Shades of scepticism as art world studies new 'Caravaggio' for stroke of genius


CARAVAGGIO, THE great Baroque maestro who died 400 years ago this weekend, would probably have enjoyed the controversy: is a painting recently discovered in the possession of the Jesuits in Rome one of the finds of the century, in other words a previously unknown Caravaggio? Or does the “discovery” tie in too neatly to a series of celebrations that this year has marked the anniversary of the maestro’s death?

It was the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, no less, which with a front-page picture on Sunday provocatively suggested that “A New Caravaggio” might have been found.

The painting, The Martyrdom of San Lorenzo, shows a semi-naked man, his mouth open in desperation and arms outstretched as he appears to be toasted over some distinctly unfriendly flames.

To the untutored eye, this clearly looks like an important work, full of a dramatic, Caravaggio-like use of contrasting light and dark.

Many experts agree that this is a fine painting but they stop short at suggesting that this is indeed the “real thing”.

Religious art historian Lydia Salviucci Insolera commented: “This is certainly a stylistically impeccable painting but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of claiming it as a Caravaggio at all costs.”

Other colleagues from the art world have been even more sceptical. Polo Museum director in Rome, Rosella Vodret, said: “It looks like a very beautiful and interesting painting but before we call it a Caravaggio, it needs to be more thoroughly checked out.”

Caravaggio expert and author of a book on the life of the Baroque maestro, Stefania Macioce, is likewise unconvinced: “I’ll wait until I get a chance to look at it close up but from the photos I’ve seen it looks to be a thousand miles away from the maestro.”

To be fair, the article in L’Osservatorerecords that ongoing analysis – documentary, stylistic and critical – needs to completed before it can be safely claimed that this is indeed a new Caravaggio.

In the meantime, while the jury is still out on San Lorenzo, art lovers have been making the most of the Caravaggio festivities. More than half a million people visited a Rome exhibition of his works earlier this year, while last Saturday night in Rome an estimated 20,000 people visited an art gallery and a number of churches containing his work which, exceptionally, stayed open all through the night.