The 'Impossible' Exhibit: Caravaggio in Digital Photos

"Caravaggio: Una Mostra Impossibile!," at Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago, features digital, true-to-scale reproductions of 57 works by the Italian painter Caravaggio. A visitor, right, studies "Christ at the Column." (Photos By Nam Y. Huh -- Associated Press)
By Tara Burghart
Associated Press
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

CHICAGO -- To create an exhibition of all the 400-year-old masterpieces of the Italian painter Caravaggio, loans would have to be obtained from the most heralded museums of Rome, London, Paris, New York and St. Petersburg.

Churches, smaller museums and private collections also would have to be persuaded to lend cherished works. In other words, it would be "an impossible exhibition" -- the name of a Caravaggio show on view through Feb. 11 at the new Loyola University Museum of Art.

"Caravaggio: Una Mostra Impossibile!" does not feature the actual paintings of the artist, known for his realistic and dramatic treatment of religious themes -- and his rebellious, bad-boy lifestyle.

Instead, high-resolution digital photography has been used to create true-to-scale reproductions that are backlit to mimic the artist's famous chiaroscuro, or interplay between dark and light.

Organizers stress the show is not intended to replace the experience of seeing the original art but to serve as an exciting teaching tool. It's also a way to view complete works of a great artist in a single setting at a time when soaring insurance costs and fears of terrorism and theft make such comprehensive exhibitions rare.

"This is a catalogue. It's a very big, full-sized-scale catalogue," said Pamela Ambrose, Loyola's director of cultural affairs.

Loyola is the exhibit's first stop in North America.

The exhibit, created by Rai-Radiotelevisione Italiana, the Italian government's broadcasting agency, was viewed by more than 300,000 people in Europe starting in 2003 during several stops including Rome, Naples and Malta.

Rai has expanded beyond Caravaggio to capture 20,000 high-definition reproductions of artworks, with the plan to create more "impossible" exhibits organized by artist or theme, according to Renato Parascandolo, Rai assistant director general.

"The aim is to let millions of people all over the world see the masterpieces of Italian art. It's an example of the 'democratization' of art," Parascandolo writes in the exhibit catalogue.

At the Loyola museum, visitors can see 57 digital works that are illuminated overhead and by backlights, creating the effect of a transparency or an X-ray. The works are simply framed in dark wood; nine that were too large for the museum are stationed at several nearby locations.

Viewers can see the cracks that exist in the original canvases, but not the actual texture created by the painter's brushstrokes. The show's Italian organizers said they brought in experts to certify that the colors in the digital reproductions matched the originals -- sometimes requiring photos to be taken four or five times.

Phoebe Dent Weil is a St. Louis-based art conservator who has worked on several Caravaggios in her career. She toured the "Una Mostra Impossibile" exhibit while lecturing at Loyola on the painting techniques used by Caravaggio and said it is a "wonderful second-best thing" to viewing the originals.

"It's a fantastic teaching tool, so long as you don't confuse the fact that these are reproductions and not the real thing," she said. "It's a very flat sort of experience as opposed to looking at a real painting, which is something that has depth and structure and looks different in different lights."

Still, she said she was impressed at the level of detail she could view in several of the works.

In "Saint John the Baptist" from the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City, Mo., Weil could see the incised lines Caravaggio scratched as an outline into the very first layer of paint.

Looking at "The Denial of Saint Peter" -- in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York -- she could see how Caravaggio used a tiny pointed stick to create the sparks flying off the fireplace behind a woman and a soldier accusing Peter of being a follower of Jesus.

"At the Met, you can't get close enough to see it. If you got close enough to see it, you'd be swooshed away by a guard," she said with a laugh.

Caravaggio was the professional name of the man born Michelangelo Merisi near Milan in 1571. After spending much of his youth as an apprentice or assistant to painters, he became famous for abandoning idealized imagery in favor of realistic portrayals of scenes from the Bible and mythology.

Instead of halos, Caravaggio painted figures with dirty feet and tattered clothing. The fruit depicted in his work was often decaying, and his models were his friends, lovers, people he pulled off the street and prostitutes. Many of his works depict extremely violent acts -- such as beheadings and torture -- and he often had to repaint or find new buyers for his commissions.

Outside the studio, Caravaggio led a tumultuous life. He had a reputation as a brawler and was often arrested. In 1606, he had to flee Rome under sentence of death when charged with murder for a rival's death during a duel.

He successfully pursued a papal pardon while on the run but died of a fever in 1610 at the age of 39 before he could return to Rome. His star dimmed until the 20th century, when new research and the discovery of several paintings falsely attributed to others elevated Caravaggio to a place among the great old master painters.

The Caravaggio exhibit is the inaugural show at the new Loyola University Museum of Art, which is dedicated to the exploration of the spiritual in art. It is located in a converted classroom and administration building near Chicago's landmark Water Tower.

The university intends to move its Martin D'Arcy Collection of medieval, Renaissance and baroque art from its Lake Shore campus on the city's far North Side to the new museum in 2007, but space will remain for temporary exhibits, Ambrose said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company