Just recently a 1610 letter was found in the Vatican archives in which a Bishop in Naples notifies Cardinal Borghese (great art collector and patron of Caravaggio) that Caravaggio died of fever in Porto Ercole and the sailboat that took him there had just arrived in Naples… with two of the now deceased artist’s San Giovannis and one Mary Magdalene on board. “And please, your excellency what am I to do?”
Sure enough, one San Giovanni gets sent to Rome (and has been in the Galleria Borghese since, purposely built by the Cardinal to exclusively house art, a first in Europe). The other San Giovanni is lost, ahime’. The Mary Madgalene however stays in Naples, where it is seen by a Flemish artist (Finson).
Back then, the accepted narrative of Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy was that later in life, as a hermit, she was carried up to heaven seven times a day on multicolored clouds, accompanied by hosts of angels singing in celestial choir. Not exactly understated, so you can imagine Finson’s reaction when he saw Caravaggio’s rendition of Magdalene’s completely personal, private ecstasy, her almost teary eyes rolled back.
Of course, he and eight other artists make direct copies/studies of this incredible painting. These are then in turn copied by many other artists through the centuries who try their hand at the stark Caravaggesco strength and beauty.
After its stay in Naples however, the trail of the original goes cold, and it is never seen again.
So it might be difficult to comprehend Mina Gregori’s recent state of mind. She is the professoressa emerita at the University of Florence and has been the world’s foremost expert on Caravaggio since the 1950s. She was recently asked to examine a painting (as well as the markings and 17th century Papal custom’s seals on its reverse side) that a European family has owned for generations. The family thought it was simply yet another study by yet another artist of Caravaggio’s lost masterpiece.
Gregori managed only three words, “Finalmente. E’ lei!” (Finally, it’s her!)