The Terrified Face Beneath Goliath of El Prado: Another Self-Portrait by Caravaggio?

Jan 21, 2024

When restoring and investigating masterpieces, something intriguing will always be uncovered. The diagnostic images of Caravaggio’s ‘David and Goliath,’ now at the Prado and recently back on display after extensive restoration, have been published and are spectacular.

A detail of David and Goliath now at Galleria Borghese, in Rome

Caravaggio seems to have consistently included self-portraits in his paintings, from his early works to his latest, and the biblical giant Goliath appears to be one of his favourite ‘incarnations’.

It is universally recognized, for example, that Caravaggio depicted himself in the head of Goliath in the painting at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, but probably also in the other two of his works with this subject (although in the Kunsthistorisches painting, it is not obvious to recognize his features, which should be a snub nose and thick eyebrows, for example).

In the Madrid painting, Goliath appears almost surprised but overall serene. Well, not in the X-ray of the artwork, that shows layer hidden beneath the visible one, but painted in full, with eyes bulging and mouth wide open, displaying upper incisors in a highly dramatic expression.

This previous version was already known, as the painting had previously undergone diagnostic investigations. These investigations had, in fact, changed opinions on attribution, for example, by Mina Gregori.

Indeed, before the investigations, there were widespread doubts about its authenticity. There was no information about its origin and arrival in Spain.

The authenticity as a Caravaggio was first defended among historians in the last century by Venturi in 1927 and confirmed by Longhi in 1951, although there were later rejections or at least doubts, such as those of Richard Spear in 1971 and Mina Gregori in 1985, expressed on the occasion of important exhibitions.

But the radiographic study was decisive, as Mina Gregori wrote in 1991: ‘The first underlying version irrefutably confirms the autograph of the work through the expression of horror, corresponding, as in Judith and Holofernes and Medusa, to the psychophysical reaction produced at the very moment of death.

A detail of the Medusa, now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

This detail is also important for establishing the relationship with the rest of the artist’s production and dating his work.

The painting has regained depth thanks to the restoration and the prompt removal of layers of oxidized varnish that hindered the reading of the original painting, and even ancient restorations, which often covered part of the original painting. In this phase, analyses were crucial, and the artwork has returned to reveal itself very similar to how Caravaggio created it: a masterpiece of invention and technique.

(For the painter’s self-portrait in the jug of the Uffizi’s Bacchus, discovered by Art-Test, you can read here: Caravaggio, a star at the Uffizi (also thanks to Art-Test) – Art-Test

Anna Pelagotti
Anna Pelagotti