Caravaggio in the news

Italian School of the beginning of the XVIIth century
The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (detail ?)
Oil on canvas - dimensions unkwonwn
Rome, proprerty of the Jesuits
Photo : All rights reserved

Sensationalism and a frantic search for scoops are also part of art history. This applies generally to those rare artists whose names are widely familiar, the first being of course Leonardo da Vinci. New information appears on a regular basis, most with little scientific basis, providing amazing discoveries about him or his work. Endless nonsense has been written for example about the Mona Lisa.

In the past few years, Caravaggio has become a member of this very exclusive club of art stars whose name alone sells well on paper. Just recently, his remains were found at Porto Ercole, a news item which was immediately relayed by AFP then the entire press, including certain specialized journals on their Internet website. What exactly had these searchers found ? And on what had they based their conclusions ? Let us take a look at their rigorous logic : they first studied the bones discovered in a cemetery at Porto Ercole, the city where the artist died in 1610. They then “established that these human remains had belonged to a man who died at the same time as the artist, and was between 37 and 45 years old” [1]. As if only one man of this age had died around 1610 in Porto Ercole. Then we are told that the remains had a high level of lead, meaning this might be Caravaggio as he “apparently suffered from saturnism” [2]. No doubt these scientists had confidential access to Caravaggio’s personal medical records, since it has never been proven that he suffered from saturnism, or lead poisoning. This is particularly fallacious as elsewhere we read that it is in fact the discovery of lead in Caravaggio’s remains which would show that he died from saturnism [3]. Finally, and this is presented as the most important piece of evidence : DNA testing. The traces of DNA found in his bones (we can only imagine in what condition they are in) was “compared to that of around twenty men who might be distant relatives”. Their DNA will be compared to that of the newly-found bones.” [4]
An article in The New York Times, the only credible publication to have uncovered what would seem to be a vast marketing operation for the artist’s four hundredth anniversary of his death, explains that in fact the scientists were unable to assert unequivocally that any of these people were directly related to Caravaggio, or rather to his brother or sister, who both died without children. The article adds that the tests were done on some of the inhabitants of Caravaggio, a town, with the same last name (Merisi).
Even the persons who found these bones admit that none of this is certain and that there is an 85% probability that they might correspond to Caravaggio’s remains. If we were to admit that these are indeed Caravaggio’s bones (and there is still a large margin of error), just how important is this ? As Keith Christiansen, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, says wittily in The New York Times : “Very honestly, I don’t see why anyone would be remotely interested in finding Caravaggio’s bones. I thought relic worship went out with the Middle Ages.”

Not a month goes by without a sensational discovery about Caravaggio appearing in yet another headline. This time, a new painting by the master has been discovered. The firt mention appeared in an article in L’Osservatore Romano saying that a painting which is very probably by the artist was found at the Jesuits in Rome. There is an accompanying photograph, of poor quality, representing The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (ill.). It is of course impossible to acknowledge the master’s hand from just this document. From what we can see, this is an ambitious composition but the artistic quality simply is not there. Indeed, we cannot tell if this is just a detail from the canvas, or the entire work, in which case this is probably only a fragment. No information is provided about the size, provenance, background, the name of the art historian (s) who made the attribution to Caravaggio, if it will be published soon (and where) nor the opinions of Caravaggio, and Italian Seicento, specialists.
In brief, once again another very hypothetical discovery has made media headlines. In France, we all remember the previous “Caravaggio” works found in Loches, still presented in this city as being originals (see news item, in French, of 26/1/06).
Covering this kind of information always implies treading carefully : if not mentioned, we might be accused of not following the news. In this case, it has provided us with the chance to write an editorial…And since it is of course difficult to be critical without being criticized in turn, we present here our mea culpa, on the subject of Caravaggio to be more precise. We did indeed make a mistake by announcing in December of 2008 (see news item of 8/12/08) that the Caravaggio copy which had been stolen in Odessa had been recovered. Our information was based on foreign newspapers, notably Spanish, English and Italian, which at that time had published the news according to the RIA Novosti press agency, and which was undoubtedly false as the painting was in fact found last June in Berlin [5]. What really matters is that it has been recovered finally, although this still does not make it any more an authentic Caravaggio than before.

Didier Rykner, dimanche 25 juillet 2010


[1] AP press release of 3/7/10.

[2] Le Monde, 17/6/10, with AFP.

[3] The Guardian, The Mystery of Caravaggio’s Death Solved at Last – Painting Killed Him, 16/6/10.

[4] AP press release of 14/5/10.

[5] Although we indicated that the foreign press had relayed this information, we did not state the original source clearly enough.

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