Just having the name “Caravaggio” in the title of an exhibition usually ensures its success, even though he was a forgotten artist for centuries, fallen into obscurity, and it is all thanks to Roberto Longhi that he was rediscovered, restoring him to a prominent role only 70 years ago. Longhi was indeed the curator of the 1951 exhibition in Milan, Caravaggio e i Caravaggisti, which definitively marked a turning point in the fame of this spectacular painter.
After many exhibitions and events where the name Merisi was used only to make money, here is an opportunity that is worth organizing a small trip for. In these weeks, there is an exhibition about him at Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia, a truly fascinating exhibition space, where you can see an extraordinary painting depicting the capture of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane after the betrayal of Judas, known as the Taken of Christ.
This oil on canvas was also found by Longhi, a few years before the famous Milanese exhibition, in the Ruffo di Calabria collection in Florence. However, the conditions of the painting were not good, and at the time, it was considered only the best copy of a painting thought to be lost.
A hasty judgment or still the correct one?
Due to its incredible story, including some police investigations, this is a work that remained hidden for a long time, and the ongoing exhibition is an opportunity to bring it to the attention of the general public and scholars, who can now try to answer the question of its alleged authorship.
It is one of the most intense and pathos-rich compositions of Caravaggio’s Roman activity, inspiring numerous copies, at least 12 ancient ones, and sparking many discussions about the alleged (and sometimes denied) originals. It is also a work that better acquaints us with the artist’s production for private palaces, carried out in parallel with the more well-known commissions for the Contarelli Chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi and the Cerasi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo, in the transition between the 16th and 17th centuries.
Sources tell us that in January 1603 (although the work was painted in 1602), the Roman noble collector Ciriaco Mattei paid Caravaggio handsomely for a “Capture of Christ” with a painted frame “black and gold scrollwork,” which could be the one exhibited in Ariccia today. But complicating the story is another piece of news: from 1624 in the Mattei collection, a second version of this painting appears, possibly commissioned by Ciriaco for his brother Asdrubale, this time with a golden frame and smaller dimensions. After that, from the 1640s, the first version, that of 1602, disappears from the family inventories. It is thanks to Francesco Petrucci, curator of the Ariccia exhibition, that the further historical vicissitudes of the mentioned painting have been studied, which could be the one that reappears first in Naples and then in 1688 in the inventories of the Colonna di Stigliano, and from there, through inheritance, to the Ruffo di Calabria princes of Scilla, who transferred it to Florence in the early 20th century, where it was purchased in 2003 by the current owner, the Roman antiquarian Mario Bigetti.
The second version, on the other hand, could be the one that, from the collection of Paolo Mattei, Asdrubale’s son, where it was recorded, through successive sales, arrived in 1802 in an Irish collection with the attribution to Gerrit van Honthorst. Subsequently, it was donated to the College of Sant’Ignazio dei gesuiti, where an Italian, Sergio Benedetti, recognized it as autographed by Caravaggio in 1993, and it is now one of the attractions of the National Gallery in Dublin. This work in Ireland is officially considered Caravaggio’s autograph, but the results of the restoration on the Ariccia painting have changed the perspective, making it seem perhaps not actually by Caravaggio but by the hand of Honthorst, as the attribution indicated until a few years ago.
It might not even be the second version, as in the collections of Palazzo Pitti in Florence, there is another version that, during the restoration, showed significant pentimenti and the use of pigments typical of Caravaggio’s period of activity.
Also, the painting in Ariccia is undergoing restoration today, and the knowledge analysis conducted (including the exhibition of X-rays and reflectographic images) finally allows for a better understanding of the work, highlighting some changes and pentimenti, which support the possibility of authorship. In this case as well, the colors used, namely cinnabar red, madder lake, and smalt, are typical of Caravaggio’s time.
Therefore, there are stylistic and technical elements that could lean towards the originality of the Ariccia painting and cast doubt on the authorship of the one in Dublin, which seems increasingly challenging to argue.
In the catalog of the Ariccia exhibition, the thesis is presented that even the one in Dublin is by Caravaggio, although a version later than the one owned by Bigetti. However, many elements suggest that the Irish one is instead the work of a Dutch Caravaggist present in those years in Rome, Gerrit von Hontorst. It could be an exemplary case in the recurring question of Caravaggesque replicas and copies. The possibility that the Irish canvas is the work of Hontorst does not diminish the quality, summing up in both versions but simply distinguishes two styles and the execution technique.
Among all the elements supporting this thesis, we can mention what appears to be a clear misunderstanding by a copyist, not a variation by the master who repeats the same composition twice. In fact, the painter of the Irish work has transformed, completely distorting the original, a very evident scar on the left hand with which Judas grasps Christ (the scar is a sort of mark of infamy of the traitor), which in the Ariccia painting, as well as in that of Pitti, is clearly visible.
In any case, due to its exceptional nature, the painting in Ariccia has been notified by the Italian State with a Decree of December 2, 2004, by the Minister of Cultural Heritage, as works of particular interest to the nation, while leaving it in the ownership of the antiquarian. The exhibition will move to Naples in 2024, and discussions on authorship, whether public or whispered, will likely continue.