May 21, 2023

Anna Pelagotti
Anna Pelagotti

Unveiled: different versions of Caravaggio’s works show contrasting details thanks to scientific analyses

Two versions of a Caravaggio painting reveal significant differences thanks to scientific analysesThere has been an ongoing debate among Caravaggio scholars for years regarding if the painter replicated some of his compositions or not, and therefore whether, for paintings with the same subject, one should always speak of original and copy (or copies) , or whether we can speak of different versions by the hand of Caravaggio himself.

Of course in some cases the distinction is obvious, but there are also some paintings over which scholars have wrestled for years, without arriving at firm conclusions.

At least until scientific analyses took place, as, for example, in the case of the painting San Francis in Meditation, of which two versions are known, both of excellent quality. In this case it was always believed that the canvas kept in the Capuchin convent in Rome was the first version. But when a painting of identical subject and very high pictorial quality appeared in a church in Carpineto (today in the National Gallery of Ancient Art of Palazzo Barberini in Rome), everything changed: it was believed that the latter was the prototype and the other one a second version or a copy.

St. Francis in Meditation” Caravaggio (on the left version of Carpineto Romano, on the right version of the Capuchin church)

After performing radiography and reflectography, it was discovered instead that the most likely hypothesis was the opposite one, the “Capuchin” painting was likely the prototype.

In order to arrive at formulating hypotheses that have an objective basis, it is always absolutely crucial to be able to make comparisons not only between the visible images but also on what the human eye does not see, and which instead is evident in the diagnostic images.

Saint Jerome, Caravaggio, Co-Cathedral of Malta

It is very recent news that an in-depth diagnostic campaign is being conducted on the Saint Jerome of the Co-Cathedral of Malta, and a first detail of the infrared reflectography has been published in the Giornale dell’Arte.

On a privately owned version (or copy), with identical composition, Art-Test worked almost 15 years ago, together with the art historian and restorer Roberta Lapucci. The results of the investigations and the resulting hypotheses were presented during the scientific program par excellence of RAI: SuperQuark.

The painting has a very interesting history and you can find something here too. And also in this case the attribution of the painting has divided the critics. We may now have reached an important turning point because what was not possible before can be done now, that is a punctual comparison of details and technique thanks to new scientific analyses.

Details of the painting San Girolamo, on the left the canvas reflectography conserved at the Co-Cathedral of Malta (detail published in the Giornale dell’Arte), on the right the painting in a private collection.

We have here compared both the visible images of the two versions and the details of the Infrared images. Although in the latter some differences in resolution, image sharpness and grayscale can be attributed to the different equipment used, some differences stand out, which we have highlighted with colored ovals.

Details of the painting San Girolamo, on the left the canvas reflectography conserved at the Co-Cathedral of Malta (detail published in the Giornale dell’Arte), on the right the painting in a private collection. The differences are highlighted in the colored ovals.

See, for example, the detail in the red oval: in the left image, relating to the painting of Malta, nothing can be seen under the shadow of the arm on the chest, at least in the image that was published, while in the right image a nipple can be seen, later covered by the dark shadow now present in the visible painting, in both canvases.

Detail of the nipple of the Saint in the painting in a private collection

On the other hand, in the green oval there is a double diagonal stripe, which is not present in the painting on the right and not even in the visible painting. And what about the yellow oval leather bookmark, which does not appear in the left-hand version and is masterfully executed in the right-hand one, probably “removing” paint with the back of the brush?

Detail of the bookmark in the painting in a private collection

Again, in the blue oval it can be seen that the leg of the table in the painting on the left was not originally present, while in the other it was, or at least it is made with a material that is not transparent to infrared like the other.

The game of differences can continue and we invite you to do so and share the pleasure of discovery with us, waiting for more details to be published!