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Caravaggio goes digital in Milan

20 February 2024

From the February 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

On a recent trip to Milan I managed to sneak off my official tour itinerary to visit the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. No one should need to make an excuse to visit this gallery. Part of its charm is the quiet modesty it has about its collection. As with so much in Milan, flagrant acts of display to win outsiders’ attention is not the gallery’s style. Instead, the intelligence of the display is there for everyone to see and when they see it they will be confronted with one of the outstanding collections of Renaissance works.

The furthest the gallery goes in shouting about its works (aside from the exhibition dedicated to Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus) is the occasional sign on the map that shows where some of the more famous works are hung. The map locates Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit (c. 1597–1600) in room one, but this is not currently the case. Since November 2023, Basket of Fruit has been on loan to the Palazzo Mazzetti in Asti.

Curiously, however, visitors can still see a version of this work in the gallery. It is not hanging in the tenebrous room one, where the only lights are the spots upon each painting, but at the bottom of the stairs in room 13. It is not a version after Caravaggio nor is it a copy made shortly after his death. It is, instead, a digital copy produced by the company Cinello. It is, we are assured, a limited edition with number four of nine currently on display.

Cinello has developed a proprietary form of scanning and reproducing artworks with what it describes as flawless accuracy. The commercial application of such technology is not hard to fathom. Certain collectors would be only too happy to pay for a perfect rendition of an impossible-to-obtain artwork to hang on their wall. The cultural benefit is also obvious: there is a case to be made that such copies do allow for cultural exchange and permit museums to lend more frequently.

But they also suggest some puzzling questions. For many people, the primacy of the art object depends upon it having been shaped by an individual artist. If the touch of genius is taken away, does that undermine the object? If the resolution on a screen is good enough and the work we are looking at is just a digital file, do we even need to go to the gallery? What function does an art gallery actually have? And who is the author of this work of art now? It is not just about authorship, but authorship looms large in thinking around this sort of decision. At a time when computers are learning to ‘create’ more and better things to look at, when do we decide to stop feeding the robots? More to the point, when do we decide that the human touch matters more than the arrangement of pigment on a canvas?

Caravaggio’s virtuoso painting is so commanding because of its realism. The uncharacteristically light background only serves to heighten the detail of what is in the basket – there are no shadows to hide behind. Yet I wonder if the detailed scan offers another version of reality, one that has more to do with machine learning and a different way of looking. The big question is whether this is a realism that audiences will accept as really real.

From the February 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.