Rembrandt’s painting of the circumcision of Christ went missing sometime before 1756. Michelangelo’s bronze statue of David hasn’t been seen since its last-known owner lost his head in the French revolution. And countless other treasures have vanished. Who’s got them? Waldemar Januszczak investigates
Below the bed is a little putto with wings. That’s Cupid, also asleep, because a long, loving relationship is the last thing on the frantic satyr’s mind. All you Taylors out there, does any of this ring a bell? Do you know anything about the whereabouts of Palma Giovane’s lost masterpiece, Jupiter taking Antiope? When your ancestor bought it in 1824, the last recorded mention of it, it wasn’t listed as Palma’s Jupiter and Antiope. The Christie’s catalogue described it as ‘A Sleeping Nymph with a Cupid and Satyr’. But it showed Jupiter all right, disguised so that when he slipped into Antiope’s bed the satyrs would get the blame.
Jupiter was the Bill Clinton of the gods. To make his compulsive tupping easier to get away with, he made himself a master of disguise. He came down to Leda as a swan. To ravage Europa he turned into a bull. To have his wicked way with Callisto, he even turned into a woman, Diana the huntress – a rare glimpse in classical mythology of girl-on-girl lovemaking, painted, infamously, by Palma Giovane’s father, Palma Vecchio. And Jupiter also fancied Ganymede, kidnapping the young boy by disguising himself as an eagle.
At one point, Palma Giovane’s steamy lost masterpiece belonged to Sir William Hamilton, the husband of young Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s notorious mistress. While Nelson was cuckolding old Sir William, the chances are it was under the tutelage, as it were, of this Jupiter. Have any of the Taylors you know ever thrown caution to the winds and become involved in hasty sexual encounters? If so, what have they got on their walls? CARAVAGGIO ARRIVED in Malta in July 1607. He was on the run. He had murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni on May 26, 1606, in a fight in Rome that began over a game of tennis. His first stop was Naples. But he soon got into trouble there, too. Thus he fetched up in Malta, determined to join the strangely bellicose religious order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.
We know them today as the kindly ambulancemen who turn up at football matches. But their leader then, the grand master of the order, was Alof de Wignacourt, a portly Frenchman with an impressive beard. Caravaggio painted him twice. One of those portraits is now in the Louvre. The other has disappeared.
It’s easy to see why Caravaggio would have painted Alof de Wignacourt. He was trying to ingratiate himself with le grand fromage of this secretive order. Caravaggio’s enemies would have had trouble plucking him off the carefully guarded island. And there is something else, which the Knights of St John always deny. In baroque Italy they were notorious for their tolerance of, and interest in, homosexuality. This would have attracted Caravaggio, who painted some of the sexiest pouting rent boys in art.
In Malta, they made him a knight, gave him a gold chain and two slaves. But his stay ended in the usual way. He got into trouble and had to flee, escaping from the fortress at night in a daring plunge. Soon after, in Sicily, a schoolteacher accused him of taking an unhealthy interest in his pupils. Once more, Caravaggio fled.
Back to Naples. Another fight. Another flight. By July 1610 he was dead.The surviving portrait of Wignacourt shows him in military mode, standing in full armour, looking resolute. The lost one featured a more thoughtful Alof, seated in front of a crucifix, his finger on a breviary, with a skull dangling from his fingers. There is a copy of it in the Wignacourt Collegiate Museum in Malta. After Wignacourt’s death, the standing portrait was shipped back to France, where it was acquired by Louis XIV. The seated portrait probably remained in Malta until the arrival of Napoleon’s troops in 1798. They may have done what they usually did with other people’s art works: steal them. If so, it is hardly surprising that no Gallic descendant of a Napoleonic pillager has owned up to possessing Caravaggio’s lost portrait of Alof de Wignacourt. There are an awful lot of chateaux in France. SULEYMAN THE MAGNIFICENT was the Saddam Hussein of his time, a large Islamic thorn in the side of the West. As the ruler of the Ottoman empire, he was, diamond for diamond, ruby for ruby, pound for pound, the richest mortal on Earth. Yet his reign (1520 to 1566) was an outrageous display of in-yer-face Islamic expansionism. Up and down the eastern borders of Europe he battled, making his empire ever bigger.
The Great Turk, as they called him, had lots of things we wanted. Precious carpets. Intoxicating spices. Emeralds as large as ostrich eggs. But he couldn’t always be persuaded to trade them with us. So, once a decade or so, we went to war with him. In 1538, the republic of Venice joined the pope and the holy Roman emperor in an alliance against Suleyman. It was around this time that Titian, the greatest painter in Venice, produced three portraits of Suleyman. All of which are now lost.
Titian cannot have met Suleyman. The Great Turk would never have got out of Venice alive. But in those days, the absent and the dead made frequent appearances in Venetian portraiture. Titian seems to have based his likeness on a coin. The Suleyman portraits were commissioned simultaneously by a couple of Italian grandees: the Gonzagas of Mantua, and the Della Roveres of Urbino. Why did they want the portraits? For the same kinds of reasons, it seems, that kids today collect likenesses of footballers.
Suleyman may have been Venice’s mortal enemy, but he was also a celebrity of his times. The Della Roveres had gathered portraits of all the actors in the conflict – friend or foe – from the holy Roman emperor to the French king. They needed Suleyman to complete the set.
On June 20, 1539, their ambassador to Venice went to Titian’s house, and saw ‘a portrait of the Turk, which I consider to be very beautiful’. The family took possession of it soon after. It remained in their collection until the 1620s, when a typically Italian reversal of fortunes led to the mass selling-off of the family silver. Titian’s Suleyman disappeared. So did the Mantuan version, and a third, smaller likeness, produced by Titian as a prod to the Marquess of Pescara, who owed him three years’ back payment on a pension. What’s more, Titian painted Suleyman’s wife, Roxelana, a famous Russian beauty nicknamed ‘La Rossa’ (the redhead), whom Suleyman had originally bought as a slave. This too has gone.