Authors & Events
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.To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau at www.apbspeakers.com
EpilogueThe Caravaggio DiseaseIn the spring of 2003, ten years after the unveiling ofThe Taking of Christ in Dublin, a restorer and art dealer in Romenamed Mario Bigetti began hearing word that another versionof the painting, long regarded as a copy, had come on the market.Bigetti’s sources told him that the asking price was sixty thousandeuros. A considerable sum for a copy, thought Bigetti, evenif the copy did come with an illustrious history. The painting,owned by the Sannini family of Florence, had been discoveredby Roberto Longhi sixty years ago, in 1943. While it lacked thebrilliance of an authentic Caravaggio, wrote Longhi, it appearedto be a faithful copy of the lost original that Bellori had describedin such precise detail. Some years later Longhi arrangedto borrow the painting from its owner, Ladis Sannini, a lawyerand amateur collector, for the 1951 Caravaggio exhibition inMilan.Bigetti was curious about the painting. After the Milan exhibition,it had gone back into the Sannini collection, never tobe displayed publicly again. It existed in the world of Caravaggioscholars only as a few dark, old photos. Bigetti heard rumorsthrough his network of sources that one dealer or another hadgone to look at it, but apparently no one had been seriouslytempted to buy.Bigetti’s curiosity finally got the better of him. He read whathe could find on the painting. There wasn’t much, just the fewnotes by Longhi, and the dark photo in the 1951 catalogue. Whatintrigued Bigetti most was the size of the painting. It was twofeet wider and a foot taller than either the now accepted Dublinpainting or the Odessa version. Most of that additional spacewas simply dark background. The only significant feature, onthe left edge of the Sannini painting, was the fleeing disciple’sextended arm, depicted as far as the wrist. In both the Dublinand Odessa paintings, the arm stopped at the elbow, leaving theviewer to conjure the rest.Strange, thought Bigetti: no copyist he’d ever heard of wouldhave painted more than the original. He decided to go see thepainting for himself. Even a copy, he reasoned, might be worthbuying at the right price. He made a few phone calls andarranged, through an agent of the Sannini family, to view thepainting.Mario Bigetti had spent his entire life dealing in old objects,some of them valuable, some of them little more thanjunk. He was self-taught and industrious, and he had a particularlygood eye for paintings. He was fifty-seven years old, shortand stout, with a face as round as the full moon. He dressed likea laborer, in dungarees and layers of sweaters covered by a denimjacket. Unlike the fancy antiquarians in suits and ties whocatered to tourists and decorated their shops with Persian carpets,polished furniture, and artfully placed spotlights, Bigetti’sshop on Via Laurina two blocks from the Piazza del Popolo, wasnot the sort of place that beckoned to the average passerby. Hisneighbors were a butcher, a small bar, a punk clothing store, andthe Hotel Margutta, on whose sad blue neon sign half the lettershad burnt out. Bigetti’s shop—it was a bottega, really—was longand narrow, more like a garage than a showroom. There were nowindows; the only illumination came from a row of cheap spotlightson the ceiling, angled down on a few prizes that Bigettihad mounted on easels. In the shadow and the gloom, dozens,perhaps hundreds, of other paintings rested on the tiled floorand leaned, one atop another, against the scabrous green walls.Bigetti’s eye and his knack for finding old cast-off paintingsat trifling prices had made him the acquaintance of nearly all themost famous scholars of the Baroque. Denis Mahon had visitedhis 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 dozensof lesser works of good quality. One never knew what small gemone might find in his dusty bottega.On a day in May 2003, Bigetti and his wife left Rome anddrove up to Tuscany, to the small, ancient village of Certaldowhere Boccaccio had been born. The Sannini country house wasa stone castle atop a hill, with gardens, olive groves, and views ofthe surrounding countryside. One of the family’s retainers metBigetti and his wife at the gated entrance and escorted them in.Ladis Saninni, dead now for many years, had acquired a picturegallery 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 carefulexamination. His eye was drawn to the face of Judas, where thepaint surface was intact, with no overpainting or touch-up. Therest of the painting was dark and yellowed with old varnish andheavily retouched by earlier restorers.After a few minutes, he nodded to the retainer and turnedaway. He made no comment about the painting. “When you arethere for only a few minutes, you are sure about the painting,”Bigetti once said. “When you must study it for half an hour, anhour, then you are simply trying to convince yourself. Plus, Iwant to give them the idea that I am not very interested.”He cast a quick, appraising glance at several other works inthe Sannini collection. He thanked the man who had escortedhim, and he and his wife departed. They had been there lessthan 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 theoriginal Caravaggio.”Bigetti resolved to buy the painting, restore it, and study itfurther. He let a week pass before contacting the Sannini representative.When Bigetti said he was interested in buying thepainting, the agent remarked that it was a work of great historicalvalue, 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. Fouragents and twenty days later, according to Bigetti, the negotiationstalled at 135,000 euros.The price was more than double what Bigetti had heardfrom other dealers. But the agent for the Sannini family wouldgo no lower. Perhaps, thought Bigetti, he had made his desire toown the painting too evident, after all.A few days later he agreed to the price, even though hedidn’t have that sort of cash on hand. He quickly set about tryingto find someone to finance the purchase in exchange for partownership of the painting. One of his clients, who was to all appearancesa man of means, agreed to provide the money. Togetherthey produced a handwritten contract, and the clienthanded over a check. The only slight problem, said the client,was that the check would have to be postdated until funds arrivedin the bank account.Like Benedetti before him, Bigetti fretted with each passingday that some other dealer or antiquarian would see the paintingand 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 professionaljudgment, offered to advance Bigetti the money forthe purchase.And so Bigetti returned to Certaldo on June 20, 2003, inthe company of the lawyer. He signed a contract and took possessionof the painting. He wrapped it and loaded it into theback of his van and returned to Rome. That evening he installedit on a large wooden easel on the second floor of his bottega andspent several hours admiring it. The next morning, with eageranticipation, he sat before the easel with an array of solvents andopened a small window in the grime and old varnish that coveredthe surface. The painting had not been cleaned at leastsince the 1951 exhibition, if then. Bigetti could see many placesin which previous restorers, decades and centuries earlier, hadretouched the original surface with a heavy hand.The more Bigetti worked on the painting, the more certainhe became that it was an autograph work by Caravaggio. Hecompared 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 likesausages, lacking definition, and his face seemed wooden andcompressed, as if it had been put in a vise. The sleeve thatdraped off Judas’ arm, and the cloak of the fleeing man, wererather coarse. Most strikingly, the back of the second soldier’shead was bizarrely proportioned, as if the painter had depicted amicrocephalic deformity.Bigetti, in his desire to believe that this painting was by Caravaggio,made a virtue of the painting’s crudeness. Yes, it was lesselegant, less clean than Dublin, he would admit. But it was morespontaneous! And, most important, it was more complete.Over the summer, Bigetti opened several large windows onthe painting, but many months of work still lay ahead of him.After cleaning off the dirt and varnish, he would have to removelarge areas of overpainting applied by previous restorers. Yet hefelt 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 manyyears and had visited his shop several times, always at his urgentbehest. “He would call me all the time,” Paoletti later recalled.“Come look at this Guido Reni, this Guercino, this Raphael,” hewould say. It was rarely ever what he thought it was, but sometimeshe did make a discovery. He is not an art historian, hewouldn’t know how to write a single line, but he does have a particulareye, a sensibility.”Paoletti was not known as a Caravaggio scholar, but she hada particular skill that Bigetti valued. Her expertise lay in the scientifictechniques of examining old paintings. She had at herdisposal portable X-ray and infrared machines, and access to alaboratory that could analyze pigments.When she came to Via Laurina see the painting, Bigettipointed out aspects that he found convincing. It was bigger thaneither the Dublin or Odessa versions, and what copyist everpainted more than the original? It simply wasn’t done! And lookhere, said Bigetti, there was clearly a scar on the back of Judas’hand, on the meaty part between the thumb and forefinger, thesort of scar caused by the slip of a knife, a scar just like Bigettihad on his own hand! It didn’t exist in the Dublin painting, anda copyist would never invent such a thing!These observations intrigued Paoletti. She admired certainelements of the painting. “I was pulled into it by the hand holdingthe lantern,” she recalled later. “Caravaggio made hands in acertain way, and to me this had his signature.” She agreed to examinethe painting with her machines to see what lay beneaththe surface.Even more important to Bigetti, she said that she wouldbring Sir Denis Mahon to look at the painting. Sir Denis wascoming to Rome to help arrange a Guercino exhibition, andPaoletti had recently begun accompanying the elderly Englishmanon his rounds. She saw to his needs and arranged transportationfor him. This had previously been the task of the arthistorian Stephen Pepper, a Guercino expert whom Mahon hadtaken under his wing thirty years ago. But Pepper had recentlydied of a massive heart attack on the train from Bologna, andPaoletti had leaped at the chance to take his place.In truth, it didn’t take much to persuade Sir Denis tocome to Bigetti’s bottega. The lure of the Sannini painting’s history,and the fact that he had not seen it since the Milan exhibitionfifty years ago, were enough to stir his interest. He was nowninety-three years old. He tired easily and would doze fromtime to time at conferences, but his critical faculties were verymuch intact. He still occupied the preeminent position amongCaravaggio scholars. His opinion on the authorship of aBaroque 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 anafternoon in September. Sir Denis rode in a small electric cartthat bumped over the cobblestones. On seeing the Englishman,Bigetti scurried out to greet him with a broad smile. Once ortwice, years earlier, Sir Denis had visited Bigetti’s shop. Thistime, however, Bigetti worried that the elderly man might havedifficulty climbing the flight of stairs up to the restoration studio.But once inside, at the foot of the stairs, Sir Denis arosefrom his chair and clambered up with an alacrity that astonishedBigetti, who was himself not fast on his feet.For more than an hour, Sir Denis studied the painting andlistened to Bigetti make his case that it was by Caravaggio. SirDenis did not dismiss this possibility. He seemed, in fact, disposedto believe that Caravaggio had made more than one versionof some of his paintings. “Longhi always maintained thatCaravaggio never painted the same painting twice,” said Mahon,ever willing to find fault with his old rival. “That’s not true, aswe’ve already seen on other occasions. We have to change ourideas.” From time to time he rose from the armchair that Bigettihad 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 toldBigetti that he would like to see the painting again, after it hadbeen thoroughly cleaned and the overpainting removed, andafter Paoletti had taken X rays. Until then he would reservejudgment.Five months later, in February 2004, Sir Denis was back inRome for the opening of the Guercino show. By then, Bigettihad stripped the painting down to its original state, and Paolettihad completed a full set of X rays and an infrared examination.Her findings were startling. They showed dramatic alterationsbeneath the surface of the painting, not just pentimenti,but changes in the way two of the figures had been positionedand in the arm of the fleeing disciple; there was also a ghostlyimage 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 fixingsmall errors. These are major corrections, and corrections are byan artist who is rethinking the painting as he works on it.” Anda copyist, of course, had no need to rethink a painting.Sir Denis returned to Bigetti’s shop on the afternoon ofFebruary 12, 2004, in the company of his friend Fabio Isman,the journalist for Il Messaggero, and Paoletti. Sir Denis installedhimself in the armchair in front of the painting, getting up onlynow and then to make a close examination with his magnifyingglass. 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 periodicallyasked Bigetti’s shop assistant to move the spotlight around, andhis 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 thatthe painting has been brought back to zero, stripped of all theoverpainting, one can see perfectly well that it is genuine. It’sfull of pentimenti, and they are not banal corrections.”Bigetti was beside himself with delight. What was the valueof a Caravaggio? Tens of millions! “And so this is the original andthe 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 usthat they had more than one version of the painting.”Paoletti and Bigetti had both made close study of thetwenty-four Mattei inventories published a decade earlier byFrancesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa. Bigetti’s copy of theirbook 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 byGiovanni 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 highlyimprobable that all would be copies of Caravaggio’s original.More plausibly, they represented different treatments by differentartists of the same subject. Bigetti followed as well as hecould the path of the paintings through the years, as they weremoved from one room to another in the vast Mattei palazzo. Hefound significance in their travels, in the brief descriptions ofthe frames, in the changing color of a silk drapery that hadadorned the original. In Bigetti’s mind, the significance alwayspointed to his painting as the sole original.“The one in Dublin has an arm cut off,” said Bigetti, “andmine is complete. That means that Dublin is a copy.”“No,” said Sir Denis again. “We’d always thought that Caravaggionever made replicas of his own paintings, but now wecan prove that he did so. He also made try-outs—bozzetti. Butuntil now we’ve never found any.”Fabio Isman’s article about the newly rediscovered TAKINGof Christ came out three days later, on February 15, 2004. “NewCaravaggios are sprouting up like mushrooms after the rain,”Isman wrote, his tone ironic. He quoted Sir Denis at length onthe authenticity of the painting. “An open war,” concludedIsman, between Bigetti, who claimed his Taking of Christ was thesole original, and Benedetti, who asserted the same about theDublin painting.Isman’s article was quickly picked up by British and Irishnewspapers, which pursued the matter with interviews of theirown. Paoletti, who spoke English, announced in the Daily Telegraphthat she had “cast-iron proof” of the authenticity of theSannini painting. “At the end of six months of painstaking investigations,”she told a reporter, “I can say that it is unquestionablyCaravaggio’s original work. . . . Every expert who hasseen the painting agrees with me.” Contrary to Sir Denis, however,she stated that the Dublin painting was most likely a copyby another artist and not a replica by Caravaggio.Clearly Sir Denis could not repudiate without embarrassmenthis earlier authentication of the Dublin painting. But hesaw no need to. He seemed serenely untroubled at the awkwardembrace of both. He even suggested that the Odessa versionmight be yet another copy by Caravaggio himself, although headmitted that he had not yet personally examined that work.Despite Sir Denis’s affirmation, the Dublin painting’s statuswas in jeopardy. Where once it had held undisputed preeminence,now it was merely second in a series. Bigetti’s paintingnow laid claim to being the original manifestation of Caravaggio’sgenius.At the Irish National Gallery, Raymond Keaveney wascaught completely by surprise. He had known nothing about theevents in Rome before he read the newspapers. There was littlehe could do beyond issuing a simple statement in defense of theDublin painting. “All the homework has been done,” Keaveneysaid, “and this [painting] has been in the public domain for fifteenyears. 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 offraud, deceit, misrepresentation, falsification, counterfeit, andcalumny of every sort.They began with the client of Bigetti’s who had agreed tohelp him finance the purchase of the painting with a post-datedcheck. From there they grew into a tangle of bewildering complexityinvolving the other financier, the Italian state, MariaLetizia Paoletti, and even, according to word on the street, theSannini heirs. Rumors abounded. One antiquarian heard thatthe Banca Nazionale del Lavoro had offered to buy the paintingfor thirty million euros. This was not true, but on April 1, sixweeks after Isman’s story appeared, the court ordered the paintingimpounded in Bigetti’s bottega until the ownership claimshad been decided. Within weeks, matters grew even worse forBigetti. An art-crimes prosecutor launched a criminal investigation;the possible charges ranged from falsely advancing a copyor reproduction as an original to illegally altering an originalwork of art, with many permutations in between. Bigetti lookedon in woe and disbelief as the special art squad of the Carabinieri,the Italian national police, marched into his bottega andcarried 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 hehad not paid her for her work. (Her bill, according to Bigetti,was for 200,000 euros, a “preposterous” sum.) And in the secondinstance, which was even more important to Paoletti, shesaid that Bigetti was defrauding her by claiming he had discoveredthe painting.“He is playing a dirty game,” said Paoletti, in her studio onthe Aventine. “I am the one who discovered it, not him. He hadan 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 inan academic journal and thus enter the ranks of certified Caravaggioscholars, just as Benedetti had done years earlier. Bigettiwas just a simple restorer, said Paoletti, who was incapable ofwriting a coherent line. “He cannot publish it, but he doesn’twant me to publish it,” she said in a voice full of outrage. “Hewants Maurizio Marini to do it. Why? Because I am not famousand Marini is! Marini has the name! Whoever publishes it is theone who discovered it. I will publish it, thus I discovered it! IfBigetti lets another person publish it, that is fraud!”Paoletti shook her head bitterly. “It is like flies to honeywhen there is Caravaggio.”efFrancesca Cappelletti had always been wary of what shecalled “the Caravaggio disease.” In the case of the Sannini painting,it seemed to have taken full possession of everyone whocame near.She kept her distance, watching from afar as developmentsunfolded. She had not had seen the painting before it was seizedby the Carabinieri, but she had looked at photographs. She foundit hard to believe that Caravaggio had painted it, Denis Mahon’sattribution notwithstanding. And she suspected that Paoletti’sproof was anything but “cast-iron,” as Paoletti had often asserted.For one thing, Paoletti had claimed to find an important documentin the Recanati archive that Francesca and Laura had transcribedincorrectly. Francesca knew this was impossible. TheMattei palazzo in Recanati had been under lock and key by courtorder since the late 1990s, when the heirs began fighting over theestate. Apprised of this, Paoletti amended her story and said thatshe had found the document in the Archivio di Stato in Rome.But she would not reveal its contents or its significance to provingthe authenticity of the Sannini painting until she was allowedto publish the painting herself.Whatever Paoletti had found, or not found, the fact remainedthat the history of the painting before the lawyer LadisSannini acquired it was completely unknown. The Sannini familyhad no documents concerning the acquisition. Bigetti andPaoletti theorized that Ladis Sannini, who had practiced law inRome before moving to Florence, might have purchased it inthe 1930s, just after Duke Giuseppe Mattei had lost his palazzoand its contents in a card game. But the last full inventory of theMattei collection, taken in 1854 and listing 218 paintings, containedno 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 excellentpedigree. It indisputably came from the Mattei collection. Eventhe mistaken change in attribution from Caravaggio to Honthorstworked in its favor. When the German scholar Basiliusvon Ramdohr saw the painting in 1787, he dismissed the attributionto Honthorst and deemed it the work of Caravaggio. Hemade no mention of the only other painting of the same subject,which was unattributed in the inventory and described only as“large.”The size of the Sannini painting was in itself puzzling.Among the many versions of Caravaggio’s original—there are asmany as twelve—it was by far the largest. This constituted proof,according to Bigetti’s reasoning, that it must be the original. Butif that were so, why would the many copyists all paint uniformlysmaller versions, ones the size of the Dublin painting? If theSannini painting was the original, why wouldn’t they have replicatedthat?Last, and most important, there was the fact of Dublin’s superior quality, a fact acknowledged by everyone involved in theaffair. Bigetti had a ready explanation: a copyist, without theburden of creation, had time to improve on the original, tosmooth the rough edges and make a painting uniformly harmonious.Bigetti’s explanation was not without a sort of logic. But toaccept such logic as an operative principle would turn the studyof Caravaggio on its head. Ever since scholars began, some fiftyyears earlier, to identify Caravaggio’s paintings, they havejudged by the quality of the work, the swiftness, elegance, andcleanness of execution. In this instance, Bigetti would have theprocess inverted. Instead of being a Caravaggio because of itsexcellence, it was now a Caravaggio for precisely the oppositereason—that it was cruder and full of errors.The sole aspect of the Sannini painting that gave any credibilityto its claim as an original by Caravaggio was the profusionof gross pentimenti beneath the surface. Copyists, as a rule,rarely make so many errors, because they often have the originalbefore them. But they were not immune to error, nor are they allequally talented. One could, for example, imagine a circumstancein which a young painter, trying to develop his skills,briefly saw the original in the Mattei palazzo. Returning to hisatelier, he painted from memory. And then he went back to lookagain, realized his mistakes, and corrected many of them. Such ascenario is, of course, pure speculation, but it is no less plausiblethan Bigetti’s explanation of the pentimenti as a result of Caravaggio’screative ferment.It was April 2006. Two years had passed since the Carabinierihad 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.” Heawaited the resolution of the lawsuits and the return of hispainting. “The wheels of justice turn slowly in Italy,” he remarkedin a disconsolate voice. He paused, and then addeddarkly, “If this were Sicily, legs would have been broken already.”He tried to comprehend the fate that had befallen him: howcould things have gone so badly wrong just at the moment whenhis biggest triumph was at hand? He could find no flaw, no misstep,in his own actions. He believed everything would turn outright in the end, that he would become wealthy and famous aftersurmounting the formidable obstacles on the path to good fortune.His painting, after all, had the benediction of Sir Denis asthe original Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. That was the most importantthing. He would just have to wait and endure.As he waited, the criminal case proceeded with an investigationinto the nature of the painting. The aim of the two prosecutorsoverseeing the case, Paolo Ferri and Fabio Santoni, was todetermine, to the extent scientifically possible, whether the paintingwas a genuine work by Caravaggio. To that end, the prosecutorscontacted an expert named Maurizio Seracini, the founder ofa private company in Florence that specialized in art and architecturediagnostics. Seracini had a degree in electronic engineeringfrom the University of California at San Diego, and then hadstudied medicine at the University of Padua. He had turned hislearning to the scientific analysis of artworks. He was, by any mea sure,one of the world’s foremost authorities in the field, havingexamined 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 fewthat were merely wishful attributions.Seracini inspected the Sannini painting front and back andsubjected it to his many instruments. He took microscopic samplesof pigment from a variety of areas to determine their chemicalconstituents. 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 abasic preparation, ground into a powder, to which he would addwalnut oil as the medium. In the case of blue, for example, thepowder consisted of the mineral azurite, which contained oxidizedcopper ore that had been ground, washed, and sieved toremove impurities. A coarse grind produced a dark blue. For alighter blue, Caravaggio would grind the mineral with a mortarand pestle to a finer consistency.Seracini lifted minute samples of paint from the yellowbands on the soldier’s pantaloons, from the apricot-coloredcloak worn by Judas, and from the green cloak of the fleeing disciple.On examination, he found lead and tin, the common componentsof yellow, as well as another element, the brittle, toxicmetal antimony. Lead and antimony were the constituents of anancient color known as Naples yellow, then used widely in ceramicsbecause of antimony’s heat-resistant qualities.Neither Seracini nor any other investigator had ever foundantimony in a painting by Caravaggio. He had used only lead-tinyellow, as did all the other painters of his era and his predecessorsdating back to the late medieval. The sole exception was TheMartyrdom of St. Ursula, in Naples; in that work, researchers hadfound trace amounts of antimony, which they speculated hadcome from an eighteenth-century restoration that had sincebeen removed. Although Naples yellow had been around sincebefore the time of Christ, the first painting in which it appearedwas a work by Orazio Gentileschi done in 1615, now at the NationalGallery in Washington, D.C. It was not until after 1630that 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, accordingto several sources—to the two prosecutors in Rome. Hisconclusion: the Sannini painting was not by Caravaggio. It hadbeen painted sometime after 1630, more than twenty years afterCaravaggio’s death.Bigetti had no knowledge of Seracini’s conclusion, noknowledge even that tests had been ordered by the prosecutors.In Italy, such matters remain secret until either the case comesto trial or the prosecutors close the file and it is archived. Buteven if he had known, the report would not have shaken his faithin the painting. Nor that of Maria Letizia Paoletti, who had conductedher own tests and was convinced of her “cast-iron” proof.As for Sir Denis Mahon, one can imagine his old rivalRoberto Longhi, who had always believed the Sannini paintingto be a copy, enjoying a mirthless laugh. Some of Sir Denis’s acquaintances suspect that in his old age, with death not far off, hehas felt the desire to embark on a last campaign of discoveries.Not to enhance his reputation, which needs no added luster, butfor the pure pleasure of chasing the greatest painter of theBaroque, the one painter whose work he has never succeeded inowning.
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