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Saturday 17 March 2018

Gallery insists Caravaggio is genuine

Art thieves even fooled police -- but they had merely stolen a copy of our Renaissance masterpiece


The National Gallery in Dublin has disputed claims by German and Russian authorities that an "€80m" Caravaggio painting recovered from thieves is the masterpiece The Taking of Christ.

The Irish gallery is adamant that the painting hanging in Dublin is the genuine article and that the newly recovered painting of the same name is a copy.

German police thought they had recovered a Caravaggio which they valued at €80m when they infiltrated a gang of arts thieves who stole The Taking of Christ from a museum in Odessa in the Ukraine two years ago. But the badly damaged painting they recovered in Berlin is merely a copy of the original masterpiece which hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI), according to Fionnuala Croke, the gallery's Keeper and Head of Collections.

The Taking of Christ has entranced millions of visitors to the National Gallery since it was discovered hanging in the dining room of the Jesuits headquarters in Dublin by Sergio Benedetti who was then Senior Conservator of the NGI.

Last week in a joint operation four suspected members of the gang of international art thieves were detained in Germany while Ukrainian authorities held 20 more, and the painting stolen in Odessa was recovered -- though badly damaged.

Germany's elite special operations police unit, GSG9, was involved in the raid, which interrupted a planned illegal sale of the work.

The recovery was trumpeted by German police and Ukrainian political leaders, including Interior Minister Anatoly Mogylyov, as the saving of a masterpiece. But that simply isn't true, the National Gallery of Ireland regretfully but firmly insisted.

"Ours is undisputed in its attribution to Caravaggio. It is undisputedly regarded as the work that is documented as having been commissioned in 1602 by the Mattei family in Rome," Ms Croke said.

The art historian said that there were many copies "after our painting" because it was immediately highly regarded.

"Obviously Caravaggio's influence was enormous in his own lifetime and in succeeding generations and there were many copies of this work because it would have been seen by many, many guests and visitors to the Mattei family home, which was in the centre of Rome.

"There is a record in the documentation in the Mattei family records that there was a copy commissioned of our painting by another member of the Mattei family in 1626 that was painted by another artist who was otherwise completely unknown called Giovanni di Attilio. Sergio Benedetti believes that it is this copy, painted 20 years after our original, which is the Odessa painting."

She added that the Odessa painting had the exact dimensions of the original, which pointed to the fact that it was copied directly from the Caravaggio original.

"So why is our painting in Dublin the original and the painting in Odessa a copy? Well, there are a number of things. There's the quality for one thing.

"Also the Odessa painting doesn't carry 'pentimenti' -- changes of mind by the artist. There are several examples of pentimenti in the Dublin painting. For example, the ear of Judas was originally painted higher up and you can see that with the naked eye. There are others in the buckle of the belt of one of the soldiers. It was widened at some point during the painting."

Ms Croke also pointed to further evidence including references contained in writings by the 17th Century art biographer of Gian Pietro Bellori.

"Bellori mentions the second soldier in the Mattei [Dublin] painting, who is seen in profile with face partially obscured and with a prominent nose. He was a favoured model of Caravaggio and he was used in several paintings between 1601 and 1603, including the famous Supper at Emmaus in London.

"Bellori also mentions that in the Taking of Christ Caravaggio imitated the rusty armour of that soldier. In our painting, and in our painting only, you have that rubbed red underground coming through like an effect of rust on the helmet. That doesn't appear in any of the copies," she said.

She suggested that the most compelling evidence that the Odessa painting was a mere copy was because there were no changes of mind by the artist.

"A copy won't have changes of mind because the artist commissioned to paint the copy has the final finished painting from which to work in front of him," she added.

She added that some reports about the recovery of the stolen Odessa painting mentioned that it had been authenticated as an original Caravaggio in 1950.

"Of course, the point you have to remember is that in 1950 the Dublin picture had not come to light at all. So it wasn't in the mix at that time," she added. "Since our painting has emerged, I think it is very fair to say that the evidence that the Odessa painting is a copy is compelling."

Sunday Independent

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