Reading for an extra hour; three Baroque rediscoveries.

My Dad has very kindly sent me this link from the Telegraph, about the rediscovery of Caravaggio’s Magdalen in Ecstasy. The painting illustrates the legend that after Christ’s death, the Magdalen lived as a hermit in France, at a cave near Aix-en-Provence, where seven times a day her penitence was blissfully interrupted by the sound of heavenly choirs.


Several copies of the Magdalen are known, but it wasn’t certain which if any of them was the original. The scholar Mina Gregori tracked down this example in a private Italian collection.

After years hunting for the real thing, the eminent art expert and president of Florence’s Roberto Longhi Art History Foundation, declared: “At last, it’s you”, after finding herself seemingly gazing at the Caravaggio original. If true, the discovery would be one of rare importance in Western art.

Ms Gregori said key characteristics of the painting, the first ever photograph of which was printed in La Repubblica yesterday, left no doubts in her mind regarding its provenance. “The creation of a body with varying tones, the intensity of the face. The strong wrists, crossed fingers and beautiful hair … the wonderful variations in light and colour – all show that it is Caravaggio,” she said.

An authentic Caravaggio is always a very exciting discovery. He has been described as the first modern artist. He is certainly a rock n roll figure. Outside his patrons’ palazzi, he lived in a world of tavern and brothels, and he brought prostitutes, rent-boys and beggars into his paintings as models. Some critics and patrons were appalled – one called him ‘the antichrist of painting’ – but enough recognised his genius. The Taking of Christ 1602 – discovered in an Irish monastery in 1990, now in the National Gallery of Ireland – shows his cinematic sense of action and lighting and the way he controls drama like a director – the figure on the right with a lantern is a self-portrait. Christ, incidentally, has the same crossed fingers that Mina Gregori admired in the Magdalen.


(c) National Gallery of Ireland

This violent world got the better of him in the end. In 1606 he killed another man in a fight over a bet on a tennis match, and had to escape from Rome, first to Naples and then to Sicily. That same year he painted the Magdalen, repenting her past life just as Caravaggio must have been. Friends of his in Rome were trying to get him a pardon from the Pope, just as friends of the dead man were said to have been trying to track him down. Cardinal Scipione Borghese, his chief patron and the Pope’s nephew, finally secured the pardon in 1610, when Caravaggio set off on a circuitous return journey. He never made it back to Rome. He died on July 18th that year at Grosseto in Tuscany – of fever, poisoned by his toxic pigments, or murdered in revenge by his victim’s friends – no one is quite certain. The Magdalen may have been part of the price he paid for his pardon. A letter from the Bishop of Casserta written on July 29th mentions three Caravaggios being held for Cardinal Borghese, two of St John the Baptist and a Magdalen. And a seventeenth century label on the back of the newly-discovered painting reads ‘Cardinal Borghese of Rome.’

The second discovery is another Magdalen, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, the singer who married Johann Sebastian Bach as his second wife in 1721. Anna Magdalena is known to have been a musical copyist. Several Bach manuscripts are in her hand, but Professor Martin Jarvis of Charles Darwin University in Australia, believes that she was also a composer.

Prof Jarvis said he aims to overturn the “sexist” convention that recognised composers were always a “sole male creator”, to finally reinstate Mrs Bach into the history books.

Heidi Harralson, a forensic document examiner, said she was convinced the composer was more likely to be Anna than Bach himself, saying she was as sure as possible “within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty”.

While Anna is known to have transcribed for Bach in his later years, researchers found the handwriting did not have the “slowness or heaviness” usually attributed to someone who is merely copying, but was likely to have flowed from her own mind.

They also pointed to numerous corrections to scores written in her hand, signalling she is likely to have been composing it as she went along.

I’m not a musicologist, but it seems perfectly plausible. The pieces that Professor Jarvis attributes to Anna Magdalena include the Cello Suites, the First Prelude from the Well-tempered Clavier and the Aria from the Goldberg Variations. I’ve always thought the Aria, played here by Glenn Gould, sounds a bit different to most Bach I’m used to. The Goldberg Variations were published in 1741, but a manuscript copy of the Aria exists in Anna Magdalena’s handwriting from 1731. Previously it was assumed that she had made a copy for her own use, but Professor Jarvis’s idea makes you wonder. His full thesis is given here and will be presented in a documentary to be screened at Bafta next week Written by Mrs Bach, presented by the composer Sally Beamish. I hope Anna Magdalena receives the recognition she deserves. Her life was a sad one after her husband died in 1750. Her large family fell apart, and when she died eleven years later she was buried in a pauper’s grave.


This detail from the frontispiece of Johann Sigismund Scholze’s Singende Müse an der Pleisse, a book of songs published in Leipzig in 1736 shows Mr and Mrs Bach in happier times. It is the only known portrait of Anna Magdalena, and it reminds you that Baroque keyboard pieces were not written for grand piano.

The unruly satyr appearing from underneath the tablecloth, and the public health advertisement at the start of the Glenn Gould youtube recording  – ‘blood in your pee?’ – bring me to the last Baroque discovery of the weekend, a discovery for me at least as I’d never seen Molière on stage before, the brilliant Hypochondriac at Brighton’s Theatre Royal, with Sir Tony Robinson in the lead. But the extra hour is up now, so I will write about that properly next time.

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