Caravaggio's drawings and Daniela's Ninja Turtles theory.

Speaking of Caravaggio's drawings, one of our Facebook fans proposed an interesting theory, which she called the Ninja Turtles theory

Over the years, I have developed the Ninja Turtles theory. This is the nice conclusion of Daniela, a fan of our Facebook page, about the media hype achieved by those few big names in art history. We were discussing, of course, the hundred Caravaggio drawings that were allegedly discovered in the Peterzano Fund of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan by Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli. And Daniela rightly wondered: if Dan Brown had written the Foppa Codex, would he have sold any books? Or again, if these gentlemen had found unpublished, I’m just saying, drawings of Giovannino de’ Grassi, do you think anyone would have edited the news?

Unfortunately, the “mainstream” media almost seem to agree with Daniela: but I say “unfortunately” not because we disagree with her analysis (on the contrary ... far from it), but because art history only makes the news if there is a big name at stake and if this big name is associated with some revolutionary discovery. Remember the Ninja Turtles? It was a cute cartoon (based on an American comic book) that all of us in the generation that spent our childhoods in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw at least once in our lives. The cartoon-comic was about four turtle-mutants cared for by the rat Splinter, who taught them the techniques of ninja fighting and, most importantly, gave the little turtles the names of four Renaissance protagonists: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello.

There you have it, according to Daniela’s Ninja Turtles theory, art history would only appear in big media when the subject of the news is one of the artists associated with one of the turtles, joined by a very small roster of other artists of which Michelangelo Merisi, better known to most as the Caravaggio, became the main protagonist. There is something for everyone when it comes to turtles and their friends: everything and more has been said about Caravaggio, but do we want to make a mention of the MonaLisa1 ’s macabre bone hunt? Among other things, almost parallel to the no less grotesque alleged finding of Caravaggio’sbones2. And what about the baleful plan to build the facade of the basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence according to Michelangelo’s design3? And we could also talk at length about the Milan vacation of Donatello’s David, brought in 2009 to the Milan Trade Fair and sleazily used almost as a testimonial for "Italian qualities"4... and if we think it is smart to exhibit a work like Donatello’s David at a trade fair, one would have to wonder what these “Italian qualities” are.

Another demonstration in support of the Ninja Turtles theory could be provided by a couple of news items in recent months: the official presentation of the discovery of some of Palladio ’s drawings5 and the completion of restoration work on Giorgio Vasari’s Crucifixion of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence,6 events that occurred within days of each other between March and April of this year. But apart from a few brief blurbs here and there, almost none of the media that loudly spread the news of the discovery of the so-called hundred drawings of the young Caravaggio devoted space to Andrea Palladio and Giorgio Vasari. Are you kidding me? Who would waste time on Palladio and Vasari when there is rich fishing with Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Leonardo and company? Wouldn’t we be wasting ink or moving our fingers on the keyboard to write about Palladio and Vasari?

Yet the Ninja Turtle theory is harmful to everyone; there is really no one who benefits from it. It is harmful for those of us who read newspapers and websites and watch TV, because this whole circus makes art history appear not already as a serious discipline based on a method, but as a little game in which anyone can participate: just wake up one day and say that you have found a number of drawings about artist x (as long as, of course, he is famous and known to the general public!) and there will be a flock of journalists ready to give space to the “finding.” And as a result, the theory is also detrimental to the scholarly community, which in the eyes of the general public obviously loses credibility: if anyone can attribute drawings by making comparisons as if they were playing with stickers, what is the point of studying art history, and especially what is the role of scholars?

It is then harmful to our country as a whole because reducing art history to a media circus overshadows the real problems that plague our artistic heritage, first and foremost neglect and carelessness. And in my opinion, the theory is also harmful to potential discoverers, because the times when we become aware of the unfoundedness of sensational attributions (more and more often, and almost always when we are talking about big names such as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, etc., just to limit ourselves to Italian painters), the image damage is likely to outweigh the benefits derived from the quarter-hour of fame. Having established, then, that treating art history in these terms does NO ONE any good, would it not be a good time to talk about art seriously?


1. Cf. In Search of the Mona Lisa. Remains from two crypts found, Florentine Courier, May 12, 2011. Here is the link to the article.
2. Cf. Caravaggio’s remains found. Research conducted by the Alma Mater, Corriere di Bologna, June 16, 2012. Here is the link to the article.
3. Cf. A referendum for San Lorenzo. Redo the facade as Michelangelo wanted?, Repubblica, July 25, 2012. Here is the link to the article.
4. Cf. Donatello’s David at the Fiera Campionaria, Il Giornale, April 7, 2009. Here is the link to the article.
5. Palladio gives Oxford a lesson, La Domenica del Sole 24 Ore, April 8, 2012. Here is the online version of the article.
6. Vasari’s restored altarpiece shines at Carmine, La Nazione, April 20, 2012. Here is the link to the article.

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