The daring story of a change of dress that had to remain secret

Jun 26, 2022 | Authentications & attributions, Discoveries

The exhibition that Piacenza dedicated to the father of the Viennese Secession with the title Klimt, the man, the artist, his world, will close on next 24 July.

The reason for the choice of topic is easily said: one of the only three masterpieces by the Viennese artist in currently Italy is finally coming “home”, namely the Portrait of a Lady of the Ricci Oddi Gallery collection in Piacenza. It is a long-awaited return that, in some ways, was no longer hoped for. In fact, the painting was marked by a troubled story that for several years upset the world of art and beyond. The story of a sensational discovery, and then of an equally sensational theft and finally of an unusual finding that took place after more than twenty years.

It can only be a great joy for the city for the return of the work to its original location.

So let’s try to briefly retrace this incredible story.

It all began in 1925, when the Piacenza collector Giuseppe Ricci Oddi bought from the Milanese Luigi Scopinich for 30,000 lire the work of Klimt Portrait of a Lady, which thus became part of the very rich collection that the patron had set up in a large building that he designed especially for it.

This “provincial” life of the Viennese opera, a bit sleepy, not particularly exposed to the limelight, suddenly changed in 1996, when a high school student from Piacenza, Claudia Maga, doing her homeworks, met for the first time the Ricci Oddi Portrait of a Lady. On her returning home, she began to leaf through the volume of the Rizzoli Art Classics dedicated to Klimt. Among the small black and white photographs of the published repertoire, Claudia saw one that seemed to her the work she had just seen. However, on a closer look, she saw that it was actually a different one, entitled Portrait of a Girl, painted in 1912 in Dresden. Nevertheless, the similarity was very strong. Unfortunately, there were no traces of the pictured work beyond 1912, when the work was photographed and published. The portrait, that was long thought to be lost, depicted a young woman with face and pose identical to that of Piacenza, but dressed in a different way. She was  wearing a large black hat, an element that we find several times in Klimt’s portraits and in particular in two periods, namely at the end of the Nineteenth century, and between 1907 and 1910, when they were very much in fashion, in combination with showy feather boas or large stoles.

To check for actual similarities Claudia traced the work of 1912 with a sheet of transparent paper, enlarged it to the same size of the painting, and then superimposed the sheet on the portrait in the Ricci Oddi Gallery. To her astonishment, she saw that the faces of the two girls were exactly the same. She went to the officials in charge who, intrigued, immediately took the painting to the city hospital for the very first X-ray plates. This gave a first partial confirmation of the existence, under the colours, of another version of the painting. In short, under the by then universally known Klimtian image, “something” had been sleeping for more than eighty years, and to really find out what it was, the Municipality of Piacenza, in agreement with the management of the Ricci Oddi Collection, decided to ask for more scientific investigations.

The methodologies used for these investigations were of four different types, namely X-rays, InfraRed photography, False-colour InfraRed photography and UltraViolet fluorescence photography. These are all techniques that in the meantime have greatly improved, but which, even then, had in common the fact that they produce images of what cannot be seen with the naked eye and were “non-destructive”, that is, they are analyses that allow us to see beyond the superficial layers of colour without tampering with them in the slightest. The data collected from these analyses were then processed by computer, considering the underlying chromatic layers and the thickness variations. The processing was translated into a map in numerical values from which, finally, even without resorting to modern scanning XRF, a faithful reconstruction in digital form of the image underlying the Portrait of a Lady was obtained. It was a confirmation that the intuition of the student Claudia Maga was right: under the Portrait of a Lady there was really, hidden and forgotten, the Portrait of a Girl that Klimt had painted 5 or 6 years earlier.

Virtual reconstruction of the first version of the painting Portrait of a Lady now in the Oddi Ricci collection

Klimt covered his hat and freed the neck from the scarf presumably between late 1916 and 1917, and eventually changed the title to Portrait of a Lady. What was the reason for it? A change in fashion? A painful memory that had to be cancelled? We will probably never know.

But the adventures of this little painting didn’t end there. In fact, during the packaging phases for the preparation of the exhibition From Hayez to Klimt. Masters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of the Ricci Oddi Gallery, intended precisely to celebrate the discovery of the “double” portrait, Klimt’s painting mysteriously disappeared between 19 and 22 February 1997.

A theft that immediately appeared strange and full of misdirection.

Initially, it was narrated of an acrobat thief who had dropped from the skylight to evade the alarm, and this only because the frame was found just below the skylight, on the canopy. However, it was soon realized that a man could not pass through the skylight, and therefore it was the simplest hypothesis to be pursued, namely that of thieves entering the building through the main door. In fact, no sign of burglary was detected in the windows or in the door and the alarm tested to be working perfectly. So the frame left on the velarium was a sensational misdirection, while instead it was evident that someone from inside had opened the door to the thief and tampered with the alarm system.

It is a very long story, studded with false finds and bizarre tracks, even leading to esotericism, which went on for 22 years, until 10 December 2019, when there was an equally bizarre and mysterious finding. In fact, that day some workers who were carrying out gardening operations along the outer wall of the museum, found the Portrait of a Lady in a black sack inside a small compartment closed by a door without a lock in the museum courtyard.

The discovery was sensational but precautions were taken to avoid falling into a bad joke. A commission of 3 experts was appointed and scientific investigations began immediately to verify its authenticity. At the end of the 30 days granted, there was no longer any doubt, it was the original work. Also in this case, the analyses carried out on the work were fundamental. The experts took infrared photographs of the painting and compared them with those from 1996. The images coincided. On the back, copper wires rest were found, that were compatible with those of the alarm system. The photographic shots in UV fluorescence also coincided; in fact, there was the same fluorescence in the area of the neck and in part of the cheek of the Lady. The match was also confirmed by the photograph in grazing light, in particular the craquelure, i.e. the pattern of the superficial cracks. The back of the canvas also showed a warp compatible with the original. Finally, the three markings of the Ricci Oddi Gallery that were present on the back of the canvas and frame were also found.

With all doubts removed, the beloved Klimt can finally return to his home in Piacenza for you to enjoy!

Filippo Melli