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Between lights and shadows

Flos introduces ‘Dentro Caravaggio’ exhibition, promoted and produced by the Comune di Milano-Cultura, Palazzo Reale and MondoMostre Skira, and lit up by the Milanese architect Barbara Balestreri. Barbara told us about the chosen path for the realization of this highly acclaimed project.

Lighting project Barbara Balestreri
Photography Santi Caleca
Text Alice De Santis

In the heart of Milan stands the Royal Palace, where numerous and important art exhibitions are currently set within its ancient rooms. Behind these exhibitions lies a work of study, planning and collaboration that aims at offering the visitor a unique and intense experience. This is what happened with the ‘Dentro Caravaggio’ exhibition, promoted and produced by the Comune di Milano-Cultura, Palazzo Reale and MondoMostre Skira, and lit up by the Milanese architect Barbara Balestreri in collaboration with Flos. Barbara told us about the chosen path for the realization of this highly acclaimed project.

Madonna di Loreto
(Pilgrim's Madonna)

1604-1605
Oil on canvas
260 x 150 cm
Roma, Basilica di Sant'Agostino

Her respectful lighting architecture approach, characterized by harmonic contrast, proved to be congenial to illuminate the artwork of the great Renaissance master Michelangelo Merisi, more famously known as Caravaggio. “Notwithstanding the nature of artwork, even when the artist is no longer in this world, it is required to set foot in respectfully, not to overwhelm it and to maintain its characteristics and value. I studied in depth Caravaggio’s thought and painting, his unique way of constructing light and the peculiar chiaroscuro technique. In the early paintings he utilized a sort of diffused natural light, then he slowly started using also artificial lights, which he modified through mirrors and lenses which were parts of his working tools -like the mirror featured in the painting of Martha and Mary Magdalene, for example. He used to constrain the natural light inside the ambiences. And I assimilated his teaching in all and for all.”

Martha and Mary Magdalene
c. 1598
Tempera and oil on canvas
100,2 x 135,4 cm
Detroit Institute of Arts

The placement of the canvases in the middle of the rooms provokes in the visitor the sensation of getting inside the artwork and being wrapped by it. The light beam seems to come out from the painting itself, from within the scene, creating a strong feeling sense of rapture and amazement. “I faced Caravaggio’s artworks from a point of view that is both technical as well as emotional and engaging. All this has been conceived in accordance with the curator of the exhibition, Rossella Vodret, and with the chief of installation, architect Cerri. It was a huge team work of study, comparison and suggestions. The most exciting thing was to really discover Caravaggio and to absorb his brilliant and spontaneous way of handling the lights.

The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula
1610
Oil on canvas
143 x 180 cm
Gallerie d'Italia - Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Napoli

When we asked Barbara Balestreri which her favourite artwork was, she said: “The Flagellation of Christ, with no doubt. For the illumination of this artwork a zenithal light was followed, the same one chosen by Caravaggio in the painting. Thanks to that, the column aimed at supporting the body of Christ was discovered. It is incredible how hidden and otherwise invisible details of the paintings can emerge upon shedding a light. In each of these artworks there is an element of surprise and amazement that makes this work even more exciting and intense.”

The Flagellation of Christ
1607
Oil on canvas
286 x 213 cm
Napoli, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

“As in each project, we faced a number of complexities that, thanks to the support of Flos and their lighting products, have been widely solved. Flos has always proved to be an outstanding ally by constantly being available to customize their products to meet numerous needs, first among which is the need to protect from decay such ancient and precious canvases. In the specific case of Caravaggio’s exhibition, special filters have been created and applied to the light sources. Furthermore, there was the willingness to manage the light beams in a particular way. Flos, with no hesitation, designed custom accessories such as filters, lenses, filter holders and special telescopes, and performed an assembly of optics aimed at best controlling the illumination over the painting, thus avoiding direct glares or reflections on the artwork.”

"In addition to the technical aspect there was a search for emotionality that was greeted by the delicacy of the Flos lights.”

Going stepwise with the different periods of his artistic production, Barbara paved a path that moved from the diffused lights of the first rooms to the dramatic and theatrical dark of the last ones, creating a unique atmosphere. “In his early paintings, Caravaggio started from a white base and then drew on it. This procedure was progressively reversed, initiating from dark bases and then cutting out the parts of the figures or objects that were hit by the light. I followed exactly this route.”

“What always interests me is experimentation, working every time on new solutions whether it is from the specialized point of view or whether it is about using the highest technology to transmit the maximum of poetry” passionately says Barbara. Lots of her inspirations come from the film director Stanley Kubrick. “In his movies, using extremely high-tech tools, he built some scenes with natural light, and even used only candle light at night. It can be said that his idea would be born not from what to illuminate, but rather from the contrast between innovation and inspiration, emotionality and poetry, all elements that are as well at the base of my philosophy and Flos’s.”

Lighting project Barbara Balestreri
Photography Santi Caleca
Text Alice De Santis