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The final known painting by the Baroque bad boy Caravaggio is heading to the National Gallery in London for a small show later this month, The Last Caravaggio (18 April-21 July). The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610) will be loaned by the Gallerie d’Italia in Naples, which is part of the Intesa Sanpaolo museum network funded by the eponymous bank.

Crucially the work was only reattributed to Caravaggio in the 1980s after the discovery of a letter, also in the show, describing its commission. The work—made in Naples at the behest of the Genoese nobleman Marcantonio Doria—was painted shortly before the artist left the city for Rome in mid 1610, looking to be pardoned for killing a man in a swordfight four years earlier.

Caravaggio died on the way, but this final self-portrait depicts the moment the saint, having refused to marry a Hun who did not share her Christian faith, is shot by him with an arrow. Behind Saint Ursula, a figure believed to be Caravaggio, can be seen looking on from the shadows.

A National Gallery statement says: “Few paintings are better placed to tell the story of Caravaggio’s final years than his last-known work, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. The painting is coming to London for the first time in 20 years. We witness violence at uncomfortably close quarters. Caravaggio shows us an intricate interplay of guilty and innocent hands. And his own self-portrait looks on, helpless.”

The work’s provenance is striking; it went to Genoa, as per the original commission, and then returned to Naples in 1832, coming by inheritance to the Doria branch of the princes of Angri, ending up, about a century later, with the Romani Avezzano family. It resurfaced in an exhibition in 1963 and was then purchased—as a work initially attributed to the Italian Baroque artist Mattia Preti—by the Banca Commerciale Italiana in 1972. In 1999, Banca Commerciale Italiana was absorbed into Banca Intesa Sanpaolo who became the new owner of the painting.

But why is the letter, discovered in 1980, so important? Michele Coppola, Gallerie d’Italia director, tells The Art Newspaper: “The letters of May 1610, found in the Doria d’Angri fonds of the State Archives in Naples, made it possible to ascertain unequivocally that the painting is by Caravaggio [and] to trace it back to a commission by the Genoese Marco Antonio Doria [Marcantonio Doria], fixing its date and identifying its subject which until then had been so obscure as to be interpreted as a generic allegorical scene.”

He adds: “The discovery of the letters also facilitated further research in the same documentary fund, which made it possible to reconstruct the painting’s subsequent history and its movements until it arrived in the bank’s collections.”

The restoration of the painting in 2003 revealed a hidden hand reaching out in an “attempt to protect the young woman from torture”

via Wikimedia Commons / The Art Newspaper

Over the years, various conservation projects have revealed how the painting, which at one point was left out in the sun, has been transformed, even revealing a hidden hand. The most recent restoration of The Martyrdom of St. Ursula was carried out between 2003 and 2004 at the Central Institute for Restoration in Rome by Carlo Giantomassi and Donatella Zari. This extensive clean-up, and the diagnostic investigations which preceded it, revealed the painting’s centuries-long, troubled history, Coppola says.

“[This is] a story documented from its very beginning, [drawn] from Lanfranco Massa’s letter to Marco Antonio Doria dated 11 May 1610, from which we learn that Caravaggio had used a ‘very thick’ varnish in the execution of the painting and Lanfranco, in order to gain time, had tried to dry it in the sun [Massa was Doria’s agent in Naples]. The effects were disastrous, causing a general loosening of the chromatic surfaces, and the painter had to reinterpret it before leaving for Genoa.”

A document from two centuries later (1831) records it as being “much damaged by time, and by ancient restoration work”. One of these ancient interventions must have shortly followed the death of Marcantonio Doria in 1651, Coppola adds.

“Above all, it had resulted in an increase in the height of the canvas, by around 13 centimetres, with consequences of no small importance: the juxtaposition of the two supports loosened the primitive arrangement, with inevitable falls of the paint film; the folds of the curtain in the background were interpreted at this point as spears and equipped with incongruous points; the overall colours were softened with brownish veils, in the search for an impossible homogenisation of the surface,” he says.

Crucially until the last restoration in 2003, a strange shadow was visible in the centre of the saint’s cloak. “This was the shadow of the right hand of the figure in the background, on the right of Ursula, which was only made with browns and had all but disappeared after an incongruous, earlier restoration in the 1970s. The restitution of this hand reaching out towards the spectator—the extreme attempt to protect the young woman from torture, the signalling of the instant of the dart’s departure—dilates the space of the scene and restores that choral, centripetal arrangement that characterises quite a few of the artist’s works after his last flight from Rome.”

The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula will be shown alongside a Caravaggio work in the National Gallery collection, Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist (1609-10). Entry to the display, part of the gallery’s bicentenary celebrations, is free.

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