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Vatican reverses itself, painting not a Caravaggio

- Associated Press - Monday, July 26, 2010

VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican's top art historian on Monday shot down a report in its own newspaper that suggested a recently discovered painting was a Caravaggio.

The head of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, wrote in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that the work was most likely a copy of an original by a Caravaggio-influence artist.

It was L'Osservatore itself that set the art world aflutter last week with a front-page article headlined "A New Caravaggio," detailing the artistry behind the "Martyrdom of St. Lawrence," which had been discovered in the sacristy of a Jesuit church in Rome.

The author of the article, art historian Lydia Salviucci Insolera, had made clear that she was not making any conclusions about the authenticity of the work and that more diagnostic tests were required.

But the impression given by the newspaper was that the painting was indeed a never-before-seen Caravaggio: The definitive-sounding headline appeared above the fold alongside a color photograph of the dramatic painting _ on the 400th anniversary to the day of the master's death.

The Vatican has in the past announced such art-world news in L'Osservatore, such as when it revealed last year that the earliest known icon of St. Paul had been discovered in a Roman catacomb just in time for the saint's feast day.

The original Caravaggio article published June 18 pointed out that the "The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence" presented features typical of the artist's style, such as the use of chiaroscuro for dramatic effect and the unique perspective from which the subject is seen. The report also highlighted similarities with other Caravaggio's paintings, for example in the saint's hand and body movement.

But on Monday, after a week of "Caravaggiomania" that ensued amid the already frenzied Caravaggio anniversary celebrations in Italy, Vatican Museum chief Paolucci, a former Italian Culture Minister, issued the equivalent of a Holy See mea culpa and reversal.

In a front-page article entitled "A New Caravaggio? Not really" Paolucci wrote that the work was not of Caravaggio's quality and termed it "modest" at best, pointing out in particular that the hands were completely out of perspective.

The painting depicts a semi-naked young man, his mouth open in desperation, one arm stretched out as he leans over amid flames. St. Lawrence was burned to death in 258.

Paolucci said that while the idea of putting St. Lawrence on the grill where he became a martyr was dramatically beautiful, and the thugs perpetrating his martyrdom are suggestive of Caravaggio's themes, a closer look reveals stylistic shortcomings.

He said that the hands are "wrong in their perspective," that the subjects' anatomies were "awkward" and that _ in the case of nudes in the background _ "disjointedPaolucci also noted that the painting technique was "inadequate."

"The quality isn't there, whereas in a Caravaggio it always is, and it's high even when ... he uses maximum carelessness and a minimum of his expressive resources," Paolucci wrote.

He stressed that he wasn't criticizing Insolera and noted that she had correctly made clear that further analysis and documentation would be required to provide definitive answers as to whether the work was a Caravaggio.

The painting is to be unveiled to the public on Tuesday by Italy's Culture Ministry.

At the time of the discovery, Maurizio Marini, a leading Caravaggio scholar, expressed doubts about the authenticity of the work in an interview with The Associated Press. He concurred with Insonlera who noted that St. Lawrence was not a known Caravaggio subject. And he said the stylistic similarities were inconclusive and that claims of new Caravaggios often surface but seldom hold up.

Caravaggio died in the Tuscan coast town of Porto Ercole in 1610 at age 39 under mysterious circumstances. He had been hugely influential and famous, but had also led a dissolute life of street brawls and alcohol.

Recently, a team of Italian researchers said they had identified Caravaggio's remains after a year of digging up bones in Porto Ercole and conducting carbon dating, DNA testing and other analyses.

Italy has been marking the anniversary with a variety of events, and an exhibit in Rome earlier this year drew over half a million visitors.

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Associated Press reporter Alessandra Rizzo contributed to this report.

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