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Jonathan Harr


Photo: © Sandro Cutri

About the Author

Jonathan Harr is the author of the national bestseller A Civil Action, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and The Lost Painting, a New York Times bestseller. He is a former staff writer at the New England Monthly and has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He lives and works in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he has taught nonfiction writing at Smith College.

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Books by Jonathan Harr

Author Essay

The Caravaggio Disease

In the spring of 2003, ten years after the unveiling of
The Taking of Christ in Dublin, a restorer and art dealer in Rome
named Mario Bigetti began hearing word that another version
of the painting, long regarded as a copy, had come on the market.
Bigetti’s sources told him that the asking price was sixty thousand
euros. A considerable sum for a copy, thought Bigetti, even
if the copy did come with an illustrious history. The painting,
owned by the Sannini family of Florence, had been discovered
by Roberto Longhi sixty years ago, in 1943. While it lacked the
brilliance of an authentic Caravaggio, wrote Longhi, it appeared
to be a faithful copy of the lost original that Bellori had described
in such precise detail. Some years later Longhi arranged
to borrow the painting from its owner, Ladis Sannini, a lawyer
and amateur collector, for the 1951 Caravaggio exhibition in
Bigetti was curious about the painting. After the Milan exhibition,
it had gone back into the Sannini collection, never to
be displayed publicly again. It existed in the world of Caravaggio
scholars only as a few dark, old photos. Bigetti heard rumors
through his network of sources that one dealer or another had
gone to look at it, but apparently no one had been seriously
tempted to buy.
Bigetti’s curiosity finally got the better of him. He read what
he could find on the painting. There wasn’t much, just the few
notes by Longhi, and the dark photo in the 1951 catalogue. What
intrigued Bigetti most was the size of the painting. It was two
feet wider and a foot taller than either the now accepted Dublin
painting or the Odessa version. Most of that additional space
was simply dark background. The only significant feature, on
the left edge of the Sannini painting, was the fleeing disciple’s
extended arm, depicted as far as the wrist. In both the Dublin
and Odessa paintings, the arm stopped at the elbow, leaving the
viewer to conjure the rest.
Strange, thought Bigetti: no copyist he’d ever heard of would
have painted more than the original. He decided to go see the
painting for himself. Even a copy, he reasoned, might be worth
buying at the right price. He made a few phone calls and
arranged, through an agent of the Sannini family, to view the
Mario Bigetti had spent his entire life dealing in old objects,
some of them valuable, some of them little more than
junk. He was self-taught and industrious, and he had a particularly
good eye for paintings. He was fifty-seven years old, short
and stout, with a face as round as the full moon. He dressed like
a laborer, in dungarees and layers of sweaters covered by a denim
jacket. Unlike the fancy antiquarians in suits and ties who
catered to tourists and decorated their shops with Persian carpets,
polished furniture, and artfully placed spotlights, Bigetti’s
shop on Via Laurina two blocks from the Piazza del Popolo, was
not the sort of place that beckoned to the average passerby. His
neighbors were a butcher, a small bar, a punk clothing store, and
the Hotel Margutta, on whose sad blue neon sign half the letters
had burnt out. Bigetti’s shop—it was a bottega, really—was long
and narrow, more like a garage than a showroom. There were no
windows; the only illumination came from a row of cheap spotlights
on the ceiling, angled down on a few prizes that Bigetti
had mounted on easels. In the shadow and the gloom, dozens,
perhaps hundreds, of other paintings rested on the tiled floor
and leaned, one atop another, against the scabrous green walls.
Bigetti’s eye and his knack for finding old cast-off paintings
at trifling prices had made him the acquaintance of nearly all the
most famous scholars of the Baroque. Denis Mahon had visited
his shop several times, as had Mina Gregori, Maurizio Marini,
Herwarth Rottgen, Frederico Zeri, and others. In his time,
Bigetti had come across several important paintings and dozens
of lesser works of good quality. One never knew what small gem
one might find in his dusty bottega.
On a day in May 2003, Bigetti and his wife left Rome and
drove up to Tuscany, to the small, ancient village of Certaldo
where Boccaccio had been born. The Sannini country house was
a stone castle atop a hill, with gardens, olive groves, and views of
the surrounding countryside. One of the family’s retainers met
Bigetti and his wife at the gated entrance and escorted them in.
Ladis Saninni, dead now for many years, had acquired a picture
gallery of around seventy paintings, many of them portraits.
Bigetti spent only a short time examining The Taking of Christ.
A small spotlight illuminated the painting to provide for careful
examination. His eye was drawn to the face of Judas, where the
paint surface was intact, with no overpainting or touch-up. The
rest of the painting was dark and yellowed with old varnish and
heavily retouched by earlier restorers.
After a few minutes, he nodded to the retainer and turned
away. He made no comment about the painting. “When you are
there for only a few minutes, you are sure about the painting,”
Bigetti once said. “When you must study it for half an hour, an
hour, then you are simply trying to convince yourself. Plus, I
want to give them the idea that I am not very interested.”
He cast a quick, appraising glance at several other works in
the Sannini collection. He thanked the man who had escorted
him, and he and his wife departed. They had been there less
than fifteen minutes, and few words had been exchanged.
In the car, his wife said to him: “Well, did you like it?”
“Certainly I liked it!” replied Bigetti. “I think it could be the
original Caravaggio.”
Bigetti resolved to buy the painting, restore it, and study it
further. He let a week pass before contacting the Sannini representative.
When Bigetti said he was interested in buying the
painting, the agent remarked that it was a work of great historical
value, highly esteemed by Roberto Longhi.
Yes, replied Bigetti, he knew the history of the painting.
The price, said the agent, was four hundred thousand euros.
And thus began Bigetti’s negotiation for the painting. Four
agents and twenty days later, according to Bigetti, the negotiation
stalled at 135,000 euros.
The price was more than double what Bigetti had heard
from other dealers. But the agent for the Sannini family would
go no lower. Perhaps, thought Bigetti, he had made his desire to
own the painting too evident, after all.
A few days later he agreed to the price, even though he
didn’t have that sort of cash on hand. He quickly set about trying
to find someone to finance the purchase in exchange for part
ownership of the painting. One of his clients, who was to all appearances
a man of means, agreed to provide the money. Together
they produced a handwritten contract, and the client
handed over a check. The only slight problem, said the client,
was that the check would have to be postdated until funds arrived
in the bank account.
Like Benedetti before him, Bigetti fretted with each passing
day that some other dealer or antiquarian would see the painting
and snatch it up. He had a Caravaggio, or so he believed,
nearly within his grasp. He explained his dilemma to an acquaintance,
a lawyer. The lawyer, who had faith in Bigetti’s professional
judgment, offered to advance Bigetti the money for
the purchase.
And so Bigetti returned to Certaldo on June 20, 2003, in
the company of the lawyer. He signed a contract and took possession
of the painting. He wrapped it and loaded it into the
back of his van and returned to Rome. That evening he installed
it on a large wooden easel on the second floor of his bottega and
spent several hours admiring it. The next morning, with eager
anticipation, he sat before the easel with an array of solvents and
opened a small window in the grime and old varnish that covered
the surface. The painting had not been cleaned at least
since the 1951 exhibition, if then. Bigetti could see many places
in which previous restorers, decades and centuries earlier, had
retouched the original surface with a heavy hand.
The more Bigetti worked on the painting, the more certain
he became that it was an autograph work by Caravaggio. He
compared it incessantly with photographs of the Dublin version.
He could not deny that his own was more crudely done.
The intertwined fingers on the hands of Christ were like
sausages, lacking definition, and his face seemed wooden and
compressed, as if it had been put in a vise. The sleeve that
draped off Judas’ arm, and the cloak of the fleeing man, were
rather coarse. Most strikingly, the back of the second soldier’s
head was bizarrely proportioned, as if the painter had depicted a
microcephalic deformity.
Bigetti, in his desire to believe that this painting was by Caravaggio,
made a virtue of the painting’s crudeness. Yes, it was less
elegant, less clean than Dublin, he would admit. But it was more
spontaneous! And, most important, it was more complete.

Over the summer, Bigetti opened several large windows on
the painting, but many months of work still lay ahead of him.
After cleaning off the dirt and varnish, he would have to remove
large areas of overpainting applied by previous restorers. Yet he
felt a need to share his belief that he had in his possession a genuine
Caravaggio. He called an art historian of his acquaintance,
Maria Letizia Paoletti. “I want to show you something extraordinary,”
Bigetti told her.
Paoletti, then in her mid-fifties, had known Bigetti for many
years and had visited his shop several times, always at his urgent
behest. “He would call me all the time,” Paoletti later recalled.
“Come look at this Guido Reni, this Guercino, this Raphael,” he
would say. It was rarely ever what he thought it was, but sometimes
he did make a discovery. He is not an art historian, he
wouldn’t know how to write a single line, but he does have a particular
eye, a sensibility.”
Paoletti was not known as a Caravaggio scholar, but she had
a particular skill that Bigetti valued. Her expertise lay in the scientific
techniques of examining old paintings. She had at her
disposal portable X-ray and infrared machines, and access to a
laboratory that could analyze pigments.
When she came to Via Laurina see the painting, Bigetti
pointed out aspects that he found convincing. It was bigger than
either the Dublin or Odessa versions, and what copyist ever
painted more than the original? It simply wasn’t done! And look
here, said Bigetti, there was clearly a scar on the back of Judas’
hand, on the meaty part between the thumb and forefinger, the
sort of scar caused by the slip of a knife, a scar just like Bigetti
had on his own hand! It didn’t exist in the Dublin painting, and
a copyist would never invent such a thing!
These observations intrigued Paoletti. She admired certain
elements of the painting. “I was pulled into it by the hand holding
the lantern,” she recalled later. “Caravaggio made hands in a
certain way, and to me this had his signature.” She agreed to examine
the painting with her machines to see what lay beneath
the surface.
Even more important to Bigetti, she said that she would
bring Sir Denis Mahon to look at the painting. Sir Denis was
coming to Rome to help arrange a Guercino exhibition, and
Paoletti had recently begun accompanying the elderly Englishman
on his rounds. She saw to his needs and arranged transportation
for him. This had previously been the task of the art
historian Stephen Pepper, a Guercino expert whom Mahon had
taken under his wing thirty years ago. But Pepper had recently
died of a massive heart attack on the train from Bologna, and
Paoletti had leaped at the chance to take his place.

In truth, it didn’t take much to persuade Sir Denis to
come to Bigetti’s bottega. The lure of the Sannini painting’s history,
and the fact that he had not seen it since the Milan exhibition
fifty years ago, were enough to stir his interest. He was now
ninety-three years old. He tired easily and would doze from
time to time at conferences, but his critical faculties were very
much intact. He still occupied the preeminent position among
Caravaggio scholars. His opinion on the authorship of a
Baroque painting still counted for more than any other expert’s,
and it could sway the others.
He and Paoletti arrived at the door of Bigetti’s shop on an
afternoon in September. Sir Denis rode in a small electric cart
that bumped over the cobblestones. On seeing the Englishman,
Bigetti scurried out to greet him with a broad smile. Once or
twice, years earlier, Sir Denis had visited Bigetti’s shop. This
time, however, Bigetti worried that the elderly man might have
difficulty climbing the flight of stairs up to the restoration studio.
But once inside, at the foot of the stairs, Sir Denis arose
from his chair and clambered up with an alacrity that astonished
Bigetti, who was himself not fast on his feet.
For more than an hour, Sir Denis studied the painting and
listened to Bigetti make his case that it was by Caravaggio. Sir
Denis did not dismiss this possibility. He seemed, in fact, disposed
to believe that Caravaggio had made more than one version
of some of his paintings. “Longhi always maintained that
Caravaggio never painted the same painting twice,” said Mahon,
ever willing to find fault with his old rival. “That’s not true, as
we’ve already seen on other occasions. We have to change our
ideas.” From time to time he rose from the armchair that Bigetti
had provided to examine the painting close up.
“Most interesting,” said Sir Denis as he prepared to leave.
The Taking of Christ has always been a great mystery.” He told
Bigetti that he would like to see the painting again, after it had
been thoroughly cleaned and the overpainting removed, and
after Paoletti had taken X rays. Until then he would reserve

Five months later, in February 2004, Sir Denis was back in
Rome for the opening of the Guercino show. By then, Bigetti
had stripped the painting down to its original state, and Paoletti
had completed a full set of X rays and an infrared examination.
Her findings were startling. They showed dramatic alterations
beneath the surface of the painting, not just pentimenti,
but changes in the way two of the figures had been positioned
and in the arm of the fleeing disciple; there was also a ghostly
image that looked like the braided hair of a woman. Like Bigetti,
Paoletti was fully convinced that this painting was no mere copy,
but Caravaggio’s original version of The Taking of Christ. “Pentimenti,”
she explained, “are done by artists who are just fixing
small errors. These are major corrections, and corrections are by
an artist who is rethinking the painting as he works on it.” And
a copyist, of course, had no need to rethink a painting.
Sir Denis returned to Bigetti’s shop on the afternoon of
February 12, 2004, in the company of his friend Fabio Isman,
the journalist for Il Messaggero, and Paoletti. Sir Denis installed
himself in the armchair in front of the painting, getting up only
now and then to make a close examination with his magnifying
glass. He spent two hours in Bigetti’s shop that afternoon,
speaking mainly with Paoletti, who was after all an art historian.
He studied the X rays and the infrared images, he periodically
asked Bigetti’s shop assistant to move the spotlight around, and
his excitement led him to pound on the floor with his cane.
Isman looked on and took notes for an article.
“I have no doubt about it,” Sir Denis exclaimed. “Now that
the painting has been brought back to zero, stripped of all the
overpainting, one can see perfectly well that it is genuine. It’s
full of pentimenti, and they are not banal corrections.”
Bigetti was beside himself with delight. What was the value
of a Caravaggio? Tens of millions! “And so this is the original and
the Dublin one is just a copy!” he said to Mahon.
"Oh, no,” replied Sir Denis. “Dublin is certainly by Caravaggio.
There is no doubt about that. The Mattei inventories tell us
that they had more than one version of the painting.”
Paoletti and Bigetti had both made close study of the
twenty-four Mattei inventories published a decade earlier by
Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa. Bigetti’s copy of their
book was densely underlined and filled with notes in the margins.
Many inventories cited two versions of The Taking of Christ,
one attributed to Caravaggio, the other usually noted as a copy
“by a disciple of Caravaggio,” no doubt the authorized copy by
Giovanni di Attili, who had been paid twelve scudi for his work.
But a few of the inventories contained three and, sometimes,
even four paintings called The Taking of Christ. It seemed highly
improbable that all would be copies of Caravaggio’s original.
More plausibly, they represented different treatments by different
artists of the same subject. Bigetti followed as well as he
could the path of the paintings through the years, as they were
moved from one room to another in the vast Mattei palazzo. He
found significance in their travels, in the brief descriptions of
the frames, in the changing color of a silk drapery that had
adorned the original. In Bigetti’s mind, the significance always
pointed to his painting as the sole original.
“The one in Dublin has an arm cut off,” said Bigetti, “and
mine is complete. That means that Dublin is a copy.”
“No,” said Sir Denis again. “We’d always thought that Caravaggio
never made replicas of his own paintings, but now we
can prove that he did so. He also made try-outs—bozzetti. But
until now we’ve never found any.”

Fabio Isman’s article about the newly rediscovered TAKING
of Christ
came out three days later, on February 15, 2004. “New
Caravaggios are sprouting up like mushrooms after the rain,”
Isman wrote, his tone ironic. He quoted Sir Denis at length on
the authenticity of the painting. “An open war,” concluded
Isman, between Bigetti, who claimed his Taking of Christ was the
sole original, and Benedetti, who asserted the same about the
Dublin painting.
Isman’s article was quickly picked up by British and Irish
newspapers, which pursued the matter with interviews of their
own. Paoletti, who spoke English, announced in the Daily Telegraph
that she had “cast-iron proof” of the authenticity of the
Sannini painting. “At the end of six months of painstaking investigations,”
she told a reporter, “I can say that it is unquestionably
Caravaggio’s original work. . . . Every expert who has
seen the painting agrees with me.” Contrary to Sir Denis, however,
she stated that the Dublin painting was most likely a copy
by another artist and not a replica by Caravaggio.
Clearly Sir Denis could not repudiate without embarrassment
his earlier authentication of the Dublin painting. But he
saw no need to. He seemed serenely untroubled at the awkward
embrace of both. He even suggested that the Odessa version
might be yet another copy by Caravaggio himself, although he
admitted that he had not yet personally examined that work.
Despite Sir Denis’s affirmation, the Dublin painting’s status
was in jeopardy. Where once it had held undisputed preeminence,
now it was merely second in a series. Bigetti’s painting
now laid claim to being the original manifestation of Caravaggio’s
At the Irish National Gallery, Raymond Keaveney was
caught completely by surprise. He had known nothing about the
events in Rome before he read the newspapers. There was little
he could do beyond issuing a simple statement in defense of the
Dublin painting. “All the homework has been done,” Keaveney
said, “and this [painting] has been in the public domain for fifteen
years. It is universally accepted that ours is a Caravaggio.”

And then, in Rome, came the lawsuits, both civil and criminal,
an Italian opera of claims and counterclaims, allegations of
fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, falsification, counterfeit, and
calumny of every sort.
They began with the client of Bigetti’s who had agreed to
help him finance the purchase of the painting with a post-dated
check. From there they grew into a tangle of bewildering complexity
involving the other financier, the Italian state, Maria
Letizia Paoletti, and even, according to word on the street, the
Sannini heirs. Rumors abounded. One antiquarian heard that
the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro had offered to buy the painting
for thirty million euros. This was not true, but on April 1, six
weeks after Isman’s story appeared, the court ordered the painting
impounded in Bigetti’s bottega until the ownership claims
had been decided. Within weeks, matters grew even worse for
Bigetti. An art-crimes prosecutor launched a criminal investigation;
the possible charges ranged from falsely advancing a copy
or reproduction as an original to illegally altering an original
work of art, with many permutations in between. Bigetti looked
on in woe and disbelief as the special art squad of the Carabinieri,
the Italian national police, marched into his bottega and
carried the painting off to their depository.
As if all this were not enough, Maria Letizia Paoletti,
Bigetti’s ally in advancing the painting as an authentic Caravaggio,
also sued Bigetti. She claimed, in the first instance, that he
had not paid her for her work. (Her bill, according to Bigetti,
was for 200,000 euros, a “preposterous” sum.) And in the second
instance, which was even more important to Paoletti, she
said that Bigetti was defrauding her by claiming he had discovered
the painting.
“He is playing a dirty game,” said Paoletti, in her studio on
the Aventine. “I am the one who discovered it, not him. He had
an intuition, but it was confirmed by me and my investigation.
Thus I discovered the painting!”
At stake for Paoletti was her right to publish the painting in
an academic journal and thus enter the ranks of certified Caravaggio
scholars, just as Benedetti had done years earlier. Bigetti
was just a simple restorer, said Paoletti, who was incapable of
writing a coherent line. “He cannot publish it, but he doesn’t
want me to publish it,” she said in a voice full of outrage. “He
wants Maurizio Marini to do it. Why? Because I am not famous
and Marini is! Marini has the name! Whoever publishes it is the
one who discovered it. I will publish it, thus I discovered it! If
Bigetti lets another person publish it, that is fraud!”
Paoletti shook her head bitterly. “It is like flies to honey
when there is Caravaggio.”
Francesca Cappelletti had always been wary of what she
called “the Caravaggio disease.” In the case of the Sannini painting,
it seemed to have taken full possession of everyone who
came near.
She kept her distance, watching from afar as developments
unfolded. She had not had seen the painting before it was seized
by the Carabinieri, but she had looked at photographs. She found
it hard to believe that Caravaggio had painted it, Denis Mahon’s
attribution notwithstanding. And she suspected that Paoletti’s
proof was anything but “cast-iron,” as Paoletti had often asserted.
For one thing, Paoletti had claimed to find an important document
in the Recanati archive that Francesca and Laura had transcribed
incorrectly. Francesca knew this was impossible. The
Mattei palazzo in Recanati had been under lock and key by court
order since the late 1990s, when the heirs began fighting over the
estate. Apprised of this, Paoletti amended her story and said that
she had found the document in the Archivio di Stato in Rome.
But she would not reveal its contents or its significance to proving
the authenticity of the Sannini painting until she was allowed
to publish the painting herself.

Whatever Paoletti had found, or not found, the fact remained
that the history of the painting before the lawyer Ladis
Sannini acquired it was completely unknown. The Sannini family
had no documents concerning the acquisition. Bigetti and
Paoletti theorized that Ladis Sannini, who had practiced law in
Rome before moving to Florence, might have purchased it in
the 1930s, just after Duke Giuseppe Mattei had lost his palazzo
and its contents in a card game. But the last full inventory of the
Mattei collection, taken in 1854 and listing 218 paintings, contained
no work called The Taking of Christ. There was, it appeared,
no way to trace the painting back to the Mattei family.
The Dublin painting, on the other hand, had an excellent
pedigree. It indisputably came from the Mattei collection. Even
the mistaken change in attribution from Caravaggio to Honthorst
worked in its favor. When the German scholar Basilius
von Ramdohr saw the painting in 1787, he dismissed the attribution
to Honthorst and deemed it the work of Caravaggio. He
made no mention of the only other painting of the same subject,
which was unattributed in the inventory and described only as
The size of the Sannini painting was in itself puzzling.
Among the many versions of Caravaggio’s original—there are as
many as twelve—it was by far the largest. This constituted proof,
according to Bigetti’s reasoning, that it must be the original. But
if that were so, why would the many copyists all paint uniformly
smaller versions, ones the size of the Dublin painting? If the
Sannini painting was the original, why wouldn’t they have replicated
Last, and most important, there was the fact of Dublin’s superior
quality, a fact acknowledged by everyone involved in the
affair. Bigetti had a ready explanation: a copyist, without the
burden of creation, had time to improve on the original, to
smooth the rough edges and make a painting uniformly harmonious.
Bigetti’s explanation was not without a sort of logic. But to
accept such logic as an operative principle would turn the study
of Caravaggio on its head. Ever since scholars began, some fifty
years earlier, to identify Caravaggio’s paintings, they have
judged by the quality of the work, the swiftness, elegance, and
cleanness of execution. In this instance, Bigetti would have the
process inverted. Instead of being a Caravaggio because of its
excellence, it was now a Caravaggio for precisely the opposite
reason—that it was cruder and full of errors.
The sole aspect of the Sannini painting that gave any credibility
to its claim as an original by Caravaggio was the profusion
of gross pentimenti beneath the surface. Copyists, as a rule,
rarely make so many errors, because they often have the original
before them. But they were not immune to error, nor are they all
equally talented. One could, for example, imagine a circumstance
in which a young painter, trying to develop his skills,
briefly saw the original in the Mattei palazzo. Returning to his
atelier, he painted from memory. And then he went back to look
again, realized his mistakes, and corrected many of them. Such a
scenario is, of course, pure speculation, but it is no less plausible
than Bigetti’s explanation of the pentimenti as a result of Caravaggio’s
creative ferment.

It was April 2006. Two years had passed since the Carabinieri
had seized the Sannini painting from Bigetti’s bottega.
Bigetti sat at his desk in the gloom at the back of his bottega,
smoking a cigar under a sign that read “Smoking Prohibited.” He
awaited the resolution of the lawsuits and the return of his
painting. “The wheels of justice turn slowly in Italy,” he remarked
in a disconsolate voice. He paused, and then added
darkly, “If this were Sicily, legs would have been broken already.”
He tried to comprehend the fate that had befallen him: how
could things have gone so badly wrong just at the moment when
his biggest triumph was at hand? He could find no flaw, no misstep,
in his own actions. He believed everything would turn out
right in the end, that he would become wealthy and famous after
surmounting the formidable obstacles on the path to good fortune.
His painting, after all, had the benediction of Sir Denis as
the original Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. That was the most important
thing. He would just have to wait and endure.
As he waited, the criminal case proceeded with an investigation
into the nature of the painting. The aim of the two prosecutors
overseeing the case, Paolo Ferri and Fabio Santoni, was to
determine, to the extent scientifically possible, whether the painting
was a genuine work by Caravaggio. To that end, the prosecutors
contacted an expert named Maurizio Seracini, the founder of
a private company in Florence that specialized in art and architecture
diagnostics. Seracini had a degree in electronic engineering
from the University of California at San Diego, and then had
studied medicine at the University of Padua. He had turned his
learning to the scientific analysis of artworks. He was, by any mea sure,
one of the world’s foremost authorities in the field, having
examined more than two thousand paintings, frescoes, and statues,
among them works by (or attributed to) Cimabue, Giotto,
Botticelli, Raphael, and Leonardo. And, of course, Caravaggio—
twenty-nine paintings at last count, most of them genuine, a few
that were merely wishful attributions.
Seracini inspected the Sannini painting front and back and
subjected it to his many instruments. He took microscopic samples
of pigment from a variety of areas to determine their chemical
constituents. Caravaggio, like most painters of his era,
bought his pigments at the shop of a chemist who sold medicines,
herbs, and perfumes. He would have obtained them in a
basic preparation, ground into a powder, to which he would add
walnut oil as the medium. In the case of blue, for example, the
powder consisted of the mineral azurite, which contained oxidized
copper ore that had been ground, washed, and sieved to
remove impurities. A coarse grind produced a dark blue. For a
lighter blue, Caravaggio would grind the mineral with a mortar
and pestle to a finer consistency.
Seracini lifted minute samples of paint from the yellow
bands on the soldier’s pantaloons, from the apricot-colored
cloak worn by Judas, and from the green cloak of the fleeing disciple.
On examination, he found lead and tin, the common components
of yellow, as well as another element, the brittle, toxic
metal antimony. Lead and antimony were the constituents of an
ancient color known as Naples yellow, then used widely in ceramics
because of antimony’s heat-resistant qualities.
Neither Seracini nor any other investigator had ever found
antimony in a painting by Caravaggio. He had used only lead-tin
yellow, as did all the other painters of his era and his predecessors
dating back to the late medieval. The sole exception was The
Martyrdom of St. Ursula,
in Naples; in that work, researchers had
found trace amounts of antimony, which they speculated had
come from an eighteenth-century restoration that had since
been removed. Although Naples yellow had been around since
before the time of Christ, the first painting in which it appeared
was a work by Orazio Gentileschi done in 1615, now at the National
Gallery in Washington, D.C. It was not until after 1630
that painters began to adopt Naples yellow for use on the canvas,
a use that continued until the mid-nineteenth century.
Seracini sent a detailed report—some dozen pages long, according
to several sources—to the two prosecutors in Rome. His
conclusion: the Sannini painting was not by Caravaggio. It had
been painted sometime after 1630, more than twenty years after
Caravaggio’s death.

Bigetti had no knowledge of Seracini’s conclusion, no
knowledge even that tests had been ordered by the prosecutors.
In Italy, such matters remain secret until either the case comes
to trial or the prosecutors close the file and it is archived. But
even if he had known, the report would not have shaken his faith
in the painting. Nor that of Maria Letizia Paoletti, who had conducted
her own tests and was convinced of her “cast-iron” proof.
As for Sir Denis Mahon, one can imagine his old rival
Roberto Longhi, who had always believed the Sannini painting
to be a copy, enjoying a mirthless laugh. Some of Sir Denis’s acquaintances
suspect that in his old age, with death not far off, he
has felt the desire to embark on a last campaign of discoveries.
Not to enhance his reputation, which needs no added luster, but
for the pure pleasure of chasing the greatest painter of the
Baroque, the one painter whose work he has never succeeded in

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