Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Caravaggio? Or Caravaggio-esque?

Speaking of Caravaggio … and exciting art discoveries … Reuters reported on the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano’s announcement that a Martyrdom of St Lawrence has been found among the possessions of the Society of Jesuits in Rome, and their suggestion that it was painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

At first blush it appears to have many of Caravaggio’s stylistic hallmarks, but it has not yet been authenticated as his work.

"Certainly it's a stylistically impeccable, beautiful painting," the newspaper said in its Sunday edition, hedging its bets as it cautioned that further analyses, in-depth documentation, and stylistic examination are required before it can be attributed for certain to the Italian master.

The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence displays features typical of Caravaggio's style, including dramatic chiaroscuro and the unique perspective from which the subject is seen. Other similarities are seen in the saint's hand, the active pose of the body, virtuoso foreshortening and the emotive facial expression.

Maurizio Marini, a Caravaggio scholar, points out that St. Lawrence - a martyr burned to death during Roman persecutions in 258AD - is not known to have been a Caravaggio subject. Marini said the stylistic similarities are inconclusive and he expressed skepticism, saying that claims of new Caravaggios often surface but seldom hold up.

However, the author of the article, an art historian named Salviucci Insolera, cites the fact that Caravaggio’s circle of patrons included the powerful ... Jesuit ... Crescenzi family. But, hedging her bets, she added, "That the painting is at the very least a Caravaggio-esque work of the highest order is quite obvious."

Although it’s hard to tell by simply looking at a web-sourced image of a newspaper picture of the real thing, I question attribution to Caravaggio … based primarily on two things:

  1. Caravaggio is known to have used the same sitters repeatedly, and this model appears to be one we’ve never seen before.

  2. The facial expression seems to lack the vigor I expect of Caravaggio. He produced a series of what amounted to studies of extreme emotion – and if being cooked alive doesn’t engender extreme emotion, I don’t know what would – and this Lawrence simply doesn’t convince me that he’s feeling the heat.

That having been said, (I say, hedging my bets) could it be an early work, painted soon after his arrival in Rome, when he was still developing his skills and used any model who would sit for him for no pay? But then, at that point he didn’t yet have a connection to the Jesuits through the Crescenzi family. And he hadn't yet arrived at this degree of foreshortening or compositional complexity.

Così complicato! It’ll be a while before the experts pronounce, but I’ll let you know when I hear more.

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