Caravaggio's technique has been the subject of an in-depth study organized by the MiBACT, which, in association with the Special Superintency for the Museums of Rome and the Higher Institute ofr Conservation and Restauration, began in 2009 to analyze through a major investigative diagnostic campaign the 22 autograph works by Caravaggio present in Rome.
Curator Rossella Vodret tells us: "There emerged certain constants in Caravaggio's way of working, but other unexpected and heretofore unknown elements linked to his practice also came to light, in fact a series of hidden emerges emerged from the various painting layers. Moreover, the myth of Caravaggio's never having drawn anything was shattered, since traces of drawing were found on the light-coloured ground he used in his early works."
The crucial turning point in his technique occurred in 1600 when he was asked to paint the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome: his first public commission and the first time he worked on large-scale canvases. The artist was given just one year to complete the project and a fee that was astronomical for the period: 400 scudi. Accustomed to painting "three heads" a day for just under one grosso each, as documentary sources tell us, it is understandable that this commission completely changed the artist's career and life.
The ground of the Contarelli canvases is dark, and there are always two layers; it is composed of different types of earths, pigments and oil. Basically, Caravaggio starts with a dark ground and adds only light colours and half-tones, painting just the areas in light. In fact he does not paint whole figures, only a part of them. In the rest of the picture there's nothing: the dark background and the areas in shade are rendered solely with the ground, there is no painting.
The reflectographs and X-radiographs, which penetrate the pictorial surface to a different degree, enable us to follow Caravaggio's creative process, his pentimenti, reworkings and adjustments in developing the composition. Emblematic of this is the St John the Baptist from Palazzo Corsini, where the analyses reveal the addition of a lamb, an iconographic symbol that was later eliminated.
The investigative campaign conducted between 2009 and 2012 on Caravaggio's Roman works by the Higher Institute for Conservation and Restoration and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, will be followed, thanks to the support of the Gruppo Bracco, by other important diagnostic investigations of the other works in the exhibition. These include the paintings from abroad of which innovative graphic elaborations, created through a joint project between Milan-Bicocca University and the National Research Council (CNR), will be displayed so that the public can understand the works more fully.