Caravaggio’s violent triumphs go high-tech in Rome

His depiction of Judith slitting Holofernes's throat, blood gushing from the wound, has enthralled art lovers for centuries: now Caravaggio's portrayal of seduction and betrayal can be "relived" at a high-tech exhibition in Rome.

Caravaggio's violent triumphs go high-tech in Rome
Caravaggio's 'The Calling of St Matthew' at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Photo: DvdBramhall

Fifty-seven paintings by the 16th century artist are from Thursday magnified and projected onto walls inside the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, where 3D images explore their composition and the dramatic use of chiaroscuro, the contrast between light and dark.

From the “Martyrdom of St Matthew” to the depiction of the youthful wine god “Bacchus”, the exhibition is intended as a “full sensory experience”, according to The Fake Factory, the video design company behind the project.

Visitors to the show can watch each painting broken down into the smallest detail, the performance accompanied by a specially composed soundtrack and smells from Florence's historic Santa Maria Novella perfumery.

Studies of works like “Judith Beheading Holofernes” have revealed Caravaggio's painstaking adjustments – in this case slightly moving the partly-severed head from the body – and the exhibition uses outline sketches to explore form.

“It's a theatrical staging of his work”, the installation's designer and the founder of the Florentine outfit Stefano Fomasi told AFP, saying the goal was to involve people “in a sort of collective rite by immersion in the art”.

The hope is tourists will feel as if they are present at the scenes depicted in the paintings, “becoming protagonists of the works”, and notice elements they would not have spotted by visiting a traditional exhibition.

'Snakes, blood and elegance'

Thanks to 33 high-definition projectors, the snakes in the artist's “Medusa” appear to slither across the floor as the painting moves, the mythological monster's horrified gaze amplified, her blood splattered widely across the walls.

As well as playing on the main themes in the Milan-born painter's works – light, theatricality, naturalism and violence – the exhibition, which runs until July 3rd, is “an almost-scientific experience”, said Claudio Strinati, art historian and consultant on the project.

Fomasi said the huge projections “are to help people discover Caravaggio, understand how he used characters, the way he used light, the way he painted.”

“You get to see details that you could not see with the naked eye, thanks to this technology.”

The show revels in rebellious Caravaggio – famous for having angered patrons with “vulgar” depictions of religious scenes, from painting saints with dirty legs to using prostitutes as muses – but celebrates his grace as well.

The aim had been to transform the neoclassical exhibition space in the Italian capital's historic centre into a enormous, stark white canvas which would represent the light to the artist's darkness, Fomasi said.

“We wanted to replicate the elegance that Caravaggio has, the elegance of his painting, in the elegance of the space, which is very white, very bright,” he said.

After Rome, the “Caravaggio Experience” will travel to Naples, before heading to foreign exhibition halls next year.

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Technology sheds new light on master of shade

He is known as the master of shade, and now 21st Century technology is shedding new light on the creative process behind Caravaggio's groundbreaking painting.

Technology sheds new light on master of shade
"Inside Caravaggio" opens on Friday at Milan's Palazzo Reale. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

“Inside Caravaggio”, an exhibition that opens on Friday at Milan's Palazzo Reale, unites 20 of the Renaissance giant's most important works with X-ray and infrared images of them that offer visitors revealing insights into how he went about creating them.

The multimedia displays offer contemporary fans of the father of modern painting a glimpse into his idiosyncratic technique, the points at which he changed his mind and the modifications and adjustments he made to some of his most famous works.

Works have been loaned from a string of top Italian and international museums, including the Metropolitan in New York, which has released “Sacred Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (1604-1605)” and “Salome with the head of John the Baptist (1607 or 1610)”.

Other highlights include “St. Francis of Assisi in ecstasy” (c.1597), borrowed from the National Gallery in London.

“It is a special exhibition,” said curator Rossella Vodret. “He was a fascinating figure who never ceases to surprise us.

“Apart from offering 20 Caravaggios, which is an exceptional figure for this artist, the displays allow you to get inside his head, to relive his creative process.”

In a portrait of St John the Baptist that is on loan from the Palazzo Corsini in Rome, the biblical figure is sitting and turning towards his right.

“It was not understood why he was in this position but with radiographic imaging we discovered that he was in fact turning towards a lamb, which is his iconic symbol but which the artist decided to paint over in the end,” Vodret said.

In “St Jerome in Meditation,” which usually resides in a museum at the Montserrat Monastery in Barcelona, the right leg of the elderly man was initially more exposed but finally covered up with a blanket.

The exhibition also offers a new perspective on Caravaggio's years in Rome, based on new research that dates the Milan-born artist's arrival in the city to 1596, four years later than previously thought.

“That means that the production of works thought to have taken eight years, were actually completed in four, and also that there is a a gap of four years, which he probably spent in prison after killing a man in Milan,” said Vodret.

Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome in 1610 after killing another man in a brawl and is thought to have died in Tuscany four years later, aged just 38.

By Céline Cornu