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Rome, 1 August 1605

Article by Massimo Pulini, artist and art historian who attributed to Caravaggio the painting Ecce Homo (Ansorena auctions 8 April 2021, Madrid)

Twelve years ago, when the magazine “Storia dell’arte” (Art History) was producing the volume Da Caravaggio ai Caravaggeschi, I met Maurizio Calvesi and Augusta Monferini on several different occasions. On one of these, the discussion touched, as may readily be imagined, on the many incorrect attributions to Merisi that had piled up in the period preceding the fourth centenary of his death.
I remember, above all, a remark by Maurizio that in a few words managed to make the point: “you see, Massimo, I am convinced that in the 1950s people had a better perception of Caravaggio’s work than they do now”.
Our eyes change with the incessant shifting of memory, we can say that they are different every day because we constantly modify our inner archive. We dismantle the certainties of the past or strengthen them according to the experiences that life puts before us. We are also subtly conditioned by the eyes of others, by the collective transformation of perception.
Perception might be said to be a purely sensory fact, but it is never just that, which is why the poet Valerio Magrelli wrote that

gli occhiali allora andrebbero portati tra l’occhio ed il cervello, perché è là, tra boscaglie e piantagioni di nervi l’errore dello sguardo. Qui si smarrisce la vista e nel suo andare alla mente si corrompe e tramonta… (Ora serrata retinae, 1980)

What is perceived therefore merges with the concept in a fraction of a second and we are no longer allowed to separate their destinies. We are thus driven to see and highlight more clearly those images that already have a place and a logical collocation in our memory. This classification is sometimes burdened by individual or collective errors.
The sway of a long sequence of studies and an ever-improving knowledge of the artists of the past sometimes fails in the vicinity of myth, and certain historical figures that stimulate the collective imagination end up losing, in our eyes, the transparency of their thought, like a shard of glass in the sand.
But it is also true that the re-emergence of a lost painting can bring a new and sudden clarity, illuminating a sequence of facts that until a moment before was hidden by the encumbrance of other presences which, after the discovery, are required to change their ordering on the terrain of history.
The discovery of the Ecce Homo in Madrid is exemplary in this sense and allows us to follow, within the iconographic labyrinth inspired by the trial of Jesus, a red thread that permits a new orientation. This painting may indeed constitute a precious opportunity to dispel at least part of the ocular fog that seems to have affected us in recent years, in recent decades.
From now on we will find in who knows how many canvases, by Caravaggesque painters and others, a reverberation and an influence of the Madrid Ecce homo’s dry and brilliant creation, of those cuts of light and glances to camera, of that silent sadness and that wounded body, marked by the bruises of the whip.
The Ecce homo has the instant power to line up many other paintings, to show us how many have seen and admired it, how many have been inspired by that composition. Its temporal and geographical location, pinned down to 1 August 1605 in Rome, corresponds precisely with its characteristics and the documents in our possession, intelligibly clarifying the developing style of an artist who gave meaning to his constant mutation.
The time of its execution is among the most turbulent in Caravaggio’s life, but it is only the prelude to the abyss. The note found by Rosanna Barbiellini in the papers of the Massimi archives is dated 25 June 1605 and the painter undertakes

a pingere all Massimo Massimi, per essere stato pagato, un quadro di valore e grandezza come è quello ch’io gli feci già della Incoronazione di Crixto, per il primo di Agosto 1605”.

In those thirty-six days many things happened, but two episodes are known and recorded, leading Merisi to be imprisoned, ‘detained’ as we would say today, for a few days. On 19 July he was imprisoned for defacing the door of two women whose names we also know, Laura and Isabella, while on 29 July Michelangelo da Caravaggio carried out an attack on Mariano Pasqualone for matters connected with a certain Lena. If on the one hand this information makes it even more difficult for the artist to have honoured his commitment to deliver the promised work to Massimi, on the other hand we cannot exclude it. When he signed that receipt, he was either telling a deliberate lie or was aware that he could complete such a painting in so few days. However, he knows that he is able to do so, and this attests to a speed of execution not imagined before.
Moreover, a few days after the natural expiry of the contract, from 6 to 17 August, the painter’s presence is attested in Genoa (see Francesca Cappelletti, ‘Caravaggio sugli altari, tra ‘naturale’ e sacro’ in L’Eterno e il Tempo. Tra Michelangelo e Caravaggio, exhibition catalogue, Forlì, 2018, p. 153).
The work conceived and completed in that month can be used as a litmus test of that restless, almost senseless period, alternating between the spiritual depths condensed in the painting and the artist’s immersion in the nocturnal daze of the city.
This dichotomy, which is at the heart of the myth, also belongs to a historical datum that must be taken into account not only by scriptwriters but also by philologists.
The former and the latter know that the following year Merisi was involved in a quarrel with Ranuccio Tomassoni, the brother of a captain of the guards of a Roman district, and that the scuffle turned the painter into a murderer.
I do not believe that this epilogue had any bearing on the history of the painting and its transfer to Spain, confirmed by Bellori in his biography of the artist.
An already marked destiny perhaps imposed on the work and its author a damnatio memoriae that manifested itself in two possible outcomes: either in the sale of a painting that had become unwelcome, embarrassing or else in its removal to the Iberian Peninsula, following the commission received from Cardinal Innocenzo Massimi, when he became Apostolic Nuncio in Madrid in 1623.
The current re-emergence of the painting not only confirms Bellori and, to some extent, Giovan Battista Cardi, Cigoli’s nephew, who suggested that Massimi had disposed of Caravaggio’s work, but also will give many scholars the opportunity to interpret a powerful and intense image, one that the painter conceived through a rigorous stripping away of rhetoric, arriving at ingenious solutions of his own.
Philologists and iconologists alike will debate the work, as will many others, and there are already, understandably, differing opinions on its dating and interpretation, even among those who are agreed as to its authorship.

I was struck by an observation, one of the first to be made, by Alessandro Zuccari, who drew attention to a small flame suspended above Christ’s head, at the level of the crown of thorns. I had also noticed it when scanning the work, but I could not judge whether it was a repainting or something else. I now believe that this little flame of light deserves specific research in the hope that it will lead to a better understanding of its meaning. The first thing that came to mind was a reference to the symbol of Pentecost, that descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a small flame, which we find on the foreheads of the Apostles at the miraculous moment when they are endowed with the ability to know all the languages of the world, in view of their evangelical mission. It is difficult for me to go further than the search for symbolic keys, but this idea of a Jesus assisted by the Holy Spirit during his earthly trial is something that will remain in my mind.

I dedicate this text to the memory of my friend Maurizio Calvesi.

Massimo Pulini, Montiano, 17 April 2021

(La traduzione, effettuata con Deepl, è stata rivista dalla dott.ssa Laura Leuzzi)
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