Caravaggio Assoluto: Curators of Rome’s landmark exhibit contextualize the artist

by Francesco BURANELLI and Rossella VODRET

There is also a certain Michelangelo da Caravaggio who is doing extraordinary things in Rome. […] But one must also take the chaff with the grain: thus he does not study his art constantly so that after two weeks of work he will sally forth for two months together with his rapier at his side and his servant-boy after him going from one tennis court to another always ready to argue or fight so that he is impossible to get along with. […]. Yet as for his painting it is very delightful and an exceptionally beautiful style one for our young artists to follow.

K. van Mander, Het Schilderboek, 1603 -1604

On the 18th of July 1610, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – one of the greatest painters in the history of Italy – ended his short turbulent life at the young age of 39, at the Santa Maria Ausiliatrice Hospital of Porto Ercole, in the Southern Coast of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. About him, André Berne-Joffroy stated: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”

Caravaggio Assoluto

The peculiar elements that make Caravaggio different from all the other painters of his time are in the creative process and the techniques he used. At the end of the 16th century, artists used to follow a traditional training in the art workshops, where they spent years drawing ancient sculptures – which were very numerous in Rome – or copying the works realized by great masters of the past – mainly Raffaello – so that, in the end, they were able to portray an idealized representation of Nature. On the contrary,

Caravaggio subverted this academic system completely, and chose to represent reality as it actually was, without any hierarchical order of subjects, or pre-established aesthetic criteria, and no idealization whatsoever. His first characteristic was, therefore, that of making his painting “from real life”, by using models, and drawing inspiration from what he happened to see in Rome’s alleys. This is how his most renowned early paintings were created, such as The Boy with a Basket of Fruit, The Fortune Teller or The Cardsharps. But that’s not all. The dimension of the subjects portrayed is also “natural:” he painted life-size figures, and put no other subjects on the scene except the ones able to capture the peak of the action, whatever it was. Interestingly, the action always takes place in the foreground in order to have a stronger physical and emotional impact on the viewer. This way, the viewer actually enters the virtual space of the painting, along with the other characters, who are just like him/her, and therefore becomes integral part of the subject portrayed. To enhance the blurring of boundaries between real space and painting, in many works there is an element that seems to reach out to our physical space, as a “bridge” between these two realities: the withered vine leaves hanging from the table in the Young Sick Bacchus, the precarious placement of the Basket of Fruit at the table’s edge, and, even more clearly, the basket of fruit in the Supper at Emmaus (London), the neck of the violin in the foreground of The Musicians and of The Lute Player (St. Petersburg), the tenor recorder in the New York’s version, the dagger of The Cardsharps, and many others, to cite only the early works. This artifice reaches its full potential, along with other ones, in the sorrowful gaze of Nicodemus directed to the viewer in the Entombment of Christ at the Vatican Pinacoteca, and, later on, in the great Beheading of Saint John The Baptist in Malta, where the portrayed scene seems to be the continuation of the Oratory space: the size of the canvas perfectly coincides with the size of the rear wall, and the direction of the light in the painting is consistent with the position of the windows in the real space. The result is that the border of the wall vanishes completely, and the dark Oratory turns into an evocative theatre, where the viewer participate in the tragic event in the exact moment of its happening, and the Beheading is portrayed with such a realism that, if you look at it in the dim light, it will be hard to believe it is fictional.

Another fundamental element is the light: not the “universal” one, with no precise direction, traditionally used by the artists, but a powerful ray coming from a particular source, which is usually located out of the painting and comes from the top left corner. With few exceptions, the scene represented is usually dark, with the beam of light shining violently on it, creating very bright reflections and dark shadows. Conceived this way, the light is more realistic than the “universal” one, and is only used to enlighten what Caravaggio wanted to point out. He was so disinterested in what was out of the spotlight that – especially in his later works – he often left the dark parts unfinished, or only roughly sketched, as if to say they don’t exist. However, paradoxically, the shadow becomes a protagonist itself, and a crucial part of the composition, because it is from there that men, things and, above all, strong emotions, emerge.

What was Caravaggio’s painting technique? We know from the sources and diagnostic analysis carried out on his works that, apart from his early works, Caravaggio did not use to make preparatory sketches on the canvas, but only quick “incisions” made in the still-wet undercoat, as reference lines for the composition he was going to paint. From 1600 to 1606, when he fled from Rome, incisions can be found in all his works (such as the Madonna and Child with St. Anne at the Borghese Gallery in Rome), to be reduced progressively in the paintings realized in Naples, Malta and Sicily, showing that he had gained greater confidence and a more refined mastery in the composition of paintings. In the tragic years of his escape, even the palette of colors changed, with a high prevalence of pale shades of brown, and increasingly darker tones, including black (such as in the Seven Works of Mercy, in the Pio Monte della Misericordia Church in Naples). By that time, Caravaggio had completely revolutionized the traditional methods of painting. The different phases of creation were not separated any more, but realized in one go, finding a perfect pictorial unity in which preparation, incisions and overlaying of colors intertwined in a single creative act. The expressive power of Caravaggio’s art lies in this surprising synergy of structural and visual elements, which conveys the strength of Caravaggio’s “Word,” and still fascinates us all.

About the Authors


Co-curator of the recent “Caravaggio” Exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, Francesco Buranelli was the General Director of the Vatican Museums from 2002 to 2007. He is member of numerous Etruscan and archaeological institutes, and has represented the Vatican on a number of scientific exhibition committees. In 2003 he became the coordinator of the Holy See for the Unesco Convention.





Rossella Vodret is currently the Superintendent of Rome’s Polo Museale, and formerly of the National Gallery of Ancient Art of Barberini Palace in Rome. She is the author and curator of many exhibitions on the 17th century Roman art, among which the recent “Caravaggio” Exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome.