Analysis of the historical validity concerning the alledged ‘Feminis portraits’

Dr. Karl Kempkes

Verification and analysis of the historical validity concerning the alledged ‘Feminis portraits’

The original painting does not portray Paolo Feminis, but rather Monsieur Dinocheau, a member of the family who founded the Church of Saint Roch in the Rue Saint Honoré, Paris. In the following analysis, the alleged original portrait will minutely  be compared to the three copies that were made of it and all the evidence will amount to proving it a fake.

Introductory remark:
In the following,

the portrait hanging in the vestry of the     the portrait hanging  in the oratorium of church Santa Maria Maggiore is referreD Crana, which is dated 1833, as P3, and
zo as P1

the portrait hanging in the school of the         the portrait in the school in
town Crana,( the former town hall), as P2,         Santa Maria Maggiore as P4.

Santa Maria Maggiore, Valle Vigezzo, Verbania, Italy

The existence of several copies of the alleged original portrait of Feminins ( hanging in the vestry of the parish church of Santa Maria Maggiore) facilitates its historical appreciation  considerably. A comparison of the individual portraits immediately prompts closer examination of the obvious compositional differences. It isn’t so much the person portrayed who is at the centre of this analysis, but rather the added inscriptions and the new motifs. The latter elements are the ones which when studying the paintings invariably stand out, thus attracting our attention to the lower part of the composition. At the centre of the focus are the table on the one hand and the angled pillar in the corner of room in the background on the other.

Taking these four factors into consideration, the following conclusions can be drawn upon comparison of the individual portraits:

  1. When contemplating the paintings, it is striking to see  that the featuring inscription all differ from one another. Only P2 has a harmonious composition, contrary to P1 where the inscription plainly appears to have been added and P3 where there is no apparent coherence in the canvas.
  2. The rectangular shaped table surface in P1 fills up the entire foreground, whereas this surface has in P3 barely been represented.
  3. An examination of the religious motifs shows that two entirely different scenes have been represented in P1 and P3. P1 features the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and P3 shows Saint Susan kneeling.
  4. In P1 and P3, the background has been represented in a similar fashion, only, in P3 there is a pillar in the corner of  the room which seems to blend in perfectly with the representation of Saint Susan.

These four discrepancies, which, stand out when scanning the painting on a purely superficial level, will be the starting point for the analysis in the following sections.

Ad 1. The inscriptions on the portraits

a) The comparison of the inscriptions:
If one assumes that the portraits and inscriptions where a unity completed at the same time, that P1 is the original portrait, and the others mere copies, then one has to provide a reason for why the inscriptions appearing on the individual portraits so strongly differs from one another. An explanation for this can easily be given in P2, as the composition isn’t unbalanced, even though it has undergone quite some change. How, though, should the dilettante and artificial way in which the portrait’s inscription has been painted in, be explained? Judging from the overall composition of P3, P1 served as the immediate original for this copy. If, however, the inscriptions now featuring on the painting P1 (believed to be the original according to the date 1833) had already existed at the time the copy was made, then it is impossible to explain why the copyist, who meticulously reproduced the subject of the portrait, introduced such entirely different inscriptions. The thought that the copyist didn’t attach any importance to the inscription and that the text may have only been added later, is absolutely implausible, and would, in addition,  disrupt the entire above-mentioned unity of the portrait and the portrait’s inscription. The fact that the inscriptions present in P1 and P3 so very much diverge from one another make it impossible to assume that the two portraits are a chronological  unit. This assumption was therefore wrong.
An analysis of the content of these inscriptions leads to similar conclusions.

b) The different inscriptions

To enable a better comparison of the differences which occur in the texts,  the most important terms have been singled out and ordered into the following table:

B1 B2 B3
Paolo Gio Palo Gio Paolo
Femminis Feminis Feminis
da Crana di Crana di Crana
mercante mercante mercante
e fabbricatore distillatore distillre
d’acqua d’acqua d’aqua
mirabile ammirabile ammirabile
in Colonia in Colonia in Colonia
benfattore prinle prile
principale benefattore benre
della Vda chiesa della chiesa dell chiesa
parrocchiale parrocchiale pa
di Sta Maria di Sta Maria di Sta M
Maggiore Maggiore Mag
del Vdo oratorio e del proprio del oratorio
dell oratorio
e casa comunale e casa del comune a casa comona
di Crana di Crana di Crana 1833

Noteworthy first of all, is the way in which the name „Feminis“ has been spelt in B1 where it takes a double „m“ . During Feminis‘ lifetime, his name was written with a single „m“ in official documents, private correspondence and other records. Moreover, Feminis himself signed  his name with one „m“ when signing to the donation he made to the benefit of the school in Santa Maria Maggiore. Had this inscription indeed been added during his lifetime, and with his knowledge, then both he and the author of the inscription would certainly have attached particular importance to the correct spelling of his name.  In the 19th century, more examples of the spelling with double „m“ can be found. In a contract between family members, which Jean Marie Farina of Paris signed with his father and brothers on September 9th, 1818, the name Feminis (spelt with a  double „m“) appears twice. Moreover, in keeping with P1‘s inscription, „Paolo“ is written and not „Gio Paolo“,. The double „m“ spelling can also be found on a plaque that was mounted in the Rosary chapel of the parish church in Santa Maria Maggiore in 1846 in memory of the very same Jean Marie Farina. A fourth example is provided by the inscription on the (according to legend) birthplace of Feminis. There seems to be a certain local and temporary unity when it comes to this spelling! Furthermore, when comparing the portraits‘ inscriptions, it is particularly interesting to note that P3 reveals to be as an imitation of P2 and not P1. The elements of proof are the following words: Gio Paolo, Feminis, distillatore, ammirabile. In addition to this, the different syntactical construction of the sentence can be noted: the inversion of principale and befattore. Whether P2 is an imitation of P3 or vice versa is here not as crucial as the fact that discrepancies also turn up between them, which make the chronological unity of the portrait and the inscription hard to believe. Moreover, both the style of the letters and the overall composition of the inscription in P2 suggest a later date than the portrait itself does.

c) The textual content of the portraits‘

In addition to these external characteristics of the various inscriptions we can now consider the content of all three inscriptions.

P1 as well as P2 and P3 refer to Feminis’ donation to the parish church, the Oratorio and the parish town hall. Feminis is referred to as „benefattore principale“ of the church in Santa Maria Maggiore. This claim, however, does not reflect the truth, as has also been stated elsewhere (see: „Feminis’s Wealth“—cf. p. 136). When Feminis was alive, his financial situation would have been known in Santa Maria Maggiore, making it perfectly impossible for such a thing to be written. The same goes for the donation to the Oratorio and parish hall in Crana.
Something else seems to go against the inscriptions themselves: in all three there seems to be a disturbing insistence concerning the donations which Feminis is supposed to have made. In contrast, the inscription featuring on the painting hanging in the school of Santa Maria Maggiore is much more discreet. It reads: « Gio Paolo Feminis, benefattore della scuola di Santa Maria Maggiore ».

In short, this examination shows that it is by no means possible to assert that the inscriptions which are to be found on the portraits are really contemporary to Feminis. These documents would previously have to be documented which would be in vain.

When comparing P1 and P3, it is plain to see that the two artists did not both have quite the same talent. However, even though the artist of P3 wasn’t quite as gifted as that of P1, the former composition is, as a whole, much more harmonious. P1 conveys a certain contradiction which in return stresses how artificial the representation of the “Assumption of the Virgen Mary” appears – likely to have been added at a later date.

Ad 2. The foreground in P1 and P3

A rectangular slab quite conspicuously fills up the entire foreground in P1. Whereas in P3, the portrait has meticulously been copied, the foreground has however not. The table is scarcely  apparent, which is more agreeable for the whole composition.
From this results the discrepancy that P3‘s copyist rendered the foreground more artistically than in the original, P1, while on the other hand, the same copyist treated the inscription in such a negligent manner This blatant discrepancy again shows an inconsistency and needs an explanation.

The copyist, as can be seen in the rendering of the person portrayed, did not possess the  refined technique which the painter of P1 did, this fact thus makes it hard to understand how it could then have been possible for him to improve the whole composition on the one hand and to make a mess of the inscriptions on the other. The explanation is that the original portrait used happened to look different. In other words: P1 cannot, with it’s current composition, be the „original portrait

This assumption inevitably requires a more accurate examination of this so-called „original.“
Just as a critical consideration of the portraits‘ inscriptions makes it impossible for the text in P1 to be contemporary to the portrait itself, a comparison of the foreground in P1 and in P3 suggests that the table slab, along with the inscription in P1 cannot be „original either.“

When looking at  a good picture of the so-called original painting (it isn’t even necessary to look at the painting itself) one can clearly see fine cracks in the varnish that cover the portrait. These cracks are however nowhere to be seen on the table or the inscriptions.

The edge of the right sleeve of the robe quite noticeably emerges from the area of cracked varnish, and it is precisely this small black triangle which completely and adequately suggests that the bottom part of this painting has been redesigned.
At this point, the question still remains whether we’re just dealing with a restoration or whether we’re dealing with a remodelling, similar to Lothar Malskat‘s „restoration“ of the „gothic Truthahn-Friezes“ in the Schleswiger Cathedral.


This problem can be solved thanks to the original painting hanging in Santa Maria Maggiore.

On a surface level, it can be noted that the lower half of the canvas has been re-stretched, and in so doing, the span of the canvas has been enlarged. It appears that the added part is approximately the size of the missing part in P3. Prior to this enlargement, the portrait’s inscription, which extends to the bottom-most edge of the present painting, cannot have been existent. When, however, was this enlargement carried out?
As shown above, the unnatural and clumsy addition of the inscriptions betrays the fact that there could not have been any in the painting used as example for P3.
Likewise, a comparison of the texts demonstrated that the text in P3 alludes to P2 and not to P1.
Taking all this into consideration, we can now approach the composition of the foreground and the respective table slab in such a way as to argue that the enlargement of P1 could only occurred after the completion of P3.
The period of time in which P3 was completed also remains to be determined, and this is, in part, due to the fact that the inscription referring to the year 1833 can no longer be trusted.
Under the given circumstances, the inscription can no longer be considered as being  contemporary to the painting, as it appears to have been added at a later moment in time.
In addition to these surface-level, easily detected peculiarities in B1, the exact line of the painting’s lower extension can be seen in the „original.“

This extension was not directly drawn onto the canvas, but rather on paper, which was then pasted to the bottom part of the canvas. The upper edge can be seen on the X-ray photograph.

An X-ray of this portion of the canvas shows that P1 had the same foreground composition as B3 (excluding the inscription)  now has.
The rounded off  table slab as well as the cover of the book, upon which the portrayed person has placed his right hand, can clearly be identified. This explicitly proves that the inscription in P1, that is, the „original portrait“, cannot be acknowledged as contemporary to the portrait itself, but rather has to be attributed to a later period of  time, and indeed a time after the completion of the copy P3. Due to this, the inscription therefore can’t be regarded as a „historical document.

Ad 3. The background in the paintings

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary .

The background in P1 depicts the „heavenly vision“ of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a portrayal that was in all likelihood strongly inspired by the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which can be seen in the centre of the apse in the parish church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Both these representations being of a similar style, lead us to believe that the canvas was very probably painted by G. Borgnis, the same artist who was hired for the inside of the church.
The conclusion is obvious to those judging the Feminis portrait who take it for granted that the painting along with the inscriptions portrait’s inscription Feminis in the role of the principal benefactor of this church.

However, as soon as one believes the inscriptions not to be from the same time, such a assumption is hard to follow.

It’s quite difficult, given the large number of representations of the Assumption scene, to pin point the painting used as a model for the depiction of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in P1.  Many of these paintings share some elements of composition, and one has to bear in mind that Borgnis himself  heavily based many of his other works on originals from Venice, Bologna or Rome.
However, if one accepts the idea that the church of Santa Maria Maggiore was used as the example for the background in the painting, then, it couldn’t have been completed before 1743, as the church was decorated that very year. What’s more, it still hasn’t been clarified whether Borgnis copied his own work here or if another copyist painted the representation.
On comparing both representations, one notices that the faces of the characters in P1 were rendered in a less detailed way than the ones in church.

A  fundamental difference is the representation of the neckline of Mary’s dress, which  neither corresponds to Borgnis’s style nor to his time and suggests an earlier period.
The parallel is to be found in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. It is in the rosary chapel which Jean Marie Farina, the Parisian, donated 4000 Lira to, for decoration purposes (between 1840 and 1846), thus making him the patron of the chapel.

a) Kneeling Saint Susan

Rather surprising, is the fact that P3, allegedly a copy of P1, doesn’t reproduce the motif of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the back-ground, or any other motif for the matter which could relate to the donations Feminis is supposed to have made. Instead of that, the background of P3 represents Saint Suzanne on her knees, imploring God for help. How come the same motif wasn’t reproduced? Was nobody concerned about this in Crana? One could imagine that the copyist may have judged the ‚Assumption of the Virgin Mary‘ a too hard a challenge to reproduce and  purposefully decided to pick any other scene to fill in the background with. Even if it were possible to support this theory, the explanation as to the choice of this precise scene would remain unsolved. It would, without a doubt have been possible to find a more appropriate scene in Santa Maria Maggiore or in the direct surrounding area. When studying the centre upper part of the background in P3, one can undoubtedly make out a cloud. Was the Assumption here too to represented?
It thus appears to be of importance to analyse the surroundings of the represented motif. When contemplating both P1 and P3, it is striking to see that a wall corner appears in both. This detail can’t be ignored and must be considered in the analysis.

Ad.4 The wall corner in the background

When contemplating P1, the vertical wall corner appears to be a disturbing element. The represented Assumption and the dark shadow thrown by the wall appear quite incongruous. None of G. Borgnis‘ previous works have such a break it their composition. Why has this wall corner found it‘s way into this painting? It is in keeping with the character‘s serious and threatening stare , however it clashes with the representation of the Assumption. Is this wall simply part of the background in which the character was painted, or is it a clear reference to the church he is supposed to have sponsored? Regardless of the angle under which it is analysed, this corner can, by no means, be seen as an asset, and the cloud at the top of the picture simply appears clumsy. There is nothing artistic in either of these. In the P3 even though the cloud looks slightly out of place, the wall isn’t in the least disturbing. The stern expression on the character’s face and the sharp corner casting it’s dark shadow onto Suzanne looking up to the heavens doesn’t shock in any way and appears  harmonious.
When comparing P1 and P3, it appears that the artist of P3 wasn’t quite as talented as the artist of P1. However, P3 appears to be more balanced that P1. The composition of P1 thus reveals a slight contradiction. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary appears some what artificial and is likely to have been a later addition.
If both the background and the inscriptions are later additions to the painting, one is tempted to question the authenticity of the character depicted, along with the painting’s source.
So as to understand the link between this painting and the Feminis Eau de Cologne, it is not necessary to know the precise history of this painting.
It is enough to know that the inscriptions which appear on P1 have been added at a later date, the verifications having been performed by X-ray.
The alterations are visible at first glance.  The lower part of the painting doesn’t show any cracks since the changes occurred a century later.

This compact scientific analysis leads to the following conclusions:

1) The painting which was long though to be that of Feminis, turns out to plainly to be a fake.
2) There is no existing evidence that the character in P1 depicts  Feminis.
3) It’s a mistake to think that Giuseppe Borgnis is the artist of this painting.
4) The modifications were added in the 19th century.
5) Where do the pictures of Feminis come from?

It is thus blatant that these painting are false ones. Neither the character, nor the artist, nor even the elements of the background are reliable elements.

As for the origins of these paintings, it is possible to say that they were related to Feminis from the time the inscriptions were added. These are much more recent than the paintings themselves and this can be seen by the cracks which appear in the upper part (the older part).
Last but not least, the letters which appear on the painting are anachronical. This, once again, points to a certain incompatibility
When one considers all the facts and the period of time they took place in, there seems to only be one person who could possibly be responsible for all this: Jean Marie Farina from Paris.

When one pays a visit to the parisian Farina, one discovers several important pieces of information as to the understanding of P3. This is where we find an explanation as to the represented motif of Saint Susan which initially appeared quite incongruous with the rest of the painting.

In the street where Jean Marie Farina resided, rue Saint Honoré, there is a church, Saint Roch, which is of particular interest to us.

In 1521, the tradesman Jean Dinocheau had a chapel built on the outskirts of Paris, which he dedicated to Saint Susanna. In 1577, his nephew Etienne Dinocheau had it extended into a larger church and chose Saint Roch to be the saint patron. In 1629, it became the parish church and it thereafter underwent further work between 1653 and 1740. The church is organised as a series of chapels in succession. One of them is dedicated to Saint Susanna in memory of the church which used to stand in its place. In accordance, there is a mural painting above the alter, showing Saint Susanna fleeing her aggressors, and looking up to the heavens, beckoning God to help her.

Saint-Roch church, Paris

During the French Revolution, the church was at the heart of the action. In the same street, a cloister was used for meetings held by revolutionary groups such as the Feuillants or the Jacobeans. A number of shootings took place in the church proximity which accounts for the bullet wholes in the walls still visible today.
After the revolution, most of the damaged was seen to. The inside of the church was also restored, including Susanne’s chapel. The artist Norblin is the one who first drafted and then painted the canvas dedicated to Saint Susanne. This piece of art measures 3.20 meters in width  on 3.65 meters height and is exposed in the exact same place as the original.

When contemplating this painting, which happens to be an exact copy of the original, it is interesting to note the wall which can be seen to the left of the painting. It is without a doubt the corner which appears in P3. This would therefore account for the wall present in both P1 and P3.

Saint Roch, Paris

P3 The wall angle and the representation of Saint Susanne

The church Saint Roch was without a doubt restored after the agitated period of the Revolution and that P1 was used as a model for P3 which was to replace the original canvas in the chapel dedicated to Saint Susanne. These paintings were however never used and it was the Parisian Jean Marie Farina who got a hold of them. He had them restored so as to suite his fancy, having inscriptions added to them and that’s how a painting featuring Monsieur Dinocheau, the church’s founder and benefactor,  was used to give Feminis a face.

Two paintings weren’t however sufficient for the Parisian Farina to launch a proper advertisement campaign. For this reason, he had the painting remade without, however, any apparent motif. Only the inscriptions were inserted to this painting which happens to be no other than P2. As to P1 and P3, they were exposed it Feminis‘ alleged country of origin.

Advertisment published by Jean Maria Farina, Paris,  in 1818, featuring the alleged portrait of Feminis, taken from P2.


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