Caravaggio, Lena and Maddalena Antognetti. A history to be rewritten*
FRANCESCA CURTI and ORIETTA VERDI
No painter in the last and this century has attracted as much attention as Caravaggio, no one like him has been able to draw the modern viewer, more or less cultured, more or less expert, into his paintings, his compositions, his contrasts of light and shade. Undoubtedly his character and dramatic biography have played a role in bringing a character so distant from our world closer to our current way of thinking. However, as Claudio Strinati has brilliantly intuited, the contemporary attraction to Caravaggio lies in his ability to have made art a form of communication in the modern sense, to have allowed anyone, through «l’arma della dimensione autobiografica», to have access to aesthetic experience in a democratic manner. After the rediscovery of Caravaggio at the beginning of the 20th century by Lionello Venturi and Roberto Longhi, interest in the Lombard painter has continued to grow. Over the years, generations of art historians have contributed (and continue to contribute) to discovering and interpreting aspects of his life and art, analysing them, as few other artists in the history of art do, from a variety of perspectives ranging from stylistic to historical, social, cultural, literary, theological, philosophical and even psychological. The increasingly in-depth study of Merisi’s works, the results of which have been made known in numerous exhibitions since Longhi’s historic 1951 exhibition, has met with an increasingly enthusiastic response from the public, who have elected him an icon of our times.
Alongside the proliferation of cultural events on the great Lombard artist, since the 1970s a new line of research into documentary sources and the search for evidence on Merisi in the archives has taken on increasing importance. This has gradually led to the introduction into the art-historical discipline of the skills of historical studies, in the modern historical method and source criticism1 Until the 1970s, the edition of documents concerning Caravaggio had been occasional and often conducted without rigorous philological criteria. .
Alongside the proliferation of cultural events on the great Lombard artist, since the 1970s a new line of research into documentary sources and the search for evidence on Merisi in the archives has taken on increasing importance. This has gradually led to the introduction into the art-historical discipline of the skills of historical studies, in the modern historical method and source criticism2 Until the 1970s, the edition of documents concerning Caravaggio had been occasional and often conducted without rigorous philological criteria. . In the wake of a tradition inaugurated by Antonino Bertolotti, author of the first documentary discoveries on Caravaggio3 Bertolotti 1881, since the 1980s and 1990s numerous scholars, from Mia Cinotti to Vincenzo Pacelli, up to Monsignor Sandro Corradini and Maurizio Marini, to name but a few, have tracked down and published documents that have shed light on important passages in the painter’s biography and activity 4 Cinotti, Rizzatti 1973; Cinotti, Dell’Acqua 1983; Cinotti 1991; Pacelli 1977; Pacelli 1991; Corradini 1993; Marini, Corradini 1993. For a complete bibliography of sources on Michelangelo Merisi see Macioce 2010, and Cesarini 2011 (for the Roman period). .
The method of investigation that based the historical reconstruction of events on the study of archival documentation and literary sources had led Maurizio Calvesi to decisive insights and guided Luigi Spezzaferro in his capillary and illuminating investigations5 Calvesi 1971; Spezzaferro 1971; Spezzaferro 1974; Calvesi 1987; Spezzaferro 1995. The historical approach to Caravaggio’s questions, cf. Calvesi 1990; Spezzaferro 2002; Spezzaferro 2006; Calvesi 2011. , was firmly established on the scene of Caravaggio studies when, in the mid-nineties, the volume Caravaggio assassino. La carriera di un “valenthuomo” fazioso nella Roma della Controriforma, by Riccardo Bassani and Fiora Bellini in the «Saggi. Storia e scienze sociali» series by Donzelli. This book, apparently, seemed to resolve all the remaining obscure points about the Roman sojourn of the painter and the man Caravaggio, based on a mass of new documents found in the judicial and parish papers of Roman archives. A novel in the guise of a «saggio storico» that met a need felt by aficionados in which, against the backdrop of the historical and political events of the capital during the pontificate of Clement VIII, the dense network of the painter’s daily relationships with young scoundrels and brawlers was outlined in «storie che diventano storia» some prostitutes, small artisans, picture dealers, known and unknown artists who crowded the city, as well as providing unpublished details on his relationships with patrons and protectors, and finally on the date of his first presence in the city, which according to the authors was 1593. The book, which had the merit of a fluent style of writing and an engaging narrative, was immediately a great success with the public, and not only in Italy. However, after an initial check of some of the documents that had caused the greatest surprise, especially among experts on the Lombard artist, carried out by Don Sandro Corradini, an endless series of interpolations by the authors came to light, who had included the name of Caravaggio in the text of many of the documents, presented as unpublished, when it did not appear at all, starting with the painter’s presence in Rome in 1593, which immediately revealed itself to be a clamorous historical fake6 Corradini 1996. Calvesi also expressed himself in the same terms about Bassani’s book, Bellini, in “L’Informazione”, 10 December 1994. .
Despite the fact that Corradini had publicly denounced the incorrect and anti-historical way in which true testimonies had been mixed with false documents, which had been fabricated to support a preconceived plot and reinforce the abused portrait of the “cursed” painter, many of the characters that animated the novel, and in particular the prostitutes Anna Bianchini, Domenica Calvi, Maddalena Antognetti and Fillide Melandroni, who were arbitrarily attributed to having frequented the painter, became established acquaintances among enthusiasts and some experts, confirmed and disseminated by the media.
The attraction exerted on the general public worldwide by the formidable fusion of Merisi’s art and life led to the production of films and dramas with very high viewing figures, in which the assumptions made in the book Caravaggio assassin were repeated, especially Caravaggio’s affair with the courtesan Maddalena Antognetti, who was allegedly scarred by her jealous lover. Thus, false news spread like wildfire in the press and on the web in a confusion from which it was and still is difficult to emerge.
Between true and false
A few months ago, almost thirty years after the publication of his book Caravaggio assassino, Bassani published a new volume entitled La donna del Caravaggio, Vita e peripezie di Maddalena Antognetti «La storia scabrosa e affascinante della cortigiana che prestò il volto alle Madonne del “pittor celebre”», with an afterword by Fiora Bellini and an intriguing introduction: The book focuses on the figure of Maddalena Antognetti, a character that the author had already presented in 1994, describing her, on the basis of a series of court papers, as a Roman courtesan, like her mother Lucrezia and her sister Amabilia, who lived on the Corso near the church of S. Ambrogio dei Lombardi. Ambrogio dei Lombardi, who was the mistress of Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto and Melchiorre Crescenzi, and cohabited more uxorio from 1603 with the notary Gaspare Albertini. Bassani had published a complaint by Antognetti dated 19 July 1605 against Albertini, who had scarred her a few weeks earlier, in which the woman declared that at the notary’s behest she had left all her lovers, and “in particulare [ho lassato l’amicitia di] Michelangelo pittore”7 Bassani, Bellini 1994, p. 208 .
The nature of the alleged relationship between the courtesan and Caravaggio and the identification of Antognetti with that Lena defined as «donna del Caravaggio» in the famous judicial document published by Antonino Bertolotti at the end of the 19th century were based on this fundamental finding, which later proved to be an interpolation: in which is recorded the complaint of the notary Mariano Pasqualoni against Caravaggio, who on the evening of 29 July 1605 had attacked and wounded him in Piazza Navona with a sword to the head because, as Pasqualoni reported, «di una donna chiamata Lena, che sta in piedi a piazza Navona passato il palazzo ovvero il portone del palazzo del signor Sertorio Teofilo, che è donna di Michelangelo» 8 Bertolotti 1881, II, pp. 71-72; Macioce 2010, p. 185; Cesarini 2011, pp. 262-265. (Fig. 1).
Giovan Battista Passeri, in his life of Guercino written in the 1770s, wrote about how Caravaggio had attacked a notary in Piazza Navona who had courted and asked for the marriage of the young daughter of a widow, a neighbour of the painter, and had been refused. When the notary realised that the girl was going to the artist’s house to pose as a model for the Madonna dei Pellegrini (Rome, St. Agostino Church, Fig. 2), he confronted the mother and offended her for refusing his proposal and instead sending his daughter to pose for an «scomunicato e maledetto» artist.
Caravaggio, informed of the insult, decided to avenge the offence by attacking the notary in Piazza Navona and wounding him in the head. Up to this point Passeri’s account retraces the episode of the attack, confirming the motive of jealousy that had already been advanced by scholars on the basis of Pasqualoni’s complaint9 Hess 1932, pp. 42-44 . It is a lucky case, and not the only one for Caravaggio10 An episode attested both in a court document and in Mancini’s biography concerns the kick of a horse kicked in Michelangelo Merisi’s leg during an argument with a groom presumably at the end of 1596, cf. Baroncelli 2011, p. 61, and Curti 2011, p. 70. , in which, except for a few details, the documentary and literary sources agree in substance.
Although the false reference to Antognetti’s friendship with Caravaggio in Bassani’s 1994 book was questioned by Don Sandro Corradini 11 Corradini 1996, p.76 Since then, the young woman has become part of the collective imagination of generations of enthusiasts and, unfortunately, also of some experts in the field, as a beautiful, brazen and restless prostitute, the companion of Caravaggio’s wild nights out, who, following the classic cliché of the accursed painter, between one brawl and another, would immortalise her in paintings destined for the most important churches in Rome, in defiance of the bigoted morals of postridentine papal Rome. Encouraged perhaps by the vast credibility that the identification of Maddalena Antognetti with Lena «donna del Caravaggio» had gained in large sectors of the public, Bassani, twenty-seven years after the «spazzar via ogni residuo dubbio sull’identità di quella certa Lena, donna di Michelangelo», which the author confirms to be Maddalena Antognetti, and we can see through what evidence12 Bassani 2021, p. 199.
About the historical method
As historians know, in order to formulate their theses, they have to follow a precise working method, i.e. research, select, analyse and study sources and, on the basis of these sources, i.e. starting from them and not from predetermined theories to which they have to yield, attempt to reconstruct past events. What we have tried to establish here, therefore, is whether the theses proposed by Bassani with the chrism of proven certainty have followed a rigorous path of philological criticism based on a correct reading of the sources, which have been carefully sifted and subjected to comparisons and cross-checks that make them plausible, in the light of the lack of documents directly linking Antognetti to Caravaggio (the only document in which they were mentioned together having proved to be an interpolation), the actual identification of the courtesan with Lena, the woman remembered in the sources as being loved by Caravaggio13 For a correct approach to research and historical method and in particular to the study and criticism of the sources regarding Caravaggio, cf. Di Sivo 2017. .
In the preface, Bassani is keen to present his book as a careful and documented work of historical research on Antognetti and his relationship with Caravaggio, conducted with a methodology that respects the criticism of the sources he has recovered and presented in the documentary apparatus that accompanies the volume, after having, in his opinion, analysed and discussed them according to rigorous philological criteria.14 Bassani 2021, pp. 5-15 For this reason he has eliminated from the documents transcribed in the appendix the interpolations in which Caravaggio’s name was artfully inserted in the 1994 book. However, he does not mention, except in a footnote, the unforgivable (for a historian) forgery of which he was the protagonist at the time, dismissing it as an «infedele» transcription of documents, which, however, did not «inficiato la fondatezza delle ipotesi allora avanzate»15 Bassani 2021, p.7, n.7 .
In actual fact, the damage done to Caravaggio studies is serious because, as has been said, episodes and characters from Caravaggio’s life have entered the collective memory as truly documented, but unfortunately only to scholars of the Lombard painter (and not even to everyone) they have turned out to be mere mystifications. And in any case, in this volume too, the prostitutes Anna Bianchini, Domenica Calvi and Fillide Melandroni, are unfortunately re-proposed as the models and friends with whom «il Merisi ebbe a che fare»16Bassani 2021, pp. 5-15, except in a note that finally appears almost at the end of the book, denying their claimed association with Caravaggio17 Ibidem, p. 352, n. 216. The author makes amends for some of the many interpolations for which he was responsible in 1994, including the one in which he makes Caravaggio say: “here’s Anna’s nice ass”, a phrase that was instead pronounced by a friend of Prospero Orsi, and the other in which Domenica Calvi is said to have indicated as his friends “Ranuccio Thomassoni, Honorio Longo and Michelangelo da Caravaggio”, names that the woman had not mentioned. Bianchini is again described as the modella della Maddalena pentita e del Riposo durante la fuga in Egitto» while Calvi is said to be a friend of the painter and of Cardinal Alessandro d’Este 18 Ibidem, p. 8 .
In the case of Fillide Melandroni, close relations with Merisi are considered to have been established, but these are not in fact evident from the known documentation, being based exclusively on Caravaggio’s portrait of the courtesan (missing, formerly Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, Fig. 3).
But what is even more serious is that the author – although he takes care to warn the reader that if the documents at his disposal were insufficient or ambiguous to validate his thesis, he always declared this using “those perhaps that the historian fortunately has at his disposal”19 Ibidem – has instead deliberately omitted to make explicit in the text that he had to eliminate the interpolation of Caravaggio’s name from Antognetti’s deposition of 1605,20 The admission only appears in note 216, p. 352 of the Appendice documentaire. 352 of the Appendice documentaria. without which the only real link between the prostitute and Merisi would have been lost.
Nevertheless Bassani, even though he can no longer count on this false pillar, seems determined to give substance to the identification of Lena with the prostitute Maddalena Antognetti and, even disturbing Manzoni, declares to have used a different methodological approach to the facts, in order to «coglierne l’insieme e i mille particolari»21 Bassani 2021, p. 14 . An approach that in the intentions would seem to be the so-called «paradigma indiziario» theorised by Carlo Ginzburg 22 Ginzburg 2015, on the basis of which the historian should adopt, with respect to the documents «un metodo interpretativo imperniato sugli scarti, sui dati marginali, considerati come rivelatori» that emerge from the examination of the sources, in order to identify the significant links and establish a convergent plot of data on which to base hypotheses that he will subsequently have to compare among themselves, trying to establish their validity and greater or lesser probability. It should be emphasised that this historiographic method is based on documentary data that are certain and proven and is based on the intellectual honesty of those who use them.
From document to interpretation: Laura Della Vecchia and Isabella
Let us retrace the development of the thesis Bassani wants to demonstrate. In the first part of the book, the author examines an episode that occurred in the second half of July 1605, shortly before the attack on Pasqualoni by Caravaggio, of which the judicial papers report little and fragmentary information (and here the author insinuates, quite gratuitously, that the absence of other documents relating to the episode can be referred to a «volontaria espunzione», a «rescissio actorum» that «non sembra essere né la prima né l’unica nella vita del Caravaggio»: 23 Ibidem, p. 43 the story of the door of Laura Della Vecchia and Isabella that Caravaggio had defaced, an offence for which he was released from prison on 19 July 160524 Ibidem, pp. 19-50, in part pp. 39-50. On the door defacement incident cfr. Bertolotti 1881, II, p. 71; Bassani, Bellini 1994, p. 210, n. 24; Corradini 1993, p. 58, n. 43; Macioce 2010, p. 184; Cesarini 2011, p. 261. .
The available documents attesting to the episode do not allow us to know the motive for Caravaggio’s action, nor to identify with certainty the identity of the two women and the place where the event took place, so Bassani assumes, quite plausibly, that it was a revenge of the painter for a wrong received; At the same time, he suggests that this affair is linked to the discussion that took place on the Corso between Merisi and the notary Pasqualoni «per causa di Lena» (and referred to by the notary himself in his complaint) a few nights before the notorious attack of 29 July 1605 in Piazza Navona, which the two women are said to have witnessed, and then reported to the neighbourhood in a way that was unfavourable to Caravaggio. According to the author, the neighbours of Laura and Isabella included some of the prostitute’s relatives, who, although she had grown up in the neighbourhood, had moved to the Borgo with her lover, the notary, from 1603 until at least the end of June 1605, before, according to Bassani, taking refuge in Palazzo Orsini in Piazza Navona because of the disfigurement inflicted on her by Albertini. This last stay, absolutely devoid of any documentary support, serves the author to justify the presence of Antognetti in Piazza Navona, where Pasqualoni, in his denunciation, claims that «Lena, donna del Caravaggio». lived.
In order to give consistency to the hypothesis of the connection between the question of Laura Della Vecchia and the altercation between the painter and the notary that took place on the Corso, Bassani traces in the 1607 registers of souls of S. Lorenzo in Lucina the presence in Via del Corso of a Laura de Vecchi (a surname not corresponding, in reality, to «Della Vecchia»but frequently attested in Rome also in the version «Della Vetera»25 The surnames of the painters Giovanni De Vecchi and Pietro Della Vecchia, for example, cannot be considered homologous. and of an Isabetta Cosivi, neighbours of Ascanio Antonietti, whom he identifies as the brother of Paolo, father of Maddalena, on the basis of the interrogation of a witness who states a «Magdalena che mi pare si dicesse delli Rossi che era figliola d’uno delli doi fratelli che erano mercanti di Ripetta che si chiamano uno Paulo et l’altro Ascanio».26 Bassani 2021, p. 341 Maddalena Antognetti’s uncle, Ascanio, informed by the gossip spread by the two women, reported to his niece the discussion that took place on the Corso «per causa di Lena» between Pasqualoni and Caravaggio before the famous attack of 29 July 27 Ibidem, p. 49 .
A discussion that Pasqualoni affirms took place «a queste sere passate» and therefore it is legitimate to think a few days earlier; If we follow the author’s reasoning, it must have taken place at least around 10 July if, after the clash, Caravaggio took his revenge by defacing the door. He was then imprisoned and released on 19 July on bail, and under the guarantee, recorded on 20 July, of Cherubino Alberti, Girolamo Crocicchia, Prospero Orsi and Ottaviano Gabrielli who guaranteed that he would not molest Laura, her children and Isabella.
But what, according to Bassani, was the reason for the verbal clash between the two? Not a reason of jealousy, since in none of the documents collected by the author about Maddalena Antognetti and published in the book, Pasqualoni has anything to do with the young prostitute, and even less Caravaggio never appears neither with Antognetti nor with her relatives nor among her friends.
Pasqualoni, as notary of the Vicar’s offices, the body responsible for controlling images in churches, felt obliged to defend public morals and the decrees issued by the Vicar, and confronted the painter at the Corso (not knowing him directly, as far as the documents show) for daring to paint a scandalous prostitute in the clothes of the Madonna, raising her to the honours of the altars. Before expounding his thesis and the evidence on which it is based, the author reconstructs in several chapters Maddalena’s life, her network of acquaintances and the troubled events she went through until that fateful July 1605.
Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto and Alessandro Peredo
In Part Two. Identification of Lena, the chapter The Cardinal’s Roscina raises more than a few perplexities 28 Ibidem, pp. 95-113 . The relationship between cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto and Antognetti is presented as certain and established 29. For a serious and reliable reconstruction of the figure and patronage of cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto, see Granata 2012. . Specifically, the element on which the reconstruction of this acquaintance is based, from which a daughter named Flavia is also said to have been born, is once again a declaration made by the woman before the judge on 4 June 1599, in which Maddalena Antognetti states that she had previously been in «per conto che il signor Alessandro Peretto fece questione»30 Bassani 2021, pp. 101 and 253, dcoc.15 . According to Bassani, this personage is to be identified with Cardinal Montalto, although he himself realises that the notary would never have referred to one of the Church’s most powerful cardinals simply as «signor», omitting the adjectives «illustrissimo e reverendissimo» and the noun «cardinale» which always preceded the name of these high ecclesiastical offices in official acts. However, instead of asking whether there is sufficient evidence to make such a suggestion and wondering whether there is a case of homonymy, he resolves the obvious discrepancy by claiming that the notary or chancellor decided to give the name in this way so as not to embarrass the cardinal.
A check on the document in question has ascertained that the surname of the man mentioned by Lena is not «Peretto» but «Peredo»31 ASR, Tribunale criminale del Governatore, reg. 295, cc. 200r-201r, cf. Bassani 2021, pp. 100-101, 251-253, doc. 15. (Fig. 4).
This clarification at least casts doubt on the author’s account of the actual existence of relations between the cardinal and the prostitute, and leads us rather to believe that Antognetti’s lover may in fact have been a certain «Alessandro Peredo» not otherwise known, and that the notary, without confusing us with complicated plots that cannot be proved, simply recorded what he had heard. Also in this case, therefore, the elements at Bassani’s disposal are not based on correctly reported documentation, so that all the hypotheses that arise on the story of the alleged affair, including the one concerning the daughter that the woman allegedly had with the cardinal, are vitiated ab origine and cannot be considered reliable. If we did not believe in the author’s good faith, repeatedly reiterated in the preface, the suspicion would arise that, despite his evident familiarity with seventeenth-century writings, he has not stumbled upon an incorrect reading of the character’s surname, but has deliberately forced the documentation to support the narrative thesis of Magdalene as a high-class prostitute, in contact with the most powerful ecclesiastical hierarchies and close to the circles frequented by Caravaggio.
Fra’ Ainolfo de’Bardi, knight of Malta
This suspicion appears more than well-founded in the following chapter, which deals with another alleged relationship between Magdalene and the knight of Malta, Ainolfo de’ Bardi (known to Caravaggio scholars for having presented, at the end of the famous trial of 1603, the guarantee that the painter would no longer molest either Giovanni Baglione or Tommaso Salini32 Corradini 1993, p. 29; Bassani, Bellini 1994, p. 169; Corradini 1996, p. 72, n. 8; Macioce 2010, p. 159. , a relationship also, according to Bassani, cheered by the birth of another son, Paolo33Bassani 2021, pp. 119-134.
The author writes that in June 1601 the cavalier Bardi had begun to frequent the house of Amabilia, sister of Antognetti, introduced by two old friends of the woman, Marcantonio Castelli and Camillo Nardi, professional cavalrymen and subordinates of Bardi, who at the time was Captain of the cavalry guard of Clement VIII. The news, as suggested by the reference in the text, is reported in docc. 44-48 of the documentary appendix 34 Ibidem, pp. 277-289 ; only that these documents refer to a lawsuit brought by a prostitute, Settimia Luchetti, against Pietro Cinai and the aforementioned Marcantonio Castelli and Camillo Nardi, accused of having repeatedly tried to force their way into the woman’s home and that of other courtesans, including a certain Giulia Marenghi from Rome, who lived in «strada Vittoria».35 Ibidem, p. 283, doc.46
The latter reports that a few evenings earlier Cinai and Castelli broke into her house together with other men and, when she asked Cinai and Castelli to tell her who were those people who, together with them, had entered her house, Castelli replied that it was «cavaliero Bardi e altri cavallerizzi»36 Ibiden, p. 284, doc. 46 , but the woman tells the judge that she did not believe this to be true but that he would have said so that she “would not have to look for anything else37 Ibidem . Under interrogation, Pietro Cinai also admits to having told Giulia that Bardi had gone to her house only «per coglionare quella puttana»38 Ibidem, p. 283, doc. 45 and that in reality was a «baia»39 Ibidem , i.e. a joke, while, the other defendant, Nardi affirms that he had not frequented any prostitute since Amabilia had gone to prison some time before, in whose house «posta al giardino del signor Cicherino […] vicino […] una certa Giulietta ascolana»40 Ibidem, p. 288, doc.48 , he went there regularly.
Now what can be deduced from these depositions is only that the cavalrymen Castelli and Cinai mentioned the name of their superior, who was a man of a certain weight in the papal administration, to instil fear in the woman in order to discourage her from pressing charges against them. But even if it were true that Bardi did break poor Giulia’s door that evening, it is not clear what this has to do with the Antognetti sisters, who are never mentioned in the trial except in connection with Nardi’s association with Amabilia, who was in prison at the time. With a truly remarkable effort of imagination, Bassani not only manages to take for granted an absolutely undocumented acquaintance between Amabilia and Ainolfo de’ Bardi, but even to hypothesize that Giulia was jealous of her neighbour’s high-ranking acquaintance (a proximity that has yet to be proven, given that Giulia Marenghi is said to be Roman, while the «Giulietta» mentioned by Nardi seems to have come from Ascoli) and that she had sought the advice of Ovidio Marchetti, bargello of the Governor as well as Amabilia’s cohabitant, «far scoppiare uno scandalo per coinvolgere un uomo strettamente legato alla Curia pontificia e agli ambiente più esclusivi di Roma»41 Ibidem, p. 130 in order to «mettere fuori gioco il capitano dei cavalleggeri»42Ibidem , his rival in love.
The author goes so far as to imagine that the son Paolo, whom Magdalena gave birth to on 15 December 1602, and whose father, according to the baptismal certificate, was Giulio Mastini, also a cavalryman, had actually been conceived with Ainolfo de’ Bardi, who, as a Maltese knight obliged to take a vow of chastity, would have asked Mastini to assume the paternity. According to Bassani, the evidence in support of this theory is to be found in a convoluted series of circumstances: Paolo had as godmother a certain Caterina Carlini, a neighbour of Antognetti, who took the child as a wet nurse and about three years later gave birth to a girl, who was baptised by a knight of Malta named Mariano de’ Bernabeis and Virginia de Rossi, wife of Giovanni Battista Pusterla, who had been awarded the Knighthood of St. John the Baptist. For the author, the organisation of such a comparison can only be due to Bardi, whom Catherine wanted to thank by naming the newborn baby after the captain’s sister, Isabella, also known as Lucrezia Bardi, wife of Amerigo Capponi43 Ibidem, pp. 136-139 . The news of this Isabella’s kinship with Ainolfo is reported in a text written by B. Biagioli, Scritture di donne nei fondi di origine privata dall’Archivio di Stato di Firenze44 Biagioli s. d., p. 31 .
However, on the page indicated by Bassani, there is only information about a certain Lucrezia de’ Bardi and her marriage to Capponi, from which a daughter named Maddalena is said to have been born, but there is no mention either of the fact that the noblewoman was the sister of the knight of Malta Ainolfo de’ Bardi or that she was called Isabella; We do know, however, thanks to the division of property that took place on the death of Ainolfo’s mother, Lucrezia Salviati, that she had four children with Giovanni de’ Bardi, three boys, of whom Ainolfo was the last, and a girl named Argentina45 Russo 2011, p. 563 .
The Delegitimization of Giovanni Battista Passeri’s Account
In order to match the identification of Maddalena Antognetti with «Lena, donna del Caravaggio» it was necessary to dismantle and decompose another source, that of Giovan Battista Passeri, to the point of completely emptying it of content, who was responsible for reporting the story of Caravaggio’s attack on Pasqualoni, enriched with a great deal of information that runs counter to the idea put forward by Bassani and Bellini in 1994, namely that the painter’s woman and model for the Madonna of the Pilgrims and the Madonna of the Pallbearers (Rome, Galleria Borghese) was indeed Maddalena Antognetti. She is never called Lena in all 116 documents in the appendix, not even by her sister Amabilia, known as Pilla in many interrogations, nor by her friends, nor by her neighbours, nor by her many lovers; that Lena could be a name in its own right or the diminutive of Elena as well as Maddalena and that the woman could be a young woman of good reputation, as proposed by Maurizio Marini following a comparison with Corradini 46 Marini 2009, pp. 140-143. Bassani even accuses Alessandra Masu (p. 8) of having created an anti-historical character only because in her 2013 book (Masu 2013) the author had reported Marini’s hypothesis regarding the possible identification of Lena with a girl of poor origin, but not a professional courtesan. , is a question that the authors have never asked themselves.
Returning to Passeri, who at the end of the 17th century recounts how Caravaggio had chosen the attractive young daughter of a widow, in need of money, as a model and how she had refused Pasqualoni’s advances, who nevertheless «non perdeva mai di traccia quella sua diletta» fuelling the clash with the painter of whom Lena was «la donna», as Pasqualoni himself, wounded before the magistrate, states, Bassani believes that the biographer’s account is «il risultato di una realtà contraffatta che… è sembrata più comoda della cruda realtà dei fatti [la radicata convinzione che Lena fosse una prostituta] che forse, proprio per questo, nessuno fin qui ha cercato»47 Bassani 2021, p. 52 ; not only that, the author maintains that Passeri’s passage, although containing «grumi di falso» and «flebili… tracce di realtà»48 Ibidem 2021, p. 179 , has been taken for granted by scholars without subjecting it to critical scrutiny in order to understand «fin dove Passeri si fosse spinto per mischiare le carte…[e] avvalorare la stima negativa…sul conto del maestro lombardo»49 Ibidem, pp. 51-52 .
At this point the author introduces a veritable reversal of the obvious meaning of the story and of the interpretation given by generations of art historians and critics to the episode of the attack «per causa di Lena», which was not due to jealousy between the painter and the notary, as Passeri explicitly states («Questo giovane [notaro]…punto da gelosia e sommamente adirato»)50 Hess 1932, p. 42, but because Pasqualoni, as notary to the Vicar, having realised that Caravaggio had immortalised the prostitute Antognetti on the altars, confronted Caravaggio on the Corso accusing the painter of having transgressed the Vicar’s decree against «altari sconci» and unapproved paintings. This motive, announced by the author at the beginning of the volume, finds no proof other than the connection, established on the basis of chronology and logic, between the defacement of the door of Laura and Isabella, neighbours living on the Corso, which presumably occurred in the first days of July, and the altercation between Pasqualoni and Caravaggio that also took place in the Corso a few evenings before the attack on 29 July, which the two women are said to have witnessed by spreading the news of Pasqualoni’s accusations against the painter to their neighbours, the reason why Caravaggio is said to have defaced their door51 Bassani 2021, pp. 54-55 .
At this point, the author creates a connection that is, to say the least, risky and, on closer inspection, appears inconsistent: since Laura and Isabella lived on the Corso near the house of Maddalena’s uncle, Ascanio Antonietti, the woman for whom the notary and the painter had argued would automatically be Maddalena Antognetti.
There was, however, an obstacle that had to be circumvented in order to corroborate the identification of Lena with Antognetti and that is the reason of jealousy suggested by Passeri’s account and even more explicitly by Pasqualoni’s complaint, who before the notary «per causa di Lena (…) che è donna del Caravaggio»: Since no document attests to any direct or indirect acquaintance or acquaintance between Antognetti and Caravaggio or between Pasqualoni and Antognetti, all that remained was to look for another reason for the clash between the painter and the notary.
The phrase «per causa di Lena che è donna di Michelangelo» would thus be consistent with the thesis that the model who impersonated the Virgin was Antognetti and not the «povera ma onorata» young woman who was being «amoreggiata da un giovane di professione notaro» as Passeri recounts.
The rewriting of the story reaches its climax in the final chapter (entitled La fine della storia52 Ibidem, pp. 179-197 ) in which the last remaining shreds of Passeri’s account and of the coincidences of this source with Pasqualoni’s complaint document are demolished: Bassani must «sgomberare il campo sull’identità del notaio legato alla giovane scelta da Caravaggio quale modella»53 Ibidem, p. 179 and to achieve this aim he states that «prove inconfutabili ci dicono che si trattava di Gaspare Albertini» the notary who had scarred Maddalena Antognetti at the end of June 1605, and not Mariano Pasqualoni as emerges from the complaint document. Passeri, justified by the author «per aver fatto di due notai uno solo»54 Ibidem , would thus have resorted to an «artificio» to «occultare il passaggio più tragico della storia, addirittura quello chiave, lo sfregio a Maddalena»55 Ibidem placing all the responsibility for the facts on Caravaggio.
One wonders at this point what the “prove inconfutabili” on which the author bases his affirmations is. The “prove”consists of a series of suppositions that, by virtue of the continuous and repeated logical leaps and the tangle of complicated plots that Bassani weaves and pursues, disorienting the poor reader who is forced to disentangle himself from fictional connections and the increasingly rare links to documentation, border on the implausible: one starts from taking for granted the acquaintance and even the frequentation between Albertini and Pasqualoni as they were both notaries, although from different courts, who would even hold hands, Pasqualoni covering Albertini’s adultery with the wife of the latter’s superior, in exchange for the favour his colleague would have done him by revealing that his own lover, Maddalena Antognetti, «la cortigiana scandalosa a tutti nota», had been chosen by Merisi to impersonate the Madonna, thus breaking the prescriptions of the authority in charge of the control of sacred images, i.e. the Vicar for whom Pasqualoni worked as notary 56 Ibidem, pp. 180-181 . It does not appear, however, that the Vicar’s notaries were charged with repressing the abuses prosecuted by the court where they worked as chancellors and furthermore Pasqualoni was certainly not an irreproachable defender of public morals if Bassani himself informs us “«come Pasqualoni non si preoccupasse di violare le stesse regole che in virtù del suo ruolo avrebbe dovuto far rispettare e frequentasse tranquillamente le case delle cortigiane»57 Ibidem, p. 26.
These are suppositions that Bassani presents as established truths. In any case, it remains to be explained in what sense Pasqualoni’s definition of Lena as «donna del Caravaggio» should be understood, if in all the reconstruction set up by the author there is never any mention of a relationship between Antognetti and Caravaggio, who is never mentioned either among the numerous male acquaintances of Maddalena or in any of the 116 documents published in the volume, apart from those relating to the painter already known and published. In the same way, it would be necessary to explain how Antognetti, who lived in the Borgo from September 1603 to the end of June 1605 with the notary Albertini, who kept her in sight, could have gone to pose at Caravaggio’s house in Campo Marzio, a long way from his home, without him noticing it and because in the lawsuit filed for the disfigurement the young girl does not speak at all about what would have been the reason of Albertini’s jealousy, that is the posing sessions in Merisi’s house, but only about the hatred that Montorio Filippone instilled in Albertini against her up to the point of inciting him to the disfigurement that the notary did to her face on the eve of SS. Peter and Paul58 Ibidem, p. 155 .
The Mancini Postilla
According to the author, a confirmation of the correctness of these hypotheses is to be found in an annotation inserted in the margin of paper 60v of the manuscript entitled Considerazioni della pittura by the Sienese doctor Giulio Mancini conserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, which would have the value of «inconfutabile prova»59 Ibidem, p. 185 .
This is one of the many annotations that Mancini added to the writing of Merisi’s life – unfortunately difficult to decipher because it is in shorthand – and in particular the famous note referring to a violent incident involving Caravaggio in Milan, even if not all scholars agree on the actual location of the event.
The passage was transcribed in the annotated edition of the Considerazioni della pittura edited by Adriana Marucchi and Luigi Salerno (Rome, 1956-1957) as follows: «Fece delitto. Puttana scherzo (?) et gentilhuomo scherzo (?) ferì il gentiluomo et la puttana sfregia sbirri ammazzati volevan saper che i compagni; fu prigion un anno et lo volser veder vender il suo […] a Milano fu prigion, non confessa, vien a Roma nè volse […] Fu provocato, andò a casa raccattare a tradimento si misse nel servitio per rispetto suo»60 Mancini 1617-1621[1956-1957], I, p. 227. .
Bassani believes that the gloss has nothing to do with what is narrated in the text at the point where it is inserted and that it refers to the disfigurement suffered by Antognetti («puttana sfregia»)and to Caravaggio’s assault on the notary Pasqualoni («ferì il gentiluomo»). For this reason, the «sbirri» should be identified in Gaspare Albertini and in his friend and inspirer of the scarring of Maddalena, Montorio Filippone, as «figli dei comandanti dei custodi delle carceri»while the verb «ammazzano» whose subject is always the «sbirri» should be referred to an attempted murder perpetrated by them against Caravaggio, in which he sustained a wound to his neck, as can be seen from the acts of the Visits of the Notaries series, from which it emerges that the painter, lying in bed in the house of his friend Andrea Ruffetti in October 1605, replied reticently to the notary who questioned him about the wound, declaring that he had hurt himself by falling on his own sword 61 Bertolotti 1881, II, pp. 74-75; Corradini 1993, p. 67, n 67; Bassani, Bellini 1994, pp. 226, 231, 233-234; Macioce 2010, pp. 195; Cesarini 2011, p. 266. . On that occasion, according to Bassani, the notary asked Merisi to account for his accomplices 62 In reality the notary asked Caravaggio, according to the practice followed in interrogations, where, when, by whom and for what reason (“ubi, quando, a quo seuquibus, qua de causa”) he had been wounded, cf. Cesarini 2011, p. 224, doc. 66. («volevano saper che i compagni»), while the prohibition imposed on him by the officer not to leave Ruffetti’s house should be understood as an order of house arrest to which the sentences «fu prigion un anno» and «fu prigion e non confessa» would refer. In addition, the phrase «et lo volser veder vendere il suo»(and they wanted to see him sell his) alludes to the difficult financial situation in which Caravaggio found himself on his return from Genoa, having been seized by the judicial authorities, at the request of the painter’s landlady, Prudenzia Bruni, of all the furniture he had in the flat 63 Bellini 1992; Bassani, Bellini 1993, pp. 70-75; Corradini1993, pp. 62-64; Marini, Corradini 1993, p. 162; Bassani, Bellini 1994, pp. 69-70; Macioce 2010, p. 188-189; Cesarini 2011, p. 256. . This sentence is also accompanied by the word «perdono», which is said to refer to the clemency Caravaggio asked of the Pope.
Finally, the author claims to have identified the words «Sempre Ranuccio»,(Always Ranuccio) in another phrase in the top left-hand corner of the inner margin of paper 61r, which has never been transcribed until now, the words «Sempre Ranuccio», which, according to him, would close the circle of the whole affair because they would be integrated with the phrase «fece delitto» with which the postilla begins. They would testify to Ranuccio Tomassoni’s involvement in the events of the summer of 1605, which Bassani suggests may also have been at the origin of the duel in Via della Pallacorda that took place because of Caravaggio’s obstinacy in wanting to portray «Lena» «sua donna» in the altarpiece for S. Agostino64 On the author’s hypothesis regarding the postilla, cf. Bassani 2021, pp. 185-194. .
This is not the place to deal with such a complex subject as Mancini’s postillae; however, since the writer is currently editing a new edition, soon to be published, we limit ourselves to stating that the operation of breaking down and unhinging every sentence of the postilla, which is thus decontextualised and inserted in different temporal moments in order to match the author’s narration of the facts, cannot be a philologically correct method for analysing sources of this kind.
First of all, because we start from a premise that is, in our opinion, erroneous, namely the conviction that the gloss has nothing to do with what is narrated in the text beside it, and secondly because we believe that some words of the gloss have not been correctly transcribed, giving rise over the years to the most varied interpretations. The note, in fact, is inserted in the margin of the narration of an episode that must have struck Mancini because it was indicative of the painter’s «stravagantissimo» character: The request made to Cardinal Del Monte by Giovan Battista Merisi, Michelangelo’s brother priest, who was visiting Rome, to meet the artist, who was living in the prelate’s house at the time. This was followed by Merisi’s reply to the cardinal that he had no brothers and the subsequent meeting between the two, during which Caravaggio remained impassive in the face of his brother’s affectionate and loving words.
In our opinion, the Sienese doctor wanted to use this gloss to record another episode in the painter’s life that would give an account of his character and bad relations with his brother Giovanni Battista. In other words, his intention was not so much to add new details to Caravaggio’s youth as to highlight the eccentricity and wrathfulness of his behaviour towards the priest on more than one occasion. Without entering into the details of the different transcription we have given of the postilla, we propose to read the phrase «et lo volser veder vender il suo […] a Milano», as «né lo volse veder; vende il suo, va a Milano» where that «né lo volse veder» is to be understood as referring to Giovanni Battista Merisi, and is a phrase used by Mancini to explain how even on that occasion he did not want to deal with his brother.
We have also found that there is no trace of the word «perdono» in the gloss, while as far as the phrase «sempre Ranuccio» is concerned, the analysis of the note does not allow us to ascertain with certainty the correctness of the transcription, but it should be noted that neither Ranuccio Tomassoni nor the episode of his murder are ever explicitly mentioned by Mancini in the painter’s biography.
A brilliant invention
In the face of the countless doubts raised by reading the book, which purports to be a historical essay based on documentary research and the interpretation of sources, we must acknowledge the author’s talent as a storyteller in concocting plots and constructing links in which his imagination fills in the gaps and gaps in his thesis that the sources cannot fill, perhaps succeeding in convincing some readers who are either clueless or fascinated by dietrology of the correctness of his version of events, but certainly remaining alien to serious and rigorous historical research. One suspects that Bassani has been so captivated by the idea that the young Roman prostitute lent her face and features to the famous Madonnas painted by Merisi that he has been trapped by it and that, thanks to his remarkable capacity as a storyteller, he wants to convince us that he has reached the truth of the facts when in fact this truth still seems very far away.
* All the observations contained in this review have been discussed and shared with Don Sandro Corradini, whom we thank for his kindness, availability and fruitful exchange of ideas. We are also grateful to Massimo Moretti, Alessandro Zuccari and Belinda Granata for their help and useful comparisons.
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