How to attribute a drawing (by Caravaggio and otherwise): interview with Francesca Cappelletti

An interview with Caravaggio expert Francesca Cappelletti on the recent hundred drawings affair and how to seriously attribute a drawing to an artist

After the enthusiastic tones of the first hour have died down and it is possible to reason with a somewhat cooler mind, we at Windows on Art decided to get an expert opinion on the issue of the hundred Caravaggio drawings. Therefore, we reached out to Francesca Cappelletti (whom we thank again for her helpfulness and kindness in welcoming us, as well as for her compliments on our work, which we return to her for her serious commitment to art history), a professor of History of Modern Art at theUniversity of Ferrara as well as one of the people in Italy who know Caravaggio’s art best. We asked her a few things about both the drawings attributed to Michelangelo Merisi and, more generally, how to attribute a drawing.

We know that you, like many of your colleagues, are skeptical about the attribution to Caravaggio of the now famous hundred drawings in the Peterzano Fund. Can you tell us why you think these drawings are not attributable to Caravaggio?

In order to attribute drawings we generally proceed by making comparisons with other drawings, and in Caravaggio’s case we know very well that unfortunately we have no drawings attributable to him, indeed this has always been a serious gap in the reconstruction of his career and also a critical problem that has been questioned: there are scholars who think that it is true that he did not draw, as told by some of the ancient sources on the painter, others who think that he did not draw in the traditional way but drew by making sketches that were already colored on the canvas, and others who think that he destroyed the drawings later, however it is a fact that there are no graphic records of Caravaggio’s work. So it is quite difficult to attribute drawings to him since we cannot make comparisons with other material of the same type.

The other reason why it is difficult to attribute these drawings to Caravaggio consists in the fact that these very drawings, or at least the ones that we could see at the moment in these low-resolution images, moreover not published scientifically (without comparisons and without a critical apparatus of notes, but on the ANSA website), have been the subject of comparisons that to me seem more like typological comparisons, they don’t seem to me like stylistic comparisons with pictorial works, because that would also be very difficult. Moreover, the procedure does not seem to me to be particularly scientific ... or rather, philological, because in the case where some drawings that we want to attribute to an artist cannot be compared with other drawings executed by him, there must be a stringent similarity and a chronological similarity as well. We must not forget that this fund collects drawings executed in the 1680s in Milan in the workshop or at any rate in the sphere of Simone Peterzano. Frankly, comparing them with works that were executed from the 1600s onward does not seem to me to be an acceptable procedure from the point of view of art history, so in my opinion if these are the basics, these are hypotheses that are a bit perplexing.

I will add one more thing: It is also true that this fund is very important and should be studied, so in my opinion the only positive side of this affair was to bring to light the need for serious study and cataloguing of the Peterzano Fund.

Because of the many comments that we read around, especially on social networks, the affair might make art historians lose credibility because if we can all improvise attributions then it is not understood what would be your role, the role of experts, of art historians. So to restore some order can you tell us why it is difficult to attribute a drawing and why this would be a task reserved for experts?

In my opinion, there are two problems: on the one hand, in fact (without taking anything away from the interests of enthusiasts), it is clear that the modalities are different from those of scholars, because I believe that on a fund that has 1,300 pieces and that is a fund that can be traced back to a workshop about which we don’t know very much, it is necessary to do a very serious job. If you consider scholars to be people who have never tackled (from what we can tell from their writings) the problem of Simone Peterzano and the problem of Mannerism in Milan at the end of the 16th century, the work ends up looking a bit improvised, even if done with the best of intentions. So it is not possible to give the label of scholars to just anyone.

The second problem: The role of the art historian, I think, is to work very seriously on historical evidence and documentary evidence. There are not only photos of works circulating on the internet, so just on the basis of these photos alone one cannot venture into making assumptions: art history is a somewhat more complicated discipline. There are so many things involved: knowledge of context, knowledge of sources, documents, the rest of the artist’s catalog and the other artists with whom there were relationships. So let’s say that a serious study is first of all a much longer study that may not even lead to striking results, but it does lead to a reconstruction of a historical situation. These are all aspects that seem to me to be outside the scope of this affair, an affair that, for these reasons, seems to me to have little to do with the role of the art historian...

Many on the web, in defense of the two “discoverers,” invoke the freedom of study and research and at the same time point to the envy of colleagues for skepticism about new discoveries. How far do you think this freedom can go when it comes to attributing a work of art to a painter? And what role do frictions among colleagues play when it comes to discovering new works or formulating new attributions for works that were already known?

I believe that the world of studies, the world of serious studies that also proceed very cautiously (and not with improvisations), is actually a very diverse world, so you cannot say that there is envy on the part of one group against another ... scholars also argue a lot among themselves, I don’t think you can talk about that. Besides, to stay on the specific case, this was a very well known and studied fund by Caravaggio specialists, and precisely because they are serious Caravaggio specialists and have studied him all their lives they don’t venture into these somewhat rash hypotheses.

For example, Maria Teresa Fiorio, who had dealt with this fund, had brought out a preparatory drawing for a Sibyl by Simone Peterzano, which has the same somewhat faster stroke that we can perhaps imagine belonging to the young Caravaggio and which we can find in the Sick Bacchus, and as early as 1979 (when he published these drawings), and then in later interventions (in a 2002 issue of Paragone, which also collects other investigations of this fund), other scholars had found comparisons with works by Caravaggio and merely spoke of a common ground and training ground for the artist: it seems more correct to me. Then it’s clear that one can launch into hypotheses that perhaps have more resonance among the public, because they are more striking hypotheses, but it seems to me a different way of proceeding ... and it’s not a matter of differences between people working in the same way. It’s just about differences in the way of working, to be euphemistic. Although I don’t know the people directly, and I don’t want to be too harsh, they seem to me to be hypotheses that are poorly supported by documented research, precisely because this fund had already been studied and there are drawings that could have been attributed to Caravaggio even more than those we have seen recently. I myself take up one of them in my book, although with great caution I left it with Peterzano.... ! There are, however, very similar drawings to things that Caravaggio does, but not in the 1600s, but in 1592 when he arrived in Rome. So all scholars are very careful not to assign them to him because, again, we don’t know how Caravaggio drew when he was 14-15 years old... you just can’t tell, unfortunately.

We know that you are a great expert on seventeenth-century art, you have participated in several scientific committees of exhibitions, you have written many publications on Caravaggio and seventeenth-century art... so we would like to, just in brief and in a few lines because of how complex the topic is, inform our readers about what is the process of attributing a drawing or more generally a work of art, what are the variables that come into play, how do you arrive at formulating names, in short, how do you attribute a work to an artist...

I believe that a drawing is attributed when you make a stylistic comparison, of the artist’s ways of proceeding, and not of similarities between the poses of the figures, because such a similarity can be much more general than it seems. Or one approximates the drawing (but it has to be a preparatory drawing) to a work: if in this case we had found preparatory drawings, for example, for the canvases of the Contarelli Chapel with all the figures and with the composition, this would have changed. Therefore, to attribute a drawing correctly, one needs first of all a specific similarity to other certain drawings (which in this case there are not), or to the work... however, there must be a chronological proximity. If one knows a little bit of art history one knows that there is no such thing as an artist doing all the drawings before 1600 and then performing all the works after 1600. That is totally unrealistic. The other way to attribute drawings can be a documentary way: sometimes we can find evidence in the sources, signatures, payment documents that can be directly linked to a work, and eventually we proceed with the attribution. But again, serious scholars also do other kinds of sifting, in the sense that sometimes there are the documents that work well for the attribution of a work, and then the latter, from the point of view of style, is not entirely convincing. So it is very time-consuming work, because you try to put together as much data as possible.

In this case for example we don’t have Peterzano’s recent catalog, and in my opinion first you have to study Simone Peterzano well. Because maybe you notice that these drawings that seem to be by Caravaggio, when you study the painter well, then instead they come back more with works (executed) by Peterzano. So I find the process of the recent affair not very scientific.

Brief note on Francesca Cappelletti
Francesca Cappelletti teaches History of Modern Art at the University of Ferrara. She graduated from La Sapienza in Rome in 1987 (supervisor Maurizio Calvesi) and received her PhD in 1995. She has given lectures and seminars in Italy and abroad, served on the scientific committees of several exhibitions, and has numerous publications on seventeenth-century art and Caravaggio to her credit. His curriculum vitae can be found at this address.