Experts Resurrect Caravaggio’s "The Raising of Lazarus" in Rome, Throwing New Light on the Master of Chiaroscuro

Experts Resurrect Caravaggio’s "The Raising of Lazarus" in Rome, Throwing New Light on the Master of Chiaroscuro
Caravaggio's "Resurrection of Lazarus," before and after the restoration
(Courtesy Wikipaintings / Getty Images)

This month, Caravaggio’s painting “The Raising of Lazarus” returns from the dead.

Following an intensive five-month restoration that has transformed the classic painting, the work will be featured in a one-work exhibition at the Palazzo Braschi in Rome. Depicting the miracle in which Jesus resurrects Lazarus in the presence of family members who buried him, the baroque work features the dark, emotional style that made Caravaggio a favorite among ecclesiastical patrons looking to stir up emotion among the faithful during the Counter Reformation. While preserving the painting’s brooding overall tone, by clearing away dust and sediment, restoration experts at Rome's Superior Institute of Conservation and Restoration have, in essence, brought new light to Caravaggio’s trademark shadows.

The result is a scene only a little more dramatic than the circumstances under which the painting was made. Between 1608 and 1609, while he was painting “The Raising,” the notoriously roguish Caravaggio was living in Sicily, on the run from a military and religious order known as the Knights of Malta for injuring one of their members. This was after fleeing a charge for murdering an Umbrian nobleman in Rome. Pope Paul V had issued a death warrant against him, and he is said to have suffered several attempts on his life in addition to engaging in the scuffles and street brawls for which he was already famous.

Restoration expert Anna Maria Marcone tells La Reppublica that Caravaggio made the “Raising” in a hurried commission for a Genovese merchant. “There was an urgency to finish up,” she said. “Hence the expedient use of dark-pitched tones, revealing the figures with a few light secure strokes, which now appear as shafts of light.”

Additional analysis by chief restorers Carla Zaccheo and Emanuela Ozino Calligaris has given experts a precise index of the materials that Caravaggio used. “In Sicily, Caravaggio uses what he finds: local materials,” Marcone told La Reppublica. “The work effectively gives you a sense of an artist who has arrived at the climax of his technical and expressive abilities.”