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Newly Discovered Sketchbooks of Publius Scipio to End Long-Standing Mystery

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Sketchbooks claimed to be those of Renaissance painter Scipio have been sent for authentication by experts at the Louvre

An Oil Painting of Hannibal Barca

Publius Cornelius Scipio II was born during 1530-31 to a Roman father believed to have fought in the Italian War of 1521-26. He spent his youth apprenticed in the workshop of Hannibal Barca and died under mysterious circumstances at some point in 1583. For several centuries, his work languished in obscurity but he is now most famous for a series of lovingly crafted portraits of his former master.

Art historian Grace Smythe, whose slick detective work led to the rediscovery of what may be the lost sketchbooks of Publius Scipio, described finding the drawings as “the most phenomenal feeling, just life-changing”.

Smythe had a chance to examine the diaries before sending them off to experts in France and described similarities in style to Scipio’s masterpieces, in addition to further sketches of Barca and Barca’s works. Some, she said, were incredibly intimate—even graphic—and could provide new evidence to historians theorising on the relationship between Scipio and Barca.

Little is known for sure of Scipio’s apprenticeship with Barca, except that it likely began when he was 10-11 years of age and lasted several years longer than the norm. It is believed that Scipio quickly graduated to painting and is responsible for much of the landscape backgrounds of Barca’s work during the early 1540s.

Scipio would have been trained to work in his master’s style, as was typical of apprenticeship in the Renaissance, and his success was such that much of Hannibal Barca’s work was falsely accredited to the more famous Scipio until 1969 which led to thought, for a brief period, that Scipio’s Barca collection was in fact a series of self-portraits by the artist himself.

At some point in 1546, Scipio completed his apprenticeship and left Barca’s workshop. The next few years are muddy, though Smythe hopes that the period leading up to Scipio’s first known masterpiece—a landscape entitled Sunrise at Le Vene del Tevere, which was completed in 1551—might be made clearer by the contents of the sketchbooks.

Speculation about the nature of Scipio’s relationship with Barca has been rife since the early 20th Century. The four portrait series is attributed to a period between 1558-1564, but Smythe believes their renewed association likely began at least a decade earlier and may not have ended until the year of their deaths (Hannibal Barca is thought to have died around 1583-5).

The sketches of Barca, she explained, were numerous in number and spanned several decades, including several that appear to have been drawn before Barca lost an eye to infection in 1549 and others depicting Barca as an elderly man.

The sketchbooks are expected to arrive at the Louvre tomorrow and authenticity—which Smythe believes is a given—should be announced by the end of next month.