Long Lost Mary Magdalene?

November 7, 2014 / Art & Archaeology
Rome, Italy

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!)



by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

19 Responses to “Long Lost Mary Magdalene?”

  1. Wow, that’s huge news! The discovery of an authentic Caravaggio is a mega find. Thanks for the great news GB!!

    • GB

      The owners are not planning on showing or loaning it publicly for now. We can hope that one day they will.

  2. David Bridges

    Stunning! And so very Italian for the painting to resurface after centuries. Thanks for your posting.

  3. Pat Carney Ceccarelli
    Pat Carney Ceccarelli

    Many thanks to our Editir, GB, who has kept us up on this fascinating news!

  4. Mary Ellen Gadski

    This was one of the most fascinating Italian notes I have ever read . . . and so beautifully written!

  5. Fascinating! I finally visited the Galleria Borghese in Rome last year and again this year. Even though we may not be able to see Mary Magdalena at the Borgheses, there is extraordinary art by Caravaggio and many more, plus sculptures by Bernini and more in 20 rooms.


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