Caravaggio wasn’t Roman, but he spent many of the defining years of his life and career in the Eternal City. It was in Rome that he found patrons and painted some of his most famous works (Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Judith Beheading Holofernes, The Calling of St Matthew). It was also in Rome that he befriended prostitutes (sometimes using them as his models), was accused of sodomy, got arrested near Piazza Navona for carrying a sword without a permit, threw a plate of artichokes in the face of a waiter, and finally killed a man during a fight. After 16 years in Rome, Caravaggio was forced to flee to Naples, and then Malta, while Pope Paul V gave him a death sentence in absentia.
As well as the biographical connection with Rome, many of Caravaggio’s works are still on display in the city – in churches (Santa Maria del Popolo, San Luigi dei Francesi, Sant’Agostino) and galleries (Galleria Borghese, Galleria Doria Pamphili, Palazzo Barberini). There’s also a Caravaggio in the Vatican Museums (The Entombment) that most people miss in their haste to get to the Sistine Chapel.
I love Caravaggio – the drama, the subversiveness – and I love Rome, so a Caravaggio tour in Rome was always going to be relevant to my interests. But, even better, this tour also involved a visit to an art restoration lab, and meeting the restorers who have helped to preserve Caravaggio’s paintings. More on that later…
I joined the Restoring Caravaggio tour with Roma Experience, starting in Piazza del Popolo with a visit to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. I’ve been fascinated by this church ever since I found out the legend of its origins, involving Nero’s tomb and a walnut tree haunted by demons, and it’s also home to two paintings by Caravaggio – The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul on the Way to Damascus.
Apparently a church official wasn’t happy that the horse took up so much of the picture, and had this conversation with Caravaggio:
“Why have you put a horse in the middle, and St Paul on the ground?”
“Is the horse God?”
“No, but he stands in God’s light!”
We walked through the streets of Caravaggio’s old neighbourhood, past Via di Pallacorda, scene of the murder (pallacorda was an early form of tennis), to Sant’Agostino and one of my very favourite Caravaggio paintings.
Madonna dei Pellegrini (also known as Madonna di Loreto) caused a scandal when it first went on display. To the modern eye it might not look that extreme, but compare it with older, more traditional portrayals of the Virgin Mary and you’ll see the difference. This is a very earthly Mary in a humble, every day setting – a far cry from the ethereal Marys floating in clouds, who hardly seem to have bodies at all. But it wasn’t just the slight suggestion of cleavage that made Caravaggio’s Mary controversial. She was standing in a doorway. A doorway! But what’s so controversial about a doorway, you might ask? Well, at the time the figure of a woman standing in a doorway in the street was associated with a prostitute. A coincidence, you might think. But then there’s the yellow shawl (also associated with prostitutes), Sant’Agostino’s congregation (the Augustinians were more liberal, and prostitutes often attended services), the fact that the model for Mary was most likely a prostitute…It’s not a coincidence.
Even though I’m not remotely religious, I really enjoy religious art. Angels, saints, ugly baby Jesuses, all of that. But I especially enjoy Caravaggio’s subversive blend of religious art – how he brought God into the streets of the city, narrowing the gap between ordinary people and the divine. In the Madonna del Pellegrini the pilgrims are peasants with dirty feet, just a few feet away from a Virgin Mary who suddenly doesn’t seem quite so virginal after all. To suggest that Madonna and Whore inhabit the same world – even the same woman – was pretty radical for Catholic Rome in 1606.
A short walk away from Sant’Agostino, in a ground floor laboratory that was once a stable, a small team of art restorers work on 17th century paintings by Caravaggio and his contemporaries. They even restored Madonna dei Pellegrini in what is known as a restauro aperto (open restoration), working on the painting in the church, in full view of the public. When they’re not on site in churches or galleries, they’re based in their laboratory, which resembles a kind of hospital for paintings – discoloured canvases wait their turn, while restorations-in-progress are marked with white lines to highlight the “before and after”.
We met Valeria and Daniela, the experienced restorers who run the laboratory, and Arianna, who gave us a tour and explained how restoration works. As you might expect, it’s highly specialised work, and the most difficult part (which only the most experienced restorers are allowed to do) is cleaning paintings. It’s painstaking process, removing old layers of yellowed varnish bit by bit. It has to be done slowly, as some mistakes can’t be undone, and finding the right mix of chemicals is crucial.
On our tour we watched a restorer at work, and gained appreciation for just how slow, careful and precise they have to be. For someone like me – impatient with shaky hands – it would be impossible. We also learned all about different materials and chemicals, and how the approach to restoration depends on the canvas, the age of the painting, and many other factors. I was curious to know why the laboratory also had some contemporary paintings on the walls – surely a painting created in the 20th century couldn’t be in need of restoration? But it turns out that a lot of modern artwork doesn’t endure in the same way as older paintings. Modern artists are more experimental with their materials, and after just a few decades the artworks can become discoloured.
After the tour, over a couple of glasses of prosecco, we discussed the restoration work on the Sistine Chapel and the anti-restoration argument – there is a small but vocal minority that believes paintings shouldn’t be restored. The artist Richard Serrin was particularly critical: “The [so-called] Glorious Restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes has destroyed them forever. What we say now cannot bring them back to life. We can only speak out to document the accountability of the Vatican restorers so that it does not pass unrecognized.”
Part of me understands some of the anti-restoration objections. We can never completely understand the artist’s intentions, and even the most careful, experienced restorer can never return the painting to its exact original state. To some extent, it will always be a subjective interpretation.
But if you don’t restore paintings, what’s the alternative? Let the colours fade, let the paint flake away, until the masterpiece is a yellow shadow of its former self? The anti-restoration argument also strikes me as somewhat selfish. A damaged Caravaggio painting might still be considered “OK” for now, but if we don’t restore it, what will it look like in 200 years? It’s the same for the Sistine Chapel. Shouldn’t future generations be given the opportunity to appreciate the restored frescoes – imperfect though they may be – instead of having to squint at the dirty, time-darkened figures and console themselves with the thought that “At least it’s more authentic”?
After a visit to the restoration lab, I know which side I’m on, and I have a new appreciation for the art/science/magic of restoration. Caravaggio is famed for his use of chiaroscuro, but you need the contrast between the light and dark to fully appreciate it. And thanks to Valeria and Daniela, the Madonna dei Pellegrini is in the light once more.
Note: I was a guest of Roma Experience, and the restoration pictures are from their website.