A Maltese Caravaggio scholar and Italian art critic rejected claims of a new discovered painting attributed to a lost Caravaggio.
St Augustine was premiered in Canada unequivocally as a painting by Caravaggio, even though no consensus had been reached over it- Caroline Tonna
A symposium curated by Rossella Vodret and organised by the Tavola Rotunda was recently held at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome to discuss Caravaggio’s St Augustine, exhibited at the ‘Roma al tempo di Caravaggio 1600-1630’ exhibition (Rome in the Times of Caravaggio 1600-1630).
The discovery of St Augustine was first revealed by the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore based on archival documentation put forward by Silvia Danesi Squarzina.
The painting was found in a Spanish private collection which corresponds to an inventory drawn up in 1638 in the collection of Marchese Vincenzo Guistiniani who was one Caravaggio’s major patrons.
The painting remained in the Giustiniani collection for centuries and is traced down to the heir of the Giustiniani collection, Marchese Pantaleo Vincenzo Giustiniani Recanelli in Rome by 1862, until it was sold between 1857 and 1862.
A label tucked at the back of the canvas helped link the painting to the patron, which was perhaps written by the Spanish collector which states, ‘to Marchese Recanelli in Government Street’.
The painting was obscured by a thick layer of varnish that proves the preparation method of an18th century restorer who worked at Palazzo Giustiniani.
A technical paper was presented by Claudio Falcucci that shows pentimenti (corrections) which were typical in Caravaggio’s paintings and also the painting techniques used are close tothe artist’s style.
Danesi Squarzina made several arguments that point to theauthenticity of the painting such as the positioning of the right hand of St Augustine on the book, which resembles the hand of the angel that guides St Matthew to write the gospel in St Matthew and the Angel at the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, also painted by Caravaggio. St Augustine’s wrinkles on theforehead are also compared in similarity to the wrinkles of St Jerome at Gallaria Borghese.
However, all these testimonies did not convince art critic Vittorio Sgarbi and Keith Sciberras, a senior lecturer in art at the University of Malta. They claimed that although archival evidence and scientific findings were used to favour the painting to belong to Caravaggio, the painting itself is less convincing.
Sgarbi argued that the painting lacked the forceful energy and inventive style of Caravaggio. He made various comparisons to how Caravaggio depicted the hands in other paintings which usually showed the dirty hands of peasants, which are unlike St Augustine’s ‘manicured’ hands that lacked the tension of life.
Sciberras said he did not believe St Augustine was painted by Caravaggio. He appealed to all scholars to note that Caravaggio studies were at the crossroads and that there was an urgent need to regroup and reassess the work of scholars.
St Augustine was premiered in Canada at the Caravaggio and his followers in Rome exhibition, unequivocally as a painting by Caravaggio, even though scholars had reached no consensus.
Sciberras pointed out that archival research had been used in the St Augustine to justify the attribution to Caravaggio and this was presented as a fact rather than as a hypothesis.
He objected to the method used in proposing this painting. In the ‘Roma al tempo di Caravaggio’ exhibition it was shown as a ‘nuova proposta’ when it should have been marked as a ‘controversial’ proposal.
Even though documents were presented in favour of the attribution, Sciberras remarked that there could have been another painting of St Augustine in the Giustiniani collection or that this painting entered the collection at a much later stage.
Both Sgarbi and Sciberras concluded that the physical analysis of the painting is always the one which wins over archival and scientific evidence.
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