Skepticism Surrounding Caravaggio Discovery

In this 2010 photo, visitors admire the portrait of Caravaggio by an unknown painter during the presentation to journalists of an exhibit dedicated to the Lombard painter titled: “Caravaggio in Rome”, in Rome. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito file) via CBS

Yesterday,  the art world exploded with news that 100 new Caravaggio paintings and drawings had been discovered by a team of art historians in Milan at the Sforzesco Castle. The Castle is home to a collection of works from the studio of Milanese painter Simone Peterzano, who was teenage Caravaggio’s teacher for four years, from 1584 to 1588.

Art historians  Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli, who made the discovery, had been studying the Peterzano collection for two years. They are the first to attribute these works to Caravaggio. It is of importance that, as the Castle has said, all of these works have been readily visible and accessible for years, and that no such attribution has been made before despite the collection having been studied in the past:

“The drawings have always been there, and have never yet been attributed to Caravaggio,” said Elena Conenna, the council’s spokeswoman for culture. “We’ll be very happy to discover it’s true. But it’s strange. They weren’t in a hidden place, they were accessible to all.”

The strangeness of the “discovery” sits with me, as well, and with many others across the web, who have commented varyingly that such a discovery would be “astonishing” and that the desire to publish the findings so quickly seems “premature” and “rushed.” The second I read the headline for this news, I was immediately skeptical. Caravaggios on such great scale? How did no one notice this before? Surely, with the growth of Caravaggio studies especially in the past couple decades, someone, somewhere, would have at the least entertained the idea.

Indeed, confusion about the discovery’s timing is a major contributor to apprehension about the research. Why, if these works have been in the castle’s collection for years, has no art historian or Caravaggio specialist ever hinted at these works’ creator? If these works had been discovered in 2010, some might attribute such a large scale find to the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death – and the rush of scholarship and attributions and new discoveries that went along with that magnificent and flurried year for Caravaggio studies. But these works have been in the Castle’s collection for years.  The Castle’s administrators themselves were uncertain about the discovery and the rushed publication of the research:

“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”.

The reason for the immediate eBook publication is indeed perplexing. Perhaps, however, the art historians wanted their research to be immediately accessible without waiting for the red tape and process that accompanies publication in academic journals. I’m not sure of the motives behind the quick publication, but skepticism is reaonable.

The largest and most pressing mystery is, of course, is the validity of the attributions. The news has been ablaze again today with debate over the accuracy and methodology of the research, and the scholarly community has begun expressing both doubt and excitement about this new theory. Art historians are divided. Even the Vatican has commented on the validity of the attributions, saying that the readiness to attribute such a large body of drawings to Caravaggio was greatly optimistic. For now, I am inclined to agree with art historian John T. Spike, who told the Telegraph today:

“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?”

Dr. Spike has also noted via Facebook that one of the sketches is quite possibly of a sculpture that was not yet made (“make that ninety-nine” possible artworks! — put a smile on my face)!

Click to enlarge.

The debate has highlighted that there is still plenty of mystery surrounding Caravaggio’s life, and if these paintings and drawings prove authentic, they will open up a floodgate of new work that will be worth years of additional studies about Caravaggio’s art and life. If, however, these works are deemed as falsely attributed, they will have begun a fresh dialogue in the academic and art communities about Caravaggio, and hopefully new ideas will blossom about his early life based on this find and the discussion it has already begun to  ignite.

The findings have been released in a two-volume  eBook, available on Amazon. The ebook is formatted for Amazon Cloud Reader, Kindle for PC/Mac (iPad), and Kindle Fire and is available in multiple languages.

Have you been following this story? Do you think the paintings and sketches are of artistic importance, or do you agree with those, such as Dr. Claudio Strinati, who find the research “interesting but not important”?

~

REFERENCES

AGI.it, “Caravaggio: direttore Musei Vaticani, attribuzione ottimistica,” July 6 2012.

ANSA, “Caravaggio: scoperti 100 inediti, è Rivoluzione sistema Merisi.” July 6 2012. (Also available in English.)

BBC, “Dozens of Caravaggio sketches ‘discovered,'” July 6 2012.

D’Emilio, Frances. “Caravaggio claims spark Italian art world spat,” Seattle Times. July 6 2012.

Hudson, Mark. “Caravaggio discovery: to find 100 new works simply astonishing,” The Telegraph. July 5 2012.

Squires, Nick. “Art world divided over Caravaggio 100 works discovery,” The Telegraph. July 6 2012.

——. “Italian Art Historians ‘find 100 Caravaggio paintings,'”  The Telegraph. July 5 2012.

Povoledo, Elisabetta and Carol Vogel,”Scholars Doubt ‘Rediscovered’ Caravaggio Drawings,” July 6 2012. Note: The NY Times article had not yet been published at the time of writing this post. It contains new quotes from art historians and experts.