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400 years after his death, Caravaggio work is found

Art experts in Rome are analysing what they believe is a previously unknown painting by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio.

As his homeland marked the 400th anniversary of his death this weekend, the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano published the newly discovered work on its front page. Depicting the martyrdom of St Lawrence, it was found recently among the possessions of the Society of Jesuits in Rome. It shows a semi-naked young man, his mouth open in desperation with one arm stretched out as he leans over flames. If the suspected provenance is confirmed, it would be the first painting by the Baroque genius to emerge since The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, which went on display two years ago.

"What is certain is that we're dealing with a stylistically impeccable, beautiful painting," said the art historian Lydia Salviucci Insolera. "Particularly notable is the light that leaps from the areas of darkness to reveal the surface volume in sudden flashes."

Caravaggio, born Michelangelo Merisi, is celebrated for his revolutionary use of contrasting light and dark -– chiaroscuro – which anticipated the work of later Baroque giants including Rembrandt and Velázquez.

The art historian cautioned that experts should be careful to avoid the trap of labelling it a Caravaggio "at all costs" at a time when interest in the revolutionary painter was at an all-time high, saying that further analysis and research would be needed.

Another Caravaggio expert, Maurizio Marini, was sceptical about the provenance of the painting in question, noting that St Lawrence, a martyr burned to death during Roman persecutions in 258AD, was not a known Caravaggio subject.

Ms Salviucci Insolera noted, however, there was evidence that Caravaggio came into contact with powerful Crescenzi family, the patrons of Jesuit art in Rome during the period. And she added: "That the painting is truly beautiful is unarguable. And that it is at the very least a Caravaggio-esque work of the highest order is quite obvious."

The Vatican newspaper did not reveal where the painting is being analysed or by whom. But the news added to the Caravaggio fever gripping Italy this weekend, with galleries and churches staying open all night to let as many aficionados as possible admire his works.

"This is a fitting event for someone whose works used night as a backdrop," said Rossella Vodret, the museums superintendent in Rome, where fans flocked to the Borghese Gallery and three churches on Saturday night, despite the sweltering conditions. The five famous Caravaggio paintings in the Borghese have been joined for a current hit show by four masterpieces from three other top Roman galleries: Judith Beheading Holofernes; Narcissus; and two of his eight John the Baptist paintings.

Caravaggio festivities kicked off in February with a blockbuster show of 24 of his greatest paintings at the Scuderie Del Quirinale in Rome. The event drew more than half a million visitors.

Interest in the mercurial artist has been raised by recent attempts to shed light on the mystery surrounding his death on 18 July 1619 at the age of 38. The investigation, involving DNA tests and comparisons with living relatives, concluded that the painter was probably buried in Porto Ercole, in Tuscany, after suffering an illness, thereby bringing centuries of speculation, including assassination theories, to an end.

Caravaggio was active in Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily. But he often had to flee cities and leave works because of his tempestuous nature, which led him to kill at least one man.