Was a lost Caravaggio found in an attic in France?

A leaky roof may be responsible for the rediscovery of a long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece. In the attempt to reach the leaking roof of a 17th century house outside Toulouse, in April of 2014 the homeowners broke through a door in the attic that they had never noticed was there. Behind the door was an oil painting depicting the Biblical heroine Judith beheading Assyrian general Holofernes while her begoitered maid Abra holds open a bag in which his head will be placed. It was covered in dust but otherwise in excellent condition. The family called in local auctioneer Marc Labarde to assess the painting. He cleaned the white film of grime off the face of the maid with cotton balls and water and identified it as a 17th century painting from the school of Caravaggio.

Labarde called in friend and Old Master expert Eric Turquin to examine it further. Turquin spent two years cleaning, conserving and studying the painting. He had it X-rayed and analyzed with infrared reflectography. He found key elements characteristic of Caravaggio’s work: great speed of execution, bold, secure brushstrokes and, because Caravaggio never made preparatory sketches first, changes done midstream to the positioning of Holofernes’ right hand and Judith’s face. Two Caravaggio experts examined the painting and agreed with Turquin that it was the original work lost almost 400 years ago. Another determined it was a copy, albeit a very good one.

Caravaggio painted an earlier Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) which is now part of the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. He made the second in Naples during the first decade of the 17th century. We know of its existence because Frans Pourbus the Younger, a Flemish painter at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, wrote about it in a letter to his boss, Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Dated September 15th, 1607, the letter noted that Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was for sale in Naples for 400 ducats. Pourbus also mentioned seeing another Caravaggio painting, a Judith and Holofernes, for sale.

What he didn’t tell Gonzaga was that both works were owned by a good friend of his, Flemish artist Louis Finson. The Duke was unwilling to spend 400 ducats on one Madonna, because a few years later Finson took it to Amsterdam with him. Finson also took Judith Beheading Holofernes to Amsterdam. Both Caravaggio works are listed in his will, but after his death in 1617, the Madonna was acquired by a consortium of artists including Peter Paul Rubens for a church in Antwerp while Judith disappears from the historical record.

Caravaggio was very famous in his lifetime, and while he never had a literal school or workshop with students like other masters did, he had followers who copied his works and painted pieces of their own that were heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s style. Louis Finson was one of the first Flemish Caravaggisti, as the followers were known, as was Rubens. Finson lived in Naples in the early 17th century when Caravaggio was there too. He owned several of Caravaggio’s original works and copied others. The Finson version of Judith Beheading Holofernes was considered a very faithful copy and since the original was lost, for close to 400 years, Finson’s copy was the only extant image of the work. Finson didn’t take it to Amsterdam and it is now on display in the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano in Naples.

The French government has placed an export ban on the painting which means it cannot leave the country for 30 months. This will give experts plenty of time to study the work in greater detail, and will give French museums the opportunity to tap potential donors for the astronomical sum — something in the $130 million range — required to buy the work should it prove to be an authentic Caravaggio. As a contemporary copy of some quality, Louis Finson’s version will play an important role in the authentication process. One expert believes the newly discovered work is in fact another copy by Finson.

14 thoughts on “Was a lost Caravaggio found in an attic in France?

  1. I want to live in Europe. It would be awesome to go in your attic and find a 400 year old painting, or stumble accross a horde of ancient Roman coins in your yard.

  2. “stumble across a horde of ancient Roman coins in your yard.” We live on a Roman Road, so you could say we live in hope.

    On the other hand, I do own the smoking cap of Thomas Carlyle. I’m not certain that he was distant kin; maybe he was just kith of kin. Anyway it was handed down to me because in my generation of the family I was the most bookish. But what is my widow to do with it?

  3. I feel you, Preston McCullough. Our attic is full of … insulation and wiring. It’s just crawlspace. The only thing we ever find up there is the occasional rat.
    We’re lucky if we find a Civil War bullet (which we did find once; it came in with a bunch of rocks and things that were used to fill in a dirt road).
    America is so young … and by the time it’s as old as France or England, there won’t be much interesting stuff to find, just old electronics and car parts.

  4. I’d be the first to admit that my opinion is worthless, but that doesn’t look like a Caravaggio to me. Holofernes’ face seems downright crude.

  5. Lucas Cranach the Elder with his workshop painted at least eight different quite remarkable Judiths.

    The black widow from the new painting appears to have more practice in Thyroidectomy than the one from the first Caravaggio. In fact, she looks like a real widow.

    Her begoitered assistant, however, seems a bit carried away. Her ‘struma’, I’d say, is no coincidence and must be some kind of symbol.

    P.S.: I am a bit carried away myself, in my case by the Greek in this context:

    – Abra (ἅβρα) is the expression for a favourite slave
    – Holo(n) ferne (φερνή) is all that is brought by the wife, dowry,
    – Fernion (φέρνιον) is a fish-basket

  6. *…while her begoitered maid Abra holds his hair.* It looks to me as if the maid is holding a piece of brown cloth, just as she is in the 1599 painting.

  7. Not to mention the huge sum. I hope it was someone dead poor and this find changes their lives. It’s the stuff of dreams (and movies). Still, how could one not notice a door in their own attic? Was it hidden behind an old cupboard or tattered drapes? Something about it’s history stinks. Was it contraband before the revolution? Stolen? Guess we’ll never know…

  8. That’s amazing. Maybe if you wear it, you can write a great book. 🙂
    Which Roman Road do you live on? My next trip to Europe is focusing on Roman roads and aquaducts.

  9. Hmmm?! I haven’t seen the original, but from the various images online,Finson sounds about right. Apart from whether it is Caravaggio or not, it looks more like a Northern painting than an Italian one–in terms of execution. Many thanks for signaling the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, which I have never visited.

  10. It doesn’t look like Caravaggio to me – Judith is looking at the viewer instead of at what she’s doing, the sword is not in the neck, with a similar result, Abra is looking at Judith instead of the decapitation, and likewise the bag in which Abra is to receive the severed head is hidden instead of exposed – the overall effect is to vastly reduce the dramatic effect (see the known Caravaggio to compare).

  11. Yes, it’s Caravaggio. Both the models are familiar from other Caravaggio’s and both are painted from life. The woman holding the bag also appears in the Crucifixion of Saint Andrew at the bottom left, you can even see that the vein in her neck travels around the goitre in the same direction. Her face is viewed from a different angle to the Saint Andrew but the planes of her face correspond exactly. The model for Judith is none other than Fillide Melandroni, Caravaggio’s frequent muse during his time in Rome and possibly also a prostitute for whom, according to Andrew Graham Dixon Caravaggio may have acted as pimp.

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