16 March 2019

Caravaggio and Giorgione, lost and found

Judith beheading Holofernes (c1607) was accidentally found in a manky Toul­ouse attic in 2014. Burglars had broke into the house, but they left the painting, believing it worthless! It remained a secret for another two years!! But since then, Judith and Holofernes has been analysed by experts at the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France at the Louvre. Most of them concluded that it most likely created by Caravaggio (1571-1610).

The painting depicted the biblical story of Judith, the young widow in Biblical town of Bethulia who put an end to the Assyrian siege on her city by seducing and beheading General Holofernes.

Judith beheading Holofernes, c1607 
By ? Caravaggio, 

In 2016 the French government placed an export ban on the painting to allow time for the Louvre to consider whether it should be bought. The estim­at­ed price of €100m represented 15 years of the Louvre’s acquisition budget, and the museum already had three exceptional Caravaggios. The museum decided not to buy it and when the ban ended, the painting was available to travel. The Louvre decision meant the painting can be auctioned in late June 2019 in Toulouse. There are 68 known paintings by Caravaggio, including this one, only four of which are in private hands. So a museum would be the most likely buyer in June.

In the meantime, Judith and Holofernes is being displayed at Mayfair’s Colnaghi Gallery this week. Eric Turquin, a Paris-based expert in the Old Masters, is in London now with the painting, to make the case for it being a genuine Caravaggio.

Since Caravaggio was my favourite artist in the ENTIRE universe, I don’t understand why he was so unfashionable from 1650-1950. But apparently his paintings were worth very little in those 3 centuries. Note the last Caravaggio auction in 1971 when Christie’s offered Martha and Mary Mag­dalene (found in South America). The head of the Nat­ional Gallery did not believe it was a Caravaggio, so it failed to sell. Soon after it was bought privately for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

As there is no reserve price on Judith and Holofernes, please just wrap it up and send it to me. I don't have the US $115-170 million estimated value, but I will love the painting tenderly for the rest of my life.


Now a work from another artist, found in a different country and painted in another century. Read about Giorgione's life in Lives of the Most Excel­l­ent Painters, Sculptors and Architects written by the It­al­ian art hist­orian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74). The painter came from the small town of Castel­franco Veneto, 40 km inland from Venice. He probably served his apprentice­ship in Venice under the beautiful Giovanni Bellini; there he settled and rose to prominence as a mas­ter. Giorgione in turn influenced the even more beautiful Titian. But was Giorgione Titian's master? It is possible that they were both pupils of Giovanni Bellini, and lived in Bell­ini’s house. They worked together on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi frescoes and Titian finished some paintings of Giorgione after his death.

His skill was recognised early. In 1500, at 23, he was chosen to paint portraits of the Doge and other dig­nitaries. In 1504, he was commissioned to paint an altar­piece in the Cast­el­franco cathedral. In 1507, The Council of Ten commissioned a picture for the Hall of the Audience in the Doge's Palace.

In 1507-8 he and others were employed to fresco the exterior of the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi-German Merchants' Hall at Venice, having already done the exterior frescoes of other Venetian pal­aces.

Leonardo da Vinci met Giorgione when the old master's visited Venice in 1500 and found the young man to be charming, a great lover and a mus­ician. Giorgione expressed the grace of contempor­ary Venetian existence in his art, Leonardo said.

Sadly Giorgione died of the raging plague in Oct 1510, only in his mid 30s. Fortunately he had already had a great influence on his foll­owers in the Ven­et­ian school and remained one of the greats of the Renaissance era.

Now a chance discovery in a Sydney library of a 500-year-old sketch has impressed art historians. The red-chalk draw­ing by Giorg­ione was found at the University of Sydney Library, on the last page of a 1497 edition of Dante Alig­hieri’s Div­ine Comedy. The sketch has an ­accompanying hand-written inscrip­tion in black ink and dated 1510: “On the 17th Sept, Giorgione of Castelfranco, a very excellent art­ist, died of the plague in Venice at the age of 36 and he rests in peace.

Melbourne Uni Prof Jaynie Anderson, author of  the book Gior­g­ione: The Painter of Poetic Brevity, estimated its worth to be in the mil­l­ions. And, she said, the Sydney discovery transforms our un­der­stand­ing of ­Giorgione’s life and his relation to other artists. [Both claims may have been overstated]. In 1510, at the time of Giorgione’s death, the book had likely been the art­ist’s property. It contained a Virgin Mary and child, with the emphasis on the Christ child. “The Virgin’s face is blank. It is very abstract, little more than a doodle, but all the more beautiful for that.”

Giorgione sketch, The Madonna and Child. 
University of Sydney

The 1497 copy of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy
gold-tooled inboard binding.
University of Sydney’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

Prof Anderson said that the c1500 sketch was related to a group of paint­ings attributed to Giorgione: Holy Family and Adoration of the Sh­ep­herds in the National ­Gallery of Art in Washington, and the London Nat­ional Gall­ery’s Adoration of the Magi. These paint­ings showed similar Vir­gin and child groupings, as analysed in the British art jour­nal Burl­ington Magazine in March 2019.

Were Venetian paintings of the early 1500s without literary reference? No. Sydney Uni­versity’s discovery suggested that the Venetian artist read Dante’s early C14th verses in the Tuscan dialect AND that his sketch was a direct response to the narrative poem.
How did the 1497 Dante edition arrive an Australian university? Apparently the University’s first vice-chancellor Charles Nicholson began collecting rare books in the 1850s. His collection of antiq­uities formed the basis of the university’s Nicholson ­Museum. My main references were published in The Australian Newspaper, 16th Feb 2019 and 23rd Feb 2019. And the Sydney University Newsletter 25th Feb 2019.


Student of History said...

Love it Helen.This c1607 painting looks very much like the 1599 version of Judith Beheading Holofernes in the National Gallery in Rome, I think. If the second one wasn't by Caravaggio himself, some clever artist copied his beautiful Judith, ugly old servant, bunched curtain behind and dying Holofernes.

Zubair Ahmad said...


Hels said...


I too see a lot in common with all of Caravaggio's religious and sacrificial paintings eg Sacrifice of Isaac (c1598), The Conversion of St Paul (c1600), The Taking of Christ (1602) and The Crowning with Thorns (c1603). Judith and Holofernes also used a lot of dark and less light to create a bold and squashed-up, wonderful work.

Hels said...


thank you.
Are you interested in 16th and 17th paintings, especially Italian?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is exciting when such finds are made, although I sometimes take such miraculous appearances with a grain of salt, especially when antiquities are involved! As for the drawing in the book, at college I several times found early manuscripts bound into old books--I always resisted temptation and turned them over to the Beinecke Rare Book Library!

The recounting of these new discoveries reminded me of a book I read last year, The Sport of Collecting, detailing the adventures of Sir Martin Conway, who every ten minutes seemed to discover some forgotten old master lurking dust-covered in a shop for a pittance. He later restored Allington Castle in Kent as a home for his collections.

Hels said...


I have mixed feelings about unexpectedly finding a classical Old Master. There were many circumstances where one generation hid its treasures (eg during the Civil War or when the Huguenots were expelled) and their descendants uncovered their inheritances without knowing anything about the origins. The grandchildren's issue were proving the provenance from the auction house etc, not proving the authenticity of the artist.

The Sport of Collecting (which is a cute title, by the way) may be referring to 20th century pieces of art that were perhaps bartered by artists to restaurants for wine. Who would ever know who sketched/painted the apparent Chagalls or Matisses?

Parnassus said...

Hello again, Sir Martin Conway was the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge, and his book came out in 1914. He seemed mostly interested in the Renaissance, and his finds included di Bicci, Foppa, Lotta, Tiepolo and Giorgione. I don 't know where his collection is now, or what scholars today make of his attributions, but in the last 100 years probably most old master paintings have been reconsidered. One chapter is called "A Find of Giorgiones". Note the plural!

Hels said...


absolutely. Even Old Masters, long accepted as authentic, have been reassessed. In fact some artists have academic bodies specifically dedicated to the assessment process eg the Rembrandt Research Project, originally organised by the Netherlands Organisation for the Advancement of Scientific Research.

Anonymous said...

Martha and Mary Magdalene (Detroit) is more about conversion and less about sacrifice. So it doesn't look as much like Caravaggio as the new Judith & Holofernes does.


bazza said...

Of course the Caravaggio is a second painting by Caravaggio of that subject, the original one being one of my favourite pictures ever. It has a strong psychological depth conveying so many different emotions.
I had no idea about the provenance of that newer Caravaggio painting. Surely a painting should have value on it's own merits. It's sensational even if someone else made it (which I doubt!)
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s enormously exultant Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - Caravaggio's art certainly is highly regarded ... I find it fascinating that original art is still be found and it's wonderful we have dedicated people researching and validating the paintings or sketches. Thanks - interesting to read both parts - cheers Hilary

Hels said...


The two sisters are certainly focused on conversion - Martha felt responsible for changing Mary's wayward life from one of pleasure to one of Christ. I am happy with the Biblical theme, but the colours/light seem unusual for Caravaggio.

Hels said...


Caravaggio had the great painterly skills to depict psychological depth.. and the personal experience. His life had amazing highs but also appalling lows. What a tragedy to die at 36, totally alone.

Hels said...


I cannot wait until the June auction to see what the collectors, galleries and museums of the world think about the Caravaggio. The $150 million estimate sounds to me like the national budget of many small countries!

Re the Giorgione, I suspect the analyses will more likely be found in academics journals and conferences.

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Jacqui Murray said...

Very interesting, especially about the export ban.

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Hels said...
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Hels said...


I am so sorry. I was so annoyed by the advertising in other peoples' comments, I deleted my response to you in error :(

Basically a drawing of St Sebastian was found a few years ago and was thought to be by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. The French government placed an export ban on the sketch, until the true artist could be confirmed and the true value assessed. But this time the export ban was never lifted, even though da Vinci was confirmed and the value assessed at $16 million.

What happens if no French gallery or private collector cannot afford the $16 million?

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Dr. F said...

Thanks for this post that provides info on the new Giorgione discovery. Given what you say, however, it is hard to see how the drawing will change everything about Giorgione. As it is, we know very little about Giorgione and must take even Vasari with a grain of salt. There is no evidence that Leonardo met Giorgione in Venice or that he commented on Giorgione's work.

Also, since you began with Caravaggio's Judith, you might have compared it with Giorgione's version in the Hermitage. Such a comparison would give a clue as to why Caravaggio went out of fashion for so long. The heightened emotionalism of the Catholic Reformation that lay at the core of Caravaggio was largely rejected after the end of the religious wars of the sixteenth century and the onset of the Enlightenment.

Frank DeStefano

Hels said...


thank you re Giorgione. It always strikes me as a _very_ big claim that a discovery of a sketch will transform our un­der­stand­ing of ­Giorgione’s life and his relation to other artists.
Not because Prof Anderson doesn't know her Giorgione, but because new bits of knowledge are almost always additive and not transformative.

Re Caravaggio, I find it all very fascinating. The heightened emotionalism of the Catholic Reformation that lay at the core of Caravaggio must have been accepted, rejected and loved again, with every changing era. It all depends on what we learned from our grandparents and when we studied at university.

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Hels said...


Thank you. I purposely limit every post to exactly 1,000 words to avoid overload, as you say. But wherever possible, I also add suggestions for further reading, should readers want to delve more deeply in a particular topic.

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