“To thine own self be true.”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act-1, Scene-III
The Vera Icona was the original and ultimate self-portrait: an image made without the imperfections of human hand and mind, a direct imprint of “Him Self”. Once unique, the mandy- lion spawned many copies that sought to capture the truth within the image: the unchanging eternal truth of the Son of God, made in the image of God himself.
Today’s “selfies” are shameless and ubiquitous, each an ephemeral trace of a moment, often used for construct- ing stories around the “self” that stray far from the “truth”. Each year in the Musée du Louvre, the Mona Lisa, the most famous and photographed paint- ing in the world, is surrounded by millions of people. Many turn their backs to the painting as they use their phones to record themselves with the celebrity in her bullet-proof, glass case. During this act, they face the Louvre’s former greatest attraction, Veronese’s vast Wedding at Cana, the counter-reformation masterpiece depicting the complexity of life, nar- rative, myth and intrigue. The Wedding at Cana was recently featured in the Apeshit video by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, an art-historical fly-through which has already been turned into a Louvre tour, attracting a new generation to the museum. Hopefully some of these visitors will see the painting they are facing and ask the question, “where did this come from…?”
Veronese painted the Wedding on- to the canvas-covered end wall of Palladio’s refectory on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. At its original site, it filled the wall in dialogue with, and as an extension to, the surrounding architecture. It was a focus for meditation and reflection, slowly delivering its complex message to the monks who ate there. Windows either side provided light, and each day at a different time the shadows in the room align with the illusion in the painting. Napoleon’s soldiers cut the painting into strips when they ripped it from the wall. At the Louvre, what can be glimpsed through the crowds is an extensively restored and
altered painting hanging in a heavy gold frame, at the wrong height, be- tween two doors, illuminated by dif- fuse light from above. Factum Arte’s facsimile, which puts the painting back into its intended refectory loca- tion within the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, questions the very notion of “originality”, and suggests a new one, based on experience.
The fate of the great Bolognese al- tarpiece, the Griffoni Polyptych, paint- ed in 1471-1472 by Francesco del Cos- sa and Ercole de’ Roberti, is another demonstration of how facsimiles can create experiences capable of reunit- ing the viewer with the original in- tentions and power of a work of art. The Griffoni Polyptych was removed from the Griffoni chapel in the Church of San Petronio in 1725 when the chap- el was re-dedicated to the Aldrovandi family. The panels were taken out of their gold surround, separated and sold. Today, sixteen parts of the altar- piece are dispersed between the Na- tional Gallery in London, the Nation- al Gallery of Art in Washington, the Vatican Museum, The Brera in Milan, Museo di Villa Cagnola in Gazzada, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, Collezione Vittorio Cini in Ven- ice and Pinacoteca Nazionale, Ferrara. Each panel reveals how it has been cared for, preserved and restored since its removal. The gilded altar- piece and some panels are still miss- ing. A schematic drawing of half the complete object still exists in Bologna. The facsimile of all the known panels has been returned to the Church of San Petronio, prompting new interest in the complete work.
In the Griffoni Polyptych’s fragmen- tary form, the panels as individuals contain great beauty. But the complete polyptych has a visual coherence as it rises from the temporal and per- spectival world depicted in the pre- della to the gilded otherworldliness of the upper panels. Only together do they articulate their message.
Works of art are fundamentally about communication. A facsimile is an iteration, indistinguishable in scale, colour and surface to the naked eye under museum conditions. It is a technologically objective replication generating forensic evidence that allows a profound understanding of the dynamic process of originality. Is this today’s “true image”?