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Caravaggio Exhibition



This is the first chance for you to view the Queen's newest art treasures. Recently, the Royal Collection found a Caravaggio oil painting it didn't even know it had - and became more convinced than ever that another oil painting, whose authorship has been hotly debated, is by him. The first, and most exciting, was no secret; it had just always been regarded as a copy of A Boy Peeling Fruit. Now they think this may be the original - which means when you look at the grainy picture of a youth with his shirt open to expose pale flesh, his lips rosy, eyes on the fruit he's peeling with a knife held by long, thin fingers, there's a strong chance you are looking at Caravaggio's first ever oil painting.


The evidence behind the claims is that it shows signs of reworking that wouldn't be in an art reproduction: the artist has changed his mind. Caravaggio didn't make preparatory drawings, but worked entirely on canvas. Beneath the surface, you can see him trying an idea, then changing course. The boy's white shirt has faded over the centuries to expose two leaves he painted, before changing the picture. Later versions, now thought to be copies, try to make sense of this dark patch by turning it into a shadow, suggesting this is the original they copied. That is convincing.


The oil painting has a raw, crude youthfulness; we are looking at the launch of Caravaggio's career in Rome , where his sensual images of boys and fruit pleased collectors with a taste for the finer things. The fruit in the oil painting is velvety, ripe, battered and about to rot.


It can never be definitely established if this and The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, also recently claimed to be original after lying unloved in a storeroom for nearly a century, are truly by him, or if they are 17th-century imitations. Neither is among his masterpieces, but both have something. If the Boy is sensual, The Calling is compelling as only Caravaggio's religious art can be. I like the fact that, ultimately, their authorship can never be resolved: it's perverse and shadowy, like him.


Both oil paintings were bought because of their association with an artist who was already a legend. Boy Peeling Fruit was in the Royal Collection by 1688; The Calling was bought by Charles I in 1637. His experts thought it by "an Immetator of Caravagio".


Charles I came to the throne in 1625 determined to fill his palaces with masterpieces like the Titians he'd seen on a trip to Spain . This exhibition is a testament to his success - yet the Italian paintings now in the Royal Collection include just a small part of his collection, sold after the Civil war by Cromwell's republic, and only partially recovered by Charles II. At that time, Italian art was universally recognised as the best: it was still riding the fame of Renaissance artists like Bellini, Bronzino and Michelangelo, all of whose work is in this show. From 1629 to 1632, Charles bought, lock, stock and barrel, the collection of the Gonzaga dynasty of Mantua , importing a significant chunk of the Renaissance.


Yet Charles I was not just an art collector who happened to be executed in 1649 after making war on his own people. His passion for art is inextricable from the alienation between court and society that led to the Civil war and his death. His subjects did not echo his fascination with Italy ; to the Protestant British, who associated religious images with Catholic "idolatry", the magnificence of Italian art could only look Papist. The Italianate splendour of Charles's court was introspective and alien. And it wasn't just old Italian paintings but living Italian artists that Charles I imported. These difficult, antisocial characters, acting like stars, were surreally out of place in dour, 17th-century London . What's thrilling about this exhibition is seeing the macabre relevance of their work to a bloody moment in our past.


They were called Caravaggisti and indulged in gore and self-dramatisation in the manner of their murderous mentor Caravaggio, providing a dark mirror for Charles I's mad delusions. Outstanding among them was Artemisia Gentileschi. "There were many Caravaggisti, but only one Caravaggista," a modern biographer wrote of this contemporary icon. Her Self-Portrait as the Muse of Painting is the best reason to visit this exhibition.


In it, the painter, brush in hand, reaches toward the canvas, her body thrusting through space. She is strenous and absorbed: the artist as hero. Black hair unkempt, black eyes sharply focused, she is straining, grasping for the image. This is a very physical, dangerous picture of making art that goes back to Michelangelo painting the Sistine Ceiling and looks forward to Jackson Pollock. But they were men. Artemisia Gentileschi is wearing a green dress and gold necklace on her muscular form. She is both the painter and "the muse of painting". Turning custom upside-down, she takes the female emblematic figures of the Muses so often portrayed in the culture of her time, and becomes one of them, while being a real woman, large as life.


Alongside this work hang severed heads. Caravaggio was obsessed with decapitation. He painted the Bible stories of Judith Decapitating Holofernes, and David With the Head of Goliath. Gentileschi painted versions of Judith and Holofernes that rival Caravaggio in their splatter and shock. But other artists also pictured this horror. This show includes disturbingly realistic images of bodiless heads from Charles I's collection. Here is Cristofano Allori's Judith with the Head of Holofernes, a fantastic oil painting in its decadence and perversity: the Florentine artist, painted his ex-lover as Judith, holding his own severed head.


It is a terrifying head, so alive and suffering - a head that still thinks and feels pain. The gigantic head in Domenico Fetti's David With the Head of Goliath is nearly as compelling. Both were bought by Charles I. He could look on these images of heads removed from the body, seemingly still conscious (Fetti's colossal head has an intelligent eye disturbingly open) and wonder what it would be like to have your head parted from your body.


On January 30 1649 , he found out - walking from a window of the Banqueting House, with its ceiling painted for him by Rubens, to his own beheading. Perhaps one of the Caravaggisti witnessed this and painted it. That lost oil painting really would be a find - as my novel will tell.


The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, is at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham   Palace , from Friday until January 20.


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