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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Caravaggio: lost and found

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Caravaggio, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, 1609, detail, missing since 1969

Michelangelo Merisi or Caravaggio is one of the most famous artists known for his realistic paintings and for his adventurous and criminal life.

Caravaggio (1571-1610) was famous and admired in his lifetime, painters as Rubens were looking for him in different places in Italy to learn that unique technique of the brutal representation of the reality without the idealisation or the classicism style of that time.

His revolution in the naturalism is expressed by his masterfully use of chiaroscuro. The subjects are depicted in a three-dimensional way with a pronounced and theatrical use of the light that marks the volumes of the bodies that are coming out suddenly from the dark background.

Caravaggio, in the centuries after his death, was almost forgotten.

After his tragic death, contemporary art historians as Giovan Pietro Bellori in 1672 had a bad judgement on his intense realism and it was used by his opponents as a demolition-jobs of his artistical value and memory.

This historical oblivion was interrupted in the middle of the 20th century where his artistic value was universally accredited by the most important art historians of that time among them the critic Roberto Longhi, who underlined his fundamental importance for the development of modern art and his influence in the European art specially in the succesive baroque style.

In 1951 Roberto Longhi organised the exhibition Caravaggio e Caravaggeschi (Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti) in the Royal Palace of Milan and in 1968 he authored a monograph on the artist establishing his real value in history.

On the night of the 17th and 18th October 1969 in the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo happen what is considered one of the most significant art crimes in history, listed by the FBI among their "Top Ten Art Crimes", the theft of the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Caravaggio.

The painting, as many works of Caravaggio, is revolutionary in the treatment of the principal characters.

Caravaggio, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, 1609, originally in the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo, missing since 1969

The Virgin Mary doesn’t have a celestial face but is depicted as a tired woman after the childbirth, the Infant Jesus just lays down in the floor on a bale of straw but he doesn’t shine of his own light but he is illuminated by a spotlight effect from the top right side of the painting.

The real revolutionary character is Saint Joseph, who contrasts his traditional iconography: although he has white short hair his body is muscular and youthful in the white tights and green shirt.

Joseph is twisting is body to speak with one of the shepherds close to Saint Francis. On the other side Saint Lawrence is close to the ox while from the top is gliding an angel, symbol of the divine glory with the typical design of Caravaggio who depicted him as divine but also sensual creature with enormous wings that seem move the scene with their wind.

The painting is considered one of the best of the Sicilian works of Caravaggio dated 1609 but from recent studies emerged that the work was painting in the roman period under the commission of the merchant Fabio Nuti, who had connection with the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo.

The theft of this painting is considered one of the most violent robbery in Art History.

The Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo is famous for the stuccoes by Giacomo Serpotta and it is placed in the most secret and noble central area of Palermo. In the Seventies the area was neglected and in decline with an inadequate street lighting.

On the night of the 17th and 18th October 1969, tree thieves coming from Immacolatella road entered through a window of the Oratory, they stepped on the main altar and they cut the painting from its original frame.

There were a lot of speculations but investigators generally agree that the Sicilian Mafia has largely been responsible for its subsequent movements, interested in the economic power of art, seen as an important financial business. The painting was mentioned by different Mafia informants through the years but there was any real evidence of its existence.

The painting for its visibility and fame was impossible to place in the art market even if there were rumours of its passage in some Switzerland galleries.

The English journalist Peter Watson said that he was contacted by an art merchant for the black-market sale of the painting but the evening of the meeting on 23rd November1980, the Irpinia earthquake blocked the secret operation.

The masterpiece of Caravaggio has been missing for 52 years and without real evidence for the investigations there is just space for the legend and the myth as it was for the life of Caravaggio.

In 2015 Sky Arte commissioned for a documentary a high-definition print to Factum Arte, that employs a number of 3D printing techniques as part of the process of reproducing lost works of art.

Print by Factum Arte
Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo with the print copy of the painting by Caravaggio

The copy was placed in the frame of the main altar of the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo.

The copy is a way to not forget and keep in the community’s memory our artistic treasures.

History many times makes interesting twist and for one masterpiece of Caravaggio that is considered lost another one was incredible rediscovered in 2014.

The painting was found in 2014 in an attic of a home in Toulouse in France.

The painting was showed to the art auctioneer Marc Labarbe and later to expert of European Old Master and art dealer Eric Turquin.

Both of them recognised in the painting the masterpiece Judith and Holofernes by Caravaggio, the original considered lost and of which there is a copy by the Franco-Flemish artist Louis Finson, today owned by the bank Banco Intesa Sanpaolo of Naples.

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes,1607, found in Toulouse now in a private collection

Any rediscovery of a Caravaggio creates many discussions among the most important experts of the artist about the fact that he is an artist with unpredictable stylistic manners.

In an attribution of a work of art there are usually two important aspects: the provenance, that is the original documentation and the history of ownership of a specific piece of art, and the stylistic and scientific studies of the work of art.

The painting is well documented: it was painted by Caravaggio in his period in Naples in 1607 after was forced to flee Rome with murder charge.

Caravaggio in Naples was probably host in the workshop of the Flemish artists Louis Finson and Abraham Vinck, art dealers and copyists. Finson copied several paintings of Caravaggio as the Judith and Holofernes painted with the same two different canvases used by Caravaggio.

However, prior to his departure for Malta, Caravaggio left in the workshop of Finson and Vinck two paintings the Madonna of the Rosary and Judith and Holofernes to be sell for 400 and 300 ducats each.

The two paintings were mentioned in two letters written by Ottavio Gentili and Frans Pourbous for a sale to the Duke of Mantua but the deal was not concluded.

The painting appears ten years later in the will and testament of Finson upon his death in Amsterdam in September 1617. He left it to Vinck, already half-owner of the works. The work is not in the inventory of death of Vinck, who died in Anversa in 1619. Probably the painting was sold by Vinck’s heirs to the engraver Alexander Voet.

For some years the painting disappeared but probably it arrived in Toulouse through one ancestor of the family that found it, who was an official of Napoleon in the Spanish Campaign of 1808-1814.

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, 1600-1602, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

In a stylistic point of view the Judith and Holofernes of Toulouse presents a different maturity and drama in the comparison with the work of the same subject painted by Caravaggio in Rome 1600 and now in Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes,1607, Holofernes' hand detail, private collection
Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, Holofernes' hand detail, 1600-1602, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

The two paintings have different elements in common: the position of the hand of Holofernes, the same pearl earring used also in the paint Penitent Magdalene and the same feature dimensions of the faces of both Judith.

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes,1607, Judith detail, private collection
Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, 1600-1602, Judith detail, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalene, 1594-95, earring's detail,Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome

If we compare the work of Toulouse with the copy by Finson it is clearly visible in the copy the lack of that original creativity, of the intense drama and the superior quality of the original.

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes,1607, found in Toulouse now in a private collection
Louis Finson, Judith and Holofernes,1607, Banco Intesa Sanpaolo, Palazzo Zevallos, Naples

In the process of the attribution of a painting it is important also the scientific analyses, in this case done by Claudio Falcucci, who have already done X ray analyses in other works by Caravaggio founding similarity on the preparation and in the stages of execution. X-rays of the entire surface of the painting showed both the extraordinary speed with which the painter realised the layout of the composition and each detail of the painting, as well as revealing the presence of numerous pentimenti.

The many pentimenti clearly demonstrate that this is an original creation. Infrared reflectography shows the change of the position of the fingers of Holofernes, that Judith was initially looking at Holofernes and not the viewer. It also indicates that the servant Abra’s face was repainted and her wrinkles emphasised, and that her eyes were originally rounder, almost bulging, as one suffering from hyperthyroidism.

All these pentimenti are crucial important in the entire composition that cannot be the result of the uncertainty of a copyist who is correcting an error in drawing.

The presence of the ground “a risparmio” that left visible the brown preparation to underline areas of colours or shadows, is largely used in the painting as in other works by Caravaggio.

From all of these elements, we can conclude that the figures of Judith and Holofernes were painted using the most significant aspects of Caravaggio’s technique (type of canvas, the ground, incised lines, sketches, outlines, under-drawings, use of the ground a risparmio in the shadows, etc.).

It would be strange to have all these elements together in the same painting if the work had not been painted by Caravaggio. For this reason, many of the experts were convinced of the attribution.

The painting was sent in different exhibitions in London, New York and Toulouse. It was sold in an auction on the 27th June 2019 to a private collector. Nowadays 68 works are attributed to Caravaggio and only 5 are in private collections.

For sure there are more paintings of Caravaggio to discover specially of his early period.

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