Almost as soon as the Wadsworth Atheneum here purchased Jacopo Zucchi's "Bath of Bathsheba" in 1965, there was trouble. The painting turned out to be stolen, ripped from the walls of the Italian Embassy in Berlin in the waning days of World War II. The Italians, naturally, wanted the 16th-century work back, never mind that the Atheneum had bought it in good faith from a Paris dealer.
All these years later, "Bathsheba" will soon be Rome-bound, but not until the Atheneum plays host to "Caravaggio and His Italian Followers," an exhibition opening tomorrow that is drawn mostly from Italy's national collections and that was sent by Rome in exchange.
The swap is not quite even. The Atheneum is out the $35,000 it paid for the painting, which today might fetch $500,000. But the museum saves the estimated $350,000 cost of the exhibition, said Peter C. Sutton, its director, who did the deal despite some grumbling from Hartford residents about returning the spoils of war.
Besides, the show, which runs through July 26, is important not only because it is a happy ending to the dispute. It may have repercussions for other museums and art historians as well as the Atheneum, which in recent years has retreated from a trail-blazing past replete with adventurous acquisitions and exhibitions.
With the search for war booty intensifying, as a result of the opening of many wartime archives, the publication of several books on the issue and the creation of organizations to pursue lost art, other museums may use the Atheneum's deal as a model. "This is the first case we brought to a good end, and I hope it sets a precedent," said Mario Bondioli Osio, the president of the Interministerial Commission for Artworks, which Italy created in 1995 to recover its lost patrimony.
Mr. Osio is seeking looted art at other museums in the United States, France and Germany that he declined to name. And Mr. Sutton said he had received "several calls" from other museum directors. "They say: 'Can I speak to you privately? I have this little problem,' " he said.
In a small way, "Caravaggio" breaks new art historical ground, too. With just 40 paintings, including 5 by the master, it is far less ambitious than the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Age of Caravaggio" in 1985, which boasted about 100 pictures, including roughly 40 by or attributed to Caravaggio.
But scholars are keen to see the Atheneum's juxtaposition of two Caravaggios called "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness," one from Italy and one borrowed from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which have not been together since they were painted in 1604-05, if then. "We will be able to see, given the subject of St. John, what does Caravaggio do with it -- what are the differences, when one was for an altarpiece, a focus of worship, and one was for a private collector?" said Keith Christiansen, the Metropolitan's expert in Italian paintings.
There is a new attribution to ponder, too. As the Italians prepared to send the 29 paintings they are lending, they found that "The Fortuneteller" was executed by Simon Vouet, a 17th-century Frenchman, not by Bartolomeo Manfredi, the Italian who became the most important exponent of the Caravaggio style of genre painting. Mr. Christiansen called the discovery astonishing. "It poses questions of Vouet's relation to Caravaggio and Caravaggisti in a new light," he said.
If "Caravaggio," which also includes works from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, a private collection and the Atheneum's permanent holdings, creates as much excitement as Mr. Sutton hopes, it may do the most good of all for the Atheneum, whose annual attendance has been stuck at about 160,000.
"Caravaggio" is the first test of Mr. Sutton's plan to transform the Atheneum. By offering more clever special exhibitions, conceived locally instead of borrowed from other museums, he believes the Atheneum will draw local crowds, earn respect from its bigger brethren and see its example imitated by other museums that have stagnated.
It once was so. Founded in 1842, the Atheneum is America's oldest continuously operating museum. Besides being known for a distinguished permanent collection (bounteous in Hudson River school landscapes, Baroque art, and decorative arts), the museum claims an illustrious history, full of innovation.
It was the first American museum to buy a Caravaggio (1943) and the first to buy a Dali (1931). It presented the first comprehensive retrospective of Picasso in this country (1934), and the first exhibitions here of Surrealism (1931), Italian Baroque paintings (1930) and Neo-Romanticism (1931). It gave many contemporary artists their first solo show in an American museum, including Gerhard Richter, Keith Haring, Sherrie Levine, Cady Noland, Richard Tuttle, Neil Jenney and on and on.
J. P. Morgan, a Hartford native, gave it a building, as did Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, of the firearms family. For a while in the 1970's, annual attendance reached 260,000.
But that was years ago.
The museum's fortunes sank as Hartford's did. "Metropolitan Hartford is one of the nation's weakest economies in the 1990's," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Regional Financial Associates, a consulting firm. Jobs, which peaked at 662,000 in October, 1988, bottomed out at 584,000 in January, 1996, and each year, 5,000 to 10,000 people moved away, Mr. Zandi said.
Mr. Sutton, 49, arrived at the Atheneum in November 1996 after stints as an expert on Old Masters (particularly Northern European) at Christie's and as a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was good timing. The city's economy was starting to expand again, and with it hopes by officials for a Hartford renaissance.
Under Mr. Sutton's orders, the museum's curators are organizing at least three exhibitions a year. A few did not like the new standard and have left. But in September there will be a big show comparing, for the first time, the development of Australian and American landscape paintings, organized with the National Gallery of Australia. Then comes the first solo show of Pieter de Hooch, a painter from the Dutch Golden Age, organized with the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.
In 1999 a show of Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe and their circle is on the docket. And for 2000, there will be Dali in the 1930's, Picasso's paintings of his studio, and "The Impressionists at Argenteuil," organized with the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Mr. Sutton's extensive contacts in the art world have surely helped. It was he who called Paul Hayes Tucker, a Monet expert at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, to organize the Argentueil show and who enlisted the National Gallery as co-organizer.
"These things allow us to play in a bigger league," said Elizabeth Kornhauser, the chief curator. "I am trying to make it more exciting," Mr. Sutton said. "A lot of people don't walk in the door because museums are perceived as highbrow institutions that have nothing to do with modern life."
That is why he worked hard to convince the Italians to lend their treasures from the Palazzo Barberini and Palazzo Corsino in Rome.
Initially, Mr. Osio offered not "Caravaggio" but an exhibition of Neopolitan paintings. "They wanted to lend from the basement," Mr. Sutton said. "So I went back and asked for their greatest hits -- Caravaggio, Raphael . . . "
Both sides seem happy with "Caravaggio." "These are paintings of the highest quality that are normally on view here," Mr. Osio said from Rome. Mr. Sutton is sure the public will respond. "Look at the image on our Caravaggio poster," he said, referring to a depiction of St. Cecilia with a lute, by Saraceni. "Anyone could love it. This is not a decapitated saint or anything."