Category: Archive

Masterpiece mystery

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

There are a dozen known copies of “The Taking of Christ,” by the late 16th century-early 17th century Italian painter Caravaggio.
Problem is, one of the “copies,” in the opinion of some experts, isn’t a copy at all. It’s the real thing.
The argument has flowed back and forth between Ireland and Italy, home to the two paintings that share the leading claims on authenticity.
It has crossed the Atlantic to Massachusetts where Harr spends much of his writing time.
And before the year’s out the controversy may well reach a denouement.
But nobody’s betting the last brush stroke.
The “Irish” Caravaggio has been a star attraction in the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection for over a decade.
Along with the gallery’s sole Vermeer, Caravaggio’s famed work has ensured that the gallery, in Dublin’s Merrion Square, is an obligatory stop on the worldwide masterpiece trail.
When the painting was discovered in Dublin in 1990, the government of the day proclaimed it “one of Ireland’s long-hidden treasures.”
But art experts in Italy have since claimed that the Dublin Caravaggio is a copy and that the original is actually in Rome.
Tests carried out on the Rome painting reportedly produced “cast-iron proof” that a painting in the possession of an Italian art dealer was the original painting dating from 1602.
Art expert Maria Letizia Paoletti has put on record her view that
the work in Rome is “without question” the original Caravaggio.
Paoletti’s stance has been supported by British art historian, Sir Denis Mahon, considered the foremost expert on Italian art of the period.
The National Gallery of Ireland sees it differently. It has stated that it is “confident” that the painting in its possession is the authentic work by Caravaggio.
The gallery argues that the originality of the Dublin painting has been “unanimously accepted” by experts ever since its discovery by Sergio Benedetti, an acknowledged expert on 17th century Italian art, in August 1990.
Benedetti carried out the primary research on the painting and published his findings in November 1993.
Six years later, even as the argument rumbled on, the Dublin Caravaggio went on display at an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
It was shown along with other baroque works as nothing less than an original.
The row carried over into the new century and drew author Harr into its web.
His recent book on the controversy, “The Lost Painting,” is an erudite rendition of the debate up until the publication of Benedetti’s conclusions in 1993.
The book’s chapters are divided into four parts. They will not amount to the last words, however.
Harr, who wrote the bestselling “A Civil Action” — which spawned the 1998 movie of the same name starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall — has been working on an updated edition, encompassing a fifth part to the tale, to be published later this year by Random House.
Meanwhile, the dueling paintings rest in their respective European corners, though in more prominent ones than they once did.
The Dublin Caravaggio was hanging in the dining room of a Jesuit house in
the city when its new identity first came to light.
It had been in the possession of the order since the 1930s and was initially attributed to Dutch painter, Gerard von Honthorst, a follower of Caravaggio.
But after a cleaning it was identified as the original by Benedetti, the art expert who was also head curator at the National Gallery of Ireland.
Caravaggio (1571-1610) was the working name of Michelangelo Merisi. He is
credited with about 70 works and is one of the most popular and praised
artists of the Italian baroque period.
“The Taking of Christ” vanished in the late 18th century. The painting
depicts the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot in the Garden of
In the manner of other Italian master painters such as Botticelli,
Caravaggio depicted himself in the painting as a witness to the act of
The Rome Caravaggio was ruled a copy back in the 1940s when it was
initially subjected to expert examination.
However, the more recent tests, including x-ray and infrared examination, muddied the waters with regard to a painting that has proven to be as perplexing in plain sight as it was when it was lost to
public view.
Harr’s efforts to solve the mystery were first aired in an article published in the New York Times magazine in 1994 – shortly after Benedetti’s conclusions supporting the Dublin painting were made public.
Harr lives in the town of Northampton, Mass., and has taught non-fiction writing at Smith College.
His interest in the Caravaggio debate never waned, but it was diverted for a time by his work on, and the success of, “A Civil Action.”
It sprang to life again in 2000 when Harr, who has Sligo roots on his mother’s side, was invited to visit the American Academy in Rome.
His acceptance propelled him headlong into the Caravaggio saga once again.
The Rome visit lasted several months and during his stay Harr learned Italian.
As he conducted interviews with the main Italian players in the debate, Harr wanted to avoid using interpreters, thus keeping the information he obtained under wraps for his planned book.
The Italian Caravaggio was actually in Florence at that time and was not moved to Rome until 2003.
Harr’s sojourn in Europe also included visits to Ireland to view the Dublin Caravaggio.
At first glance, it seemed to Harr that the Irish painting was a clear winner. He had initially dismissed the Italian painting as it appeared “crudely done” to his eyes.
“And the Irish painting is a beautiful painting. I followed the paper trail and it corresponded perfectly. The problem arises with copies,” Harr told the Echo.
And, as stated, there are no fewer than 12 copies of Caravaggio’s masterpiece.
“Some are abysmal but there is one very good one in Odessa,” Harr said.
An added complication is that both the Dublin and Rome versions of “The Taking of Christ” might have been painted by Caravaggio.
The Rome painting is the larger of the two and, according to Harr, it is rare that copies are larger than originals.
That one might be an original, and the other a version by the same painter, is a view that has gained some traction.
This raises an intriguing possibility: If the Roman painting is the original and the Dublin one the version, then the version is a more impressive sight to the eye than the original.
“Once or twice Caravaggio did paintings twice,” said Harr.
A famous example is “The Lute Player,” which hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. These works are slightly different from each other, but seen as the work of the same hand.
The question is, does the same apply to the Caravaggio work that is of most pressing interest?
“It was not the sort of thing that Caravaggio liked to do,” said Harr.
“He worked by himself. The question is did he make a copy of ‘The Taking of Christ.’ Some are saying it is possible.”
Harr’s upcoming book is awaiting results of a new batch of scientific tests that were carried out on the Italian work.
But the results are currently in the hands of the Italian police because of a separate lawsuit over ownership of the painting.
Still, Harr expects the results to be released by the end of this month.
“There’s still work to do and I don’t want to say that I have come to a conclusion because I haven’t. The scientific test results will give answers to the extent that they can,” he said.
Harr’s updated book will be published initially in Italy and in June. The English language version is due for release in the U.S. in November.
The book will, at the very least, carry the Caravaggio debate to an entirely new level.
But not even the author can be certain that it will be the last word on Michelangelo Merisi’s most perplexing legacy.

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