NEW YORK - Caravaggio and his tenebrous realism may be synonymous with Italian Baroque art, but Painting Passion: The Baroque in Italy, a special selling exhibition mounted by Sotheby's in connection with Old Masters Week, reminds us that the period, in fact, bore witness to an astounding breadth of styles and techniques; for all the common threads entwining the art of 17th century Italy – resonant emotion, florid storytelling – there are just as many intriguing shades of nuance.

Installation view of Painting Passion: The Baroque in Italy.

"As diversified as 21st century art is in every city in the world, equally so was the art of 17th century and early 18th century Italy," noted veteran curator and European painting scholar Scott Schaefer, who organized the show. Schaefer, recently retired, has held curatorial posts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, and for several years worked in both the Old Master Paintings and Old Master Drawings departments of Sotheby's New York. From a long roster of potential consignments, Schaefer selected 17 works of art to present, paying special attention to the pictures' condition, quality and how they might illustrate the period in richer detail. To simulate how these paintings were regarded in their own time – that is, by the flicker of candlelight – the gallery walls have been painted a deep brown, and subdued spotlights provide the only illumination. Under these viewing conditions, Schaefer stressed, the vivid colors and striking contrasts of light and dark are at their full power.

Cristofano Allori's Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes, circa 1610-1612.

Among the exhibition's standout works is Cristofano Allori's Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes, painted around 1610-1612. Allori was a Florentine artist who fell under Caravaggio's influence but never dispensed with what Schaefer called "a wonderfully bright Florentine palette." He painted this subject several times ("It was his potboiler, if you will") and,  "This happens to be a very good version of this particular composition," Schaefer said. Allori often depicted real-life contemporaries as the severed head of Holofernes and, like Caravaggio, even used his own face in certain renditions. Bartolomeo Manfredi's moving rendition of The Capture of Christ likewise owes a large debt to Caravaggio with its pronounced chiaroscuro, enveloping darkness and shallow, half-figure composition.

Bartolomeo Manfredi's The Capture of Christ.

The Carracci, a celebrated family of Bolognese painters, operated a very active studio during the Baroque period. Among them was Ludovico Carracci, whose painting of The Penitent St. Peter is alive with the physical and emotional tension his later work is prized for. In it a monumental, seated St. Peter crowds the pictorial space as he recoils before God. "Imagine seeing it under candle light, where the oranges and whites would be particularly brilliant," Schaefer said, "and you would have seen St. Peter rising out of the darkness, literally and figuratively." It's enriching to compare Carracci's measured brushstrokes to the painterly, expressive portrait of an old man, hanging across the gallery, by a lesser-known German painter named Johann Karl Loth.

Ludovico Carracci’s The Penitent St. Peter.

The Italian Baroque saw painters experimenting with precious materials in pursuit of greater luminosity, not to mention luxury. To appeal to wealthy patrons and collectors, slate, onyx, and lapis lazuli found their ways into artworks of the era. For his Martyrdom of St. Apollonia, the famous Bolognese artist Guido Reni painted directly on a small copper plate. "With copper, you get light going through the paint and bouncing off the copper support," Schaefer explained. "You get a higher-keyed palette." Although the subject matter is gruesome – St. Apollonia is about to have her teeth wrenched out by her captor – Il Divino, as Reni was known in his lifetime, imbues the scene with Arcadian beauty worthy of Raphael.

Guido Reni’s Martyrdom of St. Apollonia.

In sharp contrast to Reni's intimate religious work, Painting Passion features an expansive, raucous canvas by Genovese artist Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (Il Grechetto). Castiglione's Circe illustrates the painter's fascination with sorcery and witchcraft; it depicts a passage from Homer's Odyssey in which the goddess of magic has turned Ulysses's soldiers into a menagerie of animals. In a single "tour de force" picture, Schaefer said, Castiglione "demonstrated his ability to be an animal painter, a figure painter, a still-life painter, and doing it all on a grand scale."

Il Grechetto’s Circe.

One of the show's latest works is also one of its most engrossing and idiosyncratic. Alessandro Magnasco painted Joseph Interprets the Dreams of Pharaoh sometime in the late 1720s. It shows a soaring, concrete architectural space inhabited by fluidly sketched figures striking all manner of poses. It's believed that Magnasco based the scene on the set of a play that was being performed in Milan at the time and dealt with the same subject matter. Schaefer called it "one of the most beautiful pictures by Magnasco that I've ever seen." It arrives toward the very end of the Baroque period and seems to signal yet another new direction in color palette and composition. "This has a very contemporary feeling to it," Schaefer added. "You could just imagine this hanging quite easily with a Brice Marden or something wildly abstract."

Alessandro Magnasco's Joseph Interprets the Dreams of Pharaoh.

Painting Passion: The Baroque in Italy is on view from 24 January - 7 February 2014.