Caravaggio Reconsidered (Slightly Revised)

We’ve always been drawn to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s art. A brawler, fond of the grape, prison escapee and quite likely if he had a cell phone at the time, capable of leaving Mel Gibson-esque voice mails. He’s also the most written about artist of the modern era. More than Shepard Fairey’s ‘hope thing’. Caravaggio’s body of work continues to inspire, perplex and in many ways galvanize our societal descent into post-textual visual metaphorical soup.

A contingent have mantained Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting. If so, its natural artistic expression is being left behind along with production moving to Vancouver, etc. and green screening everything. His alleged influence now pales compared to the retinal violence afforded by ritual Autodesk and Avid abuse. ‘We’ll fix it in post’. But maybe that’s ironic full circle.

Back to Caravaggio the man. Now David Hockney for one thinks he’s finally figured out how Caravaggio did it – his fantastic surreal lighting – after all those centuries.

In effect, he pieced his compositions together from a series of vivid fragments thrown by a mirror and/or lens, in other words, a form of camera obscura. His work would then have been a sort of collage of quasi-photographic close ups – which is indeed exactly what it looks like.

The use of the camera obscura by artists was advocated by the Italian writer Giambattista della Porta in a best-selling book entitled Natural Magick (1584). Della Porta was in communication with Caravaggio’s patron Cardinal del Monte.

The art historian and dealer Clovis Whitfield, writing in the introduction to the catalogue of Caravaggio’s Friends and Foes exhibition at Whitfield Fine Art in London, suggests that in the early 17th century “such images… must have created as much wonder and amazement as 3D movies do today”. The science of optics was a hot topic of the day, and also a dangerous one. Della Porta found himself before the Inquisition and his books were banned in the 1590s. In 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned alive in Rome, in part for his scientific activities. If Caravaggio was using such methods, there would have been every reason to keep it quiet.

This idea remains highly controversial. To accept it would involve something like a paradigm shift in art history. [emphasis SLS] Many feel that for an old master to have worked in this way would have been cheating. Hockney thinks the reverse: “What Caravaggio was doing wasn’t easy, in fact it was wonderfully creative. It’s a very clever way to make a picture, very skilful, very original.”

Smoking-gun proof is lacking, but the camera obscura hypothesis explains a great deal about Caravaggio’s work, and life – the whiff of mystery and brimstone that hung about his reputation, for example.

Personally, I was impressed by a demonstration of the method Hockney suggests Caravaggio used. Hockney’s assistant, David Graves, stood outside in strong sunlight while his image was transmitted via a mirror and lens into a darkened room where I stood. He appeared upside down, and in a dark void (the result of the optical process). The colours of his face richly saturated as in a 17th-century painting. The effect was startlingly like a Caravaggio.

His precise technique is still a mystery and not just for competitive reasons. As noted, any such optical and lense experimentation had to be hidden because of Vatican-sanctioned suppression, torture, inquisition and murder for heresy. Just one more thing to keep in mind when a Bill Donohue-type declaims how much the Vatican supported open scientific inquiry. As one Fox thinker observed of Galileo, ‘He had to die eventually.’