Art, Art History

Italian art historians ‘find 100 Caravaggio paintings’

The Telegraph today published two reports of the possible discovery of a cache of previously-unknown works by Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. The reports were picked up by, i.a., artnet.com, BBC News, and Bendor Grosvenor’s blog, Art History News.  Here are the reports.

I.  By , Rome 8:30PM BST 05 Jul 2012.   The sketches and paintings, if proved to be authentic, would be worth an estimated 700 million euros (£560 million).

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Caravaggio, “Chiamata di San Matteo’

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Experts said that after two years of rigorous analysis, they had found “remarkable similarities” between the newly-discovered works, kept in a castle in Milan, and the known works of Caravaggio.

But the announcement came out of the blue, caused an immediate storm in the art world and raised as many questions as it answered.

The historians apparently managed to keep their research a secret for two years, but on Friday their findings will be published in a lavish, two-volume, 600-page e-book in four languages.

The works are believed to date from Caravaggio’s earliest years as a painter, when he was a young apprentice under Simone Peterzano, a mannerist painter in Milan, from 1584 to 1588.

They were found in a collection of paintings and drawings from the workshop of Peterzano which has been held in a castle in Milan, Castello Sforzesco, since 1924, after they were transferred there from a nearby church.

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Caravaggio, “Martirio di San Matteo”

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The archive contains 1,378 paintings and drawings by Peterzano and the young artists who were tutored by him.

Two years ago Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz, the artistic director of the Brescia Museum Foundation, and his co-researcher, Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli, began to scrutinise the collection in earnest.

“We always felt it was impossible that Caravaggio left no record, no studies in the workshop … of his mentor,” Mr Bernadelli Curuz told ANSA, the Italian news agency.

They compared known Caravaggio masterpieces in churches and museums with the sketches and paintings in the castle archive and found “startling” similarities between the two bodies of work.

The drawings were an early template for “the faces, bodies and scenes the young Caravaggio would use in later years,” the experts told ANSA.

They even claimed to have found a scrap of paper with Caravaggio’s signature and say it has been authenticated by handwriting experts.

The art historians believe that the artist, whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi, developed distinctive styles and techniques in those early years that provided the foundation for the rest of his career.

“Every artist has a matrix style, unique to them that is distinguishable through the postures and body types in their sketches. They memorize them as students, learning by force of repetition, and carry them into maturity for their later works,” said Mr Bernardelli Curuz.

“Caravaggio left Lombardy (the region around Milan) with a rich collection of figures that he used throughout his career, but especially in his early years working in Rome. These works are proof,” he said.

But the city of Milan, which owns the castle and the collection, yesterday sounded a sceptical note.

“The drawings have always been there, and have never yet been attributed to Caravaggio,” said Elena Conenna, the council’s spokeswoman for culture.

“We’ll be very happy to discover it’s true. But it’s strange. They weren’t in a hidden place, they were accessible to all.”

Stefano Boeri, a cultural official with Milan city council, was also cautious. He said he would also be delighted if the attribution was proved correct, but that the claims should be studied by a panel of experts.

There did seem, however, to be striking likenesses between the newly “discovered” works and some of Caravaggio’s most celebrated paintings – for instance between the face of Christ in ‘Supper in Emmaus’ and a sketch of a man’s head from the castle collection.

There was also a similarity between the drawing of an old man with a beard, and the face of a soldier in ‘The Conversion of Saul’.

One of the most striking matches was between a sketch of an old man’s wizened, wrinkled face and a figure in Caravaggio’s ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, painted in 1598, which shows the widow Judith decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes.

Caravaggio, who lived from 1571 to 1610, was notorious for his mercurial temper and penchant for brawling.

He had to flee Rome for Sicily after a fight in which he killed a man. He later became involved in a brawl in Malta in which he wounded a knight.

His death, at the age of 36 in Porto Ercole on the coast of Tuscany, has been blamed variously on malaria, an intestinal infection and lead poisoning. In April an Italian art historian put forward a new theory – that the artist was murdered on the orders of the Knights of Malta to avenge the attack on one of their members.

Vincenzo Pacelli said he had found evidence in the Vatican Secret Archives and other sources in Rome that the chivalric order, which was formed during the Crusades, had Caravaggio’s body dumped in the sea near Civitavecchia north of Rome.

II.  Caravaggio discovery: to find 100 new works is simply astonishing

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Caravaggio, “Judith Beheading Holofernes”

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By  8:36PM BST 05 Jul 2012  The prospect of a hundred newly discovered works by any great artist of the past is little short of astonishing. The entire oeuvres of several of great figures – Vermeer and Giorgione for example – barely gets into double figures. When you think that 200 works is a pretty respectable total for the average, world-changing old master, then the prospect of an extra hundred constitutes a massive increase, that is likely to significantly alter our view of them.

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A face in a drawing found in Milan and attributed to the young Caravaggio, compared to that of the old soldier in the ‘Conversion of Saul’ by Caravaggio, revealing a stunning resemblance Photo: EPA

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The idea that there are suddenly 100 more Caravaggios in the world is frankly mind-blowing. Quite apart from his reputation as art’s ultimate wild man – probable bisexual, almost certain murderer who died on the run from the Papal authorities – Caravaggio is one of art’s few truly essential figures: the original dirty realist, who swept away decades of Mannerist frippery, introducing a stark new honesty and intensity.

That signature harsh chiaroscuro – the highlighting of dramatic detail against darkness: how could we have had Rembrandt, Velasquez and most of the significant artists of the following century without it? Caravaggio wasn’t the first artist to use prostitutes, street urchins and grimy-soled peasants as models, but he dragged them into the great stories of the Bible with unprecedented pathos and – all too frequently – violence.

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Caravaggio, “Study of a Head”

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Anyone who has entered the dimness of Rome’s church of San Luigi dei Francese, put a coin in the slot and seen Caravaggio’s paintings of the life of St Matthew suddenly illuminated will have had perhaps the ultimate Caravaggio experience: a plunging sensation in the stomach at their mixture of tenderness and brutality. The final image of martyrdom shows that the Don McCullins of this world have taught us nothing about the portrayal of cruelty.

However he managed it, alongside the carousing, brawling and mild psychopathy that is retailed in endless sensationalist books and TV programmes, Caravaggio was an extraordinarily diligent craftsman, an artist of superb balance and control. Perhaps these 100 new works – and it is difficult to judge from what we’ve seen so far – will help answer that question. The best we can hope for from them is that they will help rescue one of the truly great artists from his own monstrous legend.

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “Italian art historians ‘find 100 Caravaggio paintings’

  1. Hi Elliott! Thanks so much for following. I realised I should have mentioned your blog by name – very rude of me – so have duly amended. (I’ve only just worked out how to do links, so have gone a bit link-mad.)
    Super post here, useful and inspiring.

    Posted by Glennie Bee | July 6, 2012, 8:28 am
  2. Wow.. First,amazing discovery. I should say the Art world has been up many a late night reviewing this little tidbit.. Second, what a great post by you. So thorough and informative without being long and boring.
    Well done Elliott!!

    Posted by free penny press | July 6, 2012, 1:37 pm

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  1. Pingback: The Art of Getting it Wrong: Caravaggio | t'arthead - July 6, 2012

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