The Obfuscation of Lazarus… and Subsequent Illuminations

This past Sunday, July 8th, I went to see the newly restored “Raising of Lazarus” by Caravaggio on display through the 15th in Rome’s Palazzo Braschi.  This was a “must see” for me, as the painting’s actual home is in Sicily.  Having just visited Malta, this would also allow me to follow another chronological step forward in Caravaggio’s development: his escape from Malta took him first to Sicily.  It was also a chance for me to finally visit the Palazzo Braschi, a place I have passed innumerable times (it’s right next to Piazza Navona), but until now, have never been inspired to visit.

With great anticipation I made my way up a grand marble staircase and through a series of corridors to where the painting awaited behind a make-shift entrance of panels printed with facts and details of the restoration.  The darkened atmosphere reminded me of Malta; my excitement grew as I re-imagined the way in which The Beheading of John the Baptist had been so splendidly illuminated.

When I turned the final corner to see the painting, I couldn’t believe it.  Glare.

The painting was lit so poorly that it was hard to see from a distance.  Worse, the closer I got to the painting, the harder it was to see, especially key parts of the painting like the raised hand of Lazarus or the beckoning hand of Christ.

Shame on the museum and the curator of the show for such incompetence.  I turned to the guard next to the painting and told him as much.  He smiled and held out his hand, though I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the gesture.  As I shook his hand, I heard a woman’s voice over my left shoulder say, “I agree with you entirely,” and turning to see she too held out her hand, she added, “I am the person who restored the painting.”

Wow.  That might be the first time ever that I’ve carelessly run my mouth and benefitted.

I spoke to Anna Marcone briefly about the restoration and in particular asked about how Caravaggio prepared the canvas, the composition and the pigments.  Here are my notes:

  • The darks were made up mostly of a Sicilian version of Terra Brusciata (“Burnt Sienna”) and black;
  • The canvas was not first covered with a lead white base.  Instead he covered the canvas with a mix of the Terra di Sicilia Brusciata and black and then scraped the drawing in with the tip of the brush handle;
  • Ochre for yellow, Vermilion for red.  His blue was an Azurite;
  • The red of the robe on the right differs from the one on the left in that it is painted with a combination of Vermilion and Lead Tin Yellow (Naples Yellow with Lead).

After my extraordinary chance encounter, I took some time to try to try and get a better view.  Perhaps what struck me most about the painting was how easy the darker moments of the painting could deceive my eye: just when I thought it couldn’t get any darker I would stumble across an even blacker patch of paint, like the moment under the lower hand of Lazarus.

I suspect that Caravaggio had by this time acquired a significant understanding on how to manipulate the lower range of his palette.  It would be interesting to know how much the diversity of that palette was the result of premixed values or if it was achieved through multiple layers of the same color.

I did spend some time visiting the rest of the museum.  I was struck by two other artists and their work:

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