recent years, a new display of the treasures has been well received). That being said, I think it’s interesting how both burials have some objects that have visual similarities: the Sutton Hoo helmet gives off a ghostly humanoid presence which is akin to King Tut’s sarcophagi and famous funerary mask.

Sutton Hoo helmet (right) with reconstruction (left). Early 7th century, iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, 31.8 x 21.5 cm (as restored)

Sutton Hoo helmet (right) with reconstruction (left). Early 7th century, iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, 31.8 x 21.5 cm (as restored)

Another reason why I think that Sutton Hoo might not get as much attention is that many of the objects found in the burial are either small in scale, such as a purse clasp (shown below), shoulder clasp, and belt. These objects include a lot of minute detail and interlace lines that needs to be seen closely to be observed. I don’t think that these formal elements diminish the historical or aesthetic value of these objects, but I think that the smaller scale might cause the objects to require a more intimate, up-close connection with the viewer. Although there were small-scale objects also found in King Tut’s tomb, larger objects are also found therein and would have been more visually able to reach the masses in a blockbuster exhibition. These large scale objects continue to draw visitors to see King Tut – currently the website for the ongoing exhibition King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh 2019-2021  displays a large gilt chariot as one of the highlights of the show.

Sutton Hoo Purse Clasp, early 7th century. Gold, garnet and millefiori, 8.3 x 19 cm (The British Museum). Image courtesy Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Flickr

Sutton Hoo Purse Clasp, early 7th century. Gold, garnet and millefiori, 8.3 x 19 cm (The British Museum). Image courtesy Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Flickr

Nonetheless, despite that the Sutton Hoo burial is not as much of a household name as “King Tut,” the findings at this excavation are extremely impressive and significant! I’m glad that the British Museum has given these objects a display (and a £4 million revamp at the Sutton Hoo site) that emphasizes their significance. Will these objects ever get to travel around the world in the same way that King Tut’s mummy and tomb objects have? Some Sutton Hoo objects did travel around Suffolk and north Essex while the National Trust display at Sutton Hoo was under renovation, but I’m not aware of any other time that any objects from this excavation have traveled. Does anyone know otherwise?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.