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Claim: 100 Works by Caravaggio Discovered. Really? – UPDATED

July 6, 2012

Judith Beheading Holofernes

This Daily Telegraph headline has caught the art world’s collective attention:

Italian art historians ‘find 100 Caravaggio paintings’

Italian art historians claim they have found 100 previously unknown works by Caravaggio, one of the giants of the Renaissance.

Forgive the skepticism, but the claim by two Italian art historians, Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli, that they have discovered 100 Caravaggios will definitely require a great deal of proof.  The controversial and revolutionary painter’s output was small and there are no known drawings by him, so this bumper crop of newly discovered works requires great scrutiny.  “The sketches and paintings, if proved to be authentic, would be worth an estimated 700 million euros (£560 million)” (that’s a mighty big if).

The works were discovered at the Castello Sforzesco and “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.”

Today’s Telegraph quotes several Caravaggio scholars who have seen the works:

Dr John T. Spike, a Caravaggio expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, said the quality of the sketches was better than Caravaggio’s earliest known work, Boy Peeling Fruit, painted in 1592.

“The sketches from the collection show robust, competent drawing, yet in Caravaggio’s earliest painting he was struggling to draw competently,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “How could he have gone backwards in terms of his artistic skill?”

He said one of the sketches acclaimed as the work of Caravaggio appeared to have been based on a sculpture from 1601 – more than a decade after he was working under Peterzano’s tutelage.

“These sketches could have been by anybody. Young artists studied in groups and used the same artistic language,” he said.

Others are also raising questions, including why the findings were first published on an e-book from Amazon rather than a vetted, scholarly journal:

Francesca Rossi, the current curator of the collection, said: “We were in contact with them a year ago when they asked for photographic reproductions but I’ve never seen them here. “These are generic drawings, it is impossible to be certain (that they are by Caravaggio). The attribution seems overly ambitious and not very credible.”

“I’m very perplexed,” Maria Teresa Fiorio, the former director of the castle’s collection, told Corriere della Sera. “A serious scholar doesn’t produce an e-book – they would publish their findings in the appropriate journals. Everyone who has studied the collection has asked themselves – is it possible that some were drawn by Caravaggio? No one has drawn that conclusion.” The director of the castle collection, Claudio Salsi, also said the art historians’ conclusion was “without critical foundation”.

Stay tuned … this could get very entertaining.  And, if … just if even a fraction of the works are authenticated as by Caravaggio, there will be much to celebrate.


UPDATE

There’s no consensus in the media about has actually been discovered  – the Telegraph header above cited 100 “paintings” while other reports talk mostly of drawings. Is there no itemized accounting?  It’s also highly unusual that art historians involved in such a discovery would assign a value to the cache – art historians, in such circumstances, generally address issues of authenticity and context, that is, how the discovered works fit into the artist’s oeuvre and within broader art historical parameters. Assigning a value seems gratuitous and a bald attempt to generate media attention.

Elsewhere, the critical pile on continues to grow according to the New York Times:

Keith Christiansen, the chairman of the department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, went further, writing in an e-mail that “this all smacks of sensationalism.”

“Why should drawings by an artist who was reputed not to have drawn end up in the group of drawings by his master in Milan?” Mr. Christiansen asked, referring to Peterzano.

And J. Patrice Marandel, chief curator of European painting and sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was dismissive. “These people are not Caravaggio experts,” he said. “It’s a total invention.”

UPDATE

According to the Telegraph, Amazon has pulled the controversial Caravaggio e-book from sale.

The lavishly illustrated two-volume e-book , ‘Young Caravaggio – One hundred rediscovered works’, went on sale on Amazon just days ago and was available for download to Kindles.

But the book, which contained 1,000 images of Caravaggio’s work and the supposed “new” drawings, was abruptly withdrawn from Amazon’s website on Tuesday, with the title crossed out and a blank space where the cover of the book had been displayed.

Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli, the art historians who wrote it, claimed to have found 100 previously unrecognised sketches and drawings by the Baroque master after sifting through an archive of art work held by a castle in Milan.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2012 2:53 PM

    This strikes me as very odd. If Amazon is withdrawing the book because of dubious scholarship, their inventory must be full of thousands of books by religious crackpots that would fulfill that criterion!

    • July 11, 2012 3:16 PM

      … and then some. According to the Telegraph story, Amazon officials in Italy did not confirm whether faulty scholarship was the reason for pulling the book, so we don’t yet know the reason.

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