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The Unknown Medusa and its Famous Double

23 August 2016

When the "Double" is More Famous than the Original One

Perhaps not everyone knows that Caravaggio painted an earlier version of the terrible screaming head of Medusa with darting snakes instead of hair, the famous painting in exhibition at the Uffizi.

The Medusa unknown to most (kept in a private vault in London) is not a copy, but an original work by Michelangelo Merisi from Caravaggio.  Three elements prove that: a signature, the drawing beneath the paint surface, and two poems.  As regards the signature: «He affixed his name in the blood oozing above the border decorated with wine tendrils, bottom right," Michel. A. f. "».  The second element is the drawing: the London painting, made on fig tree wood (the one at the Uffizi is on poplar); tests performed have detected a drawing mostly made with charcoal and presenting many cancellations and remakes, as to show the difficulty of executing a portrait on a convex surface.  The drawing beneath the Florentine portrait and unveiled by recent tests, only points out eyes, teeth, some snakes, «as well as small changes in the mouth; it shows fewer regrets. A sign that the painter had already mapped out the path».  Last evidence is a sonnet on the "poisoned mane of Medusa" by Genoese poet Gaspare Murtola (known in its time for a poisonous argument with Giovan Battista Marino, whose life he attempted in 1608, editor's note) published in 1604.  In 1600 the writer was in Rome and in that year he would have seen the "wheel", later quoted (without indicating the subject) in an inventory of year 1606. As poet Giovanni Battista Marino, in 1601, devoted a poem to the Medici Medusa he saw in Florence, placing it precisely in the armory of Ferdinand I of Medici family, Granduke of Tuscany (as resulting from a delivery document of September 1598), it can be inferred that the heads of the monster depicted by Caravaggio were two: the first version remained in Rome and ended up in London, while the second one arrived to the Florentine court in September 1598.

How do experts explain the two versions? According to Mahon, Caravaggio considered the order so important (it was for the Medici family) and complex (on a convex surface) to think it was necessary starting with a preliminary work. Marini, instead, considers the first Medusa a private practice, ready to be used in the event of a specific and illustrious request, and places it among the Caravaggio's "doubles", that is, double versions of the same subject. He concludes: "The Uffizi painting remains more beautiful and less harsh."