Caravaggio (Milan, 1571-Porto Ercole, 1610), the great artist of the Baroque and the Counter-Reformation, was a very appreciated painter in his time, whose services were disputed by nobles and cardinals, who also helped him to get out of all the troubles in those who got into. Because in addition to a creator who revolutionized art history, Caravaggio, the pseudonym of Michelangelo Merisi, was a quarrelsome murderer – some biographers believe that he even became a pimp – who had to flee several times to avoid jail. After his death, his work fell into oblivion, although it was recovered in the 1950s by the Italian art critic and professor Roberto Longhi. The combination of criminal life and oblivion has caused many paintings to be lost throughout history: Caravaggio’s work and life can also be told through his disappeared paintings.
After the rediscovery by Longhi, Caravaggio became one of the most desired and sought after painters, a symbol of power that museums and collectors around the world contested. The problem is that the number of caravaggios indisputable works scattered throughout many countries does not reach 70 works, 20 of which are in Rome. It is impossible to know how many have been lost: Noah Charney calculates in his book Museum of Lost Art that between eight and 115, a disconcertingly high hairpin, but one that reflects the enormous gaps that exist in the artist’s life. The vast majority of the documents that are preserved about him are judicial, a consequence of his crimes, and on the other hand there are far fewer papers on his work as an artist, so it is difficult to know how many works he painted despite the fact that innumerable biographies have been dedicated to him. .
Of the caravaggios They were lost in the battle of Berlin during World War II, another was robbed by the Mafia in Palermo and another disappeared in an earthquake in Naples in 1798. It is also not known if works were lost when he was evicted in Rome or when he had to be fired of the city after committing a murder. It is certain that when he died, during his return trip to the capital, he was traveling with three paintings with which he intended to buy his forgiveness from the powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese, of which only one remains. San Juan exhibited precisely in the Borghese gallery in Rome.
In fact, when Caravaggio died in Porto Ercole, the Vatican Secretary of State sent a mission to find out not so much what had happened to the artist “but what had happened to his luggage,” writes Peter Robb in M. El enigma Caravaggio (Sunrise). “He had undoubtedly been waiting for me to arrive in Rome with a new collection of paintings, the something for something for the forgiveness that I had painstakingly worked out, ”explains the Australian expert, who points out that two of the most powerful men in Italy at that time, the viceroy of Naples and the Secretary of State, disputed those paintings.
But just like the caravaggios they disappear, they reappear in a mysterious way. One of the cultural news of the year was the appearance at an auction in Madrid of a eccehomo originally attributed to an unknown author and with a starting price of 1,500 euros. However, in just a few days the specialists in the Baroque painter identified him as a caravaggio without any doubt and documents began to appear that related him to the painter: in the international market he could have reached 100 million. It has not been known when he painted it – surely in the first Neapolitan stage – but how it arrived in Spain (through the Count of Castrillo) and how it ended up in the possession of the Pérez Castro family (for an exchange with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando).
It was a painting whose existence was known to experts, widely documented, with at least two vintage copies, but it seemed that history had swallowed it up. The same happened with one of his most significant works, the Capture of Christ –Containing a self-portrait of the painter–, a brutal metaphor about the power of the state painted in the dark times of the Counter-Reformation, in 1602. It was owned by the Mattei family until the 19th century and then disappeared. He had ended up in the Jesuit refectory in Dublin. When they decided to restore it in 1990, they consulted the Italian art historian Sergio Benedetti, who was then working at the National Gallery in the Irish capital. Although he suspected from the beginning that he was facing a caravaggio lost, it took Benedetti three years to authenticate it and trace the history of the different owners. Today it is one of the jewels of the National Gallery of Dublin.
Before the eccehomo from Madrid, another possible caravaggio in the attic of a house near Toulouse, a Judith and Holorphenes which was sold in New York for between 100 and 150 million euros. Although some experts doubt its authenticity, most consider that it is an original, painted in 1607 and disappeared since 1617. No one has the slightest idea of how it ended up in that attic, although suspicions point to an ancestor, Napoleon’s soldier, who he could bring it from one of his campaigns. Are there more lofts in the world, more convents or Madrid halls with caravaggios forgotten? Specialists in the painter never lose hope.
Researcher John Gash, professor of Art History at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) and a notable caravaggista, assures: “The lost painting that I would most like to recover is the altarpiece of The resurrection of Christ from the Fenaroli Chapel of Sant’Anna dei Lombardi, in Naples, which, together with the two side paintings, disappeared (perhaps destroyed, perhaps looted) after the 1798 earthquake. This work is only known from written descriptions. Instead, the paintings of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, Saint Matthew Y The angel and Christ on the Mount of Olives, that they were probably destroyed in 1945 (although they could have been looted by the Soviet Army), are known through black and white photographs ”.
The Spanish gallery owner José Antonio de Urbina, an expert in ancient art, opts instead for a lost painting that may be in Spain. “Juan Alfonso Pimentel, count of Benavente and viceroy of Naples, commissioned two works from Caravaggio in 1607 for his family chapel in Valladolid, the Crucifixion of San Andrés, that ended up in the United States, and a San Genaro, that is still missing ”, he explains. The first painting was located in 1973 by the Madrid dealer José Manuel Arnaiz in a Valladolid convent and obtained the export permit because it was thought to be a copy. However, it was authenticated in the United States and is today unanimously considered an original, exhibited at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The other has been missing for four centuries.
The caravaggios The ghost that has given the most to talk about are the two paintings that in 1610 were left in the barge that led him on the way from Rome to Porto Ercole, where it is not known whether he died of a fever or a septicemia caused by a poorly healed wound of a Fight. Mina Gregori, the greatest expert on the painter and president of the Roberto Longhi Foundation, assured in 2016 that she had seen the Maria Magdalena in a private European collection, although its owners did not want their name revealed for security reasons. It is a painting well known for its copies, on which it was even celebrated an exhibition in Paris in 2018, but Gregori maintained that it was the original. “I recognize a caravaggio when I see him. The body, the color variations, the intensity of the face… But also the strong wrists and the hands intertwined and flaccid with extraordinary variations of color and light and with a shadow obscuring the middle of the fingers are the most interesting aspects of the painting. It’s Caravaggio ”, he explained to The Republic.
Of all the caravaggios lost, the one with the least hope of recovering is paradoxically the one that most recently disappeared. In October 1969, unknown men robbed the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo on behalf of the mafia. Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence. They cut the canvas with a razor blade and left the frame. Legend has it that Cosa Nostra used it for a time to preside over their meetings: possessing a caravaggio it was a symbol of the absolute and ruthless power that Cosa Nostra wielded over the island. There have been all kinds of theories about the final destination of this painting and none good for the history of art: the repentant Gaetano Grado narrated to the Anti-Mafia Commission that it ended up being sold in six or eight pieces abroad in an operation designed by the famous kingpin. Gaetano Badalamenti. Another theory shuffled by the police suggests that it ended up being thrown in any way and eaten by pigs.
Not even after his death, Caravaggio has been freed from the curse that marked his life and his art: his paintings quickly became a symbol of power and social prestige, coveted by art lovers and, at the same time, influential figures unscrupulous from the violent Italy of the 16th and 17th centuries. He always moved within the limits of art and society, between greed and genius. The sad fate of the Natividad of Palermo, of the paintings that were left in a gig or that the final battle against Nazism swallowed are a metaphor for the complex existence of a painter who 400 years after his death is still full of mysteries. No one doubts that somewhere, at some point, a caravaggio waiting to be discovered.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.