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A new Caravaggio? Not really

· The ‘Martyrdom of St Lawrence’ at the Gesù is a modest copy of a lost painting by a talented artist ·

The entrance to the Convent of Gesù is located at no. 16, Via degli Astalli, next door to Palazzo Venezia in Rome. In the late afternoon of Monday, 19 July, I rang the doorbell. My friend Giovanni Maria Vian wanted me to see the painting for myself and from close up. A colour photo was published in L’Osservatore Romano Italian daily edition on 18 July – and it immediately sparked a flame of Caravaggian curiosity.

It is only right to say that the author of the article published alongside the photograph of an unkown Martyrdom of St Lawrence did not allow hasty attributions to influence her.

With admirable scientific correctness she withheld her opinion on the authorship of the canvas, saying that the sole aim of her research was to study Merisi's relations with the Jesuits. Indeed this question is a matter of great importance that has dogged Italian and foreign art historians for decades. Another is modern art – founded, thanks to Caravaggio, on the pitiless method of revealing the stark Truth to the light – which has intersected and assimilated the modern religious feeling, introduced at the Council of Trent that was popularized by the important “new” Orders – the Oratorians, the Jesuits and the Capuchins.

To summarise, this is the historiographical thesis, long hotly argued and discussedm that still needs to be fully resolved.

The existence of documentary evidence of Caravaggio's relations with the Oratorian community at the Chiesa Nuova is well known. The Deposition in the Vatican Picture Gallery is the most eloquent proof. It is possible and even likely that Caravaggio knew and frequented Jesuit circles. Yet it has to be demonstrated.

The presence in the Gesù of Rome of a canvas with a Caravaggiesque composition may be a clue; and clues, it is well known, are the first stage in investigating the truth. This was and is the hypothesis of Lydia Salviucci Insolera's research, author of the article mentioned above.

On Saturday afternoon, 17 July, questions about this article set the telephone lines of art historians across half of Italy buzzing (mine as well); they were all being pressed by journalists who, with the directness and impatience essential to their profession, were clamouring to know instantly whether or not the painting might be a genuine Caravaggio.

Pressure from the press is very understandable. We are living in times of paroxysmal “Caravaggio-mania”. The almost 600,000 visitors to the Caravaggio exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale and the macabre exhumation of the painter's (presumed) bones that filled pages of newspapers and television screens prove the point.

One hundred years ago Caravaggio was so little appreciated that at the time of the State's acquisition of Prince Borghese's art collection, the official estimate valued the Buona ventura at a third of the Madonna and Child , a work by Sassoferrato, today virtually unknown.

Today by contrast Merisi has reached the peak of universal consensus. This is not because the people who go to museum exhibitions can truly understand his art but merely because his history and his renown as an “accursed painter”, an offender and an evader, find sympathy in the outlook, expectations and likings of our contemporaries.

This shows, as it should be shown, that artists and works of art do not have absolute, inalterable values but values that change with changing cultures and with the sensibilities of those who view them.

Yet this is a complex topic which would need further discussion: so perhaps it would be better to stop here for now.

Let us return to the evening of 19 July when, greeted by the exquisite and cultured courtesy of Fr Daniele Libanori, I had the opportunity to see the Martyrdom of St Lawrence. At pres-ent it is kept in the Sacristy of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption, the so-called “Nobles' Chapel”, used by the Confraternity of the Nobles of Rome, a marvellous place totally unknown to me until then.

This tiny Baroque “theatre” is still used every now and then to celebrate Mass for the “Nobles”, I was told. And it has come down to us miraculously intact after four centuries. It would be worth going there if only to see the 10 medium-sized sculptures, figures in gilded bronze (some by Alessandro Algardi studied and understood by Montaigue), that portray Saints.

It is the glory of the Ecclesia triumphans that is condensed in the private space of this aristocratic place of worship. In those years or shortly afterwards Gianlorenzo Bernini entrusted that same idea to the universal Church in, for example, the sculptures that crown the Colonnade of St Peter's Square. In both cases the intuition is formidable; the quality of the design and the execution are simply superb!

The issue of quality is crucial (even more than a diagnosis of the materials and pigments – today so widely used and abused – even more than the bibliographic and documentary support), because an assessment of quality is the acid test that certifies the authenticity of a work.

Well, the standard of quality of the canvas, kept in the sacristy of the Nobles' Chapel at the Gesù in Rome, is modest.

The idea of St Lawrence speaking dramatically on the gridiron of his martyrdom and of the sinister faces of the executioners engaged in carrying out the atrocious sentence are evocative.

But then look closer and you see an incorrect foreshortening of the hands, the awkward and inaccurate anatomical details of the nudes in the background on the right, the poorly executed drapery, and unconvincing brushwork.

In short, quality is non-existent whereas in Caravaggio's work it is always to be found and of a very high standard, even when he uses the greatest disdain and the barest expressive means (consider the Amorino dormiente or the Wignancourt in Palazzo Pitti).

So what should we say? My opinion is that this is an old copy of an original that was not painted by Caravaggio (or there would be traces of it in documents and in the sources), but maybe it is by he influenced, like Battistello Caracciolo, perhaps in Neapolitan circles.

Perhaps an eminent lover of Caravaggio, in the years between the 20s and the 30s of the 17th century wished to give the Martyrdom of St Lawrence the glowing evidence, the exemplary value of the truth in a certain catechetical sense, of martyrdom. It is the replica of a painting that must nevertheless have been remarkable and for whatever the reason has been lost which today is perpetuated in the objectively modest canvas kept at the Gesù in Rome.

Technical details

The Martyrdom of St Lawrence is an oil painting on canvas that measures 183 x 130.5 cm (the size of the stretcher). The scene depicts the Saint's martyrdom as described by the “Legend” of St Lawrence.

In this particular scene his martyrdom is taking place in a sort of blacksmith's forge. The Saint is lying prone on a gridiron while one of his torturers seeks to turn him over with a pike; a second torturer leans over to feed the fire with coal that he pours from a basket; a third figure, in the middle distance views the scene, holding his nose with his right hand.

The scene is lit from the upper left, from above the person viewing it.

This year, before the restoration work began, the painting had already been backed and placed on a modern stretcher. Before the intervention, the work had a very thick layer of finishing varnish, patchy and carelessly applied, with marked variations in thickness and many drips, probably due to a previous restoration. In the case of aggressive over-cleaning of the film of paint, a very thick coat of varnish allows for the rebalancing of the painting's colour scheme.

As regards the pictorial technique, we have before us a work painted directly on to a canvas primed with gesso and size. This explains the low opacity of the darker areas. Only in the highlights on the flesh and the drapery are there traces of radio-opaque metal. This is probably lead, as can be explained by the use of a white pigment or flake white.

The pigments the artist used indicate the historical period to which the work belongs. The use of red pigment of the cinabro type (sulphate of mercury) has been detected and, in the flesh tones, of a malachite-type green (basic copper carbonate).

In certain areas of the background the presence of an organic red pigment such as crimson lake is evident.

Traces of titanium in two areas of the executioner's garments, on the far right of the painting, show that the painting has been touched up, in all likelihood with titanium white (titanium dioxide). This is a relatively modern pigment first used at the beginning of the 20th century; hence the work underwent restoration in comparatively recent times. So far the research has revealed no sign of a preparatory drawing.

The scientific investigation of the picture will continue.

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