­­­­The “Judith”: the jury is still out

On 01 February 2019, by Carole Blumenfeld
On 24 December, an export certificate was obtained for the painting found by appraiser Éric Turquin and auctioneer Labarde in Toulouse in 2014 and listed as a national treasure in March 2016. Its attribution to Caravaggio is still controversial.
Attributed to Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio (1571-1610), "Judith Cutting Off the Head of Holofernes", c. 1604-1605, canvas, 144 x 173 cm.
© Photo Studio Sebert

«What is a genuine work by the artist?» asked art historian Olivier Bonfait at the round table on 9 January concluding the symposium «Caravaggio, a Baroque Life: New Perspectives and Reflections on the Roman Years», organised by the Italian Institute in Paris. The recent media stir around the «Turquin» painting could affect its fate. For example, if the work comes up for sale, a potential buyer might be tempted to purchase it in a hurry for fear of competing with a host of other aspiring owners in an auction room. Mr Turquin says «no decision will be made before late February and the end of the restoration,» which is being carried out by the renowned Laurence Baron-Callegari.

The Finson hypothesis
Although Ms Baron-Callegari is taking a light-handed approach to the restoration, it has already had a significant impact, especially on the interpretation of how the painting was made. «The artist used the grey-brown preparation as a medium tone in the establishment of certain parts,” she says. “He did not paint everything, allowing the preparation to play a role as a colour.” The restoration confirms one of the theories advanced in the report by Caravaggio specialist Claudio Falcucci: at first, Judith was looking at Holofernes, as she is in Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome not the viewer. At this stage however, there is still a long way to go before the research community reaches a consensus. Gianni Papi remains sceptical. He thinks the «Finson hypothesis», which attributes the work to Louis Finson, a contemporary of the artist’s, is the most likely scenario. Francesca Cappelletti, Anna Coliva and Maria Cristina Terzaghi, who will head the future Caravaggio Research Institute, have not written a line or uttered a word on the attribution. Nor has Neapolitan painting specialist Giuseppe Porzio. Those convinced the work is by Caravaggio close ranks behind former Capodimonte Museum director Nicola Spinosa, Aberdeen University’s John Gash and above all Keith Christiansen, who confided his lack of doubt to us in October 2016. In a June 2017 discussion, whose translation we are publishing here for the first time, he even went a bit further.

 

Keith Christiansen’s opinion
The John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.


"its authorship, I also recognised that this was one of those pictures that would not achieve a consensus among specialists. We all like to think that our views will prevail, but I think that deep down, we know this is not the case. I was personally taken aback to discover that the portrait of Maffeo Barberini in the Corsini collection in Florence – a picture the Corsini family inherited from the Barberini collection and that could be traced back to the early seventeenth century – was not instantly embraced as a significant addition to Caravaggio’s oeuvre when it was included in an exhibition of Caravaggesque painting in Florence (I wrote the entry). To me, it seemed what I would call a “no brainer”: a picture the attribution of which seemed so obvious and could be situated so conspicuously to a specific moment in his career, that there would be no discussion – once one got over Roberto Longhi’s mistake in having rejected it in a famous article written in 1963. Instead, there has been significant reluctance. So I am not in the least surprised that a far more difficult picture – the Toulouse Judith – has met with such scepticism. To my way of thinking, art history and art connoisseurship (the two are not the same, though they are interconnected) are different from science. In so many cases empirical proof for an attribution is lacking, which is why technical information has assumed a sometimes overly important place. It is well to remember that for years the “Crowning with Thorns” in Vienna was viewed with scepticism (this was still so when it was shown in “The Age of Caravaggio”  in 1986). Even among those who did accept it, the rather abbreviated style (which some found coarse) led to a wide range in dating. But we now know it is the painting from the Giustiniani collection and everyone accepts it and considers it a Roman – not a Neapolitan – picture. Similarly, if you look at the earlier “authoritative” literature discussing the Odescalchi Conversion of Saint Paul – Caravaggio’s first version for the decoration of the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo – you will find that at certain points it was rejected by Roberto Longhi, Denis Mahon and Walter Friedlander, who in his 1955 monograph described it as follows: “There are decidedly Caravaggesque elements in the work, such as the face of the angel supporting Christ, which greatly resembles that of the Amor Victorious, or of the Isaac in the Sacrifice of Isaac. However, the whole composition is crowded and composed in crossing diagonals, somewhat in the manner of Central Italian painters such as Federico Barocci. […] Whether or not this is really the first version by Caravaggio for the chapel is extremely difficult to deicide.” No one today would agree with any of this and, instead, consider it one of the artist’s most astonishing masterworks. The questions now turn to the motive for the replacement and the date that separates the two versions (the documentary evidence now suggests they were probably not painted back-to-back). Finally, I am reminded that despite the fact that a well-known picture in Genoa – the “Ecce Homo” – is accepted in just about every book on the artist, it has long seemed to me a work the attribution of which cannot be defended either on stylistic or technical grounds; nor on the basis of documents. Its acceptance is merely the consequence of the weight of past consensus that seems to have blocked a truly critical revaluation. Of course, the foregoing observations do not mean that those who reject Caravaggio’s authorship of the Toulouse picture are wrong. Time will tell where the predominant opinion goes. But it does remind us that this is an artist who cannot be put in a box and whose work constantly demands fresh looking."
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