Judith Beheading Holofernes: the mystery of the lost Caravaggio

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It could happen that, by performing renovations in a pretty but rather anonymous city, you can discover hidden treasures. This is what happened in recent times in Toulouse, the event concerns one of the most historically loved Italian painters in the world: Caravaggio.

It was 2014 when a painting was found in an old palace in Toulouse, while fixing a water leak in the cavities. The painting, all dusty, was then carefully observed, analyzed, studied and only after two long years of investigation was the news of the discovery spread.

The French State has renounced the pre-emption right on the picture, which for some experts is the work of Michelangelo Merisi better known as Caravaggio, while for other only a forgery.

The auction was scheduled for June 27th, 2019, but two days before the painting was sold by surprise to an anonymous collector. It should be emphasized that the people behind this work manage the marketing aspect very well: everywhere in the world we have heard about this picture, and now there is even a private and confidential sale from a person in contact with some important museum. The current location of the painting is unknown.

The painting represents the theme of Judith and Holofernes, a story described in the Old Testament.

Judith Beheading Holofernes – The painting found in Toulouse

These two characters lived in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, in the 6th century B.C. Judith lived in Betulia, a city assaulted by the Assyrian troops, led by Holofernes. Judith, a brave young Jewish widow, is determined to save her people.

One night, accompanied by a trusted maid, she ventures into the Assyrian general’s tent, and the latter, in front of the beauty of the woman, thinks he can seduce her, and so he lowers his defense and begins to drink and get drunk. Judith takes advantage of the situation and cuts Oloferne’s head. Suddenly, the Assyrian army finds itself without a guide and can no longer continue to besiege the city. In a short time all the troops retreat and the city of Betulia is safe and sound.

The two paintings by Caravaggio

Caravaggio had already painted this theme in 1559. The work is currently preserved in Rome in the National Gallery of Ancient Art. Another painting that follows Caravaggio’s style with the same theme, currently owned by Intesa bank in Naples, has been attributed to Louis Finson. It represents a copy of a lost Caravaggio and, according to some, we are talking exactly about this painting. Chronologically, this work would have been conceived in Naples.

Caravaggio lived in Naples for a total of 18 months. The first living room can be dated between October 1606 and June 1607. In these nine months extraordinary and well documented masterpieces were made, such as the Seven Works of Mercy, The Flagellation of Christ and The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. After his travels to Malta and Sicily, the artist returned to Naples, the capital of the Spanish Kingdom, in October 1609 and remained there until the following summer. It is thanks to the testimonies of Louis Frison that the whole story has been reconstructed.

Louis Finson is a painter and art dealer who plays an essential role in the European diffusion of the style of Caravaggio and of caravaggism in general. So after a documented stay in the south of France the art dealer had several paintings with him, including this work.

Judith Beheading Holofernes – the painting exposed in Rome

If you compare the two canvases, some differences emerge. The Roman Judith is imposingly seductive in her refined white dress that highlights her body. In the Toulouse painting there is only tension, worry, darkness. The Roman canvas insists on the curvilinear shapes, whereas in the Toulouse one everything becomes more obscure. The dress and the veil of the heroine are dark, her eyes terribly determined and the the look is oriented outwards.

Holofernes in the Roman painting represents Caravaggio himself, a hidden self-portrait of the painter. In several paintings Merisi is inside the scenes. In the French canvas, Holofernes is not Caravaggio, but an angry man with gritted teeth.

The weapon she uses to kill in the Roman painting is a dagger, in the other a traditional sword.

The beautiful red cloth that stands out in the background occupies only a small part of the space, while in the rediscovered painting it occupies a greater space.

They are different periods, different moments of life. Caravaggio, of course, was anything but a quiet man. On the contrary, he was a sort of rock star of his time, a man attached to life and his pleasures. He spent everything on drinks and prostitutes, never forgetting the fights. And it is thanks to a fight, a violent fight with Ranuccio Tomassoni where the latter lost his life, that Caravaggio was sentenced to death. Thus began a lifetime escape. A short, intense, lively life with that dose of bad luck that always manages to complete everything. In fact, not even forty years old, he died of fever and hardship on the beach of Porto d’Ercole in July 1610, without ever knowing that Pope Paul V had granted him the much-needed salvation.

However, whether it is a fake or an authentic one, a painting where perhaps the Master has only intervened or otherwise, it’s the emotion that really matters.

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