To create an exhibition of all the 400-year-old masterpieces of the Italian painter Caravaggio, loans would have to be obtained from the most heralded museums of Rome, London, Paris, St. Petersburg and New York City.
Churches, smaller museums and private collections would also have to be convinced to lend out cherished works. In other words, it would be an ``an impossible exhibition'' to organize -- the English translation for the Italian name of a Caravaggio show on view through Feb. 11 at the new Loyola University Museum of Art, in Chicago.
The show Caravaggio: Una Mostra Impossibile! does not feature the actual paintings of the artist, known for his realistic and dramatic treatment of religious themes -- and his rebellious, bad-boy lifestyle.
Instead, high-resolution digital photography has been used to create true-to-scale reproductions that are then backlit to mimic the artist's famous interplay between dark and light, known as ``chiaroscuro.''
It's a show that organizers stress is not intended to replace the experience of seeing the original works of art -- but instead serve as an exciting new teaching tool. It's also a way to view complete works of a great artist in a single setting at a time when soaring insurance costs and fears of terrorism and theft make such comprehensive exhibitions rare.
``This is a catalogue. It's a very big, full-sized scale catalogue,'' said Pamela Ambrose, Loyola's director of cultural affairs.
The Caravaggio exhibit is the inaugural show at the Loyola museum, which is dedicated to exploring the spiritual in art. Loyola is the first stop for the exhibit in North America.
It was created by Rai-Radiotelevisione Italiana, the Italian government's broadcasting agency, and was viewed by more than 300,000 people in Europe during several stops starting in 2003, including Rome, Naples and Malta.
Rai has expanded beyond Caravaggio to capture 20,000 high-definition replicas of works of art, with the plan to create more ``impossible'' exhibits organized by artist or theme, according to Renato Parascandolo, assistant director general of Rai.
``The aim is to let millions of people all over the world see the masterpieces of Italian art. It's an example of the `democratization' of art,'' Parascandolo writes in the exhibit catalogue.
At the Loyola museum, visitors can see 57 digital works that are illuminated overhead and by backlights, creating the effect of a transparency or an X-ray. Nine that were too large for the museum are displayed at several nearby locations.
Viewers can see the cracks that exist in the original canvases, but not the texture created by the painter's brushstrokes. The show's Italian organizers said they had experts certify the colors in the digital reproductions matched the originals -- sometimes forcing photos to be taken four or five times.
Phoebe Dent Weil, a St. Louis-based art conservator who has worked on several Caravaggios, called the Loyola exhibit a ``wonderful second-best thing'' to viewing the originals.
``It's a fantastic teaching tool, so long as you don't confuse the fact that these are reproductions and not the real thing,'' she said. ``It's a very flat sort of experience as opposed to looking at a real painting, which is something that has depth and structure and looks different in different lights.''