At Pinacoteca Di Brera, Caravaggio Is the Guest of Honour

The painting ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ from the Galleria Borghese in Rome arrived in Milan for an exceptional meeting that has many stories to tell.

Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath” from the Galleria Borghese in Rome (right) has been loaned to the Pinacoteca di Brera until September where it is exhibited alongside another masterpiece by the Lombard artist, “Supper at Emmaus” from the Milan museum’s collection. Cesare Maiocchi

“Two Caravaggios for the price of one,” joked James Bradburne, director of the Pinacoteca di Bera, moments before introducing the latest guest of the museum. The masterpiece, which was transported to Milan escorted by armed guards, is “David with the Head of Goliath” from the Galleria Borghese in Rome. The painting is on display until 25 September next to another masterpiece by Caravaggio, “The Supper at Emmaus,” from the Pinacoteca di Brera collection. The exceptional meeting is a rare occasion to see the two works of the Lombard genius next to each other. A very special encounter that was by no means easy to achieve. “It takes at least a year to make the request,” Mr. Bradburne said. “In Italy we are more flexible with each other.”

Although seemingly simple, this is not an operation to be underestimated. “It is difficult to let a Caravaggio go,” he noted while thanking the Galleria Borghese and all the professionals who collaborated on the project. “The arrival of the painting was in doubt until last week,” he said. “It should not be taken for granted.”

The ‘dialogue’

The painting arrived on Friday and was installed in room 28 of the museum on Monday morning, after a short break to allow it to get used to the surroundings. “Paintings need to get used to the environment. We have to let the painting breathe when it arrives, like a person,” Mr. Bradburne said. “It is a thrill to see the work arrive and to be able to set it up,” commented Letizia Lodi, the curator of the exhibition. “To get one Caravaggio to meet another Caravaggio requires an incredible amount of work,” Mr. Bradburne added.

This is the ninth ‘dialogue’ produced by the Pinacoteca, which since 2016 has hosted comparisons between Hayez and Ingres, Mantegna, Perugino and Raphael, and Lorenzo Lotto, to name a few. The loan is the result of an agreement between the two museums that saw the Pinacoteca di Brera first lend Guido Reni’s masterpiece “Paolo rimprovera Pietro penitente” for the exhibition “Guido Reni and Rome. Nature and Devotion” which closed on 22 May at the Galleria Borghese. The Roman museum is now returning the favour by letting one of the central pieces of its collection go, albeit for a limited time.

“It is the first ‘dialogue’ we have had in a long time,” said Mr. Bradburne. For him, the event is the right moment to restart the “rhythm, strategy and approach to Brera that is very important to me, but was interrupted by the pandemic.”

Following in the footsteps of his enlightened predecessors — among them Ettore Modigliani, the director of the museum from 1908 to 1934, and Fernanda Witgens, the first woman in Italy to lead a museum, who succeeded Modigliani and directed the museum until she died in 1957 — for Badburne the museum must be increasingly open to the public to allow them “to participate in the life of Brera, in the life of art history.”

It is not clear whether the two masterpieces on display were painted in the same years, whether before or after the escape on murder charges, but “they are very close,” said James Bradburne, the director of Pinacoteca di Brera. Photo by Cesare Maiocchi. Courtesy of Pinacoteca di Brera.
Becoming art historians

“This exhibition is very interesting because it is a way of extending the possibility of being an art historian to the public. The art historian not only researches with documents in the library but has to look with his own eyes the works and evaluate different proposals,” Mr. Bradburne explained.

“Every painting is a question. The painting asks us to imagine why this painting is like this and in this form. This act of asking to investigate is also fundamental for a museum that believes in the museum as an instrument of civilisation,” he added.

It is not clear whether the two masterpieces on display were painted in the same years, whether before or after the escape on murder charges, but “they are very close,” according to him.

In particular, Mr. Bradburne explained how visitors can focus on three parts of the paintings: how Caravaggio rendered the facial wrinkles of the characters portrayed, the fabrics of the robes and the drapery, and how the Lombard master painted the metal objects in the composition — the sword of David and the plates of the Supper. “As a museum, we do a service not only to the public but also to art historians,” he added.

At the Brera museum, the director does not stop for a moment. Recently, he opened a carousel inside the library, and unveiled a collaboration with contemporary artist Emilio Isgrò. And now, in the sweltering heat of late June, this rare meeting of Caravaggios is a monumental project.

“Former directors have always wanted to get the museum moving,” he said. “Wittgens bought, Modigliani bought, and so did Franco Russoli. Museums should never stop,” he said. “We always evaluate what we can buy to stay relevant, and remain a ‘living museum’ as Wittgens said.”

The painting will remain in Milan until 25 September to allow the public of art lovers and art historians a rare opportunity to see these two paintings side by side. Photo by Cesare Maiocchi. Courtesy of Pinacoteca di Brera.
The Brera Caravaggio

An essay by Ms. Lodi in the exhibition catalogue (published by Marsilio) details the story behind the purchase of the “Supper at Emmaus” in 1939 from the Patrizi family. In particular, the essay clearly shows Ettore Modigliani’s influence and contribution, “despite having been dismissed, being in exile, and having every reason to think very badly of the Fascist government,” Mr. Bradburne said.

Yet his love for the Pinacoteca di Brera and his desire to fill a void in the collection, to highlight the revolution between before and after the Lombard master, led him to fight to include a Caravaggio in the Milanese museum’s collection.

Brera’s revolutionary spirit is a legacy of its legendary directors. “We must always be open to contemporary audiences, and this is our way of working, and I hope a distinctive attribute. We have not invented anything, we are in the shadow of the greats” he said.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.