To be or not to be… El Greco

Nov 27, 2023 | Authentications & attributions, Cutural Heritage, Exhibitions

There are attributions that don’t last from Christmas to Saint Stephen’s Day, the luckiest ones make it to New Year’s Eve, and a few continue their journey among the ‘autographs.’ These attributions are often certified by journalistic scoops but contradicted by a large part of the academic world. Of course, everyone can make mistakes, and sometimes it’s not malice but understandable errors, especially in the absence of adequate scientific analysis.

For example, while walking through the rooms of El Greco’s house in Toledo, you come across the Portrait of a Young General, purchased by the Marquis de la Vega Inclan as an authentic El Greco from the Italian period. Initially, the subject was believed to be Don Giovanni d’Austria, the natural son of Charles V. Now the museum attributes it to Bartolomeo Passarotti.

Portrait of a Young General, Oil on canvas, circa 1575, Bartolomeo Passarotti (?), House of El Greco in Toledo Photo credits: Art-Test

El Greco stayed in Italy, first in Venice and then in Rome, from 1567 to 1577. Bartolomeo Passarotti, a Bolognese painter, was his contemporary, but he arrived in Rome in 1560 and stayed there for a much shorter time. How the latter could have painted in a style that has many similarities to that of Italian El Greco, enough to be confused with him, is still unclear.

But with El Greco, we are accustomed to evaluations and reassessments of his works, oscillating especially between him and his workshop. This was the case with the Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Francis of Assisi from the Uffizi, now on loan for the exhibition ‘El Greco. A painter in the labyrinth,’ hosted at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, where the artist’s relationship with the places he lived is constantly highlighted. The exhibition title refers to the labyrinth to underline how El Greco’s life was a kind of immense Bildungsroman that unfolded among the cultural capitals of the Mediterranean.

For the exhibition, major museums have loaned authentic masterpieces, including the famous Saint Martin and the Beggar and the Laocoön from the National Gallery in Washington, the Portrait of Jeronimo De Cevallos from the Prado Museum, the two Annunciations from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and the Saint John and Saint Francis from the Uffizi Galleries.

For the latter, in the catalog entry, signed by Dr. Anna Bisceglia, we read:

While Wethey considered the Uffizi example completely autograph, revealing its high quality and emphasizing some executive traits common to Titian’s technique, more recently, scholars, including Letizia Ruiz Gomez, are inclined to see the intervention of his workshop. The theme falls more generally into the complex organizational question of El Greco’s workshop and the ways of reproducing models: in the case of the Uffizi painting, the restoration carried out in 2010 and the diagnostic investigations that accompanied it (IR reflectography, radiography, multispectral reflectography, and Multilayer©) allowed for a specific observation of the executive technique and structural characteristics of the painting.

These are the sort of attributions that last.

Emanuela Massa
Emanuela Massa