A Milano Dentro Caravaggio, meriti e limiti di una esposizione. Riceviamo e volentieri pubblichiamo (English text only)

di Clovis WHITFIELD*

*Clovis Whitfield ha dedicato molti anni allo studio della figura e dell’opera di Caravaggio; ha visitato nei giorni scorsi la grande mostra milanese (a Palazzo Reale fino al 28 gennaio); ci è parso opportuno pubblicare subito il suo contributo -che esprime una posizione dialettica importante per aprire un dibattito su temi di estrema attualità- momentaneamente solo in inglese in attesa della traduzione in italiano

The exhibition in Milan ‘Dentro Caravaggio’ is an exceptional opportunity to see many familiar paintings together at the Palazzo Reale.

And because they are all works by Caravaggio rather than diluted by those of his wider circle and imitators, it makes it possible to understand better to grasp why his art had such an effect in his own time. They are well displayed for even with works that are usually on public view, like the Madonna dei Pellegrini in S. Agostino, or the Flagellation from San Domenico, Napoli, which is usually shown at the Museo di Capodimonte, it is excellent to see them in a different location and with appropriate lighting. And although this is the second major Italian show in a decade (after the 2010 exhibition at the Quirinal) only five of the paintings were in that quatercentenary celebration.  The idea of making more accessible techniques developed by modern investigative scientists to show how the painting progressed from the bare canvas to the finished composition is really helpful, showing how the design developed from the bare preparation to the finished image with all the glazes that made up the final picture, and in this Claudio’s Falcucci’s analysis and description of his understanding of the artist’s technique is penetrating and comprehensible, and the numerous details illustrated in the catalogue are extremely helpful. In reality through diagnostics, IRR more than X-Ray, (displayed in each case on screen behind the paintings themselves) it has been possible to see that he did use drawn outlines, and indeed that these distinct contours were an effective part of how he indicated form. The myth that he did not use drawing is shown to be only part of the picture: he always shows that he was aware of the limits of form, he had no choice but to report in two dimensions what he saw in front of him. But these outlines were not the result of the tyranny of line, he understood like no-one before him that the features that strike the eye were more important than the structure of their forms.

These considerations ensure that the visitor can learn a lot from the Milan show, although the gathering of twenty of his paintings is a great achievement that by itself guarantees the success of the exhibition.  Unlike many of the presentations that have taken place in various other museums, it is entirely devoted to the work of the man himself, and so it is not confused by the juxtaposition of comparisons with works of  other painters who were moved by his example, that in reality have little connection in time and place.  The success of Caravaggio’s work was disruptive and many young painters were moved to follow his example, but in fact few of them understood how he achieved his remarkable naturalism and so the results are very fascinating because of this liberation of artistic practice and imagination, but the phenomenon of his art may perhaps be better understood today;  in its own time it was regarded almost as the product of magic. The more obvious features of his pictorial method, the incisions and the abbozzi, emerge as not the only characteristics of an approach that was quite different from that of his contemporaries.. The effect of his work on the contemporaries was dramatic but not necessarily because his rivals and followers understood how he achieved this new realism, but because of his disruptive example that prompted others to do without time-honoured conventions and long apprenticeships.

If the 2010 exhibition was one where it was assumed that much of what has been handed down in modern scholarship was true, this show does begin to take a slightly different attitude and is inclined to take notice of some new discoveries and a new chronology. It was in fact just after the Rome show that researchers came across testimony at one of the numerous court cases in which Caravaggio was involved (the first, as it happens) when a barber’s boy recalled, under oath, when he had first seen this striking figure in the city. It was at the workshop of a Sicilian painter called Lorenzo Carli, where he did piecework copying portraits, and religious icons.  Details of the very humble circumstances of this employment have emerged, and this does seem to be where Caravaggio started his painting career – quite a different course of events from the accepted sequence of works roughly filling the years since 1592 when he is last recorded in Milan, and Rossella Vodret has been at pains to identify the actual sequence of the works themselves, many of which are not firmly rooted in the circumstances of their creation.  And although there are still some who go through some imaginative acrobatics to support the idea that his career as a painter began before, the arrival in Lorenzo Carli’s workshop in 1595 or early 1596 is now fully validated.

A Copyist 

This is a major change to the stranglehold that conservative attitudes to Caravaggio’s work have insisted on, and due to a single archival discovery published in the Archivio di Stato exhibition catalogue in 2011. More recent discoveries have been harder to assimilate, but it is good to have more detail provided in the catalogue by the discoverer of Gaspare Celio’s 1614 biography of Caravaggio, Riccardo Gandolfi. It gives us more information about the artist’s situation when he reached Rome, and the humble circumstances he found himself in before he was eventually taken up, in the summer of 1597, by Cardinal Del Monte. Celio apparently makes it clear that the Cardinal wanted Caravaggio to work for him as a copyist, and this side of his activity is not really covered by this show, which tends to assume all things really got going after he had been given this powerful protection. The opportunity in other words of seeing the proliferation of versions of the early designs, like the Boy peeling Fruit, and the Boy bitten by a Lizard, as the products of this activity as a copyist, is underplayed in Milan, but at least the superb Longhi version of the latter subject is there instead of being regarded as an unauthorised replica of the National Gallery painting. We should respect the idea that at the start of his career he was considered a copyist, so that when Baglione speaks of him as doing the Musicians ‘ritratti dal naturale’ he did indeed mean copied from life. Del Monte does seem to have used him as a copyist too, for a painting in Alessandro del Monte’s 1628 inventory Un quadro grande della Madonna, et Christo in braccio S. Anna et S. Gioseppe con cornici nere mano del Caravaggio, et copia di Raffaele. It is quite possible that this mimetic ability was behind his original occupation on arrival in the city.  It was a repetitive function that he owned and he himself  may not have realised its significance until he came to Rome.  The idea that this might also be turned to appearances was most likely suggested by people he encountered, like Lorenzo Carli,  Prospero Orsi (himself a copyist) or Antiveduto Gramatica who likewise turned out images of famous people, gran capocciante as Baglione describes hum. And Keith Christiansen is right to assume that portraiture was an avenue that led him on, but so far none of the portraits where he initially showed this talent has survived, we are left with the memory of the portrait he did of the Prior of the hospital that he sold in the spring of 1597, and the various likenesses that are described in the sources  (usefully listed in Emilio Negro and Nicosetta Roio’s recent book, Caravaggio e il ritratto,  p. 137ff) .Apart from the handful of subjects he painted at this period, leading up to the Borghese Bacchus, we do not know the portraits he executed as a result of the application of his talent for copying to capture the looks of his innkeeper and friends, but we can count on them looking different from the repetitions  he did other people’s portraits of famous men. Still undetermined is the apparent ability Caravaggio demonstrates in being able to repeat the features of models he had used previously, as the comparisons made by Rossella Vodret of the St Jeromes in Monserrat and Villa Borghese show; he evidently memorised them to repeat their likenesses in another place.


Many of his paintings have been subjects of detailed scientific enquiry, which has revealed important information about the materials he used, but these dry facts do not necessarily shine much light on how they differ from those of other contemporaries. In the past, the employment of a ground has been key to understanding the date, by association with other works. It now seems that Caravaggio was much more sensitive to the overall ground tonality than just to follow the colour that he previously found effective with other subjects: he thought of it in reverse, so that a whole area might be left with a virtually unvaried tint, against which the features that caught his eye would have relief.  And certain features, perhaps whole figures, were given a particular ground colouring, so that their features could be more easily discovered. This is particularly the case with paintings leading up to the Del Monte period, for we can see that the grey pigment in the areas left ‘a riserva’ in works like the Fort Worth Cardsharps  (not in show) is an actual pigment extended to prepare for the easier resolution of flesh tones of the figures. There is certainly a period – before the darker ground of the Contarelli Chapel pictures –  when he used a lighter ground, but it seems even with works as early as the Boy bitten by a Lizard he saw no need to define further those areas that corresponded with the tonality that he had chosen for the ground, and what was seen as grey ground is in reality a subsequent preparation for a reserved area of a single feature or figure.    Larry Keith notes that even in the late Salome from the National Gallery the old woman’s clasped hands had a reserved pinkish ground, even though in the end the entire feature is in the shadows between the other figures. At the same time, it was clearly a major change to move to a studio (in the Del Monte period) with controlled lighting, which resulted in his subjects being isolated by a shaft of light, of which one of the consequences was that the background was dark, and even black in the case  of later works like the Seven Acts of Mercy (not in the show) or the Martyrdom of St Ursula. But the darker ground of the Hartford Ecstasy of St Francis, chosen evidently because of the night scene Caravaggio represented, is not necessarily a reason to put it closer (as R. Vodret does, not shared by Oliver Tostmann, who dates it 1595/96)  to the Contarelli Chapel paintings: an early date is assured by comparison with the age of the angel, not distant from that of the model for the Boy peeling Fruit, or the Cupid in the Metropolitan Musicians.


Ever since Christiansen’s article on his technique in the Art Bulletin in 1986, the incisions that occur with increasing frequency from the time of  the Contarelli Chapel paintings, have been connected with his use of models, as a direct response to the position of his subject in a certain pose, rather than being connected to the projection of a design. And the Milan show’s lighting of the painting makes it easier to discern some of these lines that are usually visible best in raking light. The discovery of some contours on the preparation, often discernible only occasionally or where the upper layers have been abraded, gave the idea that Caravaggio did indeed draw, and there are indications that these were the precursors to the incisions,  an innovation needed because he not only increasingly adopted a darker ground, but also worked in a studio with limited lighting, the cellar that contemporaries taunted him to come out from into the light of day.    Nothing that has emerged in relation to the drawn profiles that have been seen in or under the paintings has given support to the idea that Caravaggio planned a composition by means of drawing, and perhaps this aversion to graphics should be restated as an avoidance of graphic planning. He does after all arrive at outlines, but this is because they are the limits of volumes, rather than something set out in his mind before they are there on the canvas. The incisions are the artist’s shorthand for recording the position of his model, and are an alternative to the black contours that occasionally become visible (largely as a result of abrasion) under the successive layers of paint.


Most interesting in the review of the images presented in sequence in Milan, where the other well-known feature of his brushwork, the abbozzo, takes its place in his response to the subject. Just like the prominent accent of light that is recorded with bold stroke for the edge of armour, so larger areas of reflection can be recorded at first with a zig-zag of white lead or colour.  These accents are gradually refined so that the tone of the area is blended until they match what the artist perceives in front of him. Because we can now understand the priorities Caravaggio had in starting a representation, the bold strokes that mark certain features have greater significance, because they not only enabled him to call his model to return to a pose that he had seen when he was working previously, but also they are the tips of the process whereby he matched his image with the appearances in front of him. Falcucci has brought to light the wider areas with which he recorded the more prominent features, and the bold zig-zag pattern of the brush following folds and other forms. It is also true that Caravaggio used a range of brushes with different textures that frequently mimic those that he had to copy, materials as well as muscles and flesh, and also could be counted on to expose differentially the underlying tonality. The general tonality of an area would be built up with successive layers, and finally enlivened with colours like red cinnabar on areas of flesh, just as the more pronounced shadows would be glazed with a black pigment suspended in gel, or the brighter moments in flesh tones would be enlivened with a modulated mixture of white highlighting.

While Caravaggio undoubtedly was economical in his range of pigments, preferring readily available earth colours rather than more expensive cinnabar and lapis lazuli, it is noticeable how the shelter with a powerful cardinal like Del Monte gave him an opportunity to refine his range of colours as well as tonality; the works done for him seem to be more heavily worked with a richer variety of pigments, and at last he had proper materials to work with.  But the method he employed would continue to be the same: he marked first the most obvious visually significant features, and he then proceeded to make successive passages correspond with the light and shade that he observed.  It is clear that each figure was studied separately, and indeed each pose demanded observation in the strong light that prevailed in the corner of the studio that he had adapted to this purpose. Frequently he painted the models partly unclothed, and added the drapery afterwards. Whether this was as a result of a patron’s direction,as perhaps with the genitalis of Isaac in the Uffizi Sacrifice of Isaac, or other motives – the drapery that covers the arm of the Baptist in the Corsini Gallery painting – it was not because he needed to prepare the whole figure from its anatomy. The way in which single figures like the ones in the 1606 Supper at Emmaus (still over the road in the Brera) are distinct the one from the other, sometimes in a slightly different scale because of their association at different distances in the painting but not in the studio where they were observed, shows that the artist depended on observation of their features in a very strong light, the same pose in his studio each time.  And while there are distortions due to optical effects, particularly in the paintings done during the period with Del Monte, we cannot assume that he took this equipment with him wherever he went – he controlled the lighting and captured the chiaroscuro because that was the way he saw things. The interest in optics, not generally acknowledged in  this show, is an undoubted element in some but not all of the early paintings and is as much due to the excitement that his supporters had for the new imagery that they could see first in the camera obscura images that could now be generated with a lens in the place of what had been a pinhole, and then in the larger images projected from a concave mirror.

In later works there is even much less white lead, and this further reduced the light in his chiaroscuro. But many paintings have been subjected to much wear, so that the glazes that he was evidently capable of using at all stages of his career have often been quite worn away, leaving the emphatic abbozzo strokes as if they were all that he intended. It is quite instructive to look closely at the sequence of brushstrokes, and the accents  of light, deep shadow and colour that he evidently added in to approximate to the range of tones that he had in front of him. We should not assume that the few strokes with which he characterised the executioner in the Martyrdom of St Ursula is how the artist intended to show his features., however strikingly effective they still are.

Just as the comparison of the colour of the ground is not an infallible guide to chronology, leading from the light grey tone  of some of the early works to the black of the Seven Acts of Mercy (not included in the show !) the variation of technique is not an infallible guide to dating. There is already an appreciation of the ground as a general tonality in areas of the Boy bitten by a Lizard, and the darker ground of the Hartford Ecstasy of St Francis should not by itself make one date it much later than the Boy peeling Fruit, because it uses the same model at an age when even a year would lake a considerable difference to his features. And it should by now be apparent that Girolamo Vittrice continued to have access to his early discovery after the artist was taken up by Del Monte, so the Louvre Fortune Teller  (not in the show) can well be after the Capitoline version, which happens to be the only painting in the show that originally belonged to the Cardinal. This is perhaps due to the politics of loans: there are none from the Capitoline or Villa Borghese collections, while the Judith and Holofernes from Palazzo Barberini is there now, instead of when it would have been really relevant to have in Milan last year with the newly discovered French version of the subject.