Praeneste Fibula Authentic?

Fíbula de Preneste, presumptament l'escrit en ...

Image by Sebastià Giralt via Flickr

I’ve been sitting on this one for a few days, hoping some English coverage might appear, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.  In the Italian press, however, there is much coverage of some non-invasive testing of the Praeneste Fibula (on which is inscribed our oldest example of Latin), and it is now being declared as “authentic”, in a vague and somewhat troublesome way (unless I’m losing something in translation, which is entirely possible).  Here’s the coverage from La Repubblica, which is typical of most of the coverage:

Vera o falsa? Il caso della Fibula Prenestina, esposta nel Museo Nazionale Etnografico ‘Luigi Pigorini’, è finalmente risolto. L’autenticità della preziosa spilla, datata al VII secolo a.C., e della sua iscrizione, ritenuta la più antica testimonianza della lingua latina, è stata confermata da indagini scientifiche condotte da Daniela Ferro dell’Istituto per lo studio dei materiali nanostrutturati (Ismn) del Consiglio nazionale delle ricerche e da Edilberto Formigli, restauratore e docente presso l’Università ‘La Sapienza’ di Roma e quella di Firenze.

La Fibula, trovata a Palestrina, l’antica Preneste, fin dalla sua presentazione ufficiale nel 1887 da parte dell’archeologo tedesco Wolfgang Helbig è stata oggetto di accesi dibattiti, in merito alla sua autenticità e al contesto di appartenenza.

I due specialisti, che da anni conducono analisi multidisciplinari sulla tecnologia orafa antica, presentano oggi, presso il Museo ‘Pigorini’, i risultati delle indagini micro-analitiche condotte nel laboratorio del Dipartimento di chimica dell’Università di Roma con il microscopio elettronico a scansione.

Il gioiello d’oro, lungo 10,7 cm. e datato attorno alla metà del VII secolo a. C, ha, sulla parte esterna della staffa, l’iscrizione Manios med fhefhaked Numasioi, in latino classico Manius me fecit Numerio ovvero ‘Manio mi fece per Numerio’, la più antica testimonianza della lingua latina che ci sia pervenuta.

“Lo studio di un reperto” spiega Daniela Ferro dell’Ismn-Cnr, “impone la scelta di metodi analitici non distruttivi e non invasivi. L’utilizzo della microscopia a scansione elettronica accoppiata alla microsonda elettronica per raggi X a dispersione di energia, consente osservazioni ad alta risoluzione della superficie e contemporaneamente permette di acquisire dati sulla composizione chimica in elementi. In particolare, la fibula è stata studiata con una strumentazione dotata di una camera porta campioni che permette di muovere ampiamente l’oggetto e di investigarne ogni parte, senza danneggiarlo”.

Le apparecchiature scientifiche hanno permesso di accertare metodologie e composizione della stessa età rispetto alla datazione attribuita alla spilla, nonostante tentativi di pulitura e abrasioni di secoli più recenti. Infatti, se per l’oro non sono stati ancora trovati metodi di datazione, oggi sappiamo che alcune tecniche orafe hanno raggiunto un alto grado tecnico solo con gli Etruschi ed i numerosi studi oggi esistenti ne tracciano le caratteristiche.

“E’ un manufatto di alta oreficeria, realizzato nella parte della staffa, con una lamina ad alto contenuto d’oro, materiale duttile per essere inciso con la punta a stilo” continua la ricercatrice. “L’iscrizione è stata realizzata nello stesso modo. Sono stati anche individuati le riparazioni effettuati anticamente come la presenza di una foglia d’oro per nascondere una piccola frattura, mentre l’uso di amalgama d’oro per rinforzare la parte mobile dell’ardiglione (ovvero il puntale ndr) potrebbe essere recente. E’ improbabile che un falsario operasse particolarità di lavorazione ed uso delle leghe auree in un periodo dove la conoscenza delle procedure dell’oreficeria etrusca non erano particolarmente conosciute in dettaglio in quanto avrebbero potuto essere rilevate se non con le più sofisticate strumentazioni tecnologiche”.

What I get out of all that is that the pin itself dates the period it is claimed to come from in that the gold matches (composition-wise and manufacture-wise) other fibulae from the same period. But that’s not really what the issue is with the Praeneste Fibula, is it? Its importance lies in the inscription — as previously-mentioned, the oldest Latin inscription — and none of this announcement (or the hype for the talk which seems to have given rise to it) seems to address this. Archaeology Magazine has an excellent  feature on assorted hoaxes and fakes, and the Praeneste fibula is among those mentioned. Here’s a salient excerpt (the Helbig mentioned is Wolfgang Helbig, a reputable archaeologist who announced the discovery of the fibula back in 1886):

But Helbig hadn’t told the Institute audience all he knew. He said a friend owned it, and that friend was Francesco Martinetti, a seller of antiquities, faker, and smuggler. And there were signs that something was wrong with Helbig’s tale. The fibula was later said to be from the Bernardini Tomb, which was excavated in 1876. That contradicted Helbig’s story, but he didn’t challenge it. The few who raised questions about the fibula, such as archaeologist Giovanni Pinza in 1905, were ignored. Helbig said it was genuine and if the exact circumstances of its discovery were murky, so what.

Though he was intellectually gifted, Helbig’s personality did not impress everybody. Archaeologist Otto Jahn had thought him lacking in self-discipline, and the great classicist Theodor Mommsen said he was “a lightheaded fly” and a “loafer.” In fact, things were worse, and the real story of Helbig and the Praeneste fibula is one about “the world of the salon, of the collector, of the rich and famous, of the dealer, of the masterpiece and the fraud” (Holloway 1994).

A comprehensive study by Margherita Guarducci in 1980 showed that suspicions about the fibula were well founded. In La cosiddetta Fibula Prenestina. Antiquari, eruditi e falsari nella Roman dell’ Ottocento, Guarducci, a University of Rome Greco-Latin epigraphist, pointed out that the inscription was rather poorly executed, compared to genuine ones, as though engraved by an amateur. She noted how, compared to ancient gold, which can be brittle, the fibula could bend quite easily. Chemical analysis showed that the gold was unlike specimens known to be from Palestrina. Finally, examination of the inscribed area showed that the surface had been treated with acid to look old. Guarducci knew of Helbig’s involvement with Martinetti, who could have made the fibula, basing it on real ones from Palestrina. But analysis shows the inscription matches Helbig’s handwriting.

… the whole piece is definitely worth reading. I have no reason to doubt that the recent testing suggests the fibula itself might be authentic, but we really do need some confirmation that the inscription comes from the same time as the pin. Until that can be confirmed (although I don’t know how), this seems to be an analogous situation to the James Ossuary; i.e., we have an object that is definitely ancient, which seems to have been recently altered to give it additional archaeological interest/value.

Here’s some more coverage from the Italian press:

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6 thoughts on “Praeneste Fibula Authentic?

  1. The problem is the object could be genuine but as for the inscription that is another matter this would not be the first time a real antique was retouch to increase it’s value fore example the Vinland map the information on it could be genuine but the map itself could be a much later copy that’s the problem with these items.

  2. As I understand the report, in addition to having refuted Guarducci’s chemical analysis (its chemical composition is consistent with other pieces of similar date), what seems more to your point is they found no evidence of it having been treated with acid or anything else suspicious — which surely would have been picked up by electronic scanning — but rather only traces of “more recent” cleaning and abrasion (i.e. overcleaning) which, if I am not reading too much into it, is not limited to the area of the inscription. So, unless there is something seriously wrong with their methodology, it does look as if the case is closed.

    • That’s what I wasn’t clear about … I’m not sure whether the ‘cleaning’ is an answer to the ‘acidification’ Guarducci claims. It would have been nice if they said something specific about the isncription — perhaps they did and it just didn’t make it into the press?

      • Elisabetta Mangani è stata la promotrice dell’iniziativa attivando le nuove ricerche. A lei si devono i ringraziamenti per il suo grande attivismo e la grande volontà di fare chiarezza sull’autenticità della fibula.

        Elizabeth Mangan was the promoter of the initiative by enabling new research. To her we owe our thanks for his activism and the great desire to clarify the authenticity of the fibula.

        L’articolo seguente è stato predisposto per la diffusione alla stampa estera.

        The following article was prepared for dissemination to the foreign press.

        Dr.ssa Patrizia Mari
        Communication & Press Officer
        European Project RIME (Culture Programme)
        Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico “L. Pigorini”
        Piazzale Marconi, 14 – 00144 Roma
        Tel. +39 (0) 6 54952269
        Mobile (phone) +39 3381534743
        e-mail: patrizia.mari@beniculturali.it
        ————————————————————-

        The fibula praenestina is authentic!

        Last Monday, June 6th, an important event took place in the Pigorini Museum of Rome: Daniela Ferro* and Edilberto Formigli** presented the results of their analyses of the famous “Fibula Praenestina” with the right-to-left inscription “manios med vhevhaked numasioi” incised on the catch-plate. The two researchers deemed the object authentic thus making its inscription the most ancient Latin document (mid seventh century BC) presently known.
        In 1979 Margherita Guarducci, the famous scholar of Greek epigraphy, claimed at the Accademia dei Lincei that the fibula – and consequently the inscription – were false. A heated debate ensued that divided supporters and deniers of the authenticity of the object and, in particular, of the inscription. While the authenticity of the jewel was demonstrated by Formigli in his article in Römische Mitteilungen 1992, doubts about the inscription continued to this day.

        With the help of the Electronic Scanning Microscope (SEM) of the Laboratory of Department of Chemistry, University of Rome “Sapienza”, Daniela Ferro and Edilberto Formigli sought to resolve the many questions raised by the object. New analyses determined that the various parts of the fibula were made with different alloys. Evidence showed that the object had undergone a series of operations at the end of nineteenth century: heavy chemical attacks, light regular grooves caused by polishing, coupled with the presence of a red substance, residuals of jewelers rouge polishing compound. During the examination of a subtle fracture in the foot of the fibula, the two specialists discovered an ancient repair with a thin golden sheet, not seen till now. Concerning the inscription, they concluded that the instrument used was a “stylus point” or “dry point” and suggested probable causes for the mistakes and corrections in the letters of the verb “vhevhaked.”

        A highly qualified audience of archeologists, linguistics, technicians, scholars and students attended the presentation. Two of them, one who had defended of the falseness of the inscription, the other doubtful about it, both thanked the two technicians for their demonstration, because it had finally “convinced” them! Admirable behavior of modesty and intelligence!

        *Daniela Ferro, a chemist specialized in the physical chemistry of materials, has studied for a long time the thermodynamic and chemical-physical processes involved in the transformation of materials, especially ancient gold. She cooperates with universities and institutions on numerous international projects.

        **Edilberto Formigli is renowned internationally as a restorer and scholar on ancient bronze statues and golden jewelry; he is the author of many scientific papers on ancient metallurgy, a teacher at the University “la Sapienza” and responsible for international research. (Text revised by David Loepp).

        Dr.ssa Elisabetta Mangani
        Sezione Preistoria
        Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico “L. Pigorini”
        Piazzale Marconi, 14 – 00144 Roma
        Tel. +39 (0) 6 54952237
        elisabetta.mangani@beniculturali.it

        http://www.pigorini.beniculturali.it

  3. I was in Rome this week and asked the curator of a major Etruscan collection about this. He had attended the press meeting and said that the inscription was proven genuine (crystallization above the letters which could not have been forged; certainly not a century or so ago). Obviously, we await the full scientific report but, as of now, it looks good (and Guarducci wrong).

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