Nuovi studi su Caravaggio; indagate le opere romane (English text only)


Maria Beatrice de Ruggieri, Giulia Silvia Ghia

Caravaggio: Opere a Roma. 2 vol

Silvana Editoriale, Cinisello Balsamo, Milano 2016 (English Text)
Original Text

The two volumes that have recently been published are an impressive addition to the literature. Edited by Rossella Vodret, lately Soprintendente in Rome, and responsible for the exhibition (initiated Prof Claudio Strinati) celebrating the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death in 1610.  it is a massive publication of nearly 1,300 pages and hundreds of illustrations. It sets out the scientific examination of twenty-two Caravaggios in Rome,and is useful in presenting a lot of data resulting from recent analysis, including both x-rays, infrared reflectography, macrophotography, photographs in raking light, and pigment analysis, etc.  Many of these studies have been available in scattered publications that are often hard to access, so this comprehensive study should be welcomed, and the separate articles on each painting relating to the history of each, the pictorial technique employed and the conservation history, would seem to provide a good foundation for a definitive understanding of what Caravaggio’s achievement consists of, in these works.  Although the illustrations are useful, I do reflect that in many ways they and the associated data could be better presented in an IT archive, for inevitably the printed page does not allow for the same degree of choice and access.  In the first volume are studies by Dr Vodret, Giorgio Leone, Marco Cardinali, Maria Beatrice de Ruggieri and Giulia Silvia Ghia, as well as numerous others of a scientific nature, while the second is devoted to the entries on the paintings themselves.  It would be fair to say that the majority of the scientific analysis is of great value as it sets out details of the works’ execution and condition, and these will be of enduring importance.  It is also true that this data, like the historical information that is provided in the sources and archives, is not always interpreted with impartiality in the accompanying articles, and perhaps scientific data is not always the most reliable means towards accurate attribution, as the occasional projection towards other works shows.

Such a large publication has necessarily been some time in preparation, and in reality research over the last five years have only been incorporated in it sporadically, (the Editor notes that the MSS were all submitted by 2013) and the academic conclusions of the work are really associated with the quatercentenary exhibition of 2010 at the Quirinal, for which dr Vodret had overall responsibility as the recently appointed Soprintendente. It was a deliberately selective show, with the intention of only presenting works that were irreproachable in attribution and provenance. In some ways its curating by the director of the Vatican museums represented the complete rehabilitation of an artist who in his time was as controversial as Galileo – who has yet to be completely exonerated for his supposedly heretic views. Contrary to what was assumed up to the 2010 exhibition, an increasing body of information shows that Caravaggio’s painting career started only in 1596, and the speculations about where he was or what he was doing in the four years before his arrival in Rome are so far without foundation. Shortly afterwards, in 2011, the researchers at the Archivio di Stato discovered the July 1597 testimony of a barber’s boy, Pietro Paolo Pellegrini, who under duress gave Caravaggio’s details to a court that needed to hear his testimony, which among other things included the information that he had first encountered him at Lorenzo Carli’s workshop during Lent of 1596. Giorgio’s Leone’s excellent article showing that the Capitoline Fortune Teller i(acquired by Del Monte) is painted over a composition that is recognisably a devotional image of the Madonna close to those that came out of Carli’s workshop is additional evidence that whatever Caravaggio was doing, between Milan 1592 and Rome in the winter of 1595/96, his art as we know it starts in 1596. There is simply no evidence of the presence of this difficult character on the streets of Rome before Pellegrini’s sighting of him. Most of the studies in the these two volumes simply ignore the implications of a pictorial career that started when the artist was 25, because it seems accommodating such a miraculous conversion is more incredible than  Paul’s revelation on the way to Damascus.


Originals and repetitions 

The twenty-two paintings are not actually all of the same order of authenticity and originality, some being replicas, and they are not a complete representation of the originals actually in Rome. It would be nice to think that we could make distinctions between Caravaggio’s undoubtedly personal technique and that of his competitors, but although much effort is expended on finding antecedents for some of its characteristics, the possibly illuminating comparisons are not there.  And challenging though it is in the case of different versions, to determine  which came first, there is still an underlying reluctance to accept the idea that such a great artist could have repeated himself, whereas his ability to copy was what made him such an extraordinary subject for those who met him and saw what he could do. The subject is a fascinating one and relates to several of the designs that are central to these Studies. but is not tackled in a satisfactory way here. Much space is given to the two replicas of the St Francis in Roman collections, but no real discussion of what used to be called the original of the Capitoline Shepherd Corydon in the Galleria Doria. If we accept the idea that the Louvre Fortune Teller  (99 by 131cm) is later than the one that belonged to Del Monte now in the Capitoline Museum – 115 by 150 cm, and most second editions in his work seem to  be smaller,  it is relevant in  considering Gerolamo Vittrice’s continuing patronage of Caravaggio even as he was working for the Cardinal.

it is good to know the key role that the Contarelli commission played – it was the first large scale challenge to the artist who had previously been limited to half-length figures. The recent realisation that the Adoration of the Shepherds, formerly in Palermo, is not a work executed in Caravaggio’s Sicilian stay, but is the altarpiece commission by Fabio de Nutis in Rome in 1600, makes a big difference in understanding its place in the artist’s work. Michele Cuppone has also recently proposed that the payment in May 1602 made by Ottavio Costa to Caravaggio was for the Judith and Holofernes, now in Palazzo Barberini (and conventionally thought of as of 1599/1800), and the evolution of Caravaggio’s use of incisions in the execution of his paintings is more logically explained when this work follows the Contarelli chapel commission. These discoveries came too late to be included in these Studies, but others seem more random in their exclusion.   The insistence on the consideration of whether the Cappuccini St Francis or the one from Carpineto is by Caravaggio, both extensively studied in recent years in pursuit of the original, is bizarre in pointedly excluding the shape of the composition as represented by copies, and the pentimenti  quite evident in the ex-Cecconi version of the composition that point to its primacy. They are interesting as slightly simplified replicas, presumably done by the artist. The St Francis design relates also to that of the  Cremona painting, that is  usually dated much later. The recent cleaning of this painting, the best preserved of the group and still retaining the frame painted with arabesques by Caravaggio himself, has shown that it is linked with them, particularly by the saio whose identical patches and holes show that it must be the garment borrowed by Caravaggio from Gentileschi, and returned to him shortly before the Baglione libel trial in 1603.  Equally, the Studies, while not being devoted to paintings like the Hermitage Lute Player  as it is out of the territory, still regard the painting formerly on loan to the Metropolitan Museum as another autograph  version, whereas it has been comprehensively assessed as an inferior later work in a forensic musical analysis by David van Edwards, President of the Lute Society.  The most extensive description of the original Lute Player painting when it belonged to Cardinal del Monte is in Baglione’s biography, and it cannot remotely be identified with  the painting on loan to the Metropolitan Museum for near twenty-five years. While it is still paraded as the prime example of Caravaggio’s ability to repeat himself, there are much more convincing instances.  As the close analysis of Caravaggio’s technique emerges, it does seem as though the close finish and absence of incisions (almost complete apart from the mark on the ear) in the Capitoline Shepherd Corydon  (still described at St John the Baptist) is more appropriate as a work done for Cardinal del Monte during his initial stay with him, and so is the ‘Coridone’ of his 1628 vendita all’incanto. It is inconvenient in the sense that the Mattei inventories do refer to a St John the Baptist, but following the sale to Cardinal Pio  (who bought it and the Coridone) it is quite clear that the original St John was an oblong painting, with a lamb as in Scannelli’s description,  which is last listed in a Panini valuation of the later eighteenth century, and bought seemingly by Gavin Hamilton.  So it is not only the incongruity of the ram (no attribute for this saint)  but also the pictorial technique that points to this painting belonging with Del Monte’s patronage and the attention to detail of that relatively protected period, when the artist found an ideal climate for the development of his extraordinary talents. And one of the really significant works in Rome that is omitted altogether from the studies is the first version of the Taking of Christ, a work done for Ciriaco Mattei but for some recent years embroiled in a legal limbo from which it has yet to emerge. As we know from the restorer’s account and the published x-rays, the painting is full of the artist’s struggle to assemble the figures, just as we can see was the case in the Contarelli Chapel paintings. The comparison with the second version, now in Dublin, shows that Caravaggio was inclined to edit some of his designs, usually making a significant reduction of the dimensions, and correcting various details. The occasional appearance of new discoveries can have a seismic effect on previously comfortably assumed attributions, and a pattern of development can be obscured by wrong identifications even in terms of sequence.



The studies do bring out the important role not only of the well-known incisions, which were first noticed about a hundred years ago, but also the underlying use of pronounced outlines, brushstrokes that sometimes look as though they were made by a felt-tipped pen. These are often only seen when the covering layers of paint are removed, as when the pictorial surface is damaged, or when modern scientific techniques manage to make them readable. The progression to a darker ground, characterised by the Contarelli paintings and thereafter, could well have made it necessary to adopt a different technique for Caravaggio to retain in shorthand the position of important features – in the early paintings it does seem as though a feature like an ear or a shoulder was significant in holding the pose. The observation of broader features, like a ground specific to a figure or accents of white to indicate what would become a highlight, are interesting features of the Studies. But the scientific data does not clear up what the incisions were really for, and although they are said to occur in other Seicento painters like Saraceni, Spadarino and Regnier, these are later instances and it is debatable if they had the same purpose. for them For Christiansen they had been an element of design, and although there are instances like the Judith and Holofernes and the Madonna dei Palafrenieri, when they are extensive enough to look like a drawing, it does not explain why they are so inconsistent and not apparently ‘inventive’ as you would expect from an artist feeling his way towards a complete composition.  A couple of ideas, new to me, that are proposed are firstly that they represent the result of transfer from cartoons, or that Caravaggio was establishing the outlines of figures from cast shadows, that could even have been projected from a flat mirror such as he had in his lodgings in 1605.  Although it is attractive to think of these shorthand accents could be the visible traces of a larger graphic design largely obliterated by successive layers of paint, common sense rather excludes the shadow theory in the modus operandi of a painter who was known to need a model throughout rather than at the outset of a painting.  Many of the lines and marks do not constitute outlines as would be seen among the shadows on the wall,  (or indeed evidence of a cartoon – where is the pouncing ? ) and although this is attractive when seen in the light of the legend of the origin of painting transmitted by Pliny the Elder, it is  an unsatisfactory solution when considering Caravaggio’s paintings. Since they have been shown to belong to each figure separately, so much that the first may be in the still wet ground and others scratched in when this had dried, it does seem as though they belong to the observation from life of each model.



There is, in this study generally, an instinctive opposition to the idea that Caravaggio had anything to do with optics, as though such a link would diminish the artist’s virtuosity and originality. This is despite the fact that there are in the paintings a number of instances of what appear to be optical distortions, such as are the result of the limited focus of the primitive optical devices that were available to those in the circles Caravaggio frequented. And the ambitions of other contemporaries, like Scipione Pulzone, Cigoli and Santi di Tito,  to imitate appearances exactly gives away some of the motivation that drove Caravaggio’s patrons to exploit his facility with the imitation of nature. So the debate as to if the artist used live models and worked from the object seems counterproductive, especially as his version of appearances were immediately recognised as something that had the force of natural magic. All innovations in the field of vision affect people enormously, and apart from geometric perspective there had been nothing new for centuries, so it was to be expected that this new interpretation of appearances would be sensational. This guy made people revise how they saw things around them. It is hard to get away from the fact that he saw things differently from other people, and yet most art historians go to great lengths to show the precedents for what he had done, the coincidences of pose,  in the work of his elders and betters.  And this despite the fact that he himself had no use for the models of his predecessors, spent no time training on the examples that apprentices had to copy, and that he declared that he could find plenty of images from the features of people around him. In what are rightly regarded as the watershed works of the Cappella Contarelli he demonstrated that he could not only convincingly counterfeit the appearance of objects, but that he could also create a much more convincing illusion of figures next to each other than anyone had done previously. Every account of his working practice says that he worked from life, that he could not perform a single brushstroke without the model in front of him. This should not be read a meaning that he was helpless without a camera obscura  or a concave lens, but his paintings were born in the infancy of an optical revolution of which not only Galileo and topographical painters from Van Wittel to Canaletto  were prominent examples, but also Athanasius Kircher who certainly used Giovanni Battista Della Porta’s explorations as the basis of real demonstrations of projected images. It was not easy however to make the optical effects that Della Porta spoke of come true, let alone transform them into concrete images.  It took the peculiar vision (rather than imagination) of Caravaggio to translate this reading of what appearances are into images. The obsessive attention to detail that we see in the early works are the result of this experience, just as they also betray the distorting limits of the equipment that he had at his disposal.  Since he already saw  things differently from other people he had no difficulty in capturing what he saw in two dimensions without considering the structure of the objects he represented, or the geometrical perspective that everyone else in the profession had to master.  The representation of volume was evidently one of the most striking effects that Caravaggio demonstrated from the start. Whether it was in single figures, or in an assembly of a number, as in the Contarelli Chapel, his use of light as a unifying element was from an instinctive ability, undoubtedly encouraged by the admirers among the amateurs and intellectuals who surrounded him.  It does not mean that this was done without the close observation of real images, and it is really important to analyse (as this series of studies does not) the impact of the various lenses and mirrors had on his observation of detail. The early works are seen from close to, and the still-life detail is accurately reported as if it was seen in a camera obscura. The half-length figures like the Bacchus in the Uffizi are observed with such attention to detail that the distortions of the fairly small concave mirror that produced the images he worked from are plainly visible, and what Antonio Criminisi called single view metrology would reveal the adjustments of focus necessary to move to the adjacent detail. If the Contarelli Chapel paintings were a watershed, they were that also because Caravaggio’s equipment was improved, and the figures  are seen from a longer focus, with less of the adjustments that characterise the early figure subjects. While all this is in fact incompatible with ordinary perspective, we can observe how the inconveniences of geometrical perspective are gradually eliminated or avoided, and in reality the artist progresses to a stage where he does not need the optical equipment that was the first vehicle of his astonishing observation. In a way, even though the early works are obsessive in their faithfulness to the real image that he saw, the later appreciation of the variety of limbs and hands is closer to the truth; it is one area that Caravaggio’s anatomy had been, to start with, generic rather than specific.



For being such a difficult character, it is really fascinating to observe closely the difference that his various patrons made on Caravaggio’s art, and therefore on the man himself, and this is an angle quite ignored in these studies   It was the talent-spotting Prospero Orsi who realised, like the impresario who recognised the young voice of a Charlotte Church or Luciano Pavarotti, that Caravaggio had an exceptional talent for reproducing faithfully what he saw. This could have been employed simply to reproduce endlessly arabesque designs, or repeatedly copy the features of famous people, but the potential was much more intriguing to a generation of natural philosophers whose passions are successively reflected in what the artist painted. The reality is that it was Orsi who realised that this individual had exceptional talents, steered him towards making images, since he could copy fruit and much else much more realistically than he could himself as a professional decorator.  Perhaps it was the innkeeper Tarquinio who had him paint his likeness ((to pay for his lodging)  and so start him on a career of painting portraits we hardly know, and his friendship with Ottavio Leoni sparked the mechanics of capturing likenesses of people rather than things. The experimentation that he did with Orsi’s relatives, the Vittrici, led to some spectacular works, like the Flight into Egypt, the Fortune Teller and the Mary Magdalene, (the idea that it was Mgr Fantino Petrignani who inspired the Flight is most likely far beyond the charitable intent with which he gave Caravaggio a room). The Vittrici (and by extension Prospero Orsi) seem to have fostered the extraordinary genius in their company to extend the range of his ability to record  and represent, and probably to endow these images with subjects. Did the Mary Magdalene actually start with such a title ? more likely her attributes were added to a picture that was much modern in concept, an observation of a mother sleeping.  The scientific analysis of the Flight is not conclusive as to the  original subject, but it does not seem to have started with the theme it ended up with, and the virtuoso observations of geological samples, natural history specimens, not to mention the incongruity of Joseph’s role as a lectern for the angel, are incongruous. It is almost palpable to read the enthusiasm of the circle of Del Monte at the subjects that Caravaggio painted for him, providing exotic props like the (broken) instruments and outdated music, as well as recording the extraordinary passages of light in glass and to represent what they thought of as the most entrancing models.   None of them are conventional, and it is only by stretching the imagination that they could be given titles that corresponded to familiar themes. They were quadri private that were not for general release.  The execution of the Contarelli chapel pictures was probably not inspired by Del Monte, but by Benedetto Giustiniani, who as has been suggested was ‘il suo cardinale’ in Baglione’s words, and the correction to the Calling of St Matthew with the addition of St Peter is probably the result of his steering of the project, with advice as to who should have been present at this seminal moment. There must have been several sponsors of this extraordinary commission to an untested painter, including his friend Onorio Longhi who might be the source of the architectural background from Bramante that in the event Caravaggio was unable to work with.  It is more realistic to think of Benedetto, rather than his younger brother, as the real motivator of the commission and the most dedicated patron of the revolutionary imagery. It must have been he who provided the Hebrew text for the original St Matthew,. His friend Girolamo Mattei was also attentive to the omissions that Caravaggio made in his Bible stories, or the superfluity of a woman at the Taking of Christ, or the addition of the soldiery in the second version. Because Caravaggio was not only susceptible to suggestions, he actually needed guidance in producing pictures that would pass the hostility of the audience that saw them, and we need to look for these contributions rather than assume the artist’s ownership of all their iconography.


Unfinished paintings 

The conclusion drawn that the Borghese St Jerome  was left unfinished is a fascinating aspect of these Studies, and it prompts one to look for other pictures that Caravaggio’s tumultuous life caused him to leave without completing. The Giustiniani inventory of 1638 lists a famous courtesan ‘ancora imperfetta’  which is among several paintings by Caravaggio from the collection that have still not been found, and the haste with which the artist moved around in Naples, Malta and Sicily raises the possibility of others. The Madonna of the Rosary , when it was engraved by Lucas Vorsterman, has a couple of figures missing, including the head of the donor, and the detail of his face reproduced in the pages of the Studies does point to a different hand. Was this virtuoso performance, with its incredible range of (18) hands, a demonstration done for a client who wanted to demonstrate how this spectacular individuality could be achieved? And was the second Judith and Holofernes left unfinished as the artist left for Malta, and completed with details that were emblematic of Caravaggio’s subject-matter, but not all appropriate to the painting in question ? It would open another window into his state of mind as he desperately reached out to the Order of St John to give him sanctuary, and the protective status of a Knight that would make him less vulnerable to the pursuit by the remaining Tomassonis.

From life or from other sources

There is even speculation in these volumes that Caravaggio did not actually work from a live model, but since this goes so much against the painter’s notorious dependence on painting from life it is not to be taken too seriously. It is more fruitful to look for the learning in Caravaggio’s patrons rather than to continue to speculate on the range of artistic sources and personal beliefs that the artist is seen as having experienced. The circumstances of Caravaggio’s existence do not often allow him much time to accomplish the iconographic or theological research that is often projected on him. The pastime of trying to uncover sources from poses in earlier works, or to recognise his working process in terms of painters like Tintoretto, El Greco or even Peterzano  and Cavalier d’Arpino, seems quite empty when reviewing the extraordinary theatrics of the actual assembly of actors Caravaggio used. In considering this working process, not enough concentration has been put on the inevitable conclusion that each of the figures, particularly in the multiple figure compositions, is studied separately and often in the same position in the studio, but also sometimes added in with a different light source. The succession of models accounts for the crowding of features that often occupy the same fictive space in the pictures, and the anomalies are not always corrected in the subsequent editions of the design. Once again, we have to return to the man himself, a troubled but extraordinarily gifted personality, who disavowed any dependence on his predecessors or the antique, and reveals all the time the dependence on the model in front of him, and was reviled for that too. He was disruptive as an example, because it persuaded many of the younger generation to abandon the study the fondamenti del disegno  and rebel against the established order; one of the consequences being than many of these young foreigners applied themselves to working directly from the model with no preparatory drawings. Paradoxically, close scientific analysis of his works does not bring us closer to the man, nor to picture the commotion he caused.

© Clovis Whitfield

10 September 2016v