The last mystery of Caravaggio is hidden in Madrid, in calle de Alcalá 52. A few steps from the Spanish headquarters of Sotheby’s, there is another auction house: Ansorena, specialized in national antiques since 1845. Here, since last March 18, as always, in view of the spring sale, period porcelain, still lifes, portraits of aristocrats, saints and sorrowful madonnas are on display. There is only one lot that, suddenly, disappeared from the official website, but not from the catalog also distributed online. Issue 229 was withdrawn just in time to no longer appear in the auction scheduled at 6pm on April 8th. The Spanish state has bound him. Once purchased, the work cannot go beyond the borders.
It is a Behold the man 17th century: oil painting on canvas, measuring 111 by 86 centimeters, has been attributed to the “Círculo de José de Ribera” and is estimated at just 1,500 euros. The last two figures, however, are definitely to be updated. Because the curiosities of art historians and the interests of warned collectors have concentrated on this dark painting that needs restoration. The image was shared in the smartphone chats of merchants and experts, and even a few museums came forward. Starting right from the Prado, which is just a kilometer and a half from the object of desire and hopes for the blow. In short, this Christ emerging from the shadows has all the air of being a rediscovered Caravaggio, applying to open a new sensational chapter in the history of the cursed painter, who died at 39, on 18 July 1610 on the coast between Lazio and Tuscany, in waiting to be pardoned from the murder sentence. This is the first plausible attribution after that of Magdalene in ecstasy found by Mina Gregori and announced on Republic seven years ago.
The reconstruction of the facts is still fragmentary. But Maria Cristina Terzaghi, a Caravaggio scholar, was among the first scholars of the seventeenth-century master to reach the Spanish capital to view the work, defying the pandemic. And now he has no doubts: “It’s him!”, He tells on the phone from Madrid. Associate Professor of History of Modern Art at Roma Tre, in 2019 Terzaghi was the curator of Caravaggio Naples at the Capodimonte Museum, one of the most important recent exhibitions dedicated to Merisi. “The purple mantle with which Christ is clothed has the same compositional value as the red of the Salomé del Prado in Madrid”, he explains. On his eye it is not possible to have too many doubts: “This work maintains a profound bond with the paintings drawn up at the beginning of the Neapolitan stay”, he specifies. The bearded Pontius Pilate in the foreground also recalls another character of Caravaggio: the martyr of St. Peter Madonna of the Rosary of the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna.
The choice of the Spanish state to block the auction is clear proof that the new attribution is widely shared. Now the lucky owners are confident in an unexpected rise in the price of an anonymous work that could be worth hundreds of millions of euros and which was considered to be at the most of the school of Jusepe de Ribera, a very talented Spanish artist who crosses Caravaggio’s Naples. There are too many coincidences and details that have attracted the attention of scholars. Starting with a sure fact: the canvas has been in Spain for almost four centuries. And it depicts the same subject of a certain painting by Michelangelo Merisi who arrived in Madrid in 1659, then disappeared into thin air and identified with little certainty by some critics in the version of Palazzo Bianco, in Genoa. So let’s rewind the tape of history once again.
As noted by the documents, it is known that in Rome, in 1605, Caravaggio painted a Behold the man for Cardinal Massimo Massimi. The same subject is inventoried in 1631 in the collection of Juan de Lezcano, ambassador of Spain to the Holy See, and marked by a very high estimate of 800 scudi. It is the first element that brings the painting closer to the reign of the Catholic kings. But until that date the painting is still in Italy. In fact, here it is again in Naples, registered in 1657 in the collection of assets of García de Avellaneda y Haro, count of Castrillo and viceroy of Naples from 20 November 1653 to 11 January 1659. The inventory describes it as follows: “Mas otro quadro de un Heccehomo de zinc palmos with marco de evano with a soldado y pilato that ensena al Pueblo es original de mano de Mi Cael Caravacho “. That is: “an Ecce Homo of five palms with a soldier and Pontius Pilate who points out Christ to the people”. They are the same three characters depicted on the canvas just withdrawn from the Madrid auction. The Viceroy of Spain, Count of Castrillo, trustee of Philip IV, was well established in the art market of the second half of the seventeenth century and must have loved Caravaggio’s painting very much. Proof of this is the fact that he owned another “original de Caravacho”: the Salome with the head of the Baptist, collection companion of theBehold the man.
Both paintings travel with their owner to Spain in 1659. The first painting, included among the royal possessions as early as 1666, will end up in the Prado Museum, where it is still exhibited today. The second, in all probability, is this one surfaced among the objects at the enchantment of Calle de Alcalá. And which is now the forbidden dream of the same temple of art in Madrid.
That an authentic Caravaggio has been forgotten by the owners for centuries may be surprising. Yet this is not the first time. The most recent case is the Magdalene in ecstasy, attributed by Mina Gregori, dean of Caravaggio’s criticism, and inherited by non-expert collectors. Even the church of St. Ignatius in Dublin unknowingly kept a painting by Merisi for years. There Capture of Christ it was recognized as the work of the cursed painter only in 1990, thanks to the initiative of Sergio Benedetti, curator of the Irish National Gallery, and the studies of Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa. For the Spanish painting, history is repeating itself. Other twists are expected.