ROME (Reuters) - A new Caravaggio exhibition has opened in Rome to mark the 400th anniversary of the Baroque master's death and to re-focus attention on his artistic prowess rather than his notoriously wild life.
"This is pure Caravaggio, the most inspiring of his works separated from the myths surrounding his life and collected together in celebration of his artistic mastery," Claudio Strinati, head of Rome's museums authority, told Reuters.
Michelangelo Merisi, who was known as Caravaggio, pioneered the Baroque painting technique of contrasting light and dark known as "chiaroscuro." Legend has it that he died on his way to Rome to seek pardon for killing a man in a brawl.
Twenty-four of his paintings have been brought together from museums worldwide for the exhibit at Rome's Scuderie del Quirinale museum that opened on Saturday. It has already accepted over 60,000 advance reservations.
"Many works have been falsely attributed to Caravaggio over the years," said Strinati, the brains behind the show.
"We have chosen paintings that are of unquestionable authenticity -- just those that have original certificates from the 16th century or are mentioned in books by historians of the time who knew him personally."
The exhibition is the first since World War II that focuses exclusively on the Baroque master, rather than placing his paintings alongside those of artists who inspired him or followed in his footsteps.
"The idea was to create a setting that echoed the artist's style, as if it had been organized by Caravaggio himself," Strinati said.
"Just as his painting is sober and basic, the exhibit is simple, providing only the most essential details of each work."
The exhibition is divided into three distinct periods from Caravaggio's life: his youth (1592-1599), the years spent in Rome (1600-1606), and finally his flight into exile (1607-1610), after he was sentenced to death for murder.
The early paintings are notably softer and more serene than the grandiose works of the mature period, while the gloomy and dramatic works produced during his years on the run reflect his increasing preoccupation with death, said Strinati.
"The fact that he was persecuted by time, enemies and creditors has helped create the image of a damned artist that we all associate him with," Guerrino Mattei, Italian art historian and writer said. "In truth, he was simply a real painter."
It is the first time that several of the works have been put on display together, giving viewers the unusual opportunity to compare paintings such as "Basket of Fruit" from the Ambrosian Library in Milan with the 'twin' basket in "Boy with a Basket of Fruit," from the Borghese Gallery in Rome.
The intricate depiction of texture, form and light captured in the worm- and insect-eaten fruit led to the artist's reputation as the father of Roman still-life painting.
Other "paired" works placed alongside each other include the "The Musicians," which depicts four youths making music together and "The Lute Player," featuring a lone, wistful-looking young boy with lute and violin.
The works are in high demand during the year of the painter's anniversary. Several museums, including the Hermitage and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, agreed to loan paintings on the condition that they are returned before the exhibition closes in June.
"It's fantastic to see so many of my Caravaggio favorites collected together in one place," said 30 year-old Camilla Haukedah, an art critic from Norway.
"The exhibition is everything I expected, though for me it's impossible to separate the artist's paintings from his life, I see him in every one of them."
Editing by Paul Casciato