A Caravaggio Work Back From the Dead; Peter's Gift to Rome

Restoration of «Raising of Lazarus» Reveals Masterpiece

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 2, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Although Rome feels much like a pizza oven this June, the newly restored Caravaggio canvas of the «Raising of Lazarus» brings visitors into the chill of a tomb.

The work, normally kept in the National Gallery in Messina, has been put on display in the Museum of Rome in the Palazzo Braschi (next to Piazza Navona) until mid July.

«The Raising of Lazarus» was executed in 1609 when Caravaggio was in Sicily, a fugitive from justice after he murdered Rannuccio Tommasoni in 1606. It was painted for a wealthy Genovese business man, Giovanni Battisti de’Lazzari, to be placed on the high altar of the church of the Padri Croceferi who ran a hospital in Messina.

Poor climactic conditions and a heavy varnish applied during a 19th-century restoration had darkened the painting and made parts almost impossible to see, as well as dulling the light and dark contrasts. Those who had made the pilgrimage to Messina to view the work were frequently disappointed by the poor condition of the painting.

This year, the 105 inch by 108 inch canvas was transported to Rome to be restored at the Istituto Superiore di Conservazione e Restauro, one of the two top schools in Italy for restoration. After five months of work, the results are astounding, and many interesting discoveries were made.

Caravaggio used six pieces of hemp canvas stitched together to make the large altarpiece. The studies on the work revealed signs of drawing on the canvas, a rare, if not unique instance of Caravaggio using a preparatory drawing for his work. The analysis also saw a huge variation among the brush strokes. Some were finely applied while others were quick lines for an eye or a brow, adding to the immediacy of the work. The removal of the varnish revealed a nuance of color lost before the cleaning.

«The Life of Mario Minetti,» a biography of an old friend and fellow artist of Caravaggio written in the 19th century by Francesco Susinno, recounts that Caravaggio had prepared a first version of the canvas, in which he used a dead body from the hospital where he painted the work. The criticisms of the Messinese so outraged the painter that he drew his dagger, slashed the canvas, and repainted the version seen today.

The composition recalls many works Caravaggio had seen in his travels, as well as his own oeuvre. Christ, on the far left, resembles especially in the hand gesture, the Jesus of his Calling of Matthew, the first work in Rome to bring him fame. The outstretched arms of Lazarus had been used many times by Caravaggio from the Death of Matthew to the Conversion of Saul. But the juxtaposition of Martha’s head, resting against her brother’s, seems to derive from a Botticelli model. This work seems to demonstrate Caravaggio’s prodigious pictorial memory and that he was able to compose his paintings from things he had seen during his glory years.

The subject had been done many times before from Giotto to Sebastiano del Piombo, (who famously used the drawings of Michelangelo for his composition), but Caravaggio had an entirely new take on the story. He left the upper part of the canvas almost completely blank and dark, like the oppressive weight of the tomb pressing down. The sides are bounded by bright colors; Christ glows in red and blue on the left, and his tones are echoed more dimly in the robes of Mary and Martha. All the middle space is painted in earth shades.

Two figures pull back the tombstone while Lazarus rises, aided by a gravedigger. Light shines through Christ onto the open hand of his friend, seemingly pulling him out of darkness. The outstretched arms symbolize the prefiguration of Christ’s own Passion when he will be nailed to the cross.

Helen Langdon, whose biography «Caravaggio: A Life» is considered by this art historian to be by far and away the best recounting of the artist and his works, drew several fascinating insights from this canvas. Citing St. Ambrose, once bishop of Caravaggio’s hometown of Milan, Langdon interprets this work as a call to penitence. The Doctor of the Church wrote, «With what difficulty does one rise who lies crushed under the heavy burden of sinning!»

The newly revealed surface, with its sharp contrast of light and dark across the body of Lazarus, and the immediacy of the execution, confer upon this work an epic quality, making a depiction of the great battle between sin and salvation in the human soul.

* * *

Rome’s benefactors

Castel Sant’Angelo, once the mighty mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, has loomed over the city for almost 2,000 years. Although renamed after a miracle that occurred under Pope Gregory the Great and freed the city from plague, for a thousand years the building was a combination of fortress and prison and eventually became a symbol during the Unification of Italy of a presumed cruel and despotic papal rule.

A new exhibition in the same castle looks at the popes and Castel Sant’Angelo in a fresh light, emphasizing the many positive things the popes have accomplished for Rome and beyond. The «Popes of Memory» exhibit traces 700 years of the papacy, from the first Jubilee Year to the present, and offers a chance to look at the many achievements of the papacy and how the presence of the popes has enriched the Eternal City over the centuries.

Among the 138 objects on display, from drawings, to paintings to liturgical objects, several are works that had been stolen then recovered by the Italian law enforcement officers, underscoring the ceaseless work in protecting the patrimony of art handed down from the papacy to the Italian state.

The show opens with Boniface VIII, who declared the first Jubilee Year on Feb. 22, 1300. The marble statue of the pontiff by Arnolfo di Cambio greets visitors at the entrance. Immediately inside is another famous work by the same Florentine sculptor, a small copy of the bronze statue of St. Peter that adorns the basilica named for him. They make an interesting contrast — the stiff regal figure of Boniface in his high tiara, juxtaposed with the bearded philosopher of St. Peter. One seems a king and the other a teacher.

Nearby is a 12th-century jeweled cross from Velletri in Lazio. Stolen in 1983, the Carabinieri recovered the precious piece in 1995. The town then made a gift of the cross to Pope Benedict XVI during his 2007 pastoral visit. Another fascinating object is a letter from 1300 from Monsignor Silvester di Andria asking for clarification on the papal decree: whether the indulgence can be applied to souls in purgatory, what happens to people who cannot make the trip to Rome, etc.

The Renaissance bursts on the scene with Pope Martin V Colonna, and a fragment of the decoration he commissioned from Tuscan painter Pisanello to renew the splendor of his cathedral, St John Lateran. An astonishing array of cope, stole and pianeta, in velvet and brocade, bring viewers to the liturgies of Pope Nicholas V, the first great humanist pontiff of the Renaissance.

Amid these is the remarkable reliquary of St. Rossore, cast in bronze by Donatello and considered the first portrait-type likeness of the Renaissance. Made for the church of Ognissanti in Florence in 1424, it was stolen from Pisa in 1971 an
d recovered in 1977.

The Church triumphant is celebrated in the section regarding Pope Julius II with the Bramante’s design for the new St. Peter’s Basilica. Visitors will be delighted to see in person the sonnet written by Michelangelo during his stint in the Sistine Chapel, with the comic caricature of the artist standing (yes, standing) while painting the ceiling. Several portraits, mostly copies of Raphael, adorn the room, but the image of Pope Clement VII is an original by Sebastiano del Piombo, from about 1525.

This Golden Age of art drew to an end with the Sack of Rome, when Clement’s life was saved by the Swiss Guards who smuggled him to Castel Sant’Angelo for safety. Two contemporary ceramic plates testify to this dark period in Rome’s history. A series of drawings illustrate the great endeavor under Pope Sixtus V in 1586 to move the obelisk from the side of St. Peter’s to the front of the square. A new era began as the «silent witness,» which saw the martyrdom of St. Peter take its place as a beacon to all who come to see the apostle’s grave and hear the teachings of his successor. Another striking item is the drawing of Michelaneglo’s Last Judgment before the infamous addition of the draperies in 1564.

The papacy gave the world the Baroque, from Paul V Borghese and the new façade of St. Peter, to Alessandro VII Chigi who hired Bernini for the most famous piazza in the world, to Clement IX Rospigliosi who hired the 70-year-old Bernini to add the angels holding the instruments of the Passion that guide pilgrims across the river. His stunning portrait by Carlo Maratta gazes benevolently out at visitors to the exhibit.

A piece of papal memorabilia closes this section. The wax of the Paschal candlestick was collected every year and pressed into little cakes impressed with the image of the Lamb of God. These «Agnus Dei» would then be distributed to the faithful. A magnificent frame from 1725, holds a dozen of these objects interspersed with papal portraits of the pontiffs from Pope St. Pius V to Clement XI.

The Grand Tour saw the number of tourists start to rival the amount of pilgrims and Rome readied itself for this new type of visitor. Micro mosaic snuff boxes (three wonderful examples are in the show) were produced as souvenirs, and Pope Pius VI opened the Pio Clementine museum in the Vatican, allowing all and sundry to see the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoon, the great artistic treasures of the church. One wonderful image shows men women and children, from different parts of the world, marveling at the room of animals in Pius’ new museum.

The 19th century saw the Fall of the Papal States; during this period the Castel Sant’Angelo became an Italian monument after a thousand years as a papal fortress. But the portrait of Pope Pius XI looks serenely outward, toward a brighter future. The last room pays homage to our 20th-century popes who left an indelible mark on Rome and the world, closing with the pectoral cross worn by Blessed John Paul II when he opened the jubilee doors in the year 2000.

This remarkable display of appreciation of the papacy and its many gifts to the city and to the world will be on display at the Castel Sant’Angelo until Dec. 8.


Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, «The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici» was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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