Mina Gregori, author of several books on the painter, says she is 100% sure she has found original Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy.
One of Italy’s most eminent art historians has claimed to have solved a centuries-old mystery after identifying a previously unknown painting in a private collection as a “magnificent” Caravaggio masterpiece.
Mina Gregori, 90, president of the Roberto Longhi foundation of art history studies in Florence and author of several books on the baroque painter, said she was 100% sure she had found the original Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy.
“I have become a connoisseur,” she said. “And I know a Caravaggio when I see one.”
A number of elements had combined to give her complete certainty, she said, that the oil on canvas she was presented with this year was the real thing.
There are several different versions of the Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, and until now the one thought most likely by art historians to be the 1606 original was lying in a private collection in Rome.
Gregori, however, believes the game is up for all the pretenders. What she describes as the “memory archive” that all connoisseurs carry within them was activated, she said, when she saw the newly discovered painting.
“The varying flesh tones of the body, the intensity of the face. The strong wrists and the blackened hands in wonderful variations of colour and light and with a shadow obscuring half her fingers are the most interesting and intense aspects of the painting. It is Caravaggio,” she told Italian daily La Repubblica.
But Gregori says she is not relying solely on her interpretation of the art. On the back of the painting a note in 17th century-era handwriting refers to Caravaggio’s Mary Magdalene for “Cardinal [Scipione] Borghese of Rome”.
Gregori told La Repubblica: “This document definitively confirms the identification and attribution of the painting.” The Italian cardinal was a great collector of art and a patron of Caravaggio.
Gregori was contacted by the owners of the painting earlier this year. They had an inkling that the work might be a Caravaggio but had not even been able to decipher the handwritten note, she said.
Now, the family – who, she said, were in another European country – did not want to be identified through concerns over publicity and security reasons.
“They don’t want to put it in a safety deposit box; they would prefer to keep it at home,” she told the Guardian.
Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio is believed to have had his Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy with him in the Tuscan town of Porto Ercole where he died in 1610. The painting is thought to have been subsequently transported to Naples, where a Flemish artist, Louis Finson, made a copy of it which is now in the French city of Marseille. What happened to it after that, however, is not known.
Unlike the painting which until now had been considered most likely to be the original, said Gregori, the newly-discovered work shows a young woman “the same as the one Finson recaptures in his copy in Naples”.
However certain Gregori is, her claims are likely to cause controversy in Caravaggio circles.
John Gash, a senior lecturer on art history at the University of Aberdeen, who is also an expert on the Italian painter, suggested exercising extreme caution.
“There are many versions of a presumed lost original of this subject by Caravaggio, none of which so far qualify as autograph,” he wrote in an email. “This might be it, but without seeing the original painting, I would suggest extreme caution.”
A spokesman at the Italian culture ministry declined to comment.