Jonathan Harr is the author of the national bestseller A Civil Action, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and The Lost Painting, a New York Times bestseller. He is a former staff writer at the New England Monthly and has written...read more
Jonathan Harr is the author of the national bestseller A Civil Action, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and The Lost Painting, a New York Times bestseller. He is a former staff writer at the New England Monthly and has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He lives and works in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he has taught nonfiction writing at Smith College.
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In the spring of 2003, ten years after the unveiling of The Taking of Christ in Dublin, a restorer and art dealer in Rome named Mario Bigetti began hearing word that another version of the painting, long regarded as a copy, had come on the market. Bigetti’s sources told him that the asking price was sixty thousand euros. A considerable sum for a copy, thought Bigetti, even if the copy did come with an illustrious history. The painting, owned by the Sannini family of Florence, had been discovered by Roberto Longhi sixty years ago, in 1943. While it lacked the brilliance of an authentic Caravaggio, wrote Longhi, it appeared to be a faithful copy of the lost original that Bellori had described in such precise detail. Some years later Longhi arranged to borrow the painting from its owner, Ladis Sannini, a lawyer and amateur collector, for the 1951 Caravaggio exhibition in Milan. Bigetti was curious about the painting. After the Milan exhibition, it had gone back into the Sannini collection, never to be displayed publicly again. It existed in the world of Caravaggio scholars only as a few dark, old photos. Bigetti heard rumors through his network of sources that one dealer or another had gone to look at it, but apparently no one had been seriously tempted to buy. Bigetti’s curiosity finally got the better of him. He read what he could find on the painting. There wasn’t much, just the few notes by Longhi, and the dark photo in the 1951 catalogue. What intrigued Bigetti most was the size of the painting. It was two feet wider and a foot taller than either the now accepted Dublin painting or the Odessa version. Most of that additional space was simply dark background. The only significant feature, on the left edge of the Sannini painting, was the fleeing disciple’s extended arm, depicted as far as the wrist. In both the Dublin and Odessa paintings, the arm stopped at the elbow, leaving the viewer to conjure the rest. Strange, thought Bigetti: no copyist he’d ever heard of would have painted more than the original. He decided to go see the painting for himself. Even a copy, he reasoned, might be worth buying at the right price. He made a few phone calls and arranged, through an agent of the Sannini family, to view the painting. Mario Bigetti had spent his entire life dealing in old objects, some of them valuable, some of them little more than junk. He was self-taught and industrious, and he had a particularly good eye for paintings. He was fifty-seven years old, short and stout, with a face as round as the full moon. He dressed like a laborer, in dungarees and layers of sweaters covered by a denim jacket. Unlike the fancy antiquarians in suits and ties who catered to tourists and decorated their shops with Persian carpets, polished furniture, and artfully placed spotlights, Bigetti’s shop on Via Laurina two blocks from the Piazza del Popolo, was not the sort of place that beckoned to the average passerby. His neighbors were a butcher, a small bar, a punk clothing store, and the Hotel Margutta, on whose sad blue neon sign half the letters had burnt out. Bigetti’s shop—it was a bottega, really—was long and narrow, more like a garage than a showroom. There were no windows; the only illumination came from a row of cheap spotlights on the ceiling, angled down on a few prizes that Bigetti had mounted on easels. In the shadow and the gloom, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other paintings rested on the tiled floor and leaned, one atop another, against the scabrous green walls. Bigetti’s eye and his knack for finding old cast-off paintings at trifling prices had made him the acquaintance of nearly all the most famous scholars of the Baroque. Denis Mahon had visited his shop several times, as had Mina Gregori, Maurizio Marini, Herwarth Rottgen, Frederico Zeri, and others. In his time, Bigetti had come across several important paintings and dozens of lesser works of good quality. One never knew what small gem one might find in his dusty bottega. On a day in May 2003, Bigetti and his wife left Rome and drove up to Tuscany, to the small, ancient village of Certaldo where Boccaccio had been born. The Sannini country house was a stone castle atop a hill, with gardens, olive groves, and views of the surrounding countryside. One of the family’s retainers met Bigetti and his wife at the gated entrance and escorted them in. Ladis Saninni, dead now for many years, had acquired a picture gallery of around seventy paintings, many of them portraits. Bigetti spent only a short time examining The Taking of Christ. A small spotlight illuminated the painting to provide for careful examination. His eye was drawn to the face of Judas, where the paint surface was intact, with no overpainting or touch-up. The rest of the painting was dark and yellowed with old varnish and heavily retouched by earlier restorers. After a few minutes, he nodded to the retainer and turned away. He made no comment about the painting. “When you are there for only a few minutes, you are sure about the painting,” Bigetti once said. “When you must study it for half an hour, an hour, then you are simply trying to convince yourself. Plus, I want to give them the idea that I am not very interested.” He cast a quick, appraising glance at several other works in the Sannini collection. He thanked the man who had escorted him, and he and his wife departed. They had been there less than fifteen minutes, and few words had been exchanged. In the car, his wife said to him: “Well, did you like it?” “Certainly I liked it!” replied Bigetti. “I think it could be the original Caravaggio.” Bigetti resolved to buy the painting, restore it, and study it further. He let a week pass before contacting the Sannini representative. When Bigetti said he was interested in buying the painting, the agent remarked that it was a work of great historical value, highly esteemed by Roberto Longhi. Yes, replied Bigetti, he knew the history of the painting. The price, said the agent, was four hundred thousand euros. And thus began Bigetti’s negotiation for the painting. Four agents and twenty days later, according to Bigetti, the negotiation stalled at 135,000 euros. The price was more than double what Bigetti had heard from other dealers. But the agent for the Sannini family would go no lower. Perhaps, thought Bigetti, he had made his desire to own the painting too evident, after all. A few days later he agreed to the price, even though he didn’t have that sort of cash on hand. He quickly set about trying to find someone to finance the purchase in exchange for part ownership of the painting. One of his clients, who was to all appearances a man of means, agreed to provide the money. Together they produced a handwritten contract, and the client handed over a check. The only slight problem, said the client, was that the check would have to be postdated until funds arrived in the bank account. Like Benedetti before him, Bigetti fretted with each passing day that some other dealer or antiquarian would see the painting and snatch it up. He had a Caravaggio, or so he believed, nearly within his grasp. He explained his dilemma to an acquaintance, a lawyer. The lawyer, who had faith in Bigetti’s professional judgment, offered to advance Bigetti the money for the purchase. And so Bigetti returned to Certaldo on June 20, 2003, in the company of the lawyer. He signed a contract and took possession of the painting. He wrapped it and loaded it into the back of his van and returned to Rome. That evening he installed it on a large wooden easel on the second floor of his bottega and spent several hours admiring it. The next morning, with eager anticipation, he sat before the easel with an array of solvents and opened a small window in the grime and old varnish that covered the surface. The painting had not been cleaned at least since the 1951 exhibition, if then. Bigetti could see many places in which previous restorers, decades and centuries earlier, had retouched the original surface with a heavy hand. The more Bigetti worked on the painting, the more certain he became that it was an autograph work by Caravaggio. He compared it incessantly with photographs of the Dublin version. He could not deny that his own was more crudely done. The intertwined fingers on the hands of Christ were like sausages, lacking definition, and his face seemed wooden and compressed, as if it had been put in a vise. The sleeve that draped off Judas’ arm, and the cloak of the fleeing man, were rather coarse. Most strikingly, the back of the second soldier’s head was bizarrely proportioned, as if the painter had depicted a microcephalic deformity. Bigetti, in his desire to believe that this painting was by Caravaggio, made a virtue of the painting’s crudeness. Yes, it was less elegant, less clean than Dublin, he would admit. But it was more spontaneous! And, most important, it was more complete.
Over the summer, Bigetti opened several large windows on the painting, but many months of work still lay ahead of him. After cleaning off the dirt and varnish, he would have to remove large areas of overpainting applied by previous restorers. Yet he felt a need to share his belief that he had in his possession a genuine Caravaggio. He called an art historian of his acquaintance, Maria Letizia Paoletti. “I want to show you something extraordinary,” Bigetti told her. Paoletti, then in her mid-fifties, had known Bigetti for many years and had visited his shop several times, always at his urgent behest. “He would call me all the time,” Paoletti later recalled. “Come look at this Guido Reni, this Guercino, this Raphael,” he would say. It was rarely ever what he thought it was, but sometimes he did make a discovery. He is not an art historian, he wouldn’t know how to write a single line, but he does have a particular eye, a sensibility.” Paoletti was not known as a Caravaggio scholar, but she had a particular skill that Bigetti valued. Her expertise lay in the scientific techniques of examining old paintings. She had at her disposal portable X-ray and infrared machines, and access to a laboratory that could analyze pigments. When she came to Via Laurina see the painting, Bigetti pointed out aspects that he found convincing. It was bigger than either the Dublin or Odessa versions, and what copyist ever painted more than the original? It simply wasn’t done! And look here, said Bigetti, there was clearly a scar on the back of Judas’ hand, on the meaty part between the thumb and forefinger, the sort of scar caused by the slip of a knife, a scar just like Bigetti had on his own hand! It didn’t exist in the Dublin painting, and a copyist would never invent such a thing! These observations intrigued Paoletti. She admired certain elements of the painting. “I was pulled into it by the hand holding the lantern,” she recalled later. “Caravaggio made hands in a certain way, and to me this had his signature.” She agreed to examine the painting with her machines to see what lay beneath the surface. Even more important to Bigetti, she said that she would bring Sir Denis Mahon to look at the painting. Sir Denis was coming to Rome to help arrange a Guercino exhibition, and Paoletti had recently begun accompanying the elderly Englishman on his rounds. She saw to his needs and arranged transportation for him. This had previously been the task of the art historian Stephen Pepper, a Guercino expert whom Mahon had taken under his wing thirty years ago. But Pepper had recently died of a massive heart attack on the train from Bologna, and Paoletti had leaped at the chance to take his place.
In truth, it didn’t take much to persuade Sir Denis to come to Bigetti’s bottega. The lure of the Sannini painting’s history, and the fact that he had not seen it since the Milan exhibition fifty years ago, were enough to stir his interest. He was now ninety-three years old. He tired easily and would doze from time to time at conferences, but his critical faculties were very much intact. He still occupied the preeminent position among Caravaggio scholars. His opinion on the authorship of a Baroque painting still counted for more than any other expert’s, and it could sway the others. He and Paoletti arrived at the door of Bigetti’s shop on an afternoon in September. Sir Denis rode in a small electric cart that bumped over the cobblestones. On seeing the Englishman, Bigetti scurried out to greet him with a broad smile. Once or twice, years earlier, Sir Denis had visited Bigetti’s shop. This time, however, Bigetti worried that the elderly man might have difficulty climbing the flight of stairs up to the restoration studio. But once inside, at the foot of the stairs, Sir Denis arose from his chair and clambered up with an alacrity that astonished Bigetti, who was himself not fast on his feet. For more than an hour, Sir Denis studied the painting and listened to Bigetti make his case that it was by Caravaggio. Sir Denis did not dismiss this possibility. He seemed, in fact, disposed to believe that Caravaggio had made more than one version of some of his paintings. “Longhi always maintained that Caravaggio never painted the same painting twice,” said Mahon, ever willing to find fault with his old rival. “That’s not true, as we’ve already seen on other occasions. We have to change our ideas.” From time to time he rose from the armchair that Bigetti had provided to examine the painting close up. “Most interesting,” said Sir Denis as he prepared to leave. “The Taking of Christ has always been a great mystery.” He told Bigetti that he would like to see the painting again, after it had been thoroughly cleaned and the overpainting removed, and after Paoletti had taken X rays. Until then he would reserve judgment.
Five months later, in February 2004, Sir Denis was back in Rome for the opening of the Guercino show. By then, Bigetti had stripped the painting down to its original state, and Paoletti had completed a full set of X rays and an infrared examination. Her findings were startling. They showed dramatic alterations beneath the surface of the painting, not just pentimenti, but changes in the way two of the figures had been positioned and in the arm of the fleeing disciple; there was also a ghostly image that looked like the braided hair of a woman. Like Bigetti, Paoletti was fully convinced that this painting was no mere copy, but Caravaggio’s original version of The Taking of Christ. “Pentimenti,” she explained, “are done by artists who are just fixing small errors. These are major corrections, and corrections are by an artist who is rethinking the painting as he works on it.” And a copyist, of course, had no need to rethink a painting. Sir Denis returned to Bigetti’s shop on the afternoon of February 12, 2004, in the company of his friend Fabio Isman, the journalist for Il Messaggero, and Paoletti. Sir Denis installed himself in the armchair in front of the painting, getting up only now and then to make a close examination with his magnifying glass. He spent two hours in Bigetti’s shop that afternoon, speaking mainly with Paoletti, who was after all an art historian. He studied the X rays and the infrared images, he periodically asked Bigetti’s shop assistant to move the spotlight around, and his excitement led him to pound on the floor with his cane. Isman looked on and took notes for an article. “I have no doubt about it,” Sir Denis exclaimed. “Now that the painting has been brought back to zero, stripped of all the overpainting, one can see perfectly well that it is genuine. It’s full of pentimenti, and they are not banal corrections.” Bigetti was beside himself with delight. What was the value of a Caravaggio? Tens of millions! “And so this is the original and the Dublin one is just a copy!” he said to Mahon. "Oh, no,” replied Sir Denis. “Dublin is certainly by Caravaggio. There is no doubt about that. The Mattei inventories tell us that they had more than one version of the painting.” Paoletti and Bigetti had both made close study of the twenty-four Mattei inventories published a decade earlier by Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa. Bigetti’s copy of their book was densely underlined and filled with notes in the margins. Many inventories cited two versions of The Taking of Christ, one attributed to Caravaggio, the other usually noted as a copy “by a disciple of Caravaggio,” no doubt the authorized copy by Giovanni di Attili, who had been paid twelve scudi for his work. But a few of the inventories contained three and, sometimes, even four paintings called The Taking of Christ. It seemed highly improbable that all would be copies of Caravaggio’s original. More plausibly, they represented different treatments by different artists of the same subject. Bigetti followed as well as he could the path of the paintings through the years, as they were moved from one room to another in the vast Mattei palazzo. He found significance in their travels, in the brief descriptions of the frames, in the changing color of a silk drapery that had adorned the original. In Bigetti’s mind, the significance always pointed to his painting as the sole original. “The one in Dublin has an arm cut off,” said Bigetti, “and mine is complete. That means that Dublin is a copy.” “No,” said Sir Denis again. “We’d always thought that Caravaggio never made replicas of his own paintings, but now we can prove that he did so. He also made try-outs—bozzetti. But until now we’ve never found any.”
Fabio Isman’s article about the newly rediscovered TAKING of Christ came out three days later, on February 15, 2004. “New Caravaggios are sprouting up like mushrooms after the rain,” Isman wrote, his tone ironic. He quoted Sir Denis at length on the authenticity of the painting. “An open war,” concluded Isman, between Bigetti, who claimed his Taking of Christ was the sole original, and Benedetti, who asserted the same about the Dublin painting. Isman’s article was quickly picked up by British and Irish newspapers, which pursued the matter with interviews of their own. Paoletti, who spoke English, announced in the Daily Telegraph that she had “cast-iron proof” of the authenticity of the Sannini painting. “At the end of six months of painstaking investigations,” she told a reporter, “I can say that it is unquestionably Caravaggio’s original work. . . . Every expert who has seen the painting agrees with me.” Contrary to Sir Denis, however, she stated that the Dublin painting was most likely a copy by another artist and not a replica by Caravaggio. Clearly Sir Denis could not repudiate without embarrassment his earlier authentication of the Dublin painting. But he saw no need to. He seemed serenely untroubled at the awkward embrace of both. He even suggested that the Odessa version might be yet another copy by Caravaggio himself, although he admitted that he had not yet personally examined that work. Despite Sir Denis’s affirmation, the Dublin painting’s status was in jeopardy. Where once it had held undisputed preeminence, now it was merely second in a series. Bigetti’s painting now laid claim to being the original manifestation of Caravaggio’s genius. At the Irish National Gallery, Raymond Keaveney was caught completely by surprise. He had known nothing about the events in Rome before he read the newspapers. There was little he could do beyond issuing a simple statement in defense of the Dublin painting. “All the homework has been done,” Keaveney said, “and this [painting] has been in the public domain for fifteen years. It is universally accepted that ours is a Caravaggio.”
And then, in Rome, came the lawsuits, both civil and criminal, an Italian opera of claims and counterclaims, allegations of fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, falsification, counterfeit, and calumny of every sort. They began with the client of Bigetti’s who had agreed to help him finance the purchase of the painting with a post-dated check. From there they grew into a tangle of bewildering complexity involving the other financier, the Italian state, Maria Letizia Paoletti, and even, according to word on the street, the Sannini heirs. Rumors abounded. One antiquarian heard that the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro had offered to buy the painting for thirty million euros. This was not true, but on April 1, six weeks after Isman’s story appeared, the court ordered the painting impounded in Bigetti’s bottega until the ownership claims had been decided. Within weeks, matters grew even worse for Bigetti. An art-crimes prosecutor launched a criminal investigation; the possible charges ranged from falsely advancing a copy or reproduction as an original to illegally altering an original work of art, with many permutations in between. Bigetti looked on in woe and disbelief as the special art squad of the Carabinieri, the Italian national police, marched into his bottega and carried the painting off to their depository. As if all this were not enough, Maria Letizia Paoletti, Bigetti’s ally in advancing the painting as an authentic Caravaggio, also sued Bigetti. She claimed, in the first instance, that he had not paid her for her work. (Her bill, according to Bigetti, was for 200,000 euros, a “preposterous” sum.) And in the second instance, which was even more important to Paoletti, she said that Bigetti was defrauding her by claiming he had discovered the painting. “He is playing a dirty game,” said Paoletti, in her studio on the Aventine. “I am the one who discovered it, not him. He had an intuition, but it was confirmed by me and my investigation. Thus I discovered the painting!” At stake for Paoletti was her right to publish the painting in an academic journal and thus enter the ranks of certified Caravaggio scholars, just as Benedetti had done years earlier. Bigetti was just a simple restorer, said Paoletti, who was incapable of writing a coherent line. “He cannot publish it, but he doesn’t want me to publish it,” she said in a voice full of outrage. “He wants Maurizio Marini to do it. Why? Because I am not famous and Marini is! Marini has the name! Whoever publishes it is the one who discovered it. I will publish it, thus I discovered it! If Bigetti lets another person publish it, that is fraud!” Paoletti shook her head bitterly. “It is like flies to honey when there is Caravaggio.” ef Francesca Cappelletti had always been wary of what she called “the Caravaggio disease.” In the case of the Sannini painting, it seemed to have taken full possession of everyone who came near. She kept her distance, watching from afar as developments unfolded. She had not had seen the painting before it was seized by the Carabinieri, but she had looked at photographs. She found it hard to believe that Caravaggio had painted it, Denis Mahon’s attribution notwithstanding. And she suspected that Paoletti’s proof was anything but “cast-iron,” as Paoletti had often asserted. For one thing, Paoletti had claimed to find an important document in the Recanati archive that Francesca and Laura had transcribed incorrectly. Francesca knew this was impossible. The Mattei palazzo in Recanati had been under lock and key by court order since the late 1990s, when the heirs began fighting over the estate. Apprised of this, Paoletti amended her story and said that she had found the document in the Archivio di Stato in Rome. But she would not reveal its contents or its significance to proving the authenticity of the Sannini painting until she was allowed to publish the painting herself.
Whatever Paoletti had found, or not found, the fact remained that the history of the painting before the lawyer Ladis Sannini acquired it was completely unknown. The Sannini family had no documents concerning the acquisition. Bigetti and Paoletti theorized that Ladis Sannini, who had practiced law in Rome before moving to Florence, might have purchased it in the 1930s, just after Duke Giuseppe Mattei had lost his palazzo and its contents in a card game. But the last full inventory of the Mattei collection, taken in 1854 and listing 218 paintings, contained no work called The Taking of Christ. There was, it appeared, no way to trace the painting back to the Mattei family. The Dublin painting, on the other hand, had an excellent pedigree. It indisputably came from the Mattei collection. Even the mistaken change in attribution from Caravaggio to Honthorst worked in its favor. When the German scholar Basilius von Ramdohr saw the painting in 1787, he dismissed the attribution to Honthorst and deemed it the work of Caravaggio. He made no mention of the only other painting of the same subject, which was unattributed in the inventory and described only as “large.” The size of the Sannini painting was in itself puzzling. Among the many versions of Caravaggio’s original—there are as many as twelve—it was by far the largest. This constituted proof, according to Bigetti’s reasoning, that it must be the original. But if that were so, why would the many copyists all paint uniformly smaller versions, ones the size of the Dublin painting? If the Sannini painting was the original, why wouldn’t they have replicated that? Last, and most important, there was the fact of Dublin’s superior quality, a fact acknowledged by everyone involved in the affair. Bigetti had a ready explanation: a copyist, without the burden of creation, had time to improve on the original, to smooth the rough edges and make a painting uniformly harmonious. Bigetti’s explanation was not without a sort of logic. But to accept such logic as an operative principle would turn the study of Caravaggio on its head. Ever since scholars began, some fifty years earlier, to identify Caravaggio’s paintings, they have judged by the quality of the work, the swiftness, elegance, and cleanness of execution. In this instance, Bigetti would have the process inverted. Instead of being a Caravaggio because of its excellence, it was now a Caravaggio for precisely the opposite reason—that it was cruder and full of errors. The sole aspect of the Sannini painting that gave any credibility to its claim as an original by Caravaggio was the profusion of gross pentimenti beneath the surface. Copyists, as a rule, rarely make so many errors, because they often have the original before them. But they were not immune to error, nor are they all equally talented. One could, for example, imagine a circumstance in which a young painter, trying to develop his skills, briefly saw the original in the Mattei palazzo. Returning to his atelier, he painted from memory. And then he went back to look again, realized his mistakes, and corrected many of them. Such a scenario is, of course, pure speculation, but it is no less plausible than Bigetti’s explanation of the pentimenti as a result of Caravaggio’s creative ferment.
It was April 2006. Two years had passed since the Carabinieri had seized the Sannini painting from Bigetti’s bottega. Bigetti sat at his desk in the gloom at the back of his bottega, smoking a cigar under a sign that read “Smoking Prohibited.” He awaited the resolution of the lawsuits and the return of his painting. “The wheels of justice turn slowly in Italy,” he remarked in a disconsolate voice. He paused, and then added darkly, “If this were Sicily, legs would have been broken already.” He tried to comprehend the fate that had befallen him: how could things have gone so badly wrong just at the moment when his biggest triumph was at hand? He could find no flaw, no misstep, in his own actions. He believed everything would turn out right in the end, that he would become wealthy and famous after surmounting the formidable obstacles on the path to good fortune. His painting, after all, had the benediction of Sir Denis as the original Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. That was the most important thing. He would just have to wait and endure. As he waited, the criminal case proceeded with an investigation into the nature of the painting. The aim of the two prosecutors overseeing the case, Paolo Ferri and Fabio Santoni, was to determine, to the extent scientifically possible, whether the painting was a genuine work by Caravaggio. To that end, the prosecutors contacted an expert named Maurizio Seracini, the founder of a private company in Florence that specialized in art and architecture diagnostics. Seracini had a degree in electronic engineering from the University of California at San Diego, and then had studied medicine at the University of Padua. He had turned his learning to the scientific analysis of artworks. He was, by any mea sure, one of the world’s foremost authorities in the field, having examined more than two thousand paintings, frescoes, and statues, among them works by (or attributed to) Cimabue, Giotto, Botticelli, Raphael, and Leonardo. And, of course, Caravaggio— twenty-nine paintings at last count, most of them genuine, a few that were merely wishful attributions. Seracini inspected the Sannini painting front and back and subjected it to his many instruments. He took microscopic samples of pigment from a variety of areas to determine their chemical constituents. Caravaggio, like most painters of his era, bought his pigments at the shop of a chemist who sold medicines, herbs, and perfumes. He would have obtained them in a basic preparation, ground into a powder, to which he would add walnut oil as the medium. In the case of blue, for example, the powder consisted of the mineral azurite, which contained oxidized copper ore that had been ground, washed, and sieved to remove impurities. A coarse grind produced a dark blue. For a lighter blue, Caravaggio would grind the mineral with a mortar and pestle to a finer consistency. Seracini lifted minute samples of paint from the yellow bands on the soldier’s pantaloons, from the apricot-colored cloak worn by Judas, and from the green cloak of the fleeing disciple. On examination, he found lead and tin, the common components of yellow, as well as another element, the brittle, toxic metal antimony. Lead and antimony were the constituents of an ancient color known as Naples yellow, then used widely in ceramics because of antimony’s heat-resistant qualities. Neither Seracini nor any other investigator had ever found antimony in a painting by Caravaggio. He had used only lead-tin yellow, as did all the other painters of his era and his predecessors dating back to the late medieval. The sole exception was The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, in Naples; in that work, researchers had found trace amounts of antimony, which they speculated had come from an eighteenth-century restoration that had since been removed. Although Naples yellow had been around since before the time of Christ, the first painting in which it appeared was a work by Orazio Gentileschi done in 1615, now at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It was not until after 1630 that painters began to adopt Naples yellow for use on the canvas, a use that continued until the mid-nineteenth century. Seracini sent a detailed report—some dozen pages long, according to several sources—to the two prosecutors in Rome. His conclusion: the Sannini painting was not by Caravaggio. It had been painted sometime after 1630, more than twenty years after Caravaggio’s death.
Bigetti had no knowledge of Seracini’s conclusion, no knowledge even that tests had been ordered by the prosecutors. In Italy, such matters remain secret until either the case comes to trial or the prosecutors close the file and it is archived. But even if he had known, the report would not have shaken his faith in the painting. Nor that of Maria Letizia Paoletti, who had conducted her own tests and was convinced of her “cast-iron” proof. As for Sir Denis Mahon, one can imagine his old rival Roberto Longhi, who had always believed the Sannini painting to be a copy, enjoying a mirthless laugh. Some of Sir Denis’s acquaintances suspect that in his old age, with death not far off, he has felt the desire to embark on a last campaign of discoveries. Not to enhance his reputation, which needs no added luster, but for the pure pleasure of chasing the greatest painter of the Baroque, the one painter whose work he has never succeeded in owning.