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Opening of the exhibition “Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Lute-Player. Marking the end of the restoration”


On 9 December 2017, the exhibition Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Lute-Player. Marking the end of the restoration was opened in the Apollo Hall of the Winter Palace.

“We are opening an exhibition of one of the Hermitage’s finest masterpieces that has undergone a long restoration. I am grateful to all those who have carried out this major task,” Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, said.
The Lute-Player is considered one of the gems of the Hermitage collection and is the only work by the celebrated Italian master in Russia. The presentation of the painting after its restoration is an exceptional event, not just for the Hermitage, but for the entire worldwide artistic community.

The oeuvre of Caravaggio (1571–1610), which absorbed the traditions of the North Italian Renaissance and is imbued with a profound humanism, determined to a large extend the course of the development of art. It had a powerful influence on artists in all regions of Italy and across Western Europe. Caravaggio is regarded as the founding father of the realist tendency in Italian Baroque painting. Emotional, full of dramatic effect, his art reflected the passionate, unbridled character of the painter himself.

He countered the conventionalities of Mannerism, the style of the late 16th century, with simplicity and humanity. The turn towards reality, the monumentality, the technique that produced astonishing effects of lights and colour, and the method of painting alla prima (without preliminary drawings) caused a great stir in the artistic world. Caravaggio’s art did not immediately find understanding with the majority of official potential clients or even with his fellow professionals.
The Lute-Player was painted in 1595–96 to a commission from one of the period’s sophisticated connoisseurs of the fine arts, Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani. The composition partially reproduced in the book of music is four madrigals by Jacques Arcadelt from 1539. The young man’s half-open mouth tells us that we are looking not just at a musician, but someone singing the song and accompanying himself. The annotation BASSUS indicates that the piece should be performed in the bass key. The lute reproduces an archaic example of the instrument from the first half of the 16th century, while the cross-like symbol on the neck of the violin is the Chi-Rho monogram, formed from the first two letters of the Greek for Christ, that is often found on instruments made by the craftsmen of Cremona.

While in the Hermitage the condition of the painting has always been maintained at an appropriate standard by the museum’s specialists. Nonetheless, layers of yellowed varnish and overpainting distorted the artist’s intention. The Lute-Player was moved to the State Hermitage’s Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Easel Paintings in May 2015. Restoration of the painting was accompanied by a detailed technical study of the work using modern high-precision equipment.
Test cleaning of the picture established that the varnish coating was in several layers of different dates and formed a fairly thick film. In the lower layers the varnish was significantly pigmented and lay in clots in the recesses of the textured layer of the painting. The areas of test cleaning by the lower edge of the picture over the depiction of the marble table and by the upper edge on the background showed the presence of pinpoint in-filling of minor losses and retouching of abraded areas of the original paintwork.

Following the tradition of the Hermitage school of restoration, which sets the goal of cleaning a painting in such a way as to leave a thin layer of old varnish, it was decided to carry out the work layer-by-layer, gradually reducing the depth of the coating of varnish across the whole surface. The removal of the top layer of varnish was carried out in small areas, beginning a gradual movement from the edges to the centre of the picture, with a mixture of alcohol and turpentine, using a soft synthetic brush and monitoring the process using a UV lamp. To preserve the overall visual unity of the surface of the work the cleaning was conducted from dark to light.

After completion of the cleaning of the painting from yellow varnish, retouching and in-filling, the picture was considerably transformed, approaching the original colour scheme. The colours have become purer, which makes it possible to appreciate in full measure the astonishing quality of the great artist’s painting. Information obtained from a study of X-rays about certain changes he made to the composition provide grounds for suggesting that that the Hermitage picture is the first of those that he produced on the same subject.

The restoration of the painting was carried out by Victor Anatolyevich Korobov, head of the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Easel Paintings in the State Hermitage’s Department for Scientific Restoration and Conservation. The technical studies were carried out by Sergei Vladimirovich Khavrin in the Department for Scientific and Technical Examination, and by Kamilla Burkhanovna Kalinina and Andrei Viktorovich Tsvetkov in the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Easel Paintings.

The exhibition curator is Tatyana Borisovna Bushmina, senior researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Art.

A scholarly publication has been prepared for the exhibition: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Lute-Player. Marking the end of the restoration (State Hermitage Publishing House, 2017). The book introduces readers to the history of the painting and distinctive aspects of the restoration carried out in 2015–17, which was accompanied by a detailed technical study of the work using modern high-precision equipment. The extensive illustrations and macro photographs included make it possible to see details invisible to the naked eye, while photographs of microsections of the pigments magnified hundreds of times provide the opportunity to better understand Caravaggio’s painting technique.

The project for the restoration of Caravaggio’s The Lute-Player has been carried out with the support of the firm Baker McKenzie.

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