Architectural lighting design studio Balestreri Aiolfi Associati (www.balestreri-aiolfi.it), based in the northern Italian city of Milan, has a portfolio including work throughout Europe and in Asia for Armani; hotel lighting in France, Turkey, and the Bahamas; and outdoor lighting projects including shopping malls, tourist villages, castles, and parks. The studio, founded by Barbara Balestreri and Ilaria Aiolfi, also specializes in museum and exhibition lighting, and one of its most unusual recent projects was lighting an exhibition held in Milan's Palazzo Reale entitled, “The Great Theatre of the World: the Soul and Face of the 18th Century,” made up entirely of portraits.

The LDs used techniques to help visitors appreciate and understand the artists and the periods in which they lived, and light became part of the exhibition (as well as being a key element of the paintings). To ensure correct visibility and safeguard the paintings (which included works by Bramante, Caravaggio, and Gauguin), an interesting modus operandi was used: choosing the lighting according to that preferred by specific artists or based on their philosophy.

Balestreri explains, “For Leonardo Da Vinci's works, when man felt he was able to control everything he saw, light is shown as a real “physical substance,” using fibre optics, which also ensured low lux, no heat, and compact light sources.”

In the 15th century room, neutral lighting was harmonically distributed. For 16th century paintings, light was used as a constructive element, with soft beams emphasizing the paintings' luminosity. As visitors walked from the Leonardo rooms (in semi-darkness) through the 15th to the 16th century rooms, the lighting slowly increased in strength (from 20W to 50W halogen UV stop lamps) to allow eyes to become gradually accustomed. All these works were illuminated with shaped light that seemed to come from the paintings or drawings themselves, using iGuzzini Mini Woody and Shuttle instruments with 50W Osram halogen and GE Precise dichroic lamps.

The 17th century room had more dramatic lighting, with clear-cut divisions between light and shade. For Caravaggio, for example, the beams from hidden iGuzzini fixtures with halogen lamps created a spectacular effect. The lighting in the official portrait room was less accentuated, but the lighting from iGuzzini Woody instruments positioned above emphasized the personalities' importance.

18th century works were typified by the contrast between nobility and peasantry, portrayed on a natural background with chiaroscuro lighting. Indirect light from fluorescent Philips lamps, combined with amber Spotfilters (by Spotlight) and reflected by Rosco Full Tough Spun polyester diffusion sheets, was contrasted by direct lighting from Targetti spotlights fitted with 50W Osram halogen lamps.

Balestreri concluded, “The 19th century room included one of the most famous works — Gauguin's Girl from Tahiti — which we lit with diffused light from Targetti fixtures with Philips compact fluorescent lamps to ensure transparency and shaped direct beams from Targetti ‘framing projectors’ with 50W dichroic lamps to exalt the colors.”

Mike Clark is an Italy-based UK journalist specializing in entertainment technology and can be contacted at mclark@rimini.com.