Quotes, plagiarism or data lists? The case of Sgarbi's articles

A reflection on some of the articles written by Sgarbi triggered by the post in which Fabrizio Federici suspects that certain passages may not be by him.

A few days ago, our friend Fabrizio Federici, an expert art historian and author of numerous essays and scholarly articles on the seventeenth century, a signature of Artribune, as well as administrator of the successful Facebook page"Mo(n)stre," raised the case of Vittorio Sgarbi ’s article on Cola dell’Amatrice, published in the online version of Il Giornale, which allegedly made use of excerpts from the entry “Cola dell’Amatrice” in the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani compiled by Roberto Cannatà in 1997. Indeed, the similarities, as Fabrizio Federici has shown, are numerous, and the main evidence that this may not be a fluke can be found in a typo in Cannatà’s entry (“San Lorenzo Sito” instead of “San Lorenzo Siro”) that was not properly amended by Sgarbi.

Already in the past, the always excellent Francesco Erbani of Repubblica had found that an essay by Sgarbi on Botticelli referred a little too faithfully to a writing by Mina Bacci more than forty years earlier. But the Cola dell’Amatrice article and the essay on Botticelli are hardly the only instances in which Sgarbi seems to have “borrowed” phrases from previously written articles. To realize this, it is enough to analyze some of Sgarbi’s pieces published in Il Giornale itself in recent weeks. One can start with an article from last August 21, dedicated to the figure of Francesco Furini. After a brief introduction, Sgarbi lists some biographical events of the Florentine painter: the problem is that these cues seem to be taken, with a degree of fidelity to the original that is indeed rather high, from Settemuse.it, a site that deals with art and culture (the page on the artist appears to have been last updated on August 19: this is evident from the information released by the browser), and from the entry on Francesco Furini of the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, written (again) by Roberto Cannatà in 1998. I reproduce the excerpts below (the images can be enlarged by clicking on the preview: I thought it appropriate to highlight similar parts in blue to facilitate the reader).

Sgarbi, articolo su Francesco Furini - voce su Francesco Furini del Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani

The second is an article on Morazzone dated July 31, 2016: after a brief caption, Sgarbi offers a comparison between Morazzone’s “aesthetic conception” and the “spiritual” conception of St. Teresa of Ávila. The passage in which Sgarbi lists the texts of St. Teresa appears to be traced from the passage on the same topic found in the <a href=’https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_d’Ávila’ target=’_blank’> Wikipedia entry</a> devoted to the saint. Other passages apparently taken from the <a href=’http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/mazzucchelli-pier-francesco-detto-il-morazzone_(Dictionary-Biographical)/’ target=’_blank’>voice on Morazzone</a> compiled in 2008 by Antonello Serafini for the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani follow. We propose two images related to both situations (in the second one we report only some of the “suspicious” phrases, but the reader can easily verify by connecting simultaneously to the site of <em>Il Giornale</em> and that of the Encyclopedia Treccani).

Sgarbi, articolo sul Morazzone - voce su santa Teresa d'Ávila di Wikipedia Sgarbi, articolo sul Morazzone - voce sul Morazzone del Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani

Finally, it is worth mentioning a further article, dated June 19, dedicated to Jacopo da Valenza, a painter whose artistic choices were determined, according to Sgarbi, by Antonello da Messina. In summarizing the salient stages of Antonello’s career, Sgarbi seems to resort once again to the Biographical Dictionary, but to an entry that is anything but recent: it is the one on Antonello da Messina written by Fiorella Sricchia Santoro as far back as 1987. In the last nine years the historiographical debate on Antonello da Messina has been going on, and the entry (as well as Sgarbi’s article) does not take into account the discussions that have developed, for example, around the dating of the PalermoAnnunciata and the London Crucifixion: however, it is also necessary to point out that, despite the similarities between the two texts, Sgarbi’s article also reports some updates not present in Fiorella Sricchia Santoro’s entry (for example, the assignment of the PiacenzaEcce Homo to the artist’s Venetian period).

Sgarbi, articolo su Jacopo da Valenza - voce su Antonello da Messina del Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani

In light of the undeniable similarities between all the above texts, a reflection should be conducted. In a recent book of his entitled How to Write an Essay, Professor Marco Santambrogio, professor of Philosophy of Language at the University of Parma, expresses himself on the subject in the following terms: quoting is one thing, copying without saying it is another. The former is permissible, the latter is plagiarism-a serious impropriety. Omitting quotation marks from a quotation is plagiarism. So is quoting a passage from others with little modification leading the reader to believe it is your own handiwork. In the above articles, there is no shadow of quotation marks that would allow the reader to assume that the passages under consideration could be taken from other sources. Since, therefore, the passages are entirely similar, except for a few brief expressions quoted with some minor modifications, it would have been legitimate to expect the appropriate cross-references to the sources: it is a matter of fairness, ethics and, of course, also of elegance.

On what topics, therefore, is a possible defense based? In the discussion that, on Facebook, has been generated by Fabrizio Federici’s remarks, Vittorio Sgarbi himself has intervened, entrusting the reply to his press secretary. In essence, Sgarbi opposes a distinction between “original ideas” and “external elements,” that is, chronological and toponymic news useful to identify the “existence” of a work “as with an inventory, a certificate of existence, an identity card.” So, it would seem that for Sgarbi it is legitimate to quote others’ passages, even without citing their provenance and without making the reader aware that these are, precisely, quotations, if the purpose is to report objective data: In order not to copy, should we not write when Cola dell’Amatrice was born? Try reading a biography of Raphael. And try to rewrite it: these are not personal meditations. [...] I have not taken up any of my friend Cannatà’s original thoughts; I have only reported external, chronological and toponymic elements, all the more necessary to know and to remember at a time like this when those works are threatened, and it is right and useful to identify their existence, as for an inventory, a certificate of existence, an identity card. That such arguments lack the vigor to make them incontrovertible could be demonstrated by a couple of considerations. The first: it is true that certain elements are objective. It is an established fact that Dante Alighieri was born in 1265, and it is not possible to change his “identity card” just to write something original. But even an article intended to report exclusively objective data would still be the result of work, often of considerable bulk, resulting from the personal choices of an author, who will carefully select the vocabulary, expressions, grammatical forms, syntax and order of exposition through which to make the data in his possession usable. Thus, it is not just a matter of “writing when Cola dell’Amatrice was born”: an article about an artist does not just report his or her date of birth. An article reports a range of information that arises from research, for which an order has been established and importance weighed (the importance of a datum within a text can be greater or lesser according to what the datum represents regarding the general topic of the article or essay), and which is presented in a certain form: if the data are, to use Sgarbi’s expression, “inevitable and inescapable,” the same cannot be said of the way in which they are displayed. Just because an author has collected data and has taken the trouble to assess its importance and to choose the order and form in which to display it, this does not mean that one can quote his or her excerpts to the comma (or at most make a few changes) without the appropriate cross-references and without letting the reader know that we are in the presence of a quotation.

The second consideration: chronological and toponymic elements are also often the result of conjecture, and this happens where documentary evidence is lacking. This is the case with Antonello da Messina: since there are no documents that can testify that the San Girolamo in the study was made in 1474 or 1475, or that certify in an unimpeachable way his presence in Milan in 1476, any evidence in support of a dating or of the artist’s presence in a city can only come from stylistic comparisons often accrued from the ideas of an art historian who, inevitably, takes a position within a debate. Of course: no one pretends that in an article intended for a newspaper with a large circulation one should give an account of all the positions of every single scholar who has sided in favor of or against a certain dating for theAnnunciata in Palermo or the Crucifixion in London, but if one decides to refer to a passage by a scholar in which certain information is contained that is the result, precisely, of conjecture, one cannot refrain from citing the references. To the general public this may seem like insider trivia but, we repeat, it is a matter of loyalty to the reader: the authorship of a piece of writing must never be questioned. Even the staunchest opponents of intellectual property do not go so far as to deny the moral authorship due to an author, and in that case it may be useful to quote an excerpt from what is to all intents and purposes the manifesto of the Anti-Copyright Public Domain, that is, “a project for the realization of an anarchic anti-copyright and anti-licensing public domain, thus against intellectual property and based on the voluntary Renunciation of Copyrights.” Regarding the aspect of authorship (moral right), proponents of the PDA, believe that it is an inherent feature of the work as a free expression of the author and therefore conceptually inexpressible but, at the same time, commercially irrelevant once (patrimonial) copyrights have been waived. At that point, authorship of the work, generating no privilege and having no legal value, assumes just relevance only for the purpose of equal dignity in the context of free and mutual exchange between individuals in a community, and its recognition is natural, conventional and certainly not subject to a logic of "legal defense."

I conclude by leaving it to the reader to consider the above texts (considerations that can then be refined and deepened by clicking on the links to articles and probable sources): it will be up to him to decide whether it is possible to call Sgarbi a goat, to use an effective epithet for which he himself claims authorship, and in any case which has now become his unmistakable trademark, or whether it is indeed possible to gloss over the name of the author of a quoted passage just because it reports objective data.


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