In this column, we explore the wonders of Europe - artistic masterpieces and jewels of cultural heritage. These are the treasures which fill us with a sense of Europe's complex past - how beliefs and identities have intertwined to create the continent and the nations whose borders are often so hard to define. This time, Ziemowit Jóźwik investigates the power of the hoax.

Image: PD
Zeuxis' painting of grapes was so realistic that birds tried to peck the fruit; Parrhasius went one step further by painting a curtain which succeeded in fooling Zeuxis. (This image is a 19th century print; unfortunately, the masterworks of the two Greek artists have not survived.)

There were just two great painters in Athens at the time of Aristotle: Parrhasius and Zeuxis. Nevertheless, that venerable polis seemed too small for the two, so they organised a duel to decide who was a better artist. If we believe Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, Zeuxis depicted some grapes so accurately that even the birds were deceived and tried to taste the fruit. Unfortunately for him, while Zeuxis "deceived the birds, Parrhasius deceived Zeuxis," by portraying a curtain which the fooled artist asked to pull aside. Parrhasius won. But perhaps he also proved some truth about the nature of art and human cognition. Do we really like to be tricked? Or why is it that we tend to succumb to hoaxes and mystifications so often and so easily?

Willing suspension of disbelief

There's definitely something tricky going on. What has always excited Europeans more than mere truth are those deceptive stories where lack of genuineness is complemented by some seductive magic whose beauty could transcend the plain, well-defined and recognised categories of our lives. Why? To the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, this was "a willing suspension of disbelief." According to the father of the British Romanticism, people looking at art sometimes suspend their rational scepticism or "lethargy of customs" and instead follow their "poetic faith."

People looking at art sometimes suspend their rational scepticism and instead follow their "poetic faith."

Such "poetic faith" leads us to believe in hoaxes and mystifications. Both words are already meaningful in themselves. The Greek mystikós carries implications of secrets, mysteries and mysticism. Hoax, as Coleridge's older friend philologist Robert Nares suggested, comes from "hocus" - a basic word for magicians, witches and sorcerers all across Europe. Indeed, he could be right. There's some similarity between magic incantations and these works of art that shimmer on the border between truth and falsehood.

the age of discoveries

Coleridge's epoch was especially subject to, so to speak, suspended disbelief. However much the rationalist period of the Enlightenment seemed to claim that to the pure reason there simply cannot be any mysteries, soon it turned out that the human intellect had once again overrated its capabilities. In 1761, the Scottish poet James Macpherson intrigued the Isles with his "discovery" of - as he claimed - an ancient and forgotten Gaelic epic written by a legendary bard named Ossian.

Photo: PD
Ossian's Hall was built in the 18th century in Scotland; visitors could look around the place where the Scottish poet was supposed to have composed his epic. One of the guides even dressed in a costume made from animal skins.

Despite the fact that its authenticity was questioned from the moment it was published, the collection of poems became very popular not only in Britain. It was soon translated into many European languages and inspired various artists including German Sturm und Drang writers such as Goethe and Herder, and Polish as well as Italian romantics. In Hungary there was even an Ossian cult which resulted in countless adaptations and translations, beginning with János Arany's slightly prophetic "Homer and Ossian". In France, it became a basis for an opera. What is more, even such seemingly pragmatic people as Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson or Edmund Burke succumbed to the charms of these sentimental Gaelic musings.

"For us truth has a sanctity of law"

The case of Ossian was followed by another high-profile hoax: the Manuscripts of Dvůr Králové and Zelená Hora. In the early 19th century, Czech writers Václav Hanka and Josef Linda claimed to have discovered these medieval texts, when in fact they had forged them. And in fact Hanka and Linda achieved their aim, as the poems did serve as an inspiration for the Czech national revival - despite the fact that historians quickly noticed that all those ancient Slavic epics were actually not so ancient, they did draw attention to the Czech national heritage.

Photo: IRHT (CC-SA)
A page from the Manuscript of Dvůr Králové, which was forged by Václav Hanka and Josef Linda.

One reason was that thanks to forgotten characters like the warlike Záboj, Slavoj and other noble heroes of the manuscripts who lived out their noble lives in the idyllic ancient Slavic lands, the Czechs found their national heroes. Hence, increasing their virtues during marvellous adventures was not the only duty of these heroes. What those great men really did was build the Czech identity.

Furthermore, Hanka and Linda's "invention" also influenced the activists of the Ukrainian national awakening, who perceived the manuscripts not only as evidence of Ukraine's long, mythological past but as the best way to prove the literary and translational capacity of the emerging modern Ukrainian language.

Consequently, the two manuscripts became a bible for all the many strands of the Pan-slavist movement, from the Pan-Slav congress members who gathered in Prague in the eve of the Spring of Nations in 1848, to the Brotherhood of the Saints Cyril and Methodius, who dreamed about creating a democratic Slavic Federation in Kyiv, or even the Russian panslavist who saw the Czech manuscript as a nice example of Czech adaptation of Eastern Slavic myths.

Finally, it should not come as a surprise that the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák based a few of his works on the manuscripts, embedding the idyllic roses, larks and berries of the pan-Slavic hoax motherland.

Antonín Dvořák's Skřívánek ('The Lark'), based on a poem from the forged Czech manuscripts.

Mozart is still alive

Dvořák is proof that music is not immune to mystifications. One of the most interesting musical hoaxes goes back to the tragic period of the Second World War. In a Dresden library destroyed by allied bombings, the Italian musicologist Remo Giazotti claimed to have found a fragment of a lost baroque Tomaso Alibnoni's Adagio G. The short and damaged manuscript apparently covered only a part of violin bassline and a few beginning notes was then thoroughly examined by Giazotti, who was also a biographer of Albinoni. As a result the ambitious musicologist decided to follow Albinoni's style and complete the composition - but no proof for the existence of the fragment has ever been found.

Another story we owe to the Casadesus brothers. The Casadesus family was one of the famous, musically skilled "dynasties" of France. The mentioned brothers, Henri and Marius, lived at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries. Henri was a pianist, while Marius played the violin. They would probably not have left any significant notes in the history of music, if they hadn't enriched the repertoires of Mozart, Handel and Bach's sons by creating new compositions that they ascribed to to the great masters of the past.

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Albinoni's Adagio in G, as "completed" by Giazotti.

Can Göring and Adenauer have anything in common?

Unsurprisingly, in the visual arts it has not been any different. Even the faultless Michelangelo assigned his first works to the ancient masters. One of the most well-known example of mystification in art is the serie of false Vermeer paintings created by the 20th century Dutch artist Han van Meegeren. His pictures were such perfect imitations that even the experts claimed that they were exceptional originals. What is more, even after his falsification was proven (and punished), some of the  owners of fake Vermeers still believe that their pictures are real creations of the Dutch master. Even van Meegeren's own confession of forgery, which allowed him to avoid the death penalty for collaboration with Nazi Germany soon after the WWII (because one of the van Meegeren's buyers was Hermann Göring) hasn't destroyed their hope.

Image: PD
The Laughing Cavalier, by Frans Hals, one of the paintings forged by van Magereen. (The whereabouts of the forged version are unknown.)

WWII also gave a dubious chance to Lothar Malskat. Then a young and ambitious painter and art restorer, he was asked to renovate the frescoes in the gothically monumental cathedral of Marienkirche in Lübeck, a symbol of the past hanseatic glory of the city. Malskat accepted the offer and got to work. The re-opening of the Cathedral with the restored medieval frescoes in 1951 was a big and symbolic event for the post-war Federal Republic of Germany. It was attended by one of the forefathers of the European Union, chancellor Konrad Adenauer, along with other important figures, and the frescoes were depicted on no less than two million postage stamps to commemorate the celebration. What a surprise it must have been for the general public the next year when Malskat confessed that he created, rather than renovating, the frescoes. As a result, he was soon arrested. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from falsifying Marc Chagall's and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings later in life.

"I am not such a fool as I look, quoth Plato to his disciples"

In one of his dialogues entitled "Ion", Plato considers the nature of poetry or art in general. Do we really look for the truth in art, and is art really able to convey the truth? The Greek philosopher's answer is rather negative. It seems that art even of the highest level of expression, like the rhapsode of Ion, and despite the excitement and admiration it can arouse among people, has no valuable content to provide beyond strong emotions. On the other hand, can't we really get to know something - at least about ourselves - by looking at these examples of hoaxes? Isn't it thrilling how important they could be in nation-building processes in Europe or how strongly Europeans have held onto them despite the facts? I'd say that in some ways these hoaxes and mystifications are not false at all but rather thoroughly true. Anyway, wasn't Plato himself putting his own words in Socrates' mouth when he created one of the most crucial and fundamental European works - his famous dialogues?

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