The reports of the 'caravaggio' of Madrid: four "problems" and "alarming gaps" without painting

The eccehomo attributed to Caravaggio that appeared at an auction in Madrid in March 2021, and that was to be sold for 1,500 euros, presents “two important and alarming gaps” without paint that expose the canvas of the painting in the area of the face of Christ, according to a report signed in April last year by the director of the Prado Museum, Miguel Falomir, to which EL PAÍS has had access.

That conclusion, based on the examination of some photographs of the painting, was extended a month later, during a face-to-face inspection of the work in order to declare the painting Asset of Cultural Interest (BIC). When reviewing the canvas, the Prado specialists detected four “problems”. One: the “great accumulation of varnishes makes it impossible to see at least 40% of the surface”. Two: there is “a lot of repainting and retouching”. Three: “detachments of the pictorial layer that have left the canvas uncovered” are observed, a “danger” that “threatens” to reproduce itself in other areas of the painting. And four: the reinforcement on the back of the paint “has lost adhesion”.

All this information is now coming out for the first time.

May 11, 2021. Coslada, Madrid. Two specialists from the Prado Museum, as many from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, and one from the General Directorate of Heritage of the Community of Madrid travel to see and analyze the painting at some warehouses specialized in the conservation of works of art. This is the place chosen by the Pérez de Castro family, owners of the painting, to store the supposed caravaggio on the recommendation of the antique dealer Jorge Coll, who acts as spokesman for the family. The researchers must assume a confidentiality agreement: the photos of the painting cannot be made public. A day later, Falomir signs a concise, but forceful and revealing analysis of the state of a piece that only a few have been able to see until now.

The report, accompanied by abundant photographic material, warns that there are parts of the painting where the paint has fallen, specifically “next to Christ’s nose and under his left eye”, as well as on Pilate’s cape. That is, you can see the fabric, small white circles, according to the photos obtained by this newspaper. That “danger of rising and falling of the painting threatens” to be reproduced in other parts of the painting “especially the shadow areas, very cracked and unstable,” according to the report signed by the director of the Prado. In addition, there are varnishes that “have been partially removed in very specific areas, an action that has revealed particularities of the figures, without affecting the entire scene, which is aesthetically very unbalanced.” And a problem is detected with the fabric used to reinforce the back of the frame: “It has lost adherence to the original fabric in several places.”

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Although the representative of the owners of the work considers the Prado Museum to be an interested party, and not an objective one, since it might want to buy the painting, the state of the relining also alarms the specialist sent by the Community of Madrid, who signs his report without skimping on adjectives .

“Oxidation of the relined assembly is very important”, he warns. “It is very clogged with adhesive, which makes it rigid that endangers the work under any pressure”, he underlines. “The adhesion between the two fabrics is disappearing in some areas, producing pockets in the back (…) After the loss of adhesion, the function of support between the fabric and the pictorial layer will begin to be shared, which will obviously produce a fracture and detachment of this ”, he warns. And he adds: “(There has been) invasive repainting on the original surface. Selective cleanings break the assessment of figure and background and make it difficult to read the work properly”.

The alleged 'caravaggio'.
The alleged ‘caravaggio’.THE COUNTRY

These conclusions were reached after months of big headlines in the art world, which lived with the utmost expectation the appearance of a possible canvas by Caravaggio (1571-1610). The work, initially attributed to the Ribera circle, was to have gone on sale for 1,500 euros at an auction organized in March 2021. For almost two weeks, the painting hung in a room at the Ansorena auction house of Madrid, and there paraded a pilgrimage of experts, antique dealers and curious people from all over the world attracted by the appearance of what is known in the art world as a sleeping, that is to say, a badly attributed work, with a ridiculous starting price, and still without legal protection, so it is likely to be taken out of Spain and resold as many times as necessary.

For this reason, before the date set for the bid, private offers and millionaires begin to rain down to acquire the piece. That was the sign that an exquisite rarity had been found in Madrid, a true artistic white blackbird, since the myth of Caravaggio has been built in equal parts on the mastery of his brushstrokes and the scarcity of his work.

Two of the three paintings with which the baroque genius returned from Naples to Rome to use as payment to obtain pardon for a murder were lost; another disappeared in an earthquake in Naples in 1798; three were destroyed during World War II, and another vanished in Palermo in the 1960s, a robbery attributed to the mafia. there are barely 60 caravaggios attributed worldwide, four of which are in Spain. Consequently, the sudden discovery of a badly cataloged painting of the genius opens the doors to a multimillion-dollar business that depends on its being exported: if its authorship is confirmed, and it can leave Spain, it can be sold for more than 100 million euros in abroad.

The Ministry of Culture reacted a day before the auction was held. He cautiously prohibited the painting from leaving Spain. He requested that the Community of Madrid declare it an Asset of Cultural Interest (BIC), which prevented its owners, the family of liberal politician Evaristo Pérez de Castro, from asking the central government to reconsider that export ban in the future. With the discovery a controversy broke out made of money, art and fame: the photos of the work flew between the chats of the experts, the requests to see it in person piled up, and qualified opinions began to accumulate that agreed that because of that eccehomo Caravaggio’s hand had passed.

Many of these experts also agree that the state of conservation of the work is “regular”, as the Community of Madrid qualifies it. In fact, the privileged few who managed to enter the Ansorena auction house in Madrid in March 2021, and see the canvas, had already warned that it had been relined, that it had a large number of varnishes, that it was missing the frame and that it should be cleaned.

Some assessments that contrast with that of Coll, the spokesman for the owner family. “The state of conservation is correct. It needs normal conservation for a baroque oil painting from four centuries ago. You have to remove varnishes, small reintegrations, ”said the antique dealer, also hired by the owners to investigate and restore the painting, in an interview with EL PAÍS in 2021. This newspaper contacted Coll before the publication of this article, but has declined. make statements.

To clarify the authorship of the work and study its condition in depth, the Prado recommended an examination with macrophotographs, binocular loupes, X-rays, ultraviolet lights, or high-resolution infrared reflectography. This investigation, the institution stressed to the owners, could be done at no cost in the museum’s facilities (the most advanced in Spain for the analysis and restoration of works of art), and would last between 48 and 72 hours.

“The study would be carried out in a very short time, by highly qualified personnel in the field and guaranteeing the necessary security and conservation measures at all times,” reads the letter sent by the Prado to the owners. “Likewise, you could designate a representative to act as courier and supervisor of all proceedings,” he adds. “At the end of the study, they would be given a copy of the results, which will undoubtedly contribute to increasing the knowledge and prestige of the work.”

But the owners declined the offer in June 2021, although they considered it “generous” and “useful.” In addition, they specified: “Initial contacts are being made with the main national and international experts on the work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, in order to gather all the points of view on the work and that, it should be said, until date have been positive”. And they detailed: “We estimate that this process, of remarkable rigor, will require a few more months due, among other circumstances, to the limitations that the current pandemic situation has imposed, and still imposes.”

A year and several waves of the coronavirus later, the process seems not to be over. The Community of Madrid assures through a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture that the regional administration has not received from the Pérez de Castro, nor, therefore, approved, a restoration plan for the work, as established by law for all the BICs. From this it follows that the painting remains in the same state in which the specialists who analyzed it more than a year ago in Coslada found it. As far as EL PAÍS has been able to confirm, experts from all over the world travel to assess the work. Presumably, an authorship report will come out of these visits. Meanwhile, the mystery of eccehomo attributed to Caravaggio remains unresolved.

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