F for Fake

The Farnese Atlas is a remarkable sculpture associated with even more remarkable claims.

Claim 1: It’s a 2nd-century Roman copy of a Hellenistic sculpture.

Claim 2: It’s the oldest extant statue of the Titan of Greek mythology.

Claim 3: It’s the oldest known representation of the celestial sphere.

The Farnese Atlas is a 2nd-century Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic sculpture of Atlas kneeling with the celestial spheres, not a globe, weighing heavily on his shoulders.

It is the oldest extant statue of the Titan of Greek mythology, who is represented in earlier vase-painting, and more important, the oldest known representation of the celestial sphere.

The sculpture is at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, in Italy.

It stands seven feet (2.1 meters) tall, and the globe is 65 cm in diameter.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farnese_Atlas

Unsurprisingly, these remarkable claims are debated by experts.

Art experts debate stylistic schools.

Controversial is the dating of the work: some scholars date the statue to the second half of the first century BC according to a stylistic comparison with the group of Laocoon; other scholars, on the contrary, attribute it to the Antonine period and specifically to the second century AD, for the influence of the Rhodian School.

National Archaeological Museum of Naples – The Hall of the Sundial
https://www.museoarcheologiconapoli.it/en/room-and-sections-of-the-exhibition/the-hall-of-the-sundial/

Sky experts debate the source of the inexact, ambiguous and starless celestial sphere.

In 2005, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego, California, Dr. Bradley E. Schaefer, a professor of physics at Louisiana State University, presented a widely reported analysis concluding that the text of Hipparchus’ long lost star catalog may have been the inspiration for the representation of the constellations on the globe, thereby reviving and expanding an earlier proposal by Georg Thiele (1898).

However, because the globe contains no actual stars, and because the circles on the globe are drawn inexactly and ambiguously by a sculptor copying the Hellenistic model rather than by a modern astronomer, the dating of the globe is still uncertain and its source or sources remain controversial…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farnese_Atlas

But the experts avoid arguing about authenticity.

Greek Iconography
The Greek iconography of Atlas depicts a young Titan god shouldering the firmament.

The Greek Atlas does not shoulder a celestial sphere or a terrestrial globe.

If the Atlas Farnese were just a statue of Atlas this would be a remarkably free interpretation of Greek mythology.

Originally Atlas was seen as a young Titan standing upright and shouldering the firmament (not the celestial globe) at the western of the four corners of the (flat) earth.

Evidence for a new interpretation of the Berlin Celestial Globe fragment SK1050A
Ulrich Kuehne (Berlin) – 1987

Click to access SK1050A_100.pdf

ATLAS was the Titan god who bore the sky aloft.

He personified the quality of endurance (atlaô).

Atlas was a leader of the Titanes (Titans) in their war against Zeus and after their defeat he was condemned to carry the heavens upon his shoulders.

http://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanAtlas.html

In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan condemned to hold up the sky for eternity after the Titanomachy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_%28mythology%29

Moreover, the Greek Atlas was not an old man on his knees.

To my understanding, the Atlas Farnese marks exactly the beginning of this new iconography in art history of Atlas as an old man on his knees lifting a globe.

The figure of the ‘Atlas’ Farnese… bears individual characteristic traits which would rather fit the image of an old man who is known to run at times after a successful struggle with the secrets of nature stark naked through his hometown shouting “Eureka!” than to an archetypical Titan.

Evidence for a new interpretation of the Berlin Celestial Globe fragment SK1050A
Ulrich Kuehne (Berlin) – 1987

Click to access SK1050A_100.pdf

Modern Iconography
Wikipedia indicates experts have created an iconic cocktail of confusion.

A common misconception today is that Atlas was forced to hold the Earth on his shoulders, but Classical art shows Atlas holding the celestial spheres, not a globe; the solidity of the marble globe borne by the renowned Farnese Atlas may have aided the conflation, reinforced in the 16th century by the developing usage of atlas to describe a corpus of terrestrial maps.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_%28mythology%29

The celestial spheres, or celestial orbs, were the fundamental entities of the cosmological models developed by Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and others.

In these celestial models, the apparent motions of the fixed stars and planets are accounted for by treating them as embedded in rotating spheres made of an aetherial, transparent fifth element (quintessence), like jewels set in orbs.

Since it was believed that the fixed stars did not change their positions relative to one another, it was argued that they must be on the surface of a single starry sphere.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celestial_spheres

Last century the iconography revolved around Atlas carrying the heavens or the globe.

ATLAS, in Greek mythology, the “endurer,” a son of the Titan Iapetus and Clymene (or Asia), brother of Prometheus. Homer, in the Odyssey (i. 52) speaks of him as “one who knows the depths of the whole sea, and keeps the tall pillars which hold heaven and earth asunder.”

In works of art he is represented as carrying the heavens or the terrestrial globe.

The Farnese statue of Atlas in the Naples museum is well known.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica – Atlas
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Atlas

The iconography of Atlas carrying the globe originated in Rome early in the 1570s.

Atlas’ best-known cultural association is in cartography.

The first publisher to associate the Titan Atlas with a group of maps was the print-seller Antonio Lafreri, on the engraved title-page he applied to his ad hoc assemblages of maps, Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori (1572);

however, he did not use the word “atlas” in the title of his work,

an innovation of Gerardus Mercator, who dedicated his “atlas” specifically “to honour the Titan, Atlas, King of Mauretania, a learned philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer”; he actually depicted the astronomer king.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_%28mythology%29

https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b55005021p/f1.item.r=Tavole%20Moderne%20Di%20Geografia%20De%20La%20Maggior%20Parte%20Del%20Mondo.zoom

Antonio Lafreri, or Antoine Lafréry, also Antoine du Pérac Lafréry (Orgelet, 1512 ca. – Rome, 1577), was a French engraver, cartographer and publisher, active in Rome.

His most important work is the so-called Atlases of Lafreri, published in Rome in 1570, one of the first organic collection of printed maps, having on its frontespice the figure of Atlas holding the earth.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Lafreri

Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) was a 16th-century German-Flemish cartographer, geographer and cosmographer.

He was renowned for creating the 1569 world map based on a new projection which represented sailing courses of constant bearing (rhumb lines) as straight lines—an innovation that is still employed in nautical charts.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerardus_Mercator

The Discovery Site
The precise details of the Farnese Atlas discovery don’t appear to be in the public domain.

A century ago the public were led to believe it may once have been a fountain ornament.

Hall of the Atlas.
579 (6374). Statue of Atlas…
The statue may perhaps have been used to ornament a fountain.

Illustrated Guide to the National Museum in Naples – 1897
https://archive.org/stream/illustratedguide00museiala#page/55/mode/1up

Nowadays, it’s said the sculpture was “originally” located in the Library of the Forum of Trajan.

Farnese Atlas
Originally, the marble statue was probably in the Library of the Forum of Trajan in Rome and then, after being acquired by the Farnese family, came to the Museum in 1800.

National Archaeological Museum of Naples – The Hall of the Sundial
https://www.museoarcheologiconapoli.it/en/room-and-sections-of-the-exhibition/the-hall-of-the-sundial/

The figure of the ‘Atlas’ Farnese, which was according to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples originally placed in the library of the Trajan Forum in Rome…

Evidence for a new interpretation of the Berlin Celestial Globe fragment SK1050A
Ulrich Kuehne (Berlin) – 1987

Click to access SK1050A_100.pdf

The Bibliotheca Ulpia (“Ulpian Library”) was a Roman library founded by the Emperor Trajan in AD 114 in his forum, the Forum of Trajan, located in ancient Rome. was considered one of the most prominent and most famous libraries of antiquity…

The Ulpian Library continued in the tradition of Roman imperial libraries with Latin and Greek collections housed separately.

In this library, they faced one another across a small colonnaded courtyard that enclosed the Column of Trajan.

The library was a two level structure with high vaulted ceilings to take advantage of the natural lighting.

At the other end of the hall were recesses for a statue on each level, presumably of Trajan and possibly of Minerva.

Estimates on the amount of scrolls held are “approximately ten thousand” for both Latin and Greek libraries.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulpian_Library

The ground level of the Forum of Trajan was discovered 15 feet below street level.

The Palatine under the Villa Spada or Mills is said to be covered with ruins to the depth of nearly thirty feet.

In the Vicolo di S. Felice, between the Quirinal and Viminal, the pavement of the ancient street was found at a depth of nearly forty feet.

The base of the column of Phocas, in the Forum, is about twenty-five feet beneath the present level of the Campo Vaccino, and the Forum of Trajan about fifteen feet below the adjoining street.

Brocchi, the geologist, who made borings in a number of different places, says that the original surface of the soil is seldom less than fifteen feet below the present surface.

Rome and the Campagna – Robert Burn – 1876
https://archive.org/stream/gri_33125000521175#page/n103/mode/1up

See: https://malagabay.wordpress.com/2018/04/01/the-destruction-of-ancient-rome/

In the 20th century the Forum of Trajan yielded “architectural fragments”.

A major excavation of the forum was initiated by the facist regime of Benito Mussolini from 1928-1934, beginning with what was called the Markets of Trajan.

The east colonnade and hemicycle were subsequently cleared, producing a wealth of architectural fragments, which excited public interest and extended the excavation to the western half of the basilica and the west library, many of the gray granite shafts from the lower interior order of the basilica being re-erected then.

Rome – The Imperial Fora – The Forum of Trajan – Forum Square
Encyclopaedia Romana – James Grout

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/imperialfora/trajan/square.html

In the 19th century the Forum of Trajan [inaugurated 112 AD] yielded “heads of animals” that are stylistically very similar to those on display at the Baths of Diocletian [completed 305/6 AD].

These animals heads are remarkably crude when compared to the classical sophistication of the Farnese Atlas [or the Farnese Hercules].

https://archive.org/stream/cu31924028273997#page/n362/mode/1up

See: https://malagabay.wordpress.com/2018/08/24/s-for-sculpture/

The Library of the Forum of Trajan was [so we are told] located on either side of Trajan’s Column.

The Farnese Atlas Provenance
The Farnese Atlas and it’s provenance aren’t exactly in perfect condition.

The provenance includes it’s restoration and transfer to Naples in 1800.

Farnese Atlas
Originally, the marble statue was probably in the Library of the Forum of Trajan in Rome and then, after being acquired by the Farnese family, came to the Museum in 1800.

National Archaeological Museum of Naples – The Hall of the Sundial
https://www.museoarcheologiconapoli.it/en/room-and-sections-of-the-exhibition/the-hall-of-the-sundial/

The damaged Farnese Atlas was probably “restored” in Rome by Carlo Albacini.

Carlo Albacini restored the head, the arms and the legs of the statue.

National Archaeological Museum of Naples – The Hall of the Sundial
https://www.museoarcheologiconapoli.it/en/room-and-sections-of-the-exhibition/the-hall-of-the-sundial/

579 (6374). Statue of Atlas.
The face and right foot are restorations.

Illustrated Guide to the National Museum in Naples – 1897
https://archive.org/stream/illustratedguide00museiala#page/55/mode/1up

http://www.artnet.com/artists/carlo-albacini/

Carlo Albacini (1739? – after 1807) was an Italian sculptor and restorer of Ancient Roman sculpture.

He was a pupil of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, an eminent sculptor and restorer of Rome.

Albacini was notable for his copies after classical originals such as the Farnese Hercules; his version of the Castor and Pollux at the Prado is now in the Hermitage Museum) or the Capitoline Flora from Hadrian’s Villa, for the Grand Tourist market.

Like Cavaceppi, he also restored classical sculptures, notably the Farnese marbles, which Albacini worked on in 1786-89, in preparation for their transfer to Naples under the direction of the German painter Hackert and Domenico Venuti.

Some of his restorations were free, by modern standards: in the famous Farnese Aphrodite Kallipygos at Naples, the head, the exposed right breast, left arm and right leg below the knee are restorations by Albacini.

Not restored in Rome before shipment to Naples, however, were the Farnese paired Tyrannicides restored as Gladiators.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlo_Albacini

Its unclear why it wasn’t sent to Naples in 1787 along with “most of the Farnese Collection”.

The Farnese statue was moved to Naples in 1787 with most of the Farnese Collection and is now displayed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale there.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farnese_Hercules

Apparently, the Farnese family exhibited the Farnese Atlas in the Villa Farnese.

The name Farnese Atlas reflects its acquisition by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in the early 16th century, and its subsequent exhibition in the Villa Farnese.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farnese_Atlas

The Villa Farnese, also known as Villa Caprarola, is a mansion in the town of Caprarola in the province of Viterbo, Northern Lazio, Italy, approximately 50 kilometres north-west of Rome.

In 1504, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the future Pope Paul III, acquired the estate at Caprarola.

Subsequently, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a grandson of Pope Paul III, and a man who was known for promoting his family’s interests, planned to turn this partly constructed fortified edifice into a villa or country house.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_Farnese

The Farnese family acquired the Farnese Atlas “early” in the 16th century.

The name Farnese Atlas reflects its acquisition by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in the early 16th century, and its subsequent exhibition in the Villa Farnese.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farnese_Atlas

The acquisition is possibly linked [via Pope Paul III] to the excavation of Trajan’s Column in 1536.

Such extensive excavation and construction apparently threatened even the Column of Trajan.

Accordingly, in 1536, Pope Paul III undertook some preliminary clearing around the base of the monument.

Nine years later, the same pontiff completely isolated the column, demolishing the little Church of St. Nicholas which had adapted the adapted the Column as its campanile; the bell hung in the uppermost window of the internal spiral stair.

Thereafter, completely freed of accumulated debris, the Column stood at the center of a square pit.

In order to complete his project, Paul also took down a number of adjacent dwellings, creating a small piazza around the Column.

To the north, this square was bounded by the Church of the Madonna of Loreto and the Chapel of St. Bernard, separated by private residences; to the south, by the Monastery of the Holy Spirit: to the east and west, by private houses.

And finally, in April of 1546, in order to provide for the future safety of the Column, the Pope appointed as its custodian Vincenzo della Vetera, owner of one of the demolished residences.

The Forum of Trajan in Rome: A Study of the Monuments in Brief – 2001
James E. Packer

https://books.google.es/books?id=Tn7zf3ecm2wC&pg=PA11&lpg=PA7&focus=viewport&hl=es

However, this record of the excavation and the subsequent construction of “a small piazza around the Column” makes no reference to the Farnese Atlas.

Overall, the excavation records suggest it’s highly unlikely a modestly damaged Farnese Atlas could have emerged from the Forum of Trajan or close to Trajan’s Column.

Following Paul’s example, subsequent popes continued to maintain and embellish the Column and its immediate vicinity.

Pope Paul IV commissioned Michaelangelo to buttress the surrounding earth.

Designed with inset panels set off by rectangular pilasters, his retaining walls were repaired in 1569 and 1573.

Pope Gregory XIII enlarged the surrounding piazza with demolition of additional houses, and in May, 1588, his successor, Sixtus V, replaced the long-vanished statues of Trajan with a bronze St. Paul designed by Leonando Sorman and Tommaso della Porta.

The workmen discovered the feet of the ancient colossal statue of Trajan atop the Column and unearthed the head in fill not far from the based of the monument.

Unfortunately, after passing into the collection of Cardinal della Valle, the head disappeared.

The Forum of Trajan in Rome: A Study of the Monuments in Brief – 2001
James E. Packer

https://books.google.es/books?id=Tn7zf3ecm2wC&pg=PA11&lpg=PA7&focus=viewport&hl=es#v=onepage&q&f=false

Overall, the true origins of the extraordinary Farnese Atlas are unverifiable and [by definition] the extraordinary claims associated with this sculpture are without foundation.

Whether the extraordinary confluence of events in 16th century Rome are purely coincidental is – similarly – unknown.

All that is definitely known is that the Farnese family employed the “best sculptors” to [somehow] “restore fragments of antiquities as complete sculptures”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palazzo_Farnese

In the Palazzo Farnese the best sculptors worked under his eye, to restore fragments of antiquities as complete sculptures, with great scholarly care.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alessandro_Farnese_%28cardinal%29

In other words:

It’s very possible the Farnese family fabricated fabulous Roman relics that embodied their own stylistic and iconographic preferences.

Did the Farnese family operate a scam whereby contemporary sculptures [including spoilt and damaged specimens] were fraudulently recycled as revered Roman relics?

However, in this context, the mystery of Michelangelo’s “lost” Hercules and the narrative of the “excavated” Farnese Hercules makes for interesting reading.

See: https://malagabay.wordpress.com/2018/08/24/s-for-sculpture/

After all, during the Renaissance, the clergy purged improper “stylistic accretions” during a “remake” and “restore” operation that imposed their particular flavour of “classical” cultural ideals.

Renaissance Latin is a name given to the distinctive form of Latin style developed during the European Renaissance of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, particularly by the Renaissance humanism movement.

Ad fontes (“to the sources”) was the general cry of the humanists, and as such their Latin style sought to purge Latin of the medieval Latin vocabulary and stylistic accretions that it had acquired in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The humanist plan to remake Latin was largely successful, at least in education.

Schools taught the humanistic spellings, and encouraged the study of the texts selected by the humanists, to the large exclusion of later Latin literature.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance_Latin

Often led by members of the clergy, they were shocked by the accelerated dismantling of the vestiges of the classical world and the rapid loss of its literature.

They strove to preserve what they could and restore Latin to what it had been and introduced the practice of producing revised editions of the literary works that remained by comparing surviving manuscripts.

By no later than the 15th century they had replaced Medieval Latin with versions supported by the scholars of the rising universities, who attempted, by scholarship, to discover what the classical language had been.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin

See: https://malagabay.wordpress.com/2018/05/11/latin-languages-cognate-dissonance/

These Renaissance ideals sought to create “beauty for beauty’s sake.”

The Greeks were concerned with the development of man’s mind, and the fashioning of his soul; they were inclined toward speculation; they sought to create “beauty for beauty’s sake.”

The Roman System of Mathematics – Mary Lillian Copeland – 1938
https://archive.org/stream/romansystemofmat00cope#page/1/mode/1up

These Renaissance ideals were not “painfully utilitarian”.

The Romans whether nature or man was being considered were interested only in what would be useful in practical life.

Even literature and art were evaluated in terms of utility.

Life for the Romans was seriously, painfully utilitarian.

What was useful in Greece was beautiful, but what was beautiful in Italy had to he useful.

Knowledge for its own sake did not interest the Roman

The Roman System of Mathematics – Mary Lillian Copeland – 1938
https://archive.org/stream/romansystemofmat00cope#page/1/mode/1up

For these Renaissance men the Roman reality was just too hideous to contemplate.

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9 Responses to F for Fake

  1. Sheila says:

    Great article. Regarding the Farnese Hercules, you need to throw the “copy” from Vaux-le-Vicomte and Herculaneum into the mix to get the real story regarding it’s origins.

  2. The Roman attitude to utility suggests they might have been dealing with the wreckage from a catastrophe that destroyed the Greek culture and that Roman culture was actually post 930 AD? The romantic mindset obviously wasn’t Roman.

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  4. malagabay says:

    Thank you… Herculaneum is an eye opener – Tim

    Of the ancient treasures of the Theatre much is destroyed beyond recognition.

    Of the fifteen marble statues of the stage, of the bronze gilt equestrian statues of the cavea, of the superb bronze gilt chariots and horses over the entrances of the orchestra we have only broken portions, except for one magnificent bronze Horse found in fragments and skilfully pieced together.

    It can only be compared with the Bronze Horses of St. Mark’s at Venice.

    Buried Herculaneum – Ethel Ross Barker – 1908
    https://archive.org/stream/buriedherculaneu00barkuoft#page/43/mode/1up

  5. malagabay says:

    Roman culture was actually post 930 AD?
    That’s an interesting thought…

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