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Sunday 26 May 2019

And the real Caravaggio masterpiece is . . . um, both of them

Grainne Cunningham

THE Caravaggio saga took a new twist yesterday when a leading art expert suggested there may be three 'originals' of The Taking of Christ in existence.

Sir Denis Mahon, a recognised authority on Baroque Italian art, insisted that both the Irish version in the National Gallery and the Italian artwork were painted by the same hand - that of the Old Master.

Controversy erupted this week when art expert Maria Letizia Paoletti claimed she had "cast iron proof" that a painting held by an art dealer in Rome was the original version of the 17th century work.

Ms Paoletti further insisted her revelation would force specialists to reconsider the authenticity of our own Caravaggio in the National Gallery in Dublin.

Yesterday Sir Denis Mahon added a new dimension to the international debate, insisting both the Italian and Irish paintings were originals - and suggesting that there could even be a third version, hanging in relative obscurity in a museum in Odessa in the Ukraine.

Sir Denis, who has an extraordinary track record in rediscovering lost paintings, explained that Caravaggio was unique among painters in that he frequently painted several versions of the same composition.

"He developed an idea on a canvas with changes in mind and then reproduced other versions, making tracings of the first, so we have a number of potential originals of each subject," he explained.

The fact that the Irish Caravaggio was painted after the one in Rome does not mean the Italian version is more valuable, Sir Denis told the Irish Independent.

Now aged 94, Sir Denis has been collecting Baroque works since the 1930s. His intervention may put to rest the competition between Dublin and Rome over the ownership of the masterpiece.

He said the version found in Rome was slightly different from the one in Ireland, but there was no doubt it was an original.

"We can see in that painting the figure of Christ was originally much more to the left of the composition, and then was moved," he told RTE radio yesterday morning.

Experts at the National Gallery in Dublin have dismissed any suggestions the Caravaggio in their possession is a fake, having spent three years authenticating the work.

The Taking of Christ, which portrays the moment Jesus was betrayed by the kiss of Judas, is the most celebrated work at the Dublin gallery.

Dr Paoletti set the two cities at each other's throat by saying of her find: "The discovery will now force specialists to reconsider exactly how to now place the Dublin painting in the context of Caravaggio's work."

She continued to express "personal doubts" about the Dublin picture yesterday, but Sir Denis said that he was certain of his ground.

"There has been some confusion here in the translation of the Italian language," he said. "'Originale' translates as original, but the Italians also have another word, 'originario'. It means the first in a series, which isn't quite the same."

Meanwhile, a Raphael is being dismissed by a scholar as a 19th century forgery, just days after being bought by London's National Gallery for £35m.

James Beck, Professor of Art History at Columbia University in New York, said: "The National Gallery has paid a record price for a fake."

He says that has even identified the hand of a known Raphael faker and "questionable" dealer, operating in Rome in the early 1800s.

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