An Art History Mystery with No Shortage of Sleuths


“Is it a ‘5’ or a ‘6’?” a New York Times headline asked readers several days ago as the article detailed an art history dispute that is roiling the curatorial ranks. It was the kind of question that inspired the detectives among our readers. The story also sparked a debate among readers, akin to 2015’s viral blue dress or gold dress discussion, that highlighted how two people can look at the same image and see very different things.

This dispute revolves around a bronze statue titled “Bathing Venus” that is being presented as a newly discovered artwork by the venerated Italian sculptor Giambologna and exhibited in Florence, Italy.

But several experts argue the piece is actually a copy of another Giambologna statue, currently in the Getty in Los Angeles. They say “Bathing Venus” was made a century later by an obscure Swedish bronze maker. The debate turns, in part, on whether a number inscribed on the sculpture is read as a “5” or a “6,” making the year of the Venus’s creation 1597 — or 1697, long after Giambologna’s death, which would make it much less valuable.

More than 100 readers commented and dozens offered their own vision of what sort of evidence made a convincing case for their viewpoint, with some dipping into their knowledge of casting of metallurgy and of history.

Below is a selection of the readers’ reactions, some of which have been lightly edited, including two for whom the question was silly and the answer obvious.

“Definitely a 5.”
Karen Hutton, Brisbane, Australia

“The number definitely looks like a poorly cast 6.”
Issac Basonkavich, United States

In the art history debate, some experts who believe the number is a “6” say it might look like a “5” because it wasn’t fully closed because of an unintended casting fault. One reader had an explanation for why he thought this was unlikely.

“There is no way the 5 is actually a 6 with a “casting error.” That’s not how bronze casts fail, by filling in a volume in plane with the rest of the number’s surface. And this doesn’t simply pop out of the mold finished, there is an immense amount of work here after the cast itself where such an obvious thing would have been noticed. The artist finishing the work and chasing out the bronze would have had plenty of opportunity to correct it should it have been an error in the carving. It’s a 5.”
Aaron, New York

Over all, over half of readers argued it was a “6,” than a “5.” They pointed to the “5” contained elsewhere in the inscription in the date “November 25.”

The trouble is, that too proved inconclusive.

“I’ve seen dozens of ‘5’ written in that way (even in notarial deeds of the time). In addition, the ‘5’ is the same as the date written below (25 November). There is no possibility that that number is a ‘6’.”
Alfredo, Italy

“Complete nonexpert here. But I find it odd that the 5s in “25 November” and “1597” don’t match. The Gerhardt Meier business also raises a big question mark.”
— Girard, Louisiana

Along with the date, the statue carries the inscription, in Latin, ‘ME FECIT GERHARDT MEYER HOLMIAE,’ or ‘Gerhardt Meyer Made Me in Stockholm.’ For some readers that ended the discussion.

“I can’t believe there is any confusion or debate. The claim that Gerhardt Meyer, whose name is inscribed on the piece and who was a leading bronze founder active in Sweden at the end of the 17th century, was NOT the artist. Huh?”
— Matt Butters, Guelph, Canada

Among the comments, there were several from readers frustrated by the 5 or 6 debate because the art should speak for itself.

“Isn’t this exactly what is wrong with the “art world”? If it is a beautiful sculpture, isn’t that enough?”
— Ed, Miami


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