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The Migration of the Aura

Le Nozza di Cana painting

Di Paolo Veronese – [1], Pubblico dominio, Wiki Commons

The Migration of the Aura – or How to Explore the Original Through Its Facsimiles

Bruno Latour argues that the in light of such sophisticated technologies of reproduction, that the aura of an artwork is no longer fixed and confined to the original. Instead it has the potential to migrate beyond the original. Discussing the Factum Arte facsimile project, a digital reproduction of Le Nozze di Cana, a painting by Paulo Veronese, 1573, which was painstakingly created for a special occasion. On 11 September 2007, the 210th anniversary of the looting of the painting by Napoleon’s troops, a facsimile of the original was hung in its original place in the Palladian Refectory.1

Latour’s article concludes that a reproduction is just as valuable as an original piece of art. The Le Nozze di Cana’s facsimile, when returned to its original site, created an ‘aura’ that was more powerful than the original, which hangs in The Louvre in Paris. The aura of the artwork is no longer fixed and confined to the original. Instead it has the potential to migrate beyond the original, via the process of reproduction. Latour writes “in spite of the knee-jerk reaction-“But this is just a facsimile”-we should refuse to decide too quickly the value of either the original or its reproduction”.

There are two elements I disagree with in Latour’s assertion. The first is that a digital reproduction, no matter how incredible, is as or more valuable than the original. There can only be a knee-jerk reaction to this statement. Not because of the ‘facsimile’ but because an original and a mechanical/digital reproduction have a vital factor separating them, that of the human element. No matter how well programmed or unique a machine is, its still just a machine. The operator, no matter how skilled, is not able to paint, to create the artwork by hand. That is not to say the reproduction is not incredible, in its likeness, and quality, perhaps even better than the original, however, it is not and will never be of the same value as the original.

This leads to my second element of disagreement, the notion of value on an artwork. Is Latour writing from the perspective that the only art that is worth valuing is famous art, such as owned by galleries, museums and private collections? Is artwork only valuable because it can be reproduced? In their article on Ethnographic Artefacts and Value Transformations, Henry, Otto and Wood argue that the value of ethnographic artefacts “… is generated and transformed through various inscriptions of meanings, transactions, and property claims concerning museum artefacts”. 2 There is direct correlation between the value placed on the ‘artwork’ whether it is an ethnographic artefact or a painting, and its entanglement in the property claims of the collectors, the granting bodies, and public institutions. Thus, artefacts go through various fluctuations in value over time and may be loaded with several objectifications simultaneously (Henry, et al).

A measure of the popularity of the painting Le Nozza di Cana over time, is provided not only by the historic texts, but also by the huge number of copies, derivations, and “made after” engravings. The painting immediately became a reference model. Indeed it was so popular that the Benedictine monks decided to prohibit public access to the refectory and the making of copies of Veronese’s masterpiece, as Cicogna mentions in Delle Inscrizioni veneziane in 1834: The monks were so greatly inconvenienced by allowing anyone to copy it that in the chapter meeting held on 17 December 1705 they decided not to grant this favour further, except to the ambassadors of princes, if they so requested. 3 Since its inception, the painting has been greatly ‘valued’. Great war loot for Napoleon,  The ‘value’ of original painting, does not just come from the actual painting, but also from its history. Something a facsimile will probably never achieve.

Image of Monthy Pythons Mona Lisa talking

Mona Lisa Talks, sketch from British comedy act Monty Python

Technological breakthroughs in the recording and manipulation of descriptive data have now made possible copies that really do look like the originals. The process for the digital reproduction of Le Nozze di Cana’s, was an impressive achievement logistically and technically.  Latour argues that, to stamp a piece with the mark of originality requires the huge pressure that only a great number of reproductions can provide. “If no copies of the Mona Lisa existed would we pursue it with such energy”. The Mona Lisa is a very famous painting indeed, now re-printed in every conceivable way, from bags, t-shirts, to cards and cups. However, most visitors to the Louvre are now disappointed when they view the painting, it is smaller than they realise, and behind ‘anti-fanatic’ glass. So, in this instance, does the quantity of reproductions not devalue the originality of the Mona Lisa?

There is also the ethical values of the museums and galleries, where these works of art lie. Mostly they are in public institutions, and with the painter being dead over 70 years, are now in the public domain. Yet, most institutions hold quite restrictive copyright reproduction usage, and fees besides. Is an artwork valued by its originality, and/or more valued because of the potential value of it reproductions. Latour takes the examples of operas and plays, etc, to use his notion that the reproduction fuels the original, but he is talking about a different medium. Plays are meant to be spoken aloud, rehearsed, repeated. Music is meant to be played or sung aloud, rehearsed, repeated. They are made to be individually or collectively performed: an opera to be sung, a play to be acted out, and they are made for an audience. Painting as an artform, is a different type of medium. The artwork, Latour talks about, is inherently Western and Colonial, the masters of the European Medieval world. The artworks were commissioned by the wealthy and/or religious, and were intended for a specific audience or space. Taking the artwork out of its spacial context, naturally changes the painting. Perhaps that is why the facsimile of Le Nozza de Cana has more aura about it. It is back in its original context: a purpose built space the place with an intended audience.



Latour, Bruno. Lowe, Adam. (2011) The Migration of the Aura – or How to Explore the Original Through Its Facsimiles Switching Codes. Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, University of Chicago Press pp. 275-297

  1. The Wedding at Cana <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wedding_at_Cana>
  2. Henry, Rosita, Ton Otto, & Michael Wood. (2013) “Ethnographic artifacts and value transformations.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory [Online], 3.2 (2013): 33-51. Web. <http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau3.2.004>
  3. HUMA3 Archive (2007) Controversial exhibition in Venice: facsimile of the Veronese’s “The Miracle of Cana” <http://www.huma3-archive.com/huma3-eng-reviews-id-229.html.>


Further Reading:

Petri, G., (2014). The Public Domain vs. the Museum: The Limits of Copyright and Reproductions of Two-dimensional Works of Art. Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies. 12(1), p.Art. 8. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jcms.1021217

Schrager, Allison (2013). High-end art is one of the most manipulated markets in the world. Quartz Online Publication <http://qz.com/103091/high-end-art-is-one-of-the-most-manipulated-markets-in-the-world/>

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