Sgarbi dedicates book to Ecce Homo attributed to Caravaggio. Here's what he says


"Ecce Caravaggio" by Vittorio Sgarbi is the first full-bodied essay devoted to Ecce Homo Ansorena, the painting that emerged in April and has been attributed by many to Caravaggio. A rich volume in which everything that is known about the work is collected. Which for Sgarbi is Caravaggio's without a doubt.

The book Ecce Caravaggio. From Roberto Longhi to Today by Vittorio Sgarbi, published by La Nave di Teseo (264 pages, 20 euros, EAN 9788834608173), is the first full-bodied essay on theEcce Homo that emerged last April in an auction by the Spanish house Ansorena and has been attributed by many scholars to Caravaggio. The volume, in an elegant hardcover and dust jacket and packed with images printed on glossy paper, is divided into four parts: the first is dedicated toEcce Homo Ansorena and includes an introduction by Vittorio Sgarbi, a testimonial by Antonello Di Pinto (the antiquarian who found the painting in last April’s auction, from which, as is well known, the work was later withdrawn due to excess interest), and scientific contributions by Francesca Curti, Michele Cuppone and Sara Magister. The second, on the other hand, traces seven decades of Caravaggesque criticism beginning with Longhi’s “rediscovery” in 1951, with contributions by Sgarbi and Cuppone. The third contains instead essays by Barbara Savina and Giacomo Berra on two open questions, namely, respectively, the well-known problem of replicas of Caravaggesque works and the case of the Saint Francis in Meditation on Death between possible originals and copies. The book closes with the last part, which includes contributions (by Gianni Papi, Mina Gregori and Sgarbi: the first two are already edited essays and serve as contextualization for Sgarbi’s new contribution) around a further Caravaggesque novelty, a Magdalene in Ecstasy, which has re-emerged after decades of oblivion and was shown for the first time at the Mart in Rovereto in an exhibition curated by Sgarbi himself.

In introducing the main theme addressed by the book, Sgarbi reconstructs the very recent history of theEcce Homo Ansorena: the author recalls how on March 25 he received a report from Antonello Di Pinto that the painting would go to auction in Spain, with attribution to the circle of Jos de Ribera. “But upon seeing the image,” Sgarbi writes, "I have no doubts. It is certainly not Mattia Preti, nor any other master in the genre of Bartolomeo Manfredi or Jusepe de Ribera, the early ’orthodox’ Caravaggesque painters; but ’him’ himself. Caravaggio. Unmistakable." Sgarbi does not credit himself with the primacy of the discovery, which he believes he shared at least with Massimo Pulini and Maria Cristina Terzaghi, whose article on the subject is awaiting publication, not yet available despite the anticipations given by Windows on Art when, starting with the announcement given on July 28 by El Pas, its release seemed imminent (although Sgarbi claims to have written about it first among scholars on April 8, the day after the work was withdrawn from the auction, for reasons of prudence, so it is not possible to determine who first actually noticed the painting). According to the Ferrara art historian, there is “little to attribute,” and the only questions to be resolved would concern the dating, the occasion of its creation, and the ownership transitions. Sgarbi then tries to reconstruct the circumstances that could have given rise to the painting: not the Roman sojourn, as Massimo Pulini thinks, nor the Sicilian years. Having also discarded the hypothesis of a Massimi commission (which would date back to 1605 and thus to the Roman sojourn: a hypothesis that is not viable due to incompatibilities with the information obtained from the documents), the possibility remains open that the work was executed by the Lombard artist in Naples. Sgarbi therefore recalls, as many did in the hours following the discovery (on these pages read the interviews with Rossella Vodret and Antonio Vannugli in this regard), that an Ecce Homo is mentioned in 1657 in the inventory of the possessions of the Count of Castrillo Garca Avellaneda y Haro, viceroy of Naples, and indeed the most recent documentary acquisitions are around this track, which scholars are trying to trace backwards, starting with the last owners (the Prez de Castro family, descendants of Evaristo Prez de Castro, president of the Spanish council in the early 19th century who, as documents from the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando attest, permuted a work given to Caravaggio with one by Alonso Cano). Finally, there is the problem of theEcce Homo in the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa, which in the presence of that Ansorena should perhaps be expunged from the Caravaggesque catalog, although the hypothesis of an autograph variant remains open and while it remains a work of high quality (this is Sgarbi’s position) it will certainly not diminish the importance of the historical-artistic heritage of the Ligurian capital even if it were to lose its attribution to Caravaggio.

La copertina del libro
The book cover

Francesca Curti, in her essay, summarizes the documents and literary sources that concern or could concern theEcce Homo Ansorena or other paintings with the same subject: in particular, she mentions literary citations by Bellori, Giovan Battista Cardi and Filippo Baldinucci who speak of the painting Massimi commissioned from Caravaggio in 1605, and then again an Ecce Homo recorded in Juan de Lezcano’s inventory of 1631, and additional Ecce Homo appearing in the inventories of Don Garca Avellaneda y Haro, second count of Castrillo, viceroy of Naples between 1654 and 1658 (the inventory passage is from 1657), in a note on the possessions of Lanfranco Massa (1630), and in a reference to a Passion cycle commissioned from Caravaggio by a Messina man, Nicol di Giacomo, in 1609. Based on the analysis of these sources, according to Curti the artist appears to have painted at least two Ecce Homo: “a large one for the Massimos,” the scholar explains, “and a smaller one (about five palms) owned by Castrillo that could also be the Lezcano one.” Which, in turn, could be the Ansorena one, as mentioned above. It is probable, however, given the dense presence in Sicily of Ecce Homo by minor artists derived from Caravaggesque prototypes, that “the painter made in the island one or more canvases with this subject,” which, however, do not emerge from the archival traces.

What can be done instead is to follow the Spanish traces, and this is what Cuppone has done in his essay, presenting unpublished (or revised) transcriptions from Spanish documents. In particular, as mentioned above, one can trace backwards the history of the painting starting with the current owners, the Prez de Castro family, descendants of the Evaristo who was a politician and diplomat capable of holding very important positions in the Spanish administration in the early 19th century (in addition to being president of the council, he was also the drafter of the 1812 Constitution of Cadiz). In 1823, Evaristo Prez de Castro acquired the Ansorena painting: the move is mentioned in a file from that year of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, which speaks of a “permuta de un cuadro de Alonso Cano por un Ecce-Homo de Caravaggio, propuesta por don Evaristo Prez de Castro,” who was an honorary academician in 1800 (Alonso Cano’s painting, a Saint John the Baptist, is moreover still owned by the Madrid academy). The question that needs to be asked, then, is how did theEcce Homo given to Caravaggio (without hesitation) reach the institute? In the inventories of the Real Academia it first appears in 1817, but it is interesting that Cuppone gives an account of an 1824 document (a general inventory of the academy’s property) in which the exchange is mentioned and it is said that theEcce Homo was “perteneciente a los [cuadros] que se trageron del secuestro de Godoy.” The Godoy mentioned is the nobleman and politician Manuel Godoy, to whom the work would have belonged: the information contained in the inventory, however, needs to be verified, explains Cuppone (who puts forward the hypothesis that confusion has been made with another Ecce Homo, by Luis de Morales, which actually belonged to Godoy and later passed to the Academy), for, due to the fact that research by another scholar, Itziar Arana, has instead ascertained that at the time of the exchange another document stated that the provenance of theEcce Homo was unknown. If, however, the Godoy trail were valid (studies are looking into this very hypothesis), one could pursue the idea of a very high-level provenance for the EcceHomo Ansorena (one could venture that it came from the royal collections of Spain), which would make an attribution to Caravaggio even more likely on the basis of the work’s history as well.

Caravaggio (attr.), Ecce Homo (olio su tela, 111 x 86 cm)
Caravaggio (attr.), Ecce Homo (oil on canvas, 111 x 86 cm)

Before Cuppone’s second contribution, which runs through the main news aboutEcce Homo that has come out in the press since April 7, and Antonello Di Pinto’s lively account, Sara Magister focuses on thepainting’s iconography, highlighting some interesting details. One of the main reasons for the interest of the Ansorena canvas lies in the fact that it is placed, Magister writes, in a group of works situated in the “middle ground between narration and contemplation, when the iconic figure of Christ is associated, often with strongly contrasting physiognomies and attitudes, with one or two key characters in the story.” a combination typical of Titian or Lombard-Venetian painting of the late 16th century, and also found in the painting Ansorena, “a dry synthesis of John’s narrative, all played out in the tense opposition between opposites: elegance versus vulgarity, solemnity and crudeness, idealization and realism, beauty and brutality, control and instinct and, last but not least, light and shadow.” Again, Magister points to the relationship between the faces, designed to engage the viewer’s attention, as one of the painting’s most interesting elements, enhanced by the realism of the expressions: a combination of idealization and humanization useful for manifesting the divine nature of Jesus in his humanity and anticipating the glory of the resurrection. Then, it is possible to dwell on some elements that have caught the attention of scholars, starting with the “bright spot” in the center of Christ’s head, which is not easy to decipher given also the current state of conservation of the painting, which awaits cleaning. According to Magister, who rejects the idea of idealizing this detail as others have proposed (such as Alessandro Zuccari and Pulini), it could be a detail, on the contrary, extremely realistic, namely “the point of tearing of the long branch used for the crown of thorns,” as first argued by Kristina Hermann Fiore and later also by Giacomo Berra. Another element worthy of further study is Pilate’s hands that do not point at Jesus but at the red cloak placed on his shoulders by the torturer: a detail of extreme relevance because it could shift the narrative of the Gospel episode slightly forward, thus no longer the moment ofEcce Homo in the strict sense, that is, when Pilate shows Jesus to the people, but the one, recounted by John’s Gospel, in which Pilate asks the people if they really want to put the “king” of the Jews on the cross (the red cloak is a royal attribute). A detail of great originality that, according to Magister, “centers even better the theological heart and the message of the sacred story narrated, according to a mode of interpretation and language that is typical above all of Merisi and his sophisticated patronage”: thus, not the moment of Christ’s presentation to the people, the moment in which Jesus is subjected to judgment with, therefore, a last chance for repentance, but rather the point of no return, the one in which “history will be changed forever.”

Finally, it will be worth opening a discussion of Sgarbi’s contribution around a new Magdalene in Ecstasy variant of a well-known composition (that of the Magdalene in Ecstasy once in the Klain collection that constitutes probably the best-known exemplar). "At the height of Caravaggesque passions and discussions around the astonishing Ecce Homo in Madrid,“ Sgarbi writes, ”there appears, with the brutal immediacy and simplicity of a spur-of-the-moment, unrepentant execution, an unprecedented version of Caravaggio’s Magdalene that has, with virginal preservation, an immediacy in the face and hands, rendered in the other versions in more scholastic and perfunctory ways. There is a naturalness, in the painting that tenderizes the flesh and in the soft interweaving of the fingers, that has a warm, throbbing life like a cast from life." For Sgarbi, this Magdalene in Ecstasy kept in a private collection in Rome and resurfaced in 2010 following a report by Nicoletta Retico (although it is a painting that was already known, albeit to few: between the 1940s and 1950s it was restored by Pico Cellini, who showed it to Roberto Longhi and pointed it out to Maurizio Marini in 1969, who published an image of it in 1974, calling the painting “of Saracen taste and sensitive quality, not free from interpretative rigidity”), it is the culmination of the research that Caravaggio began with the Magdalene in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery. “The ease and simplicity of execution that we have detected,” Sgarbi concludes, “could pave the way to recognize in the painting that has now resurfaced a test executed in the spur of the moment, without repentance, as we have observed, only to return, in the span of those turbid and restless days, to revisit the same subject, as on the other hand would please, some time later, Finson, his enchanted follower before the rough and essential invention of the damned and lost master.” More material to discuss, then, just in case theEcce Homo Ansorena is not enough.

Sgarbi dedicates book to Ecce Homo attributed to Caravaggio. Here's what he says
Sgarbi dedicates book to Ecce Homo attributed to Caravaggio. Here's what he says


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