8 – A SURPRISE IN ESZTERGOM

Unconvinced by Waldman’s refutation, I decided to go to Esztergom and see the fresco with my own eyes. I wrote to Zsuzsanna Wierdl. She quickly replied, and we met at the castle in April 2013.

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Zsuzsanna Wierdl standing in front of the Cardinal Virtues fresco in the castle of Esztergom.

Perched on a hill overlooking a meander of the River Danube, the archiepiscopal castle of Esztergom now hosts the historical museum of the city. However, Zsuzsanna leads me into an area closed to the public. At the outlet of a corridor, we enter a large, windowless, dark room. As my eyes get accustomed to the lack of light, I see it is filled with scaffoldings, step ladders, and shelves cluttered with cans, buckets, and all sorts of brushes, scalpels, and scrapers. Zsuzsanna lights up a row of spotlights pointed at one of the walls. The Cardinal Virtues fresco appears, partly concealed by tarpaulin and protective plastic film, drawing a brightly lit rectangle in the somber mass of the room. I try to figure out what the place looked like before the castle’s destruction. Fragments recovered during the restoration work provide evidence that the scenery, of philosophical and astrological inspiration, originally decorated the entire surface of the walls and vaults. What remains is but a small part of a large and complex program. I could not say why, but my first impression is that the fresco really is from Botticelli’s hand. The manner undoubtedly is that of a Master of line drawing, and an incomparable one. Zsuzsanna, at the same time passionate and professional, guides me through the secrets of the fresco. She knows every square millimeter of its surface, having worked on it for more than 10 years: the preliminary incisions traced in a firm hand, the pentimenti, the freehand outlines. Zsuzsanna shows me the hidden steps of the artist’s work. In a shadowy zone, behind the column held by Fortitude, remains a draft, traced in inversion, of the virtue’s head, a line very similar to that of the Hour in the Birth of Venus.

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Draft of Fortitude’s face in the shadow of her column in the Cardinal Virtues fresco of Esztergom.

Pieced together, this body of material evidence draws a psychological portrait of the artist. He seems confident and well at ease, almost nonchalant. He is sure of his talent and does not need to push himself. The lines flow naturally from his hand with incomparable grace. It is not the hand of an imitator.

Beyond the question of the fresco’s attribution, Esztergom had a surprise for me. Zsuzsanna had continued her restoration work since the Florence conference, six years before this interview. After Temperance, she had started cleaning Justice, which was getting back to its original appearance. To my great stupefaction, this figure revealed itself, in spite of the heavy damage it had suffered, to be incredibly similar to the eighth trump of the Tarot of Marseille: Justice.

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The Justice of Esztergom compared to the Justice of the Tarot of Marseille.

Both images present a woman sitting in front view. Both characters are holding a sword in the right hand, vertically with the point up, and in both cases, it is the same double-edge weapon, with the blade divided by a fine line that splits into two at the guard.

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The Esztergom Justice’s sword compared to that of the Tarot of Marseille.

In their left hands, both feminine figures hold a beam scale, whose bowl-shaped pans are suspended by three strings disposed in the same manner, with the middle string being the one at the forefront, while the other two are placed symmetrically behind.

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The Esztergom Justice’s scale compared to that of the Tarot of Marseille.

The clothing of the two women also presents similarities: the round neckline of the dress, with its border; the belt worn high; the mass of drapery covering the legs; the wide sleeves. Both women are sitting on a throne, even if it is hardly visible on the fresco, as the background is totally erased in the upper part. The heads have many features in common: the locks of blond  hair cascading along the temples; the face’s shape, regular and symmetrical, like a heraldic shield whose tip would be the chin; the thin and well-marked arches of the eyebrows.

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The Esztergom Justice’s head compared to that of the Tarot of Marseille.

How could it be that two of the Esztergom Cardinal Virtues are so similar to the two corresponding trump cards of the Tarot of Marseille: Temperance and Justice?

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