Il volume in oggetto presenta, peraltro, importanti documenti palermitani che consolidano la tesi secondo cui la Natività con i santi Lorenzo e Francesco fu dipinta da Merisi a Roma nell'anno 1600, commissionata da Fabio Nuti e destinata a Palermo.
L'ipotesi, già avanzata da Alfred Moir (1982), ripresa con nuove argomentazioni da Maurizio Calvesi (2011), Michele Cuppone (2011) e Giovanni Mendola (2012), è stata recentemente accolta, tra gli altri, da Alessandro Zuccari (2013) e Claudio Strinati (2014) [NEW: nuove aperture vi sono state da parte di Francesca Curti (2015) e Fabio Scaletti (2015)]. Nella stessa direzione vanno i risultati dei nuovi approfondimenti scientifici di Elisabetta Giani e Claudio Seccaroni (2014) [NEW: la tesi di un'esecuzione palermitana è ora messa in discussione anche da Rossella Vodret (2015)].
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Il Caravaggio di Palermo e l’Oratorio di San Lorenzo. By Giovanni Mendola.
Reviewed by MICHELE CUPPONE
ARCHIVAL RESEARCH IS an indispensable element for a complex discipline such as art history, especially in respect of a figure such as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, in that it can add to, and sometimes correct, biographical accounts of his life. Since the first discoveries at the end of the nineteenth century by Antonino Bertolotti, who fruitfully sifted through records of Roman trials of the era, certain contracts for works of art, letters by associates of the artist and other testimonies have slowly emerged. Each one adds another piece to the jigsaw of Caravaggio’s life so that an increasingly clear picture emerges, although there are still many lacunae. Fairly recently documents have been discovered which make it possible to add details to the circumstances of his birth and death, although these are not universally accepted. And accounts of his life in Rome, especially at the start of his career, have also emerged.
One fact that was once generally held to be true now appears dubious and leads us to review a particular moment in the painter’s life. Certain biographies contain a fleeting reference to Caravaggio’s purported visit to Palermo in 1609, and, although there was a complete lack of corroboration, Giovan Pietro Bellori claimed that it was then that he painted the Nativity with Sts Lawrence and Francis, a masterpiece that was stolen from the Oratorio of S. Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969. Giovanni Mendola had the perseverance to scour the notarial archives of Palermo for around the year 1609 – and found nothing. But he then started to look at documents dating from around 1600, following a hypothesis that the altarpiece could be the one known to have been commissioned in 1600 by the merchant Fabio Nuti, who was living in Naples. This was first proposed by Alfred Moir in 1982, but until now has had little support.1
Mendola has added to the history of the Oratory of S. Lorenzo and of the Compagnia di San Francesco that supervised it. Of particular significance for Caravaggio’s altarpiece is the work undertaken in the Jubilee year of 1600 to make the Oratory ready to receive such a picture: on 28th July payment for the gilding of a frame (‘guarnicione’) for the high altar was authorised, which was finished by the day of the Feast of St Lawrence on 10th August. And from a document of 8th March 1601 it emerges that Fabio Nuti in Naples was in correspondence with a member of the confraternity, Cesare da Avosta, in this little Oratory and that on 12th January 1601 Nuti authorised a payment to this friar, presumably in connection with the altarpiece. Mendola reconstructs a tight network of relations between Merisi, Rome, Sicily, Palermo and, naturally, the Oratory. It is still difficult to speculate as to who among the many characters involved might have acted as the gobetween for the commission, Caravaggio being in Rome and his patron Nuti in Naples.
This slim volume contains a mass of new material as well as references to previous publications. Mendola smoothly argues his case to date the altarpiece to 1600, and in fact the later dating had always been questioned, especially on the grounds of the painting’s style, which is very different from the other paintings made in Sicily, and much closer to those in the chapels of the Contarelli and Cerasi in Rome. While some facts have not been checked in the sources, and there are a few oversights, this does not detract from the importance of Mendola’s archival research. The author remains cautious in his conclusions, but several pages of Caravaggio’s life already need to be rewritten, and his findings coincide with the work of other scholars (including Maurizio Calvesi and the present writer). Now the network of relationships uncovered in Palermo should also be looked for in Rome, with, almost certainly, equally interesting results.
1 A Moir: Caravaggio, Milan 1982 (Italian edition), p.35.