The restoration of artworks is a marvelous thing. It can reveal new narrative elements or tell us more about an artist’s working method, bring paintings back into the light and let us enjoy them for years to come. Although there is a trend towards greater transparency in the restoration process, few of us have the privilege of visiting a restoration lab or work area on site. Roma Experience, a tour company, has teamed up with the studio of Valeria Merlini and Daniela Storti to offer a VIP restoration lab tour tour called Restoring Caravaggio that lets you into the secret world of how art comes back to life, as well as visit all the Caravaggio paintings in central Roman churches.
The all-female restoration team of Merlini – Storti has the unique qualification of having restored three works by Caravaggio, an artist whose personality was as shady as his paintings; whose chiaroscuro was so dark it was called “tenebrism”. Accused of killing his romantic rival by a fatal cut on the leg in 1606, Michelangelo Merisi aka Caravaggio was convicted in absentia and spent the following years on the run. He had a hot temper, arrested for throwing a plate of artichokes in a Roman trattoria due to misinformation about if these were cooked in butter or oil. The latest hypothesis about his untimely death at age 38 suggests an infected sword wound as the cause. Connecting the two parts of the tour – Caravaggio and restoration – we can say that this couple of hours sheds light on two things we don’t know much about. While information on the artist will be hard to dig up now (though tidbits keep surfacing!), restoration as a concept in general is actually pretty straightforward, as we’ll see.
It’s been a long time since I’ve visited all the Caravaggio paintings in churches in Rome – I published this article with an itinerary and art historical information in 2009, but I think I actually wrote it in 2004, when I spent a month in Rome, toured, photographed, wrote down my impressions and founded this blog! With the Restoring Caravaggio tour, our guide Beatrice first took us to revisit these works, describing their history and features with the kind of skill and depth of knowledge typical of Italian art historians – she studied, in fact, with pupils of Adolfo Venturi, the scholar responsible for the popularity of Caravaggio in our time. Depending on timing, the tour may include 2 rather than 3 of these paintings.
Caravaggio in Rome
I’m not going to go over all the details of these works here, but I thought it might be practical to first look at them in chronological order and remind ourselves of their names and locations to distinguish which one’s which.
San Luigi dei Francesi: Contarelli Chapel
Three paintings of Saint Matthew, 1598-1601. From left, the works are the Calling of St. Matthew, St. Matthew and the Angel, and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew. This is Caravaggio’s first public commission; he had been working in Rome for a few years before this, creating smaller-scale paintings, mostly of adolescent boys – one beautiful young man is seen in the painting of the calling, in fact. Dramatic light and colour don’t make the narrative here much more clear – it’s hard to figure out which man is Matthew, and Christ’s body is covered by another man, as if this were a totally unplanned snapshot of a moment. Caravaggio made his name for himself with this work and became in great demand. The more I look at it, the more this is becoming my favourite Caravaggio.
Santa Maria del Popolo: Cerasi Chapel
Two panels depicting the Conversion of Saul/Paul and the Crucifixion of Peter, 1600. Commissioned by a Cardinal, the side paintings honour the founding fathers of the church, while the central altarpiece by Annibale Carracci depicts the Assumption of the Virgin. The first versions of these paintings were rejected by the patron.
Sant’Agostino: Madonna of the Pilgrims
Altarpiece depicting Mary welcoming pilgrims to her home in Loreto (1603-6). Mary is shown as a normal woman at the door of any old building, and the pilgrims’ dirty feet and shabby clothing are so naturalistic that the patron refused the work.
As we complete our pilgrimage to these paintings, I get to thinking about why Caravaggio is so appealing to us today – we’re hardly the only people seeking out these works and have to jostle for a spot to see them. Caravaggio’s outlook is raw, destabilizing and ultimately modern, a “blip” between the order of the High Renaissance and the overly emotional Baroque. In today’s terms, he’s that sexy, sarcastic friend who is always down on his luck and constantly shortlisted for jobs he doesn’t get, issuing receipts for freelance work and not getting paid for it.
The restoration studio
There’s no Caravaggio currently in the Merlini Storti studio, but rest assured that should another patron have one that needs cleaning, it’ll be assigned to them. I asked Valeria Merlini what it was like to lay hands on a Caravaggio:
“Restoring a painting by Caravaggio is always a thrill, but also a huge responsibility since one is restoring a work that is not only incredibly beautiful and technically of very high quality, but also part of our artistic patrimony. My partner Daniela and I have restored three Caravaggio’s and despite the technical complexity of these jobs, we have always considered it extremely important to share various phases of this work with the public, which is why we restore (these and other works) out in the open, where people can always see them and ask questions.”
When working with famous paintings, restorers rarely make breakthrough discoveries these days, but there is still room for interesting technical findings. For example, when working on Caravaggio’s Madonna dei Pellegrini in 1999, Merlini said that their scientific analysis found that the artist had prepared the blue pigment used for the Virgin’s robe with a lot of oil – perhaps too much. This seems to have been the cause of particular colour loss in this section, which remarkably had already been noted in the mid 18th century.
There are numerous works in the restoration lab right now, mostly from private collections, spanning the 14th to 21st centuries. Studio manager Arianna Pavoncello welcomes our small group in perfect English and in the hour and a half that follows we get a super behind-the-scenes look at restoration as it’s happening.
We consider what restoration entails with whatever is on hand – in this case a Madonna and Child panel by Andrea da Salerno illustrates how wooden panels were expertly constructed to resist temperature and humidity changes. While watching restorers at work, we talk about some of the techniques that old master painters used, and in particular how restorers carefully intervene on these works to clean and consolidate, but never to remove historic paint.
Arianna and one of the head restorers are on hand to answer any question you’ve ever wanted answered about restoration, and we had plenty. I’d never seen dotted white outlines on a work in cleaning before, which Valeria explained is simply chalk she adds at the end of a day’s work on a section so that she knows exactly where she left off!
We then get a really cool demonstration of paint techniques to see the differences between egg tempera (which an assistant prepares on the spot) and oil, and how gold leaf is applied. If you’ve never had a chance to work with these materials, this is an absolute pleasure – I recommend also looking for opportunities to try your hand at egg tempera, fresco or gilding (like this Florence Fresco Workshop), it’s a truly humbling experience.
One really special part of the tour for me was the demonstration of the scientific tools used by restorers. I’ve seen many a photo or reference to discoveries made under UV light, which permits restorers and art historians to easily evaluate what parts of a painting are original vs overpainting, but we actually got a live demonstration of what this light can do. That was an “ooooh” moment!
For me, this tour was a great way to spend an afternoon learning. I only wish I had longer to observe and talk about these Caravaggios, an artist who continues to fascinate and mystify me, even after tours dedicated to him in both Naples and Rome.
If you want to book this tour head over to Roma Experience – and even if you can’t do it right now, read the amazingly detailed page about the tour, longer and even better than this blog post!