Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The Lost Caravaggio: II

Photo Credit: National Gallery of Ireland

THE leading expert in Baroque paintings and specialist in Caravaggio was Sir Denis Mahon, an art historian and collector of Baroque paintings, who had twice been a Trustee of the National Gallery London.

At this time he was 82-years old and had spent his entire adult life studying Baroque paintings.

When the restoration was complete he was invited to visit Dublin, was led to the Restoration Studio, shown the painting on an easel, studied it closely, ‘nose to canvas’, and was asked who was the painter?

In a matter of minutes he said ‘Caravaggio’.

He later explained that he was persuaded by the ‘masterly’ painting of the hands in the picture, objects which many artists find particularly difficult to portray. 

WITH an attribution by Sir Denis Mahon of the ‘Honthorst’ painting as a genuine Caravaggio its estimated market value in 1993 was as much as £50 million.

The Jesuit community decided that, having received it as a gift from Dr. Lea-Wilson, now dead, they held it on a charitable trust and were not free to sell it.

They retain ownership but placed it on permanent loan to the National Gallery of Ireland.

BUT is it really the original of The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio or a variation on the original by Caravaggio himself or even a very good copy of the original by another artist such as Honthorst? 

The original painting had been commissioned in Rome in 1602 by its richest citizen, Ciriaco Mattei.

Caravaggio was then living in his palace and painted at least three paintings for him.

Ciriaco was a meticulous book-keeper and his account books, in his own hand, show four payments to Caravaggio, seemingly based on the size of the paintings, including a payment in 1603 of 125 scudi (enough to rent a house in Rome for three years) ‘for a painting with its frame of Christ taken in the Garden’.

This refers to St. Mark’s Gospel description of Judas betraying Christ to soldiers with a kiss.

THE Mattei family’s wealth diminished in the following two centuries.

Family inventories of possessions became less specific.

The painting of ‘The Taking of Christ’ was attributed to Caravaggio until 1753 when a new inventory described a painting as ‘The Betrayal by Judas’.

A 1786 guidebook called ‘An Instructive Inventory of Rome’ by one Guiseppe Vasi was replete with errors and attributed the ‘Taking’ picture to Gherardo della Notte.

Whoever prepared the 1793 Mattei inventory appears to have drawn on Vasi as his source, rather than previous family inventories.

The painting in the Mattei family’s possession was attributed for the first time in the 1793 inventory to Gherardo delle Notti.

Was this the Caravaggio? 

IN 1798, when Napoleon invaded Northern Italy, he imposed heavy taxes on landowners to pay for his army.

The Mattei family had to sell assets to pay these taxes.

In 1802 they sold six paintings to a very wealthy Scotsman called William Hamilton Nisbet, including one which had been labelled as ‘The Taking of Christ’ by Honthorst.

An export licence was obtained for the six paintings which again refers to the painting being by Honthorst.

The six paintings purchased from the Mattei Palace in Rome in 1802 remained in the Hamilton Nisbet family’s possession until 1921.

IN that year, the last direct descendant of William Hamilton Nisbet was his great-granddaughter Constance Ogilvy.

She offered 31 of her family’s paintings to the National Gallery of Scotland which took all but three of them.

The rejected three included the Honthorst.

Together with other family paintings from ‘the Mansion-House of Biel, East Lothian’ it went to auction at Dowell’s in Edinburgh on 16 April 1921.

An annotated catalogue for that sale shows £8-8-0 beside the entry for ‘The Betrayal of Christ’ by Gerard Honthorst.

THE paper trail for Caravaggio’s painting from the Mattei Palace in Rome in 1603 to Dowell’s auction house in Edinburgh in 1921 is not perfect but is convincing.

It is supplemented by the oral history of Dr Lea-Wilson acquiring the painting in Edinburgh in the 1920s, giving it to the Jesuits in the 1930s and the painting going to the NGI in 1990.

THERE are at least twelve known versions of Caravaggio’s painting.

Two of them are claimed to be the original of ‘The Taking of Christ’, one in Odessa in the Ukraine and another which was bought from the Sannini family in Florence, Italy, by a Roman art dealer in 2003.

The Odessa painting is probably a copy of the Caravaggio made for Ciriaco Mattei’s brother Asdurabale by an artist called Giovanni di Attile for which he was paid 12 scudi.

Sir Denis Mahon described the fingers in the Odessa painting as being like ‘sausages’, not typical of Caravaggio’s best work.

Although Sir Denis thought that the Sannini painting was one of a series of the same subject painted by Caravaggio, its claim became doubtful in 2008 when analysis of its pigments showed traces of ‘Naples Yellow’, a paint not known to have been used until 1615, five years after Caravaggio’s death.

ON balance, the paper trail from Rome to Edinburgh, the oral history in Dublin and Sir Denis Mahon’s attribution to Caravaggio, indicate that ‘The Taking of Christ’ painting in the NGI is the original painting commissioned by Ciriaco Mattei in Rome in 1602.

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