Long-lost Paintings by Michelangelo and Caravaggio: Are They or Aren't They?

Two of Rome’s most beautiful exhibits of the moment, The Renaissance in Rome: In the Footsteps of Michelangelo and Raphael and Rome in the Time of Caravaggio are ending this coming weekend, so if you haven’t had a chance to see them yet, I highly recommend you high-tail it to Via del Corso and Piazza Venezia respectively before all these amazing works get shipped back home. 

Both exhibitions are more in celebration of the works inspired by these three big kahunas of the art world, as opposed to displaying much of their own works. As I’ve talked about before, dropping big names seems to have become the norm in the quest to attract as many visitors to an exhibition as possible. Even so, the exhibits are still wonderful and well worth a visit.

One thing these two shows have in common is that each has a work of art on display that has been recently attributed to one of the two passionately adored Michelangelos. At The Renaissance in Rome, the so-called Pietà of Ragusa, literally discovered behind a couch in a middle-class home in Buffalo, New York, recently restored and on display publicly for the first time, is allegedly a long-lost work by Michelangelo Buonarroti himself.

Pietà di Ragusa , School of Michelangelo (with attribution to Michelangelo himself by some scholars), 1545. Private collection

Pietà di Ragusa, School of Michelangelo (with attribution to Michelangelo himself by some scholars), 1545. Private collection

According to some of the most respected Michelangelo scholars, at least the base sketch of the painting was the work of the master’s hand, if not the entire piece. The painting seems to have passed from Michelangelo's close friend Vittoria Colonna to (centuries later) a German baroness, and was eventually given to the great-great-grandfather of the American owner, whose children affectionately call it the “Mike.” It was relegated to behind the couch when it was hit by a tennis ball. If in time the work proves to be a genuine Michelangelo, it could be worth as much as $300 million dollars.

Saint Augustine in his Study , attributed to Caravaggio by some (clueless, in my opinion) scholars

Saint Augustine in his Study, attributed to Caravaggio by some (clueless, in my opinion) scholars

Much less convincing is the painting of Saint Augustine which some are now claiming to be the work of a young Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It is on display at the Rome in the time of Caravaggio exhibit at Palazzo Venezia. It was originally part of the art collection of Vincenzo Giustiniani, a well-known collector of Caravaggio's paintings, and a couple of "experts" out there are convinced it is the Lombard master's work. There’s only one problem with it: it doesn’t look like anything Caravaggio ever did. In my very humble opinion, if this were the work of the world’s greatest master of chiaroscuro, my beloved bad-boy Caravaggio, the background would be much darker and sparser. There wouldn't be anything back there besides maybe a window, a curtain or a shaft of light.

The only thing that even comes close to Caravaggio's style is the book that is edging slightly over the end of the table. But everything else, I mean, really? The mitre? The pathetic two-dimensional bookshelf? Please! Even the facial features and hands are way off.

But who am I to judge? I may be an impassioned lover of Caravaggio's work and I may cross borders on occasion in my quest to see his every last painting, but I can hardly be considered an expert. So here's what Maurizio Marini, a real Caravaggio expert, has to say about it: "If that's a Caravaggio, then I'm baby Jesus."


Photo sources: 1, 3: Courtesy of Arthemisia Press Office; 2, 4: Courtesy of Civita Press Office