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Professor Pieter Broucke hit a lot of dead ends before zeroing in on the painter of the museum's prized Judith with the Head of Holofernes.

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Middlebury Scholar Unravels an Art-Historical Detective Story

May 4, 2016

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. -- Hanging in the Middlebury College Museum of Art, Judith with the Head of Holofernes depicts a story popular among Renaissance painters: The young widow of Judea enters the tent of an invading Assyrian general bent on conquering and destroying her home. She wins his trust, he admires her beauty, and she, in time, takes his head.

There’s another story lurking behind the lush 16th-century oil painting at the museum — one that deals not with mythology, but with the mysteries of art, acquisition, and attribution. Decades after the College acquired this painting, armed with an image on an iPad and a sense of infectious curiosity, Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Director of the Arts Pieter Broucke set out to unravel that tale.

That story — an “art-historical detective” tale — was the topic of Broucke’s April 29 lecture, the last in this year’s series of “Off the Wall” informal discussions on art. Broucke, noted the museum’s chief curator Emmie Donadio in her introduction, is “unstoppable when he has a goal in mind.”

Broucke’s goal: to find out the true origins of the painting Middlebury College acquired in 1968 from a Park Avenue dealer. At the time, the painting came with a straightforward attribution to Hans von Aachen (1552-1615) a German Mannerist painter.

And yet, as the years passed, scholars began to doubt that attribution. “It just didn’t work,” said Broucke. Teaching the painting in an introductory art history class, Broucke and his students began discussing some of the anomalies. Why was it that a painting supposedly crafted by a German Mannerist recalled elements popularized by Michelangelo? The color scheme recalled not Northern Europe, but rather the High Renaissance, and stylistic details just didn’t add up.

Broucke is quick to point out he does not specialize in Renaissance art. But he does travel widely. And so Broucke uploaded a picture of the painting to his iPad, and began asking questions of the experts he encountered in his travels. A consensus emerged: the painting was almost certainly not Northern European, but rather Northern Italian. Look in Parma, Bologna, Milan, he heard. 

He found himself closer still when, in 2014, he spotted a painting at auction at Christie’s in New York that, while clearly not by the same maker of Middlebury’s Judith, recalled the same mood. He soon began investigating the School of Bologna, both a movement and a school founded by the Carracci brothers in 1582. Broucke began checking and crosschecking Middlebury’s Judith against the works of painters closely — and even remotely — associated with the school.

Nothing clicked.

“I felt I was close, but I just couldn’t bring the project home,” said Broucke.

That’s when, last year, Broucke ran into the noted Italian art dealer Fabrizio Moretti. Broucke whipped out his iPad, showed Moretti Middlebury’s painting, and received this clue in return: “Samacchini,” Moretti told him. “You have to look at Samacchini.”

Broucke jotted down the name phonetically; he didn’t know the artist. Samacchini was, it turned out, Orazio Samacchini (1532-1577), an Italian painter active in Rome (where he overlapped with Michelangelo), Parma, and his native city — Bologna. Suddenly the clues began to fall into place.

Broucke then applied what’s known as the Morellian Method, a process of systematic “diagnosis” that looks at the small, easily overlooked details of paintings to make or confirm attributions. In Samacchini’s work, painting after painting, Broucke found remarkably similar details to ones in Middlebury’s Judith. The painting likely dates to the early 1570s — the period just before Samacchini’s untimely death.

“We’ve traced a story that started in Middlebury and then took me and [director of the college’s art museum] Richard Saunders to New York, Belgium, Holland, Bologna,” said Broucke; the tale took them back to the works of 16th-century Italian painters and into the modern world of art dealers, auction houses, arts fairs, museum professionals and scholars — and served as a reminder that a piece of art, even one that is centuries old, is still ripe for new research and understanding.

“Museums are not repositories of objects,” said Broucke. “They’re really also active laboratories for conducting research.”

By Kathryn Flagg ’08; Photo by Robert Keren

10 Comments

Pieter, thanks for telling us this story!

by John R. Schmitt (not verified)

Nice article

by Eric Flagg (not verified)

Bravo - great story and result!

by Lilly Dawson (not verified)

Fascinating detective work! And dogged determination!

by Priscilla Smart Weck (not verified)

Terrific work - congratulations! I wonder if the painting was acquired by the late A. Richard Turner (note his initials), superb scholar of Italian Renaissance art, Middlebury College fine arts professor and administrator, and later president of Grinnell College. One of his favorite assignments was to have his students sleuth out clues regarding the origin (school, locale, influences, possible artist) of "mystery" works. He would be so delighted by this! It seems almost inconceivable to me that he wouldn't have had some suspicions and theories about this painting!

by James Rugen ’74 (not verified)

Well done! I checked the auction record, and just last year there was a sale of a Judith with the Head of Holofernes by von Aachen, which is very different in style from this, though other of the artist's works bore enough stylistic resemblance that I could see some basis for the attribution by the gallery that sold the painting. And, it looks like works by Samacchini may be more valuable, as well.

by JP Cass (not verified)

Great work. Congrats to all, especially Professor Brouke. JP Cass seems to think a Samacchini may be more valuable than a Van Aachen. Any idea what the value might be? by Peter Allen '66

by Peter Allen '66 (not verified)

Interesting research. I have a family painting that I haven't finished the research on (Peabody Essex library is closed).

by Elizabeth Goeke '60 (not verified)

Dear James, thank you for your comments. I believe that it was indeed Prof. Richard Turner who acquired the painting for Middlebury--a real coup. As a specialist in Italian Renaissance art, he may well have been taken first and foremost by the quality of the work. The painting was acquired as by Hans Von Aachen, an accomplished German Mannerist artist. That attribution was probably based on the attribution of a very good 17th-century copy of the Middlebury painting that is now at the Musée Ingres in Montauban, France. The Montauban copy was independently attributed to Von Aachen on the basis of an autographed drawing now in Dresden. While that drawing has the same subject matter (which was fairly common) and a somewhat similar composition (though her right arm is not raised), I believe that any superficial similarities between the Dresden Von Aachen drawing and the Montauban and Middlebury paintings may well be due to a common antecedent: a popular print by Parmigianino, the drawing of which is now at the British Museum.

by Pieter Broucke (not verified)

Absolutely right. A wonderful painting by Samacchini. Congratulations. MD

by Michele Danieli (not verified)

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