Exploring a new Caravaggio attribution

August 23, 2011


Room for a new Caravaggio?

I recently was lucky enough to receive a review copy of the exhibition catalog, Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome (to be published September 6, 2011). However, upon opening the catalog, I noted with dismay that Caravaggio's newly "discovered" painting of Saint Augustine will only be displayed at the National Gallery of Canada. Instead of traveling with the rest of the exhibition to the Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas) this fall, Saint Augustine will go on display in an Italian exhibition to open this November, "Roma al tempo di Caravaggio" (Palazzo Venezia). What a disappointment! I was looking forward to seeing the painting when I visit the show in Texas.

I've been curious about this painting of Saint Augustine, ever since news of its discovery was revealed to the public this past June. The Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome catalog gives a little more information about the painting, but doesn't explain much more than what was already announced to the public and mentioned in the Yale Press Log. To be honest, I was a little disappointed that the catalog included so little information about the painting. I hoped to see more discussion on the analysis and attribution of the work, since the catalog is marketed as the first publication to include a printed reproduction of Saint Augustine. Although the book does have a fabulous reproduction (I can't complain about false advertising!), written information about the painting is a little sparse.

To give some background on the previous announcement from earlier this summer: Saint Augustine was in a private British collection and thought to be the work of an anonymous 17th century artist. However, a label tucked in the back of the stretcher helped link the painting to Vincenzo Giustiniani, a patron of Caravaggio. A painting that matches a similar description to Saint Augustine is listed in Vincenzo's 1638 inventory. Saint Augustine apparently remained in the Giustiniani family for several centuries; the painting was obscured by a thick layer of varnish that evidence the preparation methods of a certain 18th century restorer who worked at the Palazzo Giustiniani. The painting also has been examined with x-rays and infrared reflectography. Scholars in Rome agree that the techniques are identical to Caravaggio's work around 1600. More details about the discovery and attribution can be found in the report at artdaily.

A brief mention of the painting is found in a chapter of the Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome catalog. The chapter is written by art historian Francesca Cappelletti. The fact that Cappelletti authored this discussion on Saint Augustine seems to be a conscientious choice to assert the painting's authenticity - Cappelletti was one of the art historians responsible for the attribution of Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ (National Gallery of Ireland) in the early 1990's.1

Cappelletti discusses that Saint Augustine is mentioned at Vincenzo Giustiniani's residence, but it is likely that this painting first belonged to his brother Benedetto around 1600. This conclusion has apparently been made (at least in part) through comparative analysis; Cappelletti points out that Saint Augustine bears similarity "with the witness depicted in Martyrdom of Saint Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel and the palette of Odescalchi Conversion of Saul."2

The Conversion of Saul (or Saint Paul). Completed 1601. Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome

I'm still trying to decide if I agree with these two comparisons. I would have liked a little more explanation or description on both of these points. For one thing, I'm not quite sure which figure Cappelletti has pinpointed to be "the witness" in the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Perhaps the figure on the far left with the beard? His features a little similar to the model for Saint Augustine, I suppose.

Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Completed 1600. Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The still-life display of pages, folded papers, and open/closed/foreshortened books (as found in Saint Augustine) is commonly found in depictions of saints by Caravaggist painters. It is possible that Saint Augustine may have served as an inspiration for other similar paintings of saints. Cappelletti suggests one such painting that may have been influenced by Saint Augustine: Portrait of a Cardinal (c.1610-16) by Orazio Borgianni. Cappelletti also thinks that this painting "obviously served as references for painters who had access to the Palazzo Giustiniani such as R├ęgnier, Ribera, and Cavarozzi." 3 It will be interesting to see what other scholarly connections will be made between Saint Augustine and the work of other 17th century painters.

All this being said, I have to admit that I haven't wholeheartedly embraced Saint Augustine. I think it's a nice painting, and the fantastic reproduction in the catalog has definitely made me more excited about the work in general. But it takes me a while to get used to new paintings that are placed into the oeuvre of a well-known master. I'm just cautious by nature, I guess. The provenance of the painting seems rather solid, which helps to put my mind at ease. If only I would be able to see this painting in the Texas show! Then perhaps I'd be able to really get excited about this attribution!

What about you? What do you think of this new painting and attribution? Have you made room in your heart for another painting by Caravaggio?

Image credit: Whitfield Fine Art Research

Saint Augustine
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Dated c.1600
oil on canvas
120 x 190 cm (approx. 4' x 3' 3")
Private Collection

Provenance
Cardinal Bendetto Giustiniani, Rome?
Marchese Vincenzo Gustiniani, Rome, by 1638;
by descent to Marchese Pantaleo Vincenzo Giustiniani, Rome by 1857;
sold between 1859 and 1862.
Private collection.

Edit: Prof. Bowen's review of Caravaggio and his followers in Rome has been posted at Alberti's Window link

References
1 I should mention, though, at present I am unsure whether Cappelletti herself participated in the recent attribution of Saint Augustine.

2 Francesca Cappelletti, "'Beauty from Nature' and Devotion: The Caravaggisti's New Images of the Saints," in Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 236.

3 Ibid.

Monica Bowen is a professor of art history at Seattle University and Central Washington University. As a scholar of the Baroque period, she has a special love for Caravaggio. When Monica is not in the classroom with students, she often can be found working on content for her own art history blog, the inspirational and informative Alberti's Window.

14 comments:

heidenkind said...

Well, the documentation sounds very convincing, but I'm still doubtful. That painting looks pretty different to me than the two examples they compared it to. But obviously I'm not the expert.

Hels said...

It looks very different to me too, but who knows?

Is it possible that Saint Augustine was more reflective and less edgy than Caravaggio's usual paintings because he was living through a less edgy moment in his tumultuous life in 1600. Caravaggio was always urgently looking for sex, having under age sex, brawling, avoiding the law, chasing cardinals for patronage, running away, hiding.... no wonder he was agitated.

M said...

@Hels and @heidenkind: I know! It does look very different from Caravaggio's other works. That's why I wanted to see the painting in-person (perhaps to be better convinced?), but I'll have to wait for another opportunity than the upcoming Caravaggio show in Texas.

Stylistically, I think this painting does look a little different than Caravaggio's other works. The provenance is the most convincing thing for me, at this point. I hope that the proceedings of the upcoming symposium on this painting (see "Artdaily" link in the post) get published. I'd like to know what other scholars say on this topic.

Val S. said...

I'm looking at Madonna of the Rosary (1605/1607), and there is a figure that looks very similar to St. Augustine. Also, some aspects of the painting are not overly edgy, and the composition is a little static. As I have noticed with Caravaggio, he can be inconsistent. Not surprising given all the sex, brawling, and running that Hels mentioned! So I've decided to keep an open mind, and look forward to hearing more about this!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Interesting post! So you're going to Texas, eh? If you fly through Atlanta, let me know!

Edward Goldberg said...

Ciao, Monica!

You have probably heard the old joke:
Q."Is this painting by Caravaggio?"
A."Absolutely! The question is which Caravaggio!"

There is quite a range of things in and around his constantly shifting oeuvre, so we often seem to be comparing apples, oranges and asparagus. In the Saint Augustine, the rather broad, slightly soft application of paint is probably what stops us at first glance. And also, a slight edge of sweetness. But much of this is present in core works like "The Rest on the Flight" and "The Repentant Magdalen". The Saint Augustine is very much the sort of work that we need to see in person, with a clearer idea of the state of conservation. Also, there is something about the figure that makes me think of Lombardy(especially Bergamo and Brescia). I also wonder about the rather delicate drawing of the hands.

Fortunately, I am only an hour and a half train ride from Rome, so I can see the show when it comes to Palazzo Venezia. Last week, by the way, I was in Siracusa where I saw the "Burial of Saint Lucy" which has been moved back into the Church of Santa Lucia - which is disaster, visually. The picture is a near ruin and it is now virtually invisible. It was far more legible in its temporary home in the Regional Museum in Palazzo Bellomo.

Ed G.

M said...

Thanks for the comments! Unfortunately, Vicky, I won't be flying through Atlanta. Perhaps another time!

Ed G., you bring up a good point about how some of Caravaggio's work to have a "sweetness." I think that some of this sweetness is also present in Madonna of the Rosary. Val S. left a comment on my own blog about how a model in this painting looks very similar to the Saint Augustine model. I'm sure that she was referring to the man on the right side of the painting, whose face is turned toward the viewer. I think this comparison is much more convincing than the ideas put forth by Cappelletti in the catalog!

How disappointing to hear that Burial of Saint Lucy is in such poor condition. Someone needs to do something about that!

Edward Goldberg said...

I see your point about the Sant'Agostino and the Madonna of the Rosary. By the way, have you read Jonathan Harr's rather hair-rasing book, "The Lost Painting". Regarding the Saint Lucy: In terms of condition, the picture really is a ruin and I think that the canvas has been stabilized and reclaimed about as much as possible. Presentation is a whole other matter. The Church of Santa Lucia (right on the Cathedral Square in Siracusa) has been turned into a museum of that one picture, which is on the high altar (no admission charge, I hasten to say.) However, it is rather high up, against a rather dingy white background and with no lighting to speak of (at least not when I was there.)Now that the church has their picture back, perhaps the next step will be think about the display.

Dr. F said...

What makes them so sure it is St. Augustine? It could be St. Jerome in his study. Have they said anything about the black habit? It could be a contemporary Jesuit.

Frank

H Niyazi said...

Hello Frank.

The black habit is also worn by the Augustinian monastic order (to this day).

The presence of the skull in the composition is more usually an attribute of St Jerome, however the books and bishop's hat are also attributes of Augustine (of Hippo). It can be argued that the skull represents study and the love of learning more commonly attributed to Augustine, also its inclusion as a momento mori can not be dismissed.

In other depictions this love of learning is shown as a celestial globe, a flaming heart(a burning desire for knowledge), or simply the keen study of books - as above.

It should also be noted in the Middle Ages and beyond, St Jerome was commonly depicted as a cardinal, or with a cardinal's hat in the background - which Caravaggio showed in his version of St Jerome painted in Malta >> image

It could hence be argued the bishop's hat strongly rules out Jerome, despite the skull.

Kind Regards
H

Steve LeBlanc said...

Dear Ms Bowen, I just returned from Ottawa after seeing the Caravaggio exhibit. I must say the only thing that convinces me that this painting is by Caravaggio is the provenance. For me the lack of detail and the drawing style didn't win me over. I must add I'm not an expert but if the evidence of its validity is valid there is always room for another painting. Regards Steve LeBlanc

H Niyazi said...

Many thanks for your input Steve, and thank you for taking the time to report your impression of seeing the painting in situ.

It is interesting to note how provenance can play such a large part in attributions of this type. I most definitely look forward to more data reported on this work.

I wonder if there is any underdrawing or pentimenti? These are much less common in Caravaggio (compared to earlier artists) but as seen in The Taking of Christ can be a key factor in establishing an original vs a copy.

In the case of this St. Augustine the XR and IR scans were mentioned, but their results not fully elucidated - hopefully such details will come to light after the November conference.

Kind Regards
H

M said...

Edward, thanks for the book recommendation! I'll look into finding a copy of Harr's "The Lost Painting." It sounds intriguing!

Hi Frank! This painting is also thought to be of Saint Augustine, since a painting matching its description is listed (probably underneath the title of "Saint Augustine" or something similar) in the 1638 inventory Vincenzo Giustiniani. H Niyazi has also brought up some good points about iconography.

Steve, thanks for mentioning your impression of the painting! It's nice to hear from someone who has seen the painting in-person. I hope you enjoyed the rest of the exhibition. I can't wait to see the show myself!

H, I also look forward to seeing more results about this painting. I'm also curious to know about the x-rays and infrared reflectography results, too. The mentioning of these scans seems to suggest that their results (perhaps revealing something about underpainting or technique?) were factored into the attribution. I wish I knew!

Steve LeBlanc said...

The exhibition is definitely worth seeing and I hope you enjoy it. In particular I was riveted to Caravaggio's first Isaac & Abraham (1598). I'm not sure which ones will be going to Texas but even though it's only eight, that's still a good percentage of his output.
I also stumbled across Harr's "The Lost Painting" last week and read it in one sitting. Well worth reading.

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