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.
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 5×4 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.
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.
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.