Over the recent holidays I spent a few days being shown around Milan for the first time by my wife, who went to university in the city. With my list of some 28 paintings in hand, a priority stop for me was the Pinoteca di Brera. It’s certainly undergoing a real transformation under its impressive new Director. The energy he’s brought to the institution was evident in the new signs popping up at various points as well as the ongoing rehang.
But what really caught my attention in the gallery was the small little display entitled “Caravaggio. Readings and Re-readings” and, in particular, the recently discovered Judith Beheads Holofernes from Toulouse.
Is it indeed by the master himself?
It says so much about the human condition that we desperately want to believe. Each new discovery, like the Buckland Abbey Rembrandt, the recent Leonardo drawing of Saint Sebastian and others, brings us fresh hope. Maybe there will be others out there. It isn’t so much the idea that we can find monetary enrichment (though there is a value to these thing for sure) more that the ability to gaze on these once lost works is in itself enriching.
I’ve spent ages traipsing round the globe looking at Caravaggio. There seems to be an exhibition on him somewhere almost every year. I’ve seen most of the circa 100 or so Caravaggio’s bar about 25, with the vast bulk of those being held in private collections. Exact numbers of any artist of this period will always be tricky because of the number of attributed or disputed works.
But my Caravaggio fandom doesn’t blind me to authenticity. I don’t for example feel that the ‘The Cardsharps’ rediscovered by Sir Denis Mahon is really by the painters hand. It certainly generated a fierce debate. It just doesn’t have that hard to articulate quality about it that lifts the paint from the canvass and gives it a vitality that separates master from copyist or follower. I may well be wrong and people can make their own judgement by visiting it at the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell.
I read about the rediscovery of the Toulouse painting with interest and it’s a condition of the loan that it’s not contested as part of the display by either the Brera or its staff.
What’s fabulous about the little display is the way it places its own famous version of Supper at Emmaus at the center and two separate versions of the Beheading side by side. You can read more from the Brera website. I’ve taken the images below from there.
On the left is Judith Beheading Holofernes by Louis Finson, c. 1607, and on the right, the Toulouse Caravaggio. It’s even more acute in real life that there’s just a transcendent quality about one from Toulouse. Is it real? Well, it has that cinematic lighting and lurid focus for sure. Placing it alongside the Finson certainly raises the quality and generates real contrast. Caravaggio certainly painted several versions of the same painting as the Milan and London Supper at Emmaus demonstrates.
I would have loved to have seen it side by side with the Judith Beheading Holofernes in Rome. I certainly walked away thinking that the painting ought to be given a fair hearing and hoping and in large part believing it was genuine. All I can say is: if you do get chance, visit and make up your own mind.
There are many other fine pictures in the gallery, but two really took my breath away and that’s the Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael and Piero della Francesca’s Montefeltro Altarpiece – I’ve added the images below.