The Lost Painting- How A Fresh Set Of Eyes Made All The Difference
by Larry Carson
It hung in abject isolation in a small monastery in Ireland. Seen every day, but never really seen. Unnoticed and unappreciated by every passerby hurrying to and fro. Too busy to notice. Too busy to care. Too busy to question. Too busy to really look. Too busy. Too busy.
And, there in the dining room of the Society of Jesus in Dublin, hung one of the most remarkable paintings ever produced by Michelangelo Merisi known to us as Caravaggio. By 1990, the masterpiece had been there for over fifty years, as smoke, dirt, and varnish layered onto the once pristine surface. No one cared. No one noticed. What was there every day to be discovered, never was.
Until a fresh set of eyes took a closer look.
Those eyes did not belong to a renowned and well connected member of the art community, but instead belonged to a conservator in Ireland, and two young graduate students at the University of Rome. Neither knew of the others’ investigation, but they converged to identify and document the painting and the provenance.
Sergio Benedetti was toiling away at the National Gallery of Ireland. He had worked there for thirteen years, but admittedly had grown disenchanted with his position, and felt that his professional career was passing him by. There had been no real challenges or opportunities to offer an escape from what was becoming a mundane career. But that changed on the morning when he accompanied the gallery’s assistant director- Brian Kennedy- to the Jesuit residence to look at some paintings that the priests wanted to have cleaned.
Benedetti examined several paintings, before turning his focus to the large painting that had hung in the dining room for so many years. “It was dark, the entire surface obscured by a film of dust, grease, and soot. The varnish had turned a yellowish brown, giving the flesh tones in the faces and hands a tobacco-like hue. The robe worn by Christ had turned the color of dead leaves, although Benedetti’s eye told him that beneath the dirt and varnish, it was probably a coral red. He could see that the canvas had gone a little slack in the frame. He judged that it had not been cleaned or relined in more than a century.” As they looked closer, the rector “thought it to be the best work in the house,” Kennedy described it as “a good second-division work,” but the fresh eyes of Benedetti looked beyond the cosmetics, as he whispered to Kennedy, “I think it might be by Caravaggio.” (from The Lost Painting)
At that same time, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa were about to begin a journey that would lead them to dusty archives, and protracted pleadings with and interviews of Annamarie Antici-Mattei, the matriarch of the Mattei family, and protector of the family’s historical records. Their dogged determination eventually led them to the documents that would provide the undisputed proof by making the connections linking the circuitous route taken by the painting from the original commission in 1602, to the dining room of the Society of Jesus.
It took imagination, deep work, dedication and expertise among other things to find what had been lost. For a low-level conservator such as Benedetti to closely examine a grime covered painting hanging in an out-of the way monastary, and even to remotely have an inkling that this could be the long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece was beyond preposterous. And, to think that two young graduate students could piece together the painting’s history leading it to that dining room wall was beyond comprehension. But, they did it.
All the efforts of these new eyes led to the discovery of The Taking of Christ which is now on display at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.