ROME — A casual glance at an auction catalog set a British art historian on the path to discovering the brushstrokes of Caravaggio on a painting previously attributed to an anonymous follower of the Baroque master.
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Experts in Italy believe a copy of Caravaggio’s “The Cardsharps” which surfaced at a London auction last year is an earlier version of the 1594 painting now displayed at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
The previously anonymous work was bought at a Sotheby’s auction in December 2006 by art historian and collector Denis Mahon and will be first displayed to the public in the Sicilian city of Trapani at a Caravaggio exhibit starting Saturday, organizers said.
Mahon was at a restaurant when he spotted a painting attributed to a Caravaggio follower in a catalog and quickly linked it to the already known “Cardsharps,” said Mina Gregori, an Italian art historian who worked with the British expert to verify his initial hunch.
“It was intuition or a stroke of genius,” Gregori told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Mahon was struck by the fact that the work belonged to a private collection that had previously sold an original Caravaggio, she said.
Maurizio Marini, another Caravaggio expert who has studied the newly found painting, said the work is true to Caravaggio’s style, and X-rays have confirmed it is an original by revealing the lead-laced sketch that was drawn to outline the painting.
An analysis of the paint has also come up with traces of very fine sand, another trademark of the artist, he said.
“The Cardsharps” is an early work by Caravaggio and shows a young, fresh-faced page being tricked at a card game by two cheaters. The scene is typical of Caravaggio’s revolutionary style of depicting realistic characters and images found in everyday life.
Gregori said she was convinced that the London painting was a Caravaggio when she noticed that the face of one of the cheats, though partly covered by the page’s hat, had still been sketched out in detail by the artist before being painted over.
“That’s the ultimate proof,” she said. “A copycat doesn’t do that.”
Officials at the Kimbell Museum welcomed the discovery.
“We are fascinated to hear of this development and look forward to the scholarly debate that will surely ensue,” acting director Malcolm Warner said in an e-mail.
While the two works were painted only a few months apart, there are important differences highlighting the rapid evolution of Caravaggio’s style, Marini and Gregori said.
The earlier version is brighter and leaves more empty space around the characters, while the Fort Worth painting changes the perspective and focuses on the figures, achieving a dramatic effect through Caravaggio’s signature “chiaroscuro” technique, which uses the interplay of light and shadow.
The surfacing of the earlier version also resolves a long-standing debate in the art world over whether Caravaggio, like other masters of his time, sometimes painted the same thing twice, Marini said.
The Fort Worth painting — commissioned by Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal Francesco Del Monte — is rendered with expensive colors and bears the coat of arms of the prelate’s family on the collar of the young page. By contrast, the earlier version, painted when Caravaggio had just reached Rome at the start of his career, is made with cheaper materials and was probably intended to be sold to the general public.
“This confirms that when necessary, he would replicate his own works,” Marini said. “Artists, too, need to eat three times a day.”
Gregori said Mahon bought the painting in London for $100,000 and plans to donate it to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. She said the work would have fetched a much higher price had it been known it was by Caravaggio, but she declined to give a figure.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was the prototype of the fast-living, outlaw artist, frequently involved in brawls and in trouble with the law. His starkly realist approach to biblical subjects and bold shafts of illumination remain influential.
Forced to flee Rome in 1606 after killing a man in a duel, Caravaggio spent the last years of his life between Naples, Malta and Sicily. The exhibit in Trapani, which runs through March 14, will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the artist’s stay on the island.
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