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CARAVAGGIO MEMORIES


I just finished reading a very good book that brought back memories from when I made my first visit to Rome at the age of fourteen. Titled “The Lost Painting”, it was written by Jonathan Harr and is the story of the discovery of the Caravaggio painting “The Taking of Christ” which had long been lost. Turns out that was because it was misattributed when it was sold by the Italian baronial family who had owned it since its purchase from the artist who at the time was a guest in the castle. The painting went to a collection in Scotland and was not properly identified until it was taken from a Catholic religious house in Dublin to the National Gallery of Ireland for restoration. The book is a fine art detective story and sheds much light on Caravaggio scholarship and research.

I know the painting well because I have several times visited it at the National Gallery in Dublin where it is on permanent loan. Having spent about an hour and a half studying it, I consider it to be a truly major work.

So where does Rome come in?

I well remember a visit I made with my father to the church of San Luigi dei Francesi near the Piazza Navona (one of my favorites). We walked into the rather dark church and the guide we were with went off into the even darker recesses calling out “scuzzi!” in an attempt to find the sacristan who would turn on the lights. Eventually, that worthy gentleman appeared and did turn on illumination in the Contarelli Chapel at the far end of the nave. Today, a coin dropped into a box achieves illumination.

What we were there to vsiit was the three Caravaggio paintings in the St. Matthew cycle. I was told by the guide that the artist was twenty-nine when he painted the canvases and I was shown the self-portrait in the background of “Martyrdon of St. Matthew”. There is also a self-portrait of Caravaggio in “The Taking of Christ”. Ten years after completing the paintings in the chapel that I first saw when fourteen, the artist died alone, an outcast with a death sentence on his head.