Technology reveals Caravaggio self-portrait

Searching for underdrawings, conservators discover the artist’s reflection


Conservators using cutting-edge technology in their quest to find evidence of underdrawings in works by Caravaggio have produced the most detailed image to date of a “hidden” self-portrait by the Baroque artist.

A team from Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure in conjunction with the Istituto Nazionale di Ottica Applicata (INOA) applied the new technology to Bacchus, around 1597, in the Uffizi Gallery. The result was an image of Caravaggio reflected in the glass of the wine jug. Although the self-portrait was discovered in 1922 when layers of dirt and discoloured varnish were removed, it is not visible to the naked eye making this the first time scholars have been able to view the portrait.

“The image corresponds to a man in contemporary clothes that can easily be linked to the painter himself,” says Cecilia Frosinini from the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. Caravaggio is known for including self-portraits in his work, although in most examples his image is not a reflection but a major component of the work. In the painting David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, his features can be seen in the face of Goliath and in Sick Bacchus, 1593-94, also in the Borghese Gallery, he is in the guise of Bacchus. The latter work was painted early in the artist’s career when he probably could not afford to pay a model.

“It seems that Caravaggio wanted to study in depth the effects of light reflection,” says Frosinini, adding that the Uffizi’s painting “is clearly a display of his bravura”.

The team applied a new, “multi-spectral” infrared reflectography scanner known as a Multi NIR, which, according to Dr Luca Pezzati from the INOA in Florence, uses radiation to penetrate the paint layers and produce multiple images of the painting.