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How to rediscover a Caravaggio

L’Arcolaio – Frutti degli Iblei
March 26, 2021
Piazza Duomo, Ortigia
March 27, 2021
Detail, Burial of Santa Lucia, Caravaggio 1608

Caravaggio in Three Scenes

Scene 1 - How to rediscover a Caravaggio

"If there ever was a masterpiece that could have been considered almost lost, a mere shadow of its former self, that must be the Burial of Saint Lucy by Caravaggio: if there ever was a masterpiece that many years of restoration have brought back to life from the ashes, that is the Burial of Saint Lucy. The Istituto Centrale del Restauro is completing its task at the moment, and it will once more give us strong emotions, as if we were seeing it for the first time. The painting, displayed in a church in Siracusa, damp and damaged for more than two centuries, had been unceremoniously overpainted by Suppa, with such extensive repainting that made it seem likely that there was nothing left underneath. Not much had been revealed, above all in the details, by the x-rays done several years ago, when over twenty years ago a first attempt was made to put this difficult and disturbed text into some shape and order. But as we know, x-rays give what they can; if certain colours haven’t been used, they will reveal nothing or next to nothing.
The fact is that the painting, once back in its place, deteriorated again - and in that setting, original but iniquitous, it will deteriorate further. A new restoration - more radical this time - became necessary. We should note, on the subject of the painting, that it isn’t a minor work by Caravaggio - if one can ever in fact talk about minor works by Caravaggio - but one of his great masterpieces; fundamental for understanding the work of the master when he landed at Siracusa after the lucky escape from Malta. Here it was probably his friend Mario Minniti from Siracusa (the fine young man in the early paintings by Caravaggio) who was able to procure the commission for his friend and master for that important painting of the most important saint of Siracusa.
The painting is as novel as it is simple in its conception; a packed crowd of people in the background, the body of the saint on the ground, and two enormous grave-diggers in front, those figures which had been so misinterpreted by the 18th-century overpainting. The entire composition is immersed in a tremendous obscurity through which a ray of light cuts, subtly lighting up profiles, hands, gowns: it appears as if the composition is made of light, sounded out a little at a time, yet revealed in its entirety, compact but not overfilled like the Seven Works of Charity in Naples. Moreover, the great novelty of the painting when compared to earlier ones, is that it has a series of spatial levels that, without using perspective, dilate the space of the painting, almost like a proscenium arch for the composition that remains in the foreground; using the two gravediggers in this way, although they don’t emerge beyond the limits of the frame, they remain distant from the figures behind, as if on the edge of the painting. Caravaggio with these two larger-than-life figures, has managed to increase the spatial mass without relegating much of the composition to the distance.
The restoration has been patient like curing a sick man; the recovery of the foot of the gravedigger on the right, once feared lost, now completes the figure - a recent happy event. It’s true - the painting is a mosaic of fragments, but the fragments have such a force that they allow us, without weakening the body of the painting, to weave them together. Close-up they are clearly distinguishable, but render unity to the image.
The director of the Institute Giovanni Urbani, the conservators, Mora, have earned the recognition of all those legions of followers of Caravaggio, and now - beginning with this writer - they demand that the masterpiece, restored to a new, not imaginary, life, should not return to rot in the place which had almost erased it over time.
I know, it’s difficult, but this must be the end point. If the body of the saint can remain in Venice, the painting can be hung - in Siracusa of course - in a place which doesn’t have the inclemencies of the past, and which, appropriately illuminated, will see the faithful of Caravaggio come to render homage just like the devotees of the Saint herself. The Region, the Church authorities, and lastly, the people of Siracusa mustn’t get this task of civilisation wrong."
Cesare Brandi, 1977, in Sicilia mia, Sellerio editore, Palermo
Scene 2 - Chiede riposo la Santa Lucia del Caravaggio Scene 3 - Caravaggio o Caravaggiomania?