All of these paintings, the originals in Tuscany, are also viewable down to the most granular detail, by the most strict parameters of verisimilitude, in an Italianate building of white granite and red terra cotta roof in the middle of Pittsburgh.

By Ed Simon 

The following is an excerpt from Ed Simon’s Relic released by Bloomsbury Academic as part of their Object Lessons series. 

“Genius,” as an exemplary quality, is but an invention of the human imagination, the same as “holiness,” but the former has a much more recent history than the later. If forced to identify a place of birth for the concept of genius, few places would be more apt than Florence during the fifteenth-century, when the painter, biographer, chronicler, and historian Giorgio Vasari could argue in his 1550 The Lives of the Great Painters, Sculptors, and Architects that “art owes its origin to Nature herself, that this beautiful creation the world supplied the first model, while the original teacher was that divine intelligence which has not only made us superior to the other animals, but like God Himself, if I may venture to say it.” Telling that the Renaissance, and its attendant humanism, not only saw the development of new artistic techniques, but arguably just as importantly developed the idea of the artist as a person, touched by divine gifts much as the saint was, and leaving behind their works as if they were relics, remnants and artifacts that mark the intersection of something transcendent with our profane world. Creation itself was a perseveration of such works from the Italian Renaissance, using color and shape, linear perspective and foreshortening to embody the divine mimesis of the inspired soul, the process of creation.

Simone Martini’s The Annunciation, its visual idiom drawn from Byzantine aesthetics and recalling the reasoning of the icon, a blazing field of gold behind the Virgin Mary in celestial blue, the Archangel Gabriel bewinged before her and the dove of the Holy Spirit resplendent above, the creation of the messiah’s incarnation. Original at the Galleri degli Uffizi in Florence, and made sometime between 1317 and 1347 for a cathedral altar in Sienna. Piero della Francesca’s The Resurrection of Christ, the muscular Lord in red robe, haloed and triumphantly holding a martial flag while leaning upon his propped leg and starring out from the Tuscan countryside, the creation of rebirth. Original composed in 1460 and now held by the Museo Civico in  Sansepolcro, Italy. The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli, a triumphant humanist and neo-pagan evocation of that goddess’ birth from the sea-foam, a luminescent vision rising from a clam shell and blown by Aurelian winds which tussle her thick, fair hair – the creation of beauty. Painted around 1480, and on display at the Uffizi. All of them attributable to the geniuses who created them; no longer anonymous liturgical objects like those beautiful paintings and sculptures, mosaics and murals, icons and reliquaries of the Middle Ages, but relics testifying to the genius of the named men who created them.

All of these paintings, the originals in Tuscany, are also viewable down to the most granular detail, by the most strict parameters of verisimilitude, in an Italianate building of white granite and red terra cotta roof in the middle of Pittsburgh. An unheralded collection, the Nicholas Lochoff Cloister of the Frick Fine Arts Building at the University of Pittsburgh is perhaps the single greatest assemblage of exacting replicas, of perfect reproductions, ever gathered anywhere. Certainly the greatest of Italian Renaissance copies. As Franklin Toker, University of Pittsburgh professor of art history, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003, “I cannot think of their equal anywhere in the world.”  These twenty-three reproductions of Renaissance masterworks – perfectly rendered and in the exact same dimensions of the originals – were created by the self-taught savant Nicholas Lochoff.  Initially a political radical exiled from Russia during the failed revolution of 1905, and a compatriot of Lenin while both lived in Switzerland, Lochoff studied and trained at being a perfect mimic of the great artists once celebrated by Vasari, with the dreams of recreating a collection of these most iconic works for a post-revolutionary Moscow Museum of Fine Arts.

Increasingly disillusioned with the Bolsheviks, Lochoff opted not to return to Russia after the Revolution, preferring to move to Italy where his talents were used in the restoration of original works, particularly those of the great painter Fra Angelico. Bernard Berenson, a collector and art historian who aided the university in their purchase, gathered Lochoff originals (or “originals”) from Italy after the Soviet Union rebuffed Rome who had offered the collection to them. He had claimed that such “faithful, such scrupulous recreation by one man of the genius-born achievements of other artists had, to our knowledge… never before happened in Europe at least. Down to the minutest speck of dirt which in the course of centuries had adherend to the picture, everything was there!” Now all of these paintings, primarily visited by art history classes, ring a handsome cloister at the center of their home, an archive of some of the most beautiful and important paintings of the Italian Renaissance behind a granite façade that looks out upon Schenley Park and Forbes Avenue, the low rumble of busses and food carts patroned by university students outside who are mostly unaware of the treasures hidden within. Endowed by Helen Clay Frick, the daughter of Gilded Age steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, and the museum was able to purchase this collection at her behest in 1959, eleven years after the artist’s death, for the price of $40,000.

Adjusted for inflation, and Frick’s purchase of the Lochoff paintings would be around $385,855, or a little bit more than the average price of a house in Pittsburgh, and substantially less than those of some the neighborhoods close to the museum. Meanwhile, the price of The Annunciation, The Resurrection of Christ, and of course, The Birth of Venus, along with nineteen other paintings in the cloisters, is incalculable. Such patrimony is, often times, not even insurable, part of the intangible treasury of humanity, and a testament to the artistic genius of those capable of creating such works. To look upon a Lochoff is to see the deep gold of the heavenly sky in Marini’s altar, the vermillion robes of Christ in the Francesca painting, the aquatic blue of Botticelli’s masterwork. As an artist, he was exacting, these replicas – painted by hand just as the originals were – appear identical to those which are exhibited in Tuscany. If there is any difference, it’s that their younger age makes them appear cleaner, fresher, more resplendent.

To look at Martini, Francesca, and Botticelli is to view a painting after the degradations of five centuries of entropy; to look at a Lochoff is as if to actually view those originals as if you were living in the Cinquecento. What then is the difference, why are the originals of incalculable worth but their perfect copies are valued at less than a third of a million dollars? Were the Uffizi to burn to the ground, we’d no doubt collectively feel a tremendous loss of our cultural inheritance, and yet the experience of seeing Christ arise from his tomb or Aphrodite carried upon gossamer waves would still be possible, at least in the Frick Fine Arts Building. The difference – obviously – is that the originals are relics of genius, of that incipient moment of creation. And the copies, no matter how glorious in their own regard, or impressive the accomplishment of he who rendered them, must remain merely second-runs. Does this mean that Lochoff’s immaculately executed replications are somehow not art? Any answer to a question as prosaic as that is merely an issue of philosophical discernment.

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine.