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Caravaggio and Giorgione, lost and found

Judith beheading Holofernes (c1607) was accidentally found in a manky Toul­ouse attic in 2014. Burglars had broke into the house, but they left the painting, believing it worthless! It remained a secret for another two years!! But since then, Judith and Holofernes has been analysed by experts at the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France at the Louvre. Most of them concluded that it most likely created by Caravaggio (1571-1610).

The painting depicted the biblical story of Judith, the young widow in Biblical town of Bethulia who put an end to the Assyrian siege on her city by seducing and beheading General Holofernes.

Judith beheading Holofernes, c1607 
By ? Caravaggio, 

In 2016 the French government placed an export ban on the painting to allow time for the Louvre to consider whether it should be bought. The estim­at­ed price of €100m represented 15 years of the Louvre’s acquisition budget, and the museum already had three exceptional Caravaggios. The museum decided not to buy it and when the ban ended, the painting was available to travel. The Louvre decision meant the painting can be auctioned in late June 2019 in Toulouse. There are 68 known paintings by Caravaggio, including this one, only four of which are in private hands. So a museum would be the most likely buyer in June.

In the meantime, Judith and Holofernes is being displayed at Mayfair’s Colnaghi Gallery this week. Eric Turquin, a Paris-based expert in the Old Masters, is in London now with the painting, to make the case for it being a genuine Caravaggio.

Since Caravaggio was my favourite artist in the ENTIRE universe, I don’t understand why he was so unfashionable from 1650-1950. But apparently his paintings were worth very little in those 3 centuries. Note the last Caravaggio auction in 1971 when Christie’s offered Martha and Mary Mag­dalene (found in South America). The head of the Nat­ional Gallery did not believe it was a Caravaggio, so it failed to sell. Soon after it was bought privately for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

As there is no reserve price on Judith and Holofernes, please just wrap it up and send it to me. I don't have the US $115-170 million estimated value, but I will love the painting tenderly for the rest of my life.


Now a work from another artist, found in a different country and painted in another century. Read about Giorgione's life in Lives of the Most Excel­l­ent Painters, Sculptors and Architects written by the It­al­ian art hist­orian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74). The painter came from the small town of Castel­franco Veneto, 40 km inland from Venice. He probably served his apprentice­ship in Venice under the beautiful Giovanni Bellini; there he settled and rose to prominence as a mas­ter. Giorgione in turn influenced the even more beautiful Titian. But was Giorgione Titian's master? It is possible that they were both pupils of Giovanni Bellini, and lived in Bell­ini’s house. They worked together on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi frescoes and Titian finished some paintings of Giorgione after his death.

His skill was recognised early. In 1500, at 23, he was chosen to paint portraits of the Doge and other dig­nitaries. In 1504, he was commissioned to paint an altar­piece in the Cast­el­franco cathedral. In 1507, The Council of Ten commissioned a picture for the Hall of the Audience in the Doge's Palace.

In 1507-8 he and others were employed to fresco the exterior of the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi-German Merchants' Hall at Venice, having already done the exterior frescoes of other Venetian pal­aces.

Leonardo da Vinci met Giorgione when the old master's visited Venice in 1500 and found the young man to be charming, a great lover and a mus­ician. Giorgione expressed the grace of contempor­ary Venetian existence in his art, Leonardo said.

Sadly Giorgione died of the raging plague in Oct 1510, only in his mid 30s. Fortunately he had already had a great influence on his foll­owers in the Ven­et­ian school and remained one of the greats of the Renaissance era.

Now a chance discovery in a Sydney library of a 500-year-old sketch has impressed art historians. The red-chalk draw­ing by Giorg­ione was found at the University of Sydney Library, on the last page of a 1497 edition of Dante Alig­hieri’s Div­ine Comedy. The sketch has an ­accompanying hand-written inscrip­tion in black ink and dated 1510: “On the 17th Sept, Giorgione of Castelfranco, a very excellent art­ist, died of the plague in Venice at the age of 36 and he rests in peace.

Melbourne Uni Prof Jaynie Anderson, author of  the book Gior­g­ione: The Painter of Poetic Brevity, estimated its worth to be in the mil­l­ions. And, she said, the Sydney discovery transforms our un­der­stand­ing of ­Giorgione’s life and his relation to other artists. [Both claims may have been overstated]. In 1510, at the time of Giorgione’s death, the book had likely been the art­ist’s property. It contained a Virgin Mary and child, with the emphasis on the Christ child. “The Virgin’s face is blank. It is very abstract, little more than a doodle, but all the more beautiful for that.”

Giorgione sketch, The Madonna and Child. 
University of Sydney

The 1497 copy of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy
gold-tooled inboard binding.
University of Sydney’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

Prof Anderson said that the c1500 sketch was related to a group of paint­ings attributed to Giorgione: Holy Family and Adoration of the Sh­ep­herds in the National ­Gallery of Art in Washington, and the London Nat­ional Gall­ery’s Adoration of the Magi. These paint­ings showed similar Vir­gin and child groupings, as analysed in the British art jour­nal Burl­ington Magazine in March 2019.

Were Venetian paintings of the early 1500s without literary reference? No. Sydney Uni­versity’s discovery suggested that the Venetian artist read Dante’s early C14th verses in the Tuscan dialect AND that his sketch was a direct response to the narrative poem.
How did the 1497 Dante edition arrive an Australian university? Apparently the University’s first vice-chancellor Charles Nicholson began collecting rare books in the 1850s. His collection of antiq­uities formed the basis of the university’s Nicholson ­Museum. My main references were published in The Australian Newspaper, 16th Feb 2019 and 23rd Feb 2019. And the Sydney University Newsletter 25th Feb 2019.


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