This St Francis is an important masterpiece by Caravaggio, and was discovered surprisingly recently. Until a few months ago, it was considered by most scholars to be the copy of a very similar painting in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, entrusted to the order of Capuchins, followers of the rule of St Francis, the patron saint of Italy.
Following the restoration carried out simultaneously on the two versions of St Francis , and after x-ray and reflectographic examinations had been made on this occasion, it was possible to establish with certainty that the canvas in the church of Carpineto, which was believed to be a copy, is without doubt the original, while the painting in Santa Maria della Concezione must therefore be considered as a copy, even though splendidly made and probably the work of one of Caravaggio’s close followers: possibly Bartolomeo Manfredi.
This amazing discovery is based mainly on two clues: the first is the presence in the painting on display of afterthoughts — substantial changes made by the painter during his work — while the version in the church of the Capuchins presents no modifications, as is normally the case in copies, which repeat an existing original. The second can be seen by studying the technical features of Caravaggio’s style, especially the way in which he built up the shadows, and the method he used for preparation, which can be seen in the Carpineto painting but not in that of Santa Maria della Concezione.
Francis, who was born in Assisi in 1182, was the son of a rich cloth merchant. He lived an early life of ease, dedicated to pleasure and dissipation. After long spiritual torment, which started when he worked to assist lepers and, through the Gospel, when he discovered the teachings of Christ as a rule of life, he abandoned his carefree life, divested himself of all his worldly goods and, now in total poverty, began to preach universal brotherhood. A brotherhood which he put into practice mainly by living with the poor and the derelict, but which extended to all nature, no things excepted, created in the image of God.