An original without copies or Caravaggio’s zigzag

Apr 21, 2021 | Authentications & attributions, Cutural Heritage, Discoveries, Highlights

Spunti diagnostici di riflessione sull’attribuzione

From how they all got on the bandwagon (“I discovered it!” “No, I discovered it first!“) there would seem to be no doubts that the painting at auction in Madrid is the real “Ecce Homo” made by Caravaggio as result of a competition between painters arranged by Monsignor Massimi, as documented in old biographies. About the painting that had been indicated so far as the Massimi’s painting, now in Genoa, many are quick to say that after all no one had ever believed in it, it is clearly not by “him”. Sic transeat gloria mundi.

As diagnosticians, it is of course super interesting for us to go and see why this attribution is so eagerly, and almost unanimously, supported. A fate that did not touch the many other “Caravaggio” that have been proclaimed (even by the same who are pronouncing now) and disowned over the years.

Much has been written about the difference between originals and copies by Caravaggio. As on the possibility that Caravaggio produced “doubles”.

And here we notice the first anomaly, perhaps only temporary. Of all the Caravaggio, or presumed such, that we have investigated, there were always copies. Generally very similar versions, on which to make comparisons on technique and materials used. Also of the “Ecce Homo” Genoese version. Actually we probably know only copies of some of Caravaggio’s inventions.

No other versions of this painting appear to have emerged. Although it is true that the canvas had been in Spain for almost four centuries, and it has the very same subject as a painting documented to have arrived in Madrid in 1659, it seems anomalous that no one has made copies. Among similar composition that come to mind, there is a painting in Malta, with a similar subject, by Mario Minniti.

There are several versions, one of which in Vienna, attributed to Minniti too, of another “Ecce Homo” with an analogous composition, considered by some to be Caravaggesque, but of which the three protagonists do not resemble those of the Madrid canvas.

We diagnosticians would have loved to have been able to make comparisons with a copy or a version.

But the most interesting contribution for us was the commentary by Rossella Vodret, who, together with others, edited two volumes full of observations on the Lombard painter’s technique for Silvana Editoriale.

We quote from an interview on the subject: “Then there are further observations relating to the executive technique, made visible thanks to an HD photo that was sent to me. I am referring to a series of specific executive features of Caravaggio, such as the full-bodied zig-zag white lead sketches that the artist uses mainly starting from 1605 and which are found in various works, such as the San Girolamo Borghese, the San Girolamo di Montserrat, the Flagellation of Capodimonte. They are very particular sketches through which the painter fixes the points in which to position the highlights on the dark preparation of the canvas. It is a feature that, up to now, I have not found in other painters. In the “Ecce Homo” there are zigzag sketches on the chest, shoulder and arm of Christ, all in full light. The incisions are also typical, although we now know that all the artists of the period made the incisions, but these are perfectly compatible with those found on Caravaggio’s autographed paintings “. 

We would like to give some news: we have not found them on many Caravaggio that we have investigated, but the famous zigzags traces can also be found in the “San Giovannino” in Empoli, which we studied (unfortunately the allocated budget did not allow a complete diagnostic campaign). We talked about it in the essay we wrote on the occasion of the presentation of the restoration intervention, and in the video that you can see (in Italian) on our YouTube channel.

We look forward to learning more. Hoping that it doesn’t disappear into thin air.

Anna Pelagotti