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Thursday, November 09, 2006

How St Francis was restored to Grace

Lost Masterpiece Goes on Display,
No Not the Vermeer !!

Guercino's religious masterpiece has been stolen, lost for decades - and torn in two. As it goes on show here,at the Foundling Museum in London, Serena Davies charts its astonishing history.

Today is Sir Denis Mahon's 96th birthday. The eminent art historian, collector and erstwhile thorn in the sides of various British governments will celebrate it with the opening of the fifth exhibition he has overseen this year.

It's a small display focusing on a magnificent painting, St Francis Receiving the Stigmata by his favourite artist, Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino.

Displayed at the Foundling Museum in London alongside related drawings, the painting has spent the past six years in restoration. When the team from the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro di Roma bade it farewell earlier this year, they apparently wept.

And it is hard not to be moved by the painting's story, even without intimate acquaintance with its fissured surface and weathered canvas.

"It's had a lot of adventures, unfortunately," says Mahon, a world expert on baroque painting and Guercino in particular, whose collection of the period is one of the finest outside Italy.

Since the painting was stolen from its niche above an altar near Bologna during the Napoleonic wars, it has been twice lost, and twice recovered – taking, as Mahon tells it, "a tremendous battering along the way". Not least, being ripped in half.

The first 150 years of its existence were uneventful. The wall-eyed Guercino (his nickname means "squinter") painted it in the middle of his career, in 1633.

With its serene composition, St Francis's outstretched arms echo the curve of the landscape behind him. It is a fine example of Guercino's mature style, when the artist went for greater robustness rather than the atmospherics of his youth.

By then an international art star, he would be described by the senior Bolognese master Ludovico Carracci as "relegating painters of the first rank to dullness", while both Louis XIII and Charles I clamoured for his services. However, the artist would never leave his native country.

The painting, on the other hand, would become positively peripatetic. It first disappeared at some point between 1796 and 1825 during the chaos of the French invasion of Italy.

It was missing for nearly a century, before inexplicably falling into the hands of a Turin antique-shop owner, who sent it on the back of a donkey to the church of his hometown, Campello Monti, in the region of Piedmont in 1895.

It hung there until 1973, when thieves hack-sawed their way in one night, un-nailed the canvas and returned it to uncharted oblivion for another 25 years.

In 1998, Swiss police found a stash of stolen art in a private house near the Italian border – and there was the Guercino, its vast canvas severed in two, and folded. Its value is uncertain, but the last Guercino to be sold fetched £3 million.

"It was an important picture," says Mahon. "It had to be sorted out after all this performance. It's very important to have done one's best to resuscitate it and make it successful."

The restorers have patched up the damage with breathtaking skill, using a fine cross-hatching so that from afar the painted surface looks unharmed, but up close you can see the restoration work.

"Most people will look at it and see a complete painting," says Rhian Harris, director of the Foundling Museum. "But up close you can still tell which sections were painted by the master."

Mahon's selection of the Foundling Museum as the place for the painting's British display represents a new campaign, of a kind.

For years he has hounded a succession of British governments on the matter of museum charges and other issues of public access to the arts, using as bargaining power the promised gift of his 75-piece art collection to the nation.

But his paintings are all now allotted to museums, the national galleries of England, Scotland and Ireland included, shored up by legalities that mean that the institutions will lose the works if they sell any painting from their permanent collections or introduce museum charges.

"It's all turning out rather successful in the end, if I may say so," he says wryly. So now, in his 10th decade, he is free to take up the cause of the small museum.

"As a great philanthropist," says Rhian Harris, "Sir Denis has supported a lot of the big museums, in terms of donating parts of his collection. Now he has a mission to help the profiles of the smaller museums."

Mahon's is the long view. He first discovered Guercino for himself in the 1930s. At that time, Guercino, and the Italian seicento (17th century) generally, were out of critical and commercial favour. Mahon's advocacy of the period was vital in overturning that opinion.

The seicento was rehabilitated and prices sky-rocketed to the degree that, despite having the considerable wealth of the Guinness Mahon banking clan behind him, by the late '60s he felt he could no longer afford to collect the work of the period.

Since then he has discovered rather than collected art – "seeing through the muck" he calls it. He is regularly called in to confirm the authorship of Caravaggios.

And St Francis – now owned by the Diocese of Novara in Piedmont – is merely the latest in a long line of Guercino attributions.

Fond of the understatement, he reckons he's made "a large number" of these. More than 100 have turned up during his lifetime. "They crop up and you attach them to an entry, and so on. It's really rather diverting." Could one even say "thrilling"? "Yes, it is really," the old scholar concedes.
# 'Guercino: St Francis Recovered' is at the Foundling Museum, London WC1 (020 7841 3600), from tomorrow until Jan 28.

Lost masterpieces

The Adoration of the Shepherds with Saints Lawrence and Francis (1609) by Caravaggio

This tender altarpiece for a church in Palermo was stolen in 1969, probably for the Mafia. Some believe it hangs in the home of a local capofamiglia.

The Concert (1660) by Vermeer

A handful of masterpieces, including this Vermeer, went missing when thieves posing as security guards raided the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.

Auvers-sur-Oise (c1879) by C├ęzanne

Preventing this expert theft from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, performed by a robber who lowered himself through a skylight, proved mission impossible.

Buste de femme (1938) by Picasso

The art-pirates who lifted this bust of Dora Maar from the yacht of an Arab millionaire in 1999 knew what they were doing: a Picasso portrait of Maar is the fourth most expensive painting ever sold.

Francis Bacon (1951) by Lucian Freud

The British Council and Freud have tried in vain to get this postcard-sized portrait of his old friend back. But "wanted" posters in the city where it was snatched, Berlin, have failed to bring home the Bacon.

Reclining Figure (1969) by Henry Moore

Controversy surrounds the disappearance of this huge sculpture from parkland at the end of last year. How could thieves store or sell such an item? It may have been melted down for scrap. Or cut into more managable pieces to ransom back through Insurers at a later stage.

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