If you are interested in restoration, go and see Caravaggio’s Resurrection of Lazarus in the Museo di Roma. If you are interested in Caravaggio, go next door and see three of his finest paintings in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
Although I was adding to my list of ‘viewed Caravaggios’ without having to trek down to the sweltering South (the painting usually resides in Messina, Sicily), I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what the Museo di Roma presented me with. This is an artist who painted a disproportionate number of masterpieces for his 39 years, so why give me just one painting, and one that he painted in the last and most agitated part of his life? But of course it’s not the art lovers they are appealing to here, but the restoration lovers instead. And in all honesty, if I take off my artsy cap and replace it with a science one, it was hard not to be impressed with the eight months of work that had gone into the restoration.
The vestibule before entering the main gallery space is full to the brim with information boards written in both Italian and Itanglish. With a map of Italy showing the artist’s whereabouts during his tumultuous life and an outline of the painting’s history and influences, the remainder of the information is divided into the following subheadings: Previous Interventions, Scientific Investigations (biological, chemical, physical, mechanical, environmental), Implementation Techniques, The State of Conservation and The Restoration Intervention; all a bit heavy in 40 degree heat, but interesting nonetheless. Who knew that the differing nature of cracks or ‘cretti’ in the surface of a painting is related to whether they were caused by knocks to the canvas or changes in humidity? And thanks to the removal of layers of varnish that had accumulated over the years, we are now able to appreciate the luminous and chromatic nature of Caravaggio’s painting.
It did make me wonder though, as I read about the ‘six panels of honeycombed polypropylene applied to the back of the canvas’ and the ‘data-logger’ that had been inserted to monitor humidity and temperature levels: what happened to this idea of ageing gracefully? We don’t view the frescoes at Pompeii and Herculaneum strapped up to oxygen tanks and wearing dry suits do we? And they seem to be doing okay…
In the smallest of nut shells (and we’re looking at pistachio nuts here) Caravaggio should be appreciated for his unique photographic style, his use of chiaroscuro and his controversial use of street people as models for religious scenes (try to spot the figures’ dirty nails in most of his paintings). But on seeing the Resurrection of Lazarus, these qualities weren’t what struck me. What stood out was a significant decline in the artist’s technique in these later years. Having been exiled from Rome in 1606 after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni, Caravaggio made his way down to Sicily. In 1609, the artist was a murderer, a fugitive and one year away from dying a mysterious death. This fragmented identity is reflected not only in the canvas of the painting (made up of six panels stitched together and stretched onto a wooden frame), but also in the carefree, broad brushstrokes, the careless application of colour, and the re-representation of two of his own artworks within the painting (the figure of Christ recalls that in The Vocation of St. Matthew and the whole composition is not dissimilar to his Deposition in the Vatican Museums). This is a man who reached his peak in earlier years and now other aspects of his life seem to be stealing him from the canvas’ attention.
If you quite like Caravaggio, I wouldn’t bother paying the eleven euros for this exhibition. If you adore him, as I do, I would. Although it’s not one of his finest, the restorers have injected some Botox into this ageing beauty to make it appear younger, smoother and more beautiful. But those who know Caravaggio best can still see through this injection of youth and into a painting that does not even begin to compare with those from the peak of the artist’s career.
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