The last Caravaggio: heirs and new masters

Stefano Pirovano

An exhibition clarifies how Giulio Cesare Procaccini and Bernardo Strozzi perceived the last Caravaggio. Are art historians prone to the anchoring effect?

Caravaggio was a top artist of its epoch, that’s a fact. But a crucial exhibition which opened last week in Milan at the Gallerie d’Italia suggests that the artist was likely not as influential on his colleagues as scholars have been thinking up to now. According to The last Caravaggio: heirs and new masters the Caravaggio-centered universe we all know may have come to a significant correction. ‘Could a XVII century Italian art history exist without Caravaggio?’ asks indeed Professor Alessandro Morandotti, who curated the above mentioned exhibition and studied in depth two North Italian masters such as Giulio Cesare Procaccini and Bernardo Strozzi.

Psychology (precisely Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) states that an anchoring effect occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. Their estimates tend to stay close to the number (or information) they consider. Something similar may occur with artists. We all tend to use names and artworks we are confident with as anchors for those artists we don’t know much about.

The exhibition keystone is the last canvas painted by Caravaggio, a Martyrdom of Saint Ursula that the artists executed in Naples in 1610 for the art collection of Genovese aristocrat Marco Antonio Doria, brother of Giovan Carlo Doria, one of the top North Italian art collectors of his time. ‘It was an adventurous journey – says Morandotti to CFA – but the painting finally arrived in Genoa in June 1610, just a few weeks after it was completed. Local art community response was tepid, not to say indifferent. Any literatus wrote poetic lines to celebrate the canvas, as it was common at that time for this kind of events. It seems that the Saint Ursula by Caravaggio didn’t captive local artists, for they were interested in something else’. And The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula executed five years later by Bernardo Strozzi which is currently on exhibition at the Gallerie d’Italia next to the ‘last Caravaggio’ would prove that his painting was less influential than one expected.

Clearly Strozzi saw Caravaggio’s Saint Ursula and studied it. But the two paintings are ‘year-lights apart’ writes Morandotti in the exhibition catalogue, and meaningfully adds: ‘watching the two Martyrdom of Saint Ursula one next to the other should questions all those who are studying the history of early XVII century Italian art’. While in Rome and Naples Caravaggio was a star, artists in Milan and Genoa were probably less prone to his style than their colleagues from the South of Italy.

The exhibition provides a second evidence of that. This supplementary keystone reinforcing the curator statement is indeed the monumental last supper originally painted by Giulio Cesare Procaccini between 1618 and 1620 for the refectory of the Convent of Santissima Annuziata in Genoa (in 1686 it was relocated in the Convent’s church). The monumental 38 squared-meter canvas is presented here for the first time after it was restored by the Conservation and Restoration Centre at the Venaria Reale. Far from being as notorious as Caravaggio, and still in the need of an updated monographic study (Morandotti), Procaccini was also a top artist of its time, with a solid international career. His version of the last supper is a fantastic piece of art, that by a phenomenal master. Fast brushstrokes, ingenious perspective adjustments, colour balance, and wit characters expressiveness are its main features.

Many another pieces of Procaccini are here exhibited, precisely 17, including the preparatory study for the Santissima Annunziata’s last supper. We would call it a monographic exhibition inside the main exhibition. There  are 9 works by Strozzi in this show, which also includes main works by Giovan Battista Caracciolo, Jusepe de Ribera, Peter Paul Rubens, Simon Vouet, Anton van Dyck, all coming from Milan, Genoa or Naples. Caravaggio has a single painting here. Still, he is the artist mentioned in the titled. Meanwhile, just a few steps from Piazza della Scala, Palazzo Reale is hosting a monographic and generally overcrowded show gathering together 20 original pieces by Caravaggio, all accompanied by scientific analysis. But while this latter is adding nothing significant to what we already know about this celebrated master, the exhibition at Gallerie d’Italia not only represents a crucial improvement in the understanding of who he really was at his time, but also sheds light on two still undervalued masters such as Giulio Cesare Procaccini and Bernardo Strozzi. Or, to put it another way, be aware of the anchoring effect. The Salvator Mundi docet.

November 25, 2020