1821: Justus of Ghent, Dialectic & Astronomy (1474-1475)

Justus of Ghent
Justus of Ghent, Dialectic and Astronomy. Formerly in Berlin, Gemäldegalerie (Source: SMB online)

Missing masterpieces. Where are they now?

by Dieu Ly Hoang

Destroyed or lost? Since 1475, Dialectic and Astronomy are part of the painting cycle of the Liberal Arts that used to decorate the second library of the ducal palace in Urbino. During the centuries, this cycle has been dismantled and its paintings are now scattered in different locations of the world, most of them unknown. How did the paintings leave Urbino? How did they come to Berlin? And are they destroyed or lost? It is time to unfold the complex life and history of these masterpieces.


Dialectic, by Justus of Ghent, ca. 1474-1475, oil on poplar panel, 150×110 cm, cat. 54

Purchased from the Solly collection, 1821 Berlin.

Now in: destroyed or lost

Comes from: Italy, Urbino, Palazzo Ducale of Federico da Montefeltro

Passed through: unknown location (XVI-XIX century), Edward Solly collection (date of purchase unknown), Berlin, (Altes) Museum (1830-1904), Berlin, Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (1904-1941), Berlin, flak tower Friedrichshain (1941-1945), destroyed or lost (from 1945)

Conservation history: restored in 1886, 1909 (restorers unknown)

Astronomy, by Justus of Ghent, ca. 1474-1475, oil on poplar panel, 150×110 cm, cat. 54A

Purchased from the Solly collection, 1821 Berlin.

Now in: destroyed or lost

Comes from: Italy, Urbino, Palazzo Ducale of Federico da Montefeltro

Passed through: unknown location (XVI-XIX century), Edward Solly collection (date of purchase unknown), Berlin (Altes) Museum (1830-1904), Berlin, Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (1904-1941), Berlin, flak tower Friedrichshain (1941-1945), destroyed or lost (from 1945)

Conservation history: restored in 1880, around 1909, 1933 (restorers unknown)


Ever since Dialectic and Astronomy entered the collection of the Prussian Königliches Museum in 1821, various discussions about their provenance, date of origin and – most intensely – authorship emerged. The musealization of the artworks amplified scientific research not just about the Berlin panels, but also about the entire series representing the Liberal Arts to which they belonged. Probably in 1474-1475, the duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro commissioned the panels to decorate his second library. They should represent the seven goddesses of the Liberal Arts – consisting of the Trivium of Dialectic, Rhetoric, Grammar and the Quadrivium of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. Seven men – identified as members of the Montefeltro family – kneel in front of the goddesses’ thrones to receive the symbol of their art.

During the past centuries, connoisseurs have made efforts to identify the author of the two panels representing the Dialectic and Astronomy. While some connoisseurs attributed them to Melozzo da Forlì, other scholars believed to identify pictorial characteristics of Pedro Berruguete.[1]  It was not until 1934 that Max Friedländer suggested an attribution to Justus of Ghent, which has been accepted among scholars until today.[2] Along the discussion about attributions, it is difficult to determine an exact date of origin for the paintings. However, scholars agreed on a timeframe between 1474 and 1475.

The provenance of Dialectic and Astronomy provokes a great number of questions as well. It is most likely that the army of Cesare Borgia pillaged the Liberal Art series after their conquest of Urbino in 1502.[3] Due to the lack of sources, it was not possible to identify the locations of Dialectic as well as of Astronomy between the 16th and the beginning of the 19th century. The reappearance of both panels in the Edward Solly collection paved the way for their entrance in the Prussian royal collection in 1821.  

Unfortunately, both paintings have been missing since World War Second. Most probably, they were destroyed in a fire during the battle of Berlin, but there is still a chance that they may have survived in some other place.

First Disappearance (1474/1475-1502)

Originally, Dialectic and Astronomy as well as other panels of the painting cycle decorated the walls of the library. When Federico da Montefeltro passed away, his son Guidobaldo I da Montefeltro inherited the entire palace, so that the panels stayed at the same place for almost 30 years. In the night from the 20th to the 21st of June 1502, Cesare Borgia captured Urbino and expelled the Montefeltro with the assistance of his troops. While occupying the ducal palace, it is most likely that members of the army or Cesare himself looted the panels of the library.

Later conservation treatments have shown that the Berlin panels as well as the ones now in the National Gallery of London have been cut down.[4]  This condition may indicate a violent removal from their original location. Furthermore, the Italian poet Bernardino Baldi did not mention the panels in his description of the ducal palace of Urbino around 1590.[5] Therefore, the loot by Cesare Borgia and his army could be an imaginable scenario.

Pasquale Rotondi assumes that all seven panels were brought to Cesena after the loot.[6] However, we cannot confirm this statement due to the lack of sources. Instead, this circumstance provokes even more questions. If the panels were looted as mentioned, who took them? Was it Cesare Borgia himself or one (or several) of his soldiers? From this point on, we lose track of Dialectic and Astronomy because the loot was unfortunately poorly documented. Both panels probably remained in Italy for the following 300 years. Somehow, they reappeared on the art market at the beginning of the 19th century. That is where the next chapter of their lives began.

From trading assets to masterpieces (around 1810-1939)

At the beginning of the 19th century, the English merchant Edward Solly acquired Dialectic and Astronomy for his own art collection. It is unknown where or from whom exactly Solly bought the panels because his business records have not survived. Nevertheless, we can still reconstruct Solly’s method to acquire artworks. After the Napoleonic wars, Italy was impoverished, and the assets of entire monasteries or palaces were liquidated. Hence, a great number of masterpieces entered the Italian art market at low prices. Solly had a network of agents in Italy who would buy artworks for him.[7]  Perhaps, this is how Dialectic and Astronomy got into Solly’s art collection.

Solly stored his collection in his Berlin house at Wilhelmstraße 67, which would later turn into the restauration workshop of the Königliches Museum.[8]  Already at this time, our panels suffered damages. 3,012 paintings were located and stored at Solly’s. They were partly stacked on top of each other within 30 or 40 rooms before the Prussian state bought them to build its own museum collection in 1821.[9]  

By entering the museum collection, Solly’s artworks were no longer trading assets. They became state property and were destined to be shown to the public eye. Yet, this destiny did not immediately concern our panels, which remained concealed from public view for at least 60 years after their purchase. After its acquisition, the Solly collection had been divided into several parts. Instead of exhibiting the two panels, the staff of the Berlin museums decided to store them in the attic of the newly-built museum.

In 1886, Wilhelm Bode rediscovered the panels and reported about their disastrous storage conditions.[10]  Thanks to Bode’s interest and the significant contribution of art historian August Schmarsow, who analysed Dialectic and Astronomy in his Melozzo da Forlì publication of 1886, a new appreciation for the panels arose. They were not only rediscovered physically: this point also marked the beginning of a process of their scientific rediscovery. From that moment on, Dialectic and Astronomy progressively acquired importance and eventually came to be considered as masterpieces of the Königliches Museum.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of conservation measures at Solly’s house as well as in the attic of the museum, Dialectic and Astronomy initially were too damaged to be exhibited. Both panels were then restored multiple times: Dialectic in 1886 and 1909; Astronomy in 1880, around 1909 and lastly in 1933.[11]  

With the opening of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum on the Museum Island in 1904, the panels were transported into the new building. It is uncertain wether they were exhibited soon after their restorations in the 1880s or later on, but they certainly were on display by the time the first World War ended in 1918.[12]  Therefore, the public eye could rediscover the beauty of these masterpieces at least for a short amount of time.

Lost objects – World War Second and its consequences for museum’s goods (1939-1945)

After World War Second broke out on the 1st of September 1939, all museums closed immediately. Museum employees began to pack and to transport the artworks into the basements of the museum buildings on the Museum Island. They believed that the Pergamonmuseum was the most stable building on the whole island. That is why parts of the museum collections were stored there during the first year of war.[13]  When the Allies started to bomb the city, the Berlin museums were not an ideal place to store artworks anymore. Paintings, sculptures, and other objects needed to be transported to a much safer location. Military buildings such as the flak towers at the Zoologischer Garten or the one in Friedrichshain became depositories for works of art from 1941-1942 until the end of the war.[14]  Dialectic and Astronomy were taken to the flak tower in Friedrichshain, where the most important pieces of the painting and sculpture collections were hold.

On the 2nd of May 1945, Soviet soldiers took over both flak towers at the Zoologischer Garten and in Friedrichshain.[15]  What happened next was rather bizarre. A fire broke out at the flak tower in Friedrichshain on the 6th of May 1945. Approximately 10 days later – from the 14th to 18th of May – there was another fire. Later, some witnesses reported that the Soviet army dismissed German staff at the tower. Thereafter, strangers with paper torches could come and go without any supervisions due to the lack of staff and continuous power outages.[16]  The fires destroyed almost every artwork in the building. To this day, it is still unclear what really happened on the nights of the fires.

When the Soviet trophy brigade inspected the flak tower after the two fires, museum workers believed that they transported several objects to the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet transport lists did not give any hints about the rescue of these 434 artworks which were stored in the Friedrichshain flak tower.[17]  The lack of information led to believe for a long time that everything was destroyed. Yet, the reappearance of certain artworks on the art market after the war indicates that single pillages had already occurred before the fires.[18]  

Moreover, recent research has proved that some works survived the fire and were taken to the USSR by the Soviet troops after the war. Some of these works recently re-emerged from the storerooms of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow; whereas the whereabouts of the others – including Dialectic and Astronomy – are still unknown. Scholars and museum professionals consider them as destroyed.[19]  Had the panels survived the fires, we still do not know where they are and how they continued their lives until now. Today, in the repository of the Gemäldegalerie, two full-size photo-reproductions – one of Astronomy in black and white, the other of Dialectic in colors – recall the missing masterpieces of Justus of Ghent.

[1] Schmarsow 1886, p. 84; Bode 1886, p. 236; Lavayelle 1936, p. 163.

[2] Friedländer 1934, pp. 98-104.

[3] Rotondi 1969, p. 93.

[4] Campbell 1999, p. 283.

[5] Baldi 1724; cited in Schmarsow 1886, p. 84.

[6] Rotondi, 1969, p. 93.

[7] Skwirblies 2009, p. 90.

[8] Skwirblies 2009, p. 73.

[9] Skwirblies 2009, p. 69.

[10] Bode 1886, pp. 227-228.

[11] Campbell 1999, p. 282.

[12] Kühnel-Kunze 1952, p. 22.

[13] Winter 2015, p. 12.

[14] Winter 2015, p. 12.

[15] Dehnel 2015, p. 14.

[16] Dehnel 2015, p. 14.

[17] Dehnel 2015, p. 14-15.

[18] Bock 1995, p. 8.

[19] Bock, 1995, p. 8.


Baldi, Bernardino: Memorie concernenti la città di Urbino dedicate alla sagra real maestà di Giacomo III, re della Gran Brettagna. Rome: Maria Salvioni, 1724. Available online at: https://www.e-rara.ch/zut/content/structure/210226.

Bode, Wilhelm von: “Die Ausbeute aus dem Magazinen aus der Königlichen Gemälde-Galerie zu Berlin. Mit vier Hochätzungen“. Jahrbuch der Königlich Preußischen Kunstsammlungen, vol. 7. Berlin: G. Grote’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1886: 226-243.

Campbell, Lorne: The fifteenth century Netherlandish schools. London: National Gallery Publications Limited, 1999.

Dehnel, Regine: “Zum Schicksal der Kunstwerke an den Berliner Bergungsorten“. In Julien Chapuis/Stephan Kemperdick (Ed.), Das verschwundene Museum. Die Verluste der Berliner Gemälde- und Skulpturensammlungen 70 Jahre nach Kriegsende. Petersberg: Michael Irmhof Verlag, 2015: 14-22.

Friedländer, Max: Dierick Bouts und Joos van Gent. Leiden: Sitjhoff, 1934.

Kühnel-Kunze, Irene: Beschreibendes Verzeichnis der Gemälde im Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum und Deutschen Museum. Berlin: Büxenstein, 1931.

Kühnel-Kunze, Irene: „Verzeichnis der im Flakturm Friedrichshain verlorengegangenen Bilder der Gemäldegalerie“. Berliner Museen 2, no. 1/2, 1952: 16–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4238088.

Lavayelle, Jacques: Juste de Gand, peintre de Frédéric de Montefeltre. Louvain: Bibliothèque de l’université, 1936.

Rotondi, Pasquale: The ducal palace of Urbino. Its architecture and decoration. London: Alec Tiranti, 1969.

Schmarsow, August: Melozzo da Forlì. Ein Beitrag zur Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte im XV. Jahrhundert. Berlin: Spemann, 1886.

Skwirblies, Robert: „‘Ein Nationalgut, auf das jeder Einwohner stolz sein dürfte‘: die Sammlung Solly als Grundlage der Berliner Gemäldegalerie“. Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, vol. 51. Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 2009: 69-99. Available online at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25766145.

Winter, Petra: „Schutz der Kunstwerke während des Krieges“. In Julien Chapuis/Stephan Kemperdick (Ed.), Das verschwundene Museum. Die Verluste der Berliner Gemälde- und Skulpturensammlungen 70 Jahre nach Kriegsende. Petersberg: Michael Irmhof Verlag, 2015: 12-13.


Berlin, Bildakten der Gemäldegalerie – Staatliche Museen Berlin, von Ghent, Justus, Kat. Nr. 54.

Cite as: Dieu Ly Hoang, 1821: Justus of Ghent, Dialectic & Astronomy (1474-1475), in: The Lives of Pictures | Das Leben der Bilder, edited by Matilde Cartolari, https://livespics.hypotheses.org/1801, published on 21.01.2023.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Matilde Cartolari (ed.) (January 21, 2023). 1821: Justus of Ghent, Dialectic & Astronomy (1474-1475). The Lives of Pictures | . Retrieved July 23, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/qz1l

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