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One of Ancient Egypt’s Most Celebrated Paintings May Be a 19th-Century Fake

The “Meidum Geese”, painting on plaster, Egyptian Museum of Cairo, cm 172 x 27 circa, CG 1742 (foto © Sandro Vannini).
The “Meidum Geese” (detail), painting on plaster, Egyptian Museum of Cairo (photo © Sandro Vannini)

According to an Italian Egyptologist, one of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo’s most prized ancient paintings could be a 19th-century archeological forgery. “Meidum Geese,” discovered in 1871 and believed to be 4,500 years old, has anomalies in its colors, composition, and animal species that led Francesco Tiradritti of Kore University of Enna and director of the Italian archaeological mission in Egypt to suspect its authenticity.

The “Meidum Geese”, painting on plaster, Egyptian Museum of Cairo, cm 172 x 27 circa, CG 1742 (foto © Sandro Vannini).
The “Meidum Geese,” painting on plaster, Egyptian Museum of Cairo (photo © Sandro Vannini) (click to enlarge)

Tiradritti’s research was published this month in Il Giornale dell’Arte, the Italian sister to the Art Newspaper, and early information released to LiveScience was published on March 31. The “Meidum Geese,” a facsimile of which is on permanent view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are declared by some as the “Mona Lisa” of Egyptian painting due to their detail and beauty.

“I strongly believe in what I affirmed and I am very sad to have discovered that there are high possibilities that the ‘Meidum Geese’ are not original,” Tiradritti told Hyperallergic. “I was really in love with the painting and I published it as one of the most important masterpieces of the Egyptian art at least five times in my books and articles. I decided to take this step because I feel that Egyptology needs a radical revision before becoming a real science. It is highly possible that what I made I misunderstood. We work on the past to build our future. My hope is that younger generations of Egyptologists (especially Egyptian) can grasp the meaning of what I made.”

Portrait of Luigi Vassalli (foto © F. Tiradritti)
Portrait of Luigi Vassalli (photo © F. Tiradritti) (click to enlarge)

He added that he believes the most important thing now is to “reaffirm” the research through non-invasive examination of the painting. The plaster artifact shows three couples of geese amongst tufts of grass, and was supposedly found by Italian Egyptologist Luigi Vassalli, then a curator of the Museum Bulaq, in the Atet chapel at the Nefermaat funerary complex at Meidum. Tiradritti thinks it is highly likely that Vassalli is the real artist behind the geese.

In a document explaining his findings that he shared with Hyperallergic, Tiradritti writes that his initial doubts started with the birds, which are identified in part as white-fronted geese, bean-geese, and red-breasted geese. The bean and red-breasted geese, however, are unlikely to have been in 26th century BCE Egypt as they breed and live in Europe and Asia, rarely going south of Greece and Turkey. From there, he states, it was like “a castle of card collapsing.” Other points in his theory include the geese all being the same size which is  “a unique characteristic in Egyptian art but it is a common feature in modern art,” cracks that seem inconsistent with the description of its removal, and the paint colors being dissimilar from other fragments from the same archaeological site as well as others from that period. The blueish, grey background also indicated the geese were painted over an original cream shade that “is still visible on some areas of the painting.”

Additionally, he notes that Vassalli curiously didn’t mention the geese in his papers. Another fragment from the Atet chapel has two hieroglyphics he may also have painted of a basket and a vulture, which often stand for “G” and “A,” possibly the initials of his second wife Gigliati Angiola, although that’s the most unsteady of Tiradritti’s arguments.

Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, has denied Tiradritti’s theory in an article published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, stating that types of geese are indeed present at other other archaeological sites, and that the colors were not unusual. Alongside, Mahmoud Alhalwagi, the director of the Egyptian Museum, reportedly told the Mena news agency that through “the most modern know-how we will be able to determine the age” and that there would be a committee organized to examine the claims. Archaeological forgery is not unheard of from this period, sometimes coming from overzealous restoration, such as Raffaele Gargiulo’s reconstructions of Greek vases that were so good conversationists are just now undoing his work. Whether the “Meidum Geese” will be confirmed as authentic, a forgery, or something in between will take a closer look at those painted plaster feathers.

Hieroglyphic signs, painting on plaster, Egyptian Museumof Cairo, CG 1744, h. cm 27 circa (foto © F. Tiradritti)
Hieroglyphic signs painted on plaster, possibly indicating the initials of Luigi Vassalli’s wife, Egyptian Museum of Cairo (photo courtesy F. Tiradritti)
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