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‘Lost’ Caravaggio to be unveiled in London – but is it a fake?

The naked warrior looks plaintively up into the averted eyes of a graceful woman methodically slicing off his head with a sword. It is a burst of violence painted in haunting tones by a Renaissance master worth at least $100 million – or yet another fake distressing the art world.

'Lost' Caravaggio to be unveiled in London – but is it a fake?
Is either of these paintings by Caravaggio? Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

The mystery may be about to be solved when a London gallery on Thursday reveals the restored version of what some think is Caravaggio's great lost work.

French art expert Eric Turquin has been looking after the life-size canvas since its discovery during pipe repair work in the attic of an old house in the southwestern French city of Toulouse in 2014.

“Not only is it a Caravaggio, but of all the Caravaggios that are known today, this is one of the great pictures,” Turquin said ahead of the painting's June 27th auction in Toulouse.

“It's not just an addition — it is a major addition to the oeuvre of the artist.”

READ ALSO: In the first week of March, all Italy's state museums are free

Caravaggio's mastery elevated Europe's understanding of art by the time he died from what some scientists think was gradual poisoning from the lead in his paint at the age of 38 in 1610. His arresting interplay of shadows and radiant light heralded the onset of the brooding Baroque style that flourished for 150 more years and produced the likes of Rubens and Rembrandt.

Caravaggio's best works resemble scenes on a macabre theatre stage. The Biblical heroes are played by models he picked off the street — mostly beggars and street kids — and cast against dark backgrounds in a candle-lit glow.

But he was a hot-tempered genius who was wanted for murder and hiding from the Rome authorities in his final years of life. He was “notorious for brawling, even in a time and place when such behaviour was commonplace,” the Caravaggio Foundation writes.

READ ALSO: New Caravaggio museum aims to separate fakes from original masterpieces


Caravaggio's confirmed Judith Beheading Holofernes is on permanent display at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The 144 by 175 cm canvas depicts the moment the chaste widow Judith beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes to defend the city of Bethulia. She decapitates him after plying him with drink.

The more risque takes depict Judith as a seducer who first tempts him to bed — the path also chosen by Caravaggio in a similar work he painted eight years earlier that now hangs in Rome. The general's head is then taken away in a basket or on a silver platter for display.

The old maid in the scene from what could be Caravaggio's missing work is disfigured by bulbous goitres — a condition affecting the thyroid gland — that compete for the eye's attention with the streams of blood gushing down the warrior's chest.

READ ALSO: Police back on the trail of ‘world's most wanted' stolen Caravaggio painting

But what if this is not a Caravaggio but an admittedly fine copy by one of his Flemish disciples?

Louis Finson was a recognised artist in his own right who both owned and reproduced Caravaggio's work. Finson was also an art dealer who may have had an ulterior motive in making Caravaggio duplicates and then selling them off to wealthy merchants in his native Bruges and Amsterdam.

Caravaggio expert John Gash told The New York Times in 2016 that Finson was “an inveterate copyist” whose is known to have made at least one reproduction of the missing tableau. That piece now is now displayed in Naples.

An art expert holds up a radiography of the disputed painting. Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP

But Turquin said X-rays have convinced him that his canvas was not just another one of Finson's knockoffs.

“Originally, Judith was actually looking towards the face of Holofernes — she was looking at what she was doing, as she did in the 1602 painting. It was only [later] that he changed the painting.”

Turquin argued that going back to a work to shift the direction of the main protagonist's gaze was “no way what any copyist would ever do”.

“If it's a copy, he's a genius, the copyist,” said Turquin.

By AFP's Dmitry Zaks

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CULTURE

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres. 

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