A panel painting by Michelangelo in Oxford?

Rob Sharp, Arts correspondent for The Independent, contacted me by email on Friday – which was lucky because I was away for the weekend and might not otherwise have picked up his phone calls.   He was about to file an article on Antonio Forcellino’s recent findings concerning a “lost” work by Michelangelo: what is surprising is that the painting is not in Italy but in the possession of Campion Hall, a “permanent private hall” and the Jesuit foundation at the University of Oxford. [Incidentally, Maria Forcellino has documented the complex changes of ownership that took the painting from Italy to London, and then to Oxford into the hands of Rev. Martin D’Arcy, S.J. to whom it was sold by Sotheby’s on 24 June 1953.]

Having written extensively about these findings in academic articles, Antonio Forcellino decided to write an account aimed at a more general readership.  The book (which I translated for publication by Polity Press earlier this year) is titled The Lost Michelangelos and it tells an extraordinarily gripping tale.  The first of the “lost” paintings hit the headlines last winter: it is a Pietà by Michelangelo that had spent the last century or so in an American family home, and latterly behind the sofa!  However, until now, the other “lost” painting, the one in Oxford, had received less attention.

In the past this small painting of the Crucifixion with the Madonna, St John and two mourning angels (measuring c. 20 x 13 inches) has been attributed to Marcello Venusti, as are two other very similar paintings, one known as the Doria Crucifixion in Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome, and another in Casa Buonarroti, Florence.  One of the few studies of the painting was published by Phyllis Borland in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 103 (1961), pp. 432-435.  Borland refers to an X-ray photograph of the underdrawing (also published in her article) but she uses it to substantiate rather than to question Venusti’s authorship, in spite of quoting the inscription on the back of the panel (I do not know if this is still extant?):

‘This unique picture was painted by Mich. Angelo Buonarotti and was presented by him to his intimate friend the Cavl. Cavallieri of Rome in whose family it remained until the year 1797 [when] it was purchased by Mr Fagan the British Consul at Palermo.  The Seals . . . back are those. . . the Cavallieri Family.
Vide Duppa [and This picture other authors?]  came into my possession in 18o[8?]  from the Agent of Mr Fagan.  W. Buchanan  August 1818’  (Borland,p. 434)

Forcellino’s reasons for examining the painting in Oxford in greater detail and using the latest infra-red techniques are clear: there is a documented connection between it and the Cavalieri family, and specifically with Tommaso Cavalieri, “a young nobleman of great physical beauty whom Michelangelo met in 1532 and to whom he had a passionate emotional attachment” (The Oxford Dictionary of Art). There were originally no fewer than 18 wax seals marked with the Cavalieri family arms around the edges of the panel.

When he first saw the painting in Oxford Forcellino writes that it was immediately clear that “the figure of Christ was in a wholly different league … the modelling was stronger, and the painting and facial expression had a clarity that created the impression of an artist of much greater standing. The quality of the painting was so evident that it was embarrassing to think that a whole generation of art historians could have believed this was the work of the same artist as the Doria Crucifixion and the painting in Casa Buonarroti.” (The Lost Michelangelos, p. 139)

In short, while Forcellino is “convinced that no one but Michelangelo could have painted such a masterpiece”, he qualifies this attribution later, stating that there is “a very strong likelihood,  stronger than for any other attribution hypothesis put forward for Michelangelesque works in the past century.” (p.145)

Rob Sharp’s article in The Independent is here and further details of Antonio Forcellino’s book can be found here.

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