Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence

Caravaggio, 1609
Factum Arte, 2014

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In 1969 Caravaggio’s Nativity was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in the heart of Palermo.

For many years the empty frame was a witness to its absence. A photographic copy was put into the frame - an enlargement of a photograph taken by Enzo Brai in 1968.

The photo has faded a bit and looks like a colour reproduction prepared for a book. When you enter the oratory you see a printed reproduction- an overly enlarged photograph.

In December 2014 Peter Glidewell invited Adam Lowe, the director of Factum Arte to Palermo to meet Bernardo Tortorici, head of the "Associazione Dimore Storiche" and of "Amici dei Musei Siciliani", who has a specific interest in the preservation of the Oratory of San Lorenzo. The story that is told here is the result of that meeting and the intervention of Sky TV and Ballandi Multimedia.

A photographic copy of Caravaggio's Nativity installed in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo
- an enlargement of a photograph taken by Enzo Brai in 1968 -

While making an exact copy of a painting is a painstaking and technologically challenging task, making a meaningful re-creation of a painting that no longer exists presents a different set of challenges. The aim was to produce an image that was in dialogue with Caravaggio’s masterpiece - and with Caravaggio himself - to make a performance of the Caravaggio painting that is faithful to the spirit of the original but made with today’s technologies and seen through the filter of today’s understanding. The gradual move from a 5x4 inch colour transparency to a physical re-materialisation of a painting that is almost 2 meters wide and over 2.5 meters high is a slow and collaborative affair that has involved many people with skills in photography, image processing, digital restoration, painting, restoration, art history, digital printing and varnishing.

A general view of Factum Arte's studio during the recreation of Caravaggio's Nativity with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis

The steps of the process to re-materialise a lost painting by Caravaggio

5:4 Transparency taken in 1968 by Enzo Brai is a good quality medium-format photograph taken by a skilled photographer. For a reproduction in a book it is adequate but it cannot be used for a 1:1 re-creation (at 1:1 the image is 44ppi). The file was scaled to match the size of the painting and printed at 254ppi resolution - while this can help improve the appearence of the image it does not add information. The result is a soft, blurred image with significant colour fading, colour noise, colour fringe halos, film grain, digital dust and other artefacts - The first task was to remove all these artifacts using various Photoshop filters. Once cleaned the file was printed at 1:1 - the resulting print looks like what it is - an over-enlarged photograph with the wrong contrast levels and inaccurate colours.

Enzo Brai's original photograph of the Nativity, Palermo 1968

In 2009, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the death of Caravaggio, the Municipality of Caravaggio commissioned the Fondazione Giorgio Cini and Factum Arte to make facsimiles of three paintings by Caravaggio in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

The quality and accuracy of the documentation carried out by the team from Factum Arte was unparalleled at that time. Two photographic stages were necessary in order to capture every detail in the paintings. The first was high-resolution photography. All the paintings were photographed in small sections as 1:1 images taken at 700 dpi. This was done using equipment specifically designed to position the camera within the confined space of the chapel. The mosaic of photographs was then stitched together in Madrid to create one huge file for each painting (approximately 6 gigabytes for each painting). Factum Arte’s conservation experts also made exact colour charts which were an essential tool to ensure the correct hue, tone and colour when making the facsimiles. As 3D scanning of such dark glossy surfaces was impossible at that time macro raking-light images were also recorded. These images reveal subtle changes in the surface, the complex texture in the ground and paint layers, as well as the cracking and interventions made during restoration. This information was vital for recreating the texture and surface on the facsimiles made in 2010 - but it became the central tool for understanding how the Nativity was painted and how it would have looked when Caravaggio completed the painting.

Recording three paintings by Caravaggio, depicting scenes from the life of St Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome 2009

A lot of colour references were taken during the recording in Rome

Gabriel Scarpa, head of the digital restoration on this project, carried out a detailed survey of the brush marks, the incisions, the course grounding with strong directional brushmarks in carefully placed areas of the canvas, the impasto in the whites and the extraordinary complexity of colour that exists in the darkest parts of the painting. The way we respond to any surface is dependent on the way it has aged, been cared for and the interventions in the various restorations it has undergone. We were very fortunate to discover that during the last restoration of the Nativity at the ISCR (Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro) in Rome some large format black and white glass plate negatives were produced - these have provided essential information about the brushmarks and the character for the surface. Gabriel Scarpa and Anna Paola Ferrara worked to integrate this tonal information into the files used to produce the facsimile. From the 1951 images it was clear that the Nativity has been through several restorations and that before the last restoration it was in poor condition. As we mixed and merged the images from the ISCR with the high-resolution colour images from San Luigi dei Francesi and mapped these over the photograph by Enzo Brai a level of complexity started to emerge. The characteristic Caravaggio brushmarks started to appear - bold and confident showing no signs of blending or softening that are characteristic of Caravaggesque painters. But due to the restorations these are now overlayed with a network of cracks that reveal a white ghosting either side of the crack. The process of analysing the surface is one of forensic accuracy mixed with different perceptions - a process that is both abstract and physical but dependent on an understanding of how information is mediated and transformed. In all photography it is essential not to over-expose the highlights or to under-expose the shadows.

Caravaggio has a unique " texture” that distinguishes his paintings. Caravaggio relies on a rough but carefully positioned underpainting to break the edges of his lines and optically blend the colours without physically blending the paint. These brush strokes are impossible to replicate digitally but can, to some degree be replicated manually.

Black and white glass plate negatives produced during the restoration of the Nativity in 1951 at ISCR (Instituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro)



An image of the Virgin on the computer screen while Gabriel Scarpa is doing digital restoration and reconstruction

Factum Arte makes its facsimiles using a purpose-built flatbed digital printer and pigment inks. It is controlled by Rafa Rachewsky who has developed a unique approach to layering colour. We are able to overprint in perfect register and control the colour and tone of each area. In all of Caravaggio’s paintings the shadows are made of a complex mix of green, brown and blue - the shifts are important and were clearly recorded in the colour notes made in front of the three paintings in San Luigi dei Francesi. In the Nativity the whole of the top right section is effectively black but as we worked between the digital files and the print on canvas it was possible to reclaim the missing wing and the roof beams. While the aim is objective scrutiny there was also a need to make manual interventions. These were kept to a minimum and always cross-referenced with the original photograph. This approach was essential to fill in missing areas of information and to add a materiality to the photograph from 1969. The manual interventions are done by people with different skills and different training - A restorer (Paolo Freri) sees very differently from the painters working on the project (Jordi Pons and Adam Lowe). Peter Glidewell also directed the interventions relying on his knowledge of early C17th paintings - especially in the character of the ‘whites’ and the speed at which the marks were made. Other experts offered opinions that have enriched the complexity of the dialogue that we were having with Caravaggio as we attempted to re-materialise and perform his masterpiece.

A detail of the gesso coated canvas as it is being prepared with a similar mix of animal glue, pigment and calcium carbonate as the one used by Caravaggio

The multi-layer flatbed printer laying down the first layer of colour onto a gesso coated canvas

The multi-layer flatbed printer laying down the second layer of colour - adding complexity and depth to the printed surface

Colour proofing the Nativity to create the exact colours and tones that are present in the paintings by Caravaggio that are in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome

Working on the surface of a full size print onto canvas to reclaim some of the details that have been lost in the Enzo Brai's photograph

Adam Lowe and Jordi Pons creating details in the paint that have been abstracted from the paintings in San Luigi dei Francesi and applied to the surface of the Nativity

The manual interventions are carried out on 1:1 scale prints on canvas using oil paint. They were then rephotographed at high resolution (1:1 at 600 DPI) using a Clauss 'pan and tilt' head and a Canon EOS5DIII with a 600 mm lens. The move between virtual and physical data is the key to this project as more and more layers of information are merged. These layers need to be unified to merge and harmonise the images from different sources. All the colours were checked against the colour sticks produced in front of the paintings in Rome and cross-referred with our knowledge of Caravaggio’s palette. With Caravaggio the tonal qualities are critical - above all his complex compositions, often with strange drawing as if the images are collaged from an assortment of photographs, are symphonies in light and dark. When this is lost the dynamic tensions of the composition dissolve.

The preparation of the grounds was a similarly complex task - first the canvas is covered with a layer of animal glue, then a half-chalk ground. This is first printed with a linear file derived from the original at a scale of 1:1 -these outline guides are used to locate the textures in the surface of the painting both in terms of the white areas with some relief surface and the distinctive grounding method used by Caravaggio. We are also incorporating some of the damaged ground that is visible in the ISCR raking-light photographs taken before the 1951 restoration - these show both the characteristic incised lines that follow some of the contours and a significant amount of damage. It is possible to introduce some of this surface into the physical canvas.

High resolution photography (1:1 at 600 DPI) using a Clauss 'pan and tilt' head and a Canon EOS5DIII with a 600 mm lens

The superficial qualities of paintings (those qualities pertaining to the surface) are critical to the way that we read and respond to them. The relationship between the surface and the colour works on many levels. Factum Arte has spent years trying to record and understand this relationship - it is this obsessive interest that differentiates the facsimiles produced with our specially designed equipment from normal copies. The process of digitally layering information, printing in multiple-layers onto specially prepared canvas on a flatbed printer, manually adjusting in paint, re-photographing at high-resolution, digitally checking every intervention to ensure that nothing is changed, digitally restoring the resulting photographs and then repeating the whole process lasted for almost 5 months.

Rafa Rachewsky printing the Nativity in Factum Arte workshop in Madrid

During this time the team working on the production of this particular performance of Caravaggio’s Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence have cultivated an intimacy with the physical qualities of the original. If we carried on I am sure we could produce other versions - some may reflect a deeper understanding others may be inferior. It is a question of emotionally and aesthetically empathising with the painting. The motivation behind this work is not to produce something that is fake or false - but to reveal and reflect on the extraordinary qualities that make Caravaggio’s paintings unique.

The final re-creation of Caravaggio's Nativity

The final re-creation of the Nativity has been shipped to Palermo, stretched varnished and hung in its frame in the Oratory of San Lorenzo. It is hoped that the many hours of thought and the many different skills will result in a new work of art capable of producing an emotional and aesthetic response when you visit the oratory.

Installing the Nativity in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, November 2015


The re-materialisation of the Nativity as installed in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, November 2015

On the 12th December the re-creation of Caravaggio's Nativity realized by Factum Arte has been officially unveiled during a cerimony attended by Italy's President Sergio Mattarella. The reproduction is now placed in the exact spot where the original hung, above the altar in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo.

The unveiling of the reproduction of the Nativity during the opening ceremony at the Oratory of San Lorenzo, Palermo

The unveiling of Factum Arte's 'performance' of Caravaggio's Nativity
By Charlotte Skene Catling

The entrance to the Oratory of San Lorenzo was controlled by Carabinieri in bright uniforms and medals, and men in black with dark glasses, wired earpieces and guns.

Inside, the blank hole printed on a canvas veil was startling at first glance… The painting seemed to have been stolen again…. The chapel was filled with people including the President of Italy, the new archbishop in magenta, priests, politicians, cameras, film crews and dressed-up locals. Some brief speeches… first an introduction by Bernardo Tortorici da Raffadali who initiated the project and looks after the Oratory. Then the President spoke so sotto voce that had everyone gathering closely and attentively;

Adam Lowe spoke briefly about the cathartic effect of art. Then the veil was lowered to gasps and applause… The painting looks completely wonderful, as do the walls of the chapel, covered in Serpotta stucco figures and naughty putti so realistic and fleshy that the whole structure seems to undulate with movement.
Some of these figures are missing too and Factum Arte will now start to remodel missing stucco figures - beginning with a beautifully observed figure of a Sicilian beauty tempting St Anthony.

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