The Caravaggio Influence

How the renegade Italian artist revolutionised image making forever

The Entombment of Christ (c.1603) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 300 × 203 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy

Caravaggio was an artist who divided opinions during his own lifetime. His method of presenting human figures with realistic and often rugged features met with fierce criticism.

Moreover, the stories we know of his life — including tales of brawling, debt and murder — have come to shape readings of his art as dramatic, untamed and impassioned. As such, his paintings seem to echo his reputation as an unflinching and controversial character.

Yet despite the defiant air with which he lived his life, Caravaggio became a hugely influential force on the succeeding generations of artists and has become one of the most revered painters in Western art.

Caravaggio’s challenge

Caravaggio developed his artistic reputation in Rome, where moved from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years became notorious for his distinctively unpretentious style.

Painting in Italy at the time had evolved from the High Renaissance style exemplified by the “perfect” forms of Michelangelo into a style of painting that took stylisation and exaggeration as a norm, known in art history as Mannerism.

The significance of Caravaggio in the story of art lies in his rejection of Mannerist artificiality and self-conscious “facility” — most especially the search for a kind of effortless grace in depicting the human form.

Against this grain, Caravaggio painted humans without pretence: his figures are weighty, corpulent, earthy and palpable. His methods often involved painting directly on canvas without prior preparation, and he would sometimes cover entire paintings with new compositions if he wasn’t happy the first time.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil and tempera on canvas. 141 × 196.2 cm. National Gallery, London, UK

Take The Supper at Emmaus, painted by Caravaggio in 1601. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. The two companions were not aware before, but nowthey see.

On their faces and in their body language we see the sudden awareness of Christ’s identity. This transformation is the central conceit of the painting and its dramatic intention.

Caravaggio dared to present the Biblical story at a dinner table that was clearly contemporary and familiar, using ordinary men as models with worn clothes and wrinkled features, and eschewing any attempt at idealisation.

His tendency to show apostles as dirty and unkempt was a point of criticism often levelled by those who felt such religious subjects required a more hallowed approach. Yet his technique was quickly seized upon by other artists who were impressed by the gravity and directness of his painting style.

Darkness prevailing

Caravaggio became known for a technique of extreme chiaroscuro: that is, a heavy use of shadows and light to add dramatic depth to his scenes. This leaning towards shadowy, and sometimes brooding depictions was another break with the Mannerist tradition, which as the 16th century progressed had moved towards a lighter, more pastel-toned colour palette.

One of the clearest ways we can see this influence is through Caravaggio’s frequent creation of abstract settings for his paintings. That is to say, the way he often placed his scenes against a dark background that contained little or no hint of a location.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 107 × 146 cm. Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany

A painting like The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows the moment when Thomas the Apostle declared he would not believe in Christ’s resurrection unless he could “put my hand into his side”, is set against an entirely black background. All of the drama is at the front of the painting, where the key elements such as faces and hands are highlighted against the backdrop.

The term for this style is tenebrism, a style of painting characterised by the use of light foregrounds contrasted against the background. The term is derived from the Italian “tenebroso” meaning “darkened” or “obscured.”

Christ Displaying His Wounds (c. 1630) by Giovanni Antonio Galli. Oil on canvas. 132.3 × 97.8 cm. Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland, UK

Now look at this painting, Christ Displaying His Wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli. Galli was a member of the Caravaggisti — followers of Caravaggio who used his dramatic techniques as a basis for their own work.

In a similar mode to The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, this painting shows a pale-skinned Jesus in a three-quarter view. The lower half of his body is cloaked in a white linen cloth, which is draped over his left arm and wrapped around his waist in rich folds.

There is much of Caravaggio in this work. The almost pitch-black background, the invisible light source that illuminates little but the main subject of the work, gives a distinct sense of the figure of Christ emerging from the shadows with the exact place or time of day impossible to determine.

Influence beyond Italy

Numerous artists beyond the borders of Italy were also captivated by the new stylistic developments occurring in Italy which Caravaggio had spearheaded.

Martyrdom of Saint Andrew (1628) by Jusepe de Ribera. Oil on canvas. 209 × 183 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary

The Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera, after travelling to Rome and Naples in the first quarter of the 17th century, adopted many of the techniques that Caravaggio mastered.

Indeed, artists from across Europe gravitated to Rome to explore and share in the various aspects of chiaroscuro and tenebrism that Caravaggio had pioneered.

Left: Peter Paul Rubens’ copy of Entombment of Christ (1612-1614). Oil on oak wood. 88.3 × 66.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, Canada. Right: The Entombment of Christ (c.1603) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 300 × 203 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy

Adam Elsheimer from Germany was one such artist. Another was the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who made his way to Italy in the early 1600s. Painters like Titian and Tintoretto were instrumental in Rubens’ development, as was Caravaggio, whose Entombment of ChristRubens went on to produce a copy of.

Drama uncensored

Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 145 × 195 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy

Caravaggio was admired — and sometimes also condemned — for the intense and unsettling realism of his work. He deliberately sought to create heightened drama in his scenes, utilising the vivid language of highlights and shadow to sharpen the details of gestures or facial expressions.

Take a work like Judith Beheading Holofernes(c.1599). Prior to Caravaggio, artists tended to show Judith holding or carrying the head of Holofernes after the slaying. These works tended to emphasise Judith’s wealth, making her fine clothes and jewellery a central emblem of the image and thereby underlining her noble status – and by implication, the nobleness of the deed.

Yet for Caravaggio, the bloody reality was of more obvious interest. In his work he chose to show the actual moment of the assassination.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. 146.5 × 108 cm. Uffizi, Florence

Some two decades later, deeply influenced by Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi created her own version of the scene, perhaps the most macabre depiction of the story ever painted.

In this work, Gentileschi gives us the most direct view possible, allowing us to witness the bloody force of the sword along with fierce attention paid to the harsh truthfulness of the slaying.

Caravaggio’s critics would later claim that his treatments of important Biblical subjects were disrespectful and indecent. But this did not stop his influence from extending to the generation of Baroque painters who followed him.

Few other artists of the era had such a mastery of narrative drama and physical gesture, and fewer still had the power to inspire and influence later artistic generations as far as the Romantics and Modernists.

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The Artist’s Models who made the Renaissance Masterpieces Possible

And their controversial relationships with their maestros

When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.

By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–1599 or 1602

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.

Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593, Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594. Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute, and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.

Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.

That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6, Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602, and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.

Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486)

Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.

Given the nickname, La Bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta), she is present in many of Botticelli’s paintings, such as Venus and Mars, 1485 and La Bella Simonetta, 1480–85. Sometimes, she can even appear multiple times in the same painting, as appears to be the case in Primavera, 1482.

As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.

DaVinci

Leonardo DaVinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?)

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.

While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.

Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.

The Face Behind the Art

Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.

Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.

Recent Restoration

Amor Vincit Omnia

On February 14th, we celebrate Valentine’s Day to honor Saint Valentine; or the Feast of Saint Valentine. Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romantic love in many regions around the world. 

Sip some champagne and share some chocolates with your favorite sweetie. Book a romantic dinner filled with Love Potions and Aphrodisiacs.

The Saint that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day is known officially as St. Valentine of Rome; to differentiate him from so many other Valentines on the list.  “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful—was a popular moniker between the second and eighth centuries A.D., so several martyrs over the centuries have carried this name.

Image result for Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

You can find Valentine’s skull in Rome.
The flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine is on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome (pictured above). In the early 1800s, the excavation of a catacomb near Rome yielded skeletal remains and other relics now associated with St. Valentine.

Image result for Saint Valentine of Rome flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine

Saint Valentine’s Day is the most popular day for couples to get engaged.

Image result for Saint Valentine of Rome

Saint Valentine of Rome was a priest who was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. He was martyred in 269 and was added to the calendar of saints by Pope Galesius in 496 and was buried on the Via Flaminia.

Relic of Saint Valentine

The relics of Saint Valentine were kept in the Church and Catacombs of San Valentino in Rome, which “remained an important pilgrim site throughout the Middle Ages until the relics of St. Valentine were transferred to the church of Santa Prassededuring the pontificate of Nicholas IV“. Today, the flower-crowned skull of Saint Valentine is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

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Cupid is the god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection.

Image result for love goddess Venus and the war god Mars with cupid

Sir Peter Paul Rubens painting of Venus, Mars and Cupid from the 1600s

He is often portrayed as the son of the love goddess Venus and the war god Mars. He is also known in Latin as Amor (“Love”).

Cupid is winged, allegedly because lovers are flighty and likely to change their minds, and boyish because love is irrational. His symbols are the arrow and torch, “because love wounds and inflames the heart.” The image above is a blindfolded, armed Cupid (1452/66) by Piero della Francesca.

Cupid sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is love said to be a child
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled

Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590s)

My favorite cupid is Caravaggio’s Victorious Love, also known as Love Conquers All (Amor Vincit Omnia), in which a brazenly naked Cupid tramples on emblems of culture and erudition representing music, architecture, warfare, and scholarship.

The motto comes from the Augustan poet Vergil, writing in the late 1st century BC.

Omnia vincit Amor: et nos cedamus Amori.
Love conquers all, and so let us surrender ourselves to Love.

Mystery of Anghiari Battle by Leonardo da Vinci “Cerca Trova-Who Seeks Find” War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of the Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

Fresco – Water Pigments (7.60 x 13 metres) 1568-1571 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Battle of Marciano
On the eastern wall of the Hall of the Five Cents, the third fresco of the Siena War depicts the decisive battle of Marciano, also known as the Battle of Scannagallo in Val di Chiana. 

This battle saw the scathing defeat of the Sienese commanded by a rebel Florentine nobleman, Piero Strozzi, on August 2, 1554. 

Strozzi was the head of an army composed of French, Grisons and Florentine political refugees. 

Shortly before noon, the Imperial Florentine cavalry attacked the French cavalry, whose rout can be seen in the left part of the fresco. 

The French infantry then attempted a counter-attack which was valiantly repelled by that of the Florentines who crushed the French and Grisons, as seen in the ballet of flags at the top of the painting. 

The Sienese casualties were terrible for the French and Grisons: 4,000 dead and as many injured. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: “Cerca Trova”, “Who Seeks Find”

Of the 130 enemy banners, the troops of Duke Cosimo I of Medici took over 103 of them, who were then exposed for several days in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
The fresco of this battle of Marciano also became famous because of the inscription that can be seen on one of the enemy banners, “Cerca Trova”, “Who Seeks Find”. 

Many saw a hidden message from Giorgio Vasari indicating that behind the wall of his fresco was a second wall with the famous Battle of Anghiari painted by Leonardo da Vinci. 

A hypothesis that acquired great fame because of the author Dan Brown and his book “Inferno”. 

Dan Brown staged his hero Robert Langdon in the Hall of the Five Hundred of Palazzo Vecchio to decode Vasari’s secret message. 

In 2012, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, even allowed a team of researchers to drill small holes through Vasari’s fresco in an attempt to find behind it the remains of Leonardo da Vinci’s. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
But the endoscopic micro-cameras used found nothing to confirm the presence of this work by Leonardo da Vinci. 

In October 2020, the hypothesis of a battle of Anghiari hidden under the fresco of Vasari was definitely ruled out by expert Cecilia Frosinini, director of the Painting Restoration Department of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. 

After years of studies and research carried out collectively with experts and academics, she published a book that definitively concludes the debate: “The Great Hall of Palazzo Vecchio and the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci. From architectural configuration to decorative device” Olschki editions, 2019 — 596 pages. 

The conclusion of Cecilia Frosinini and the group of experts with whom she collaborated is that Leonardo da Vinci never painted, even partially, the Battle of Anghiari on the wall of the Hall of the Five Hundred. 

Only preparatory sketches, cartons, would have been made by de Vinci. 

How to explain the presence of this “Cerca Trova” “Who Seeks Find” on the flag of the Florentine exiles?

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
For this, we must recall the verses of one of Florence’s most famous exiles, Dante Alighieri, who wrote in the “Purgatory” of the Divine Comedy (I 70-72): 

“Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta”

“He seeks the freedom that is so dear, as knows who, for her, refused life.” 

The refusal of life is an allusion by Dante to the suicide of Caton, who preferred the immortality of a free soul. For Dante, political freedom is spiritual and ethical freedom. 

If tyranny deprives us of the exercise of free will, of our soul, death must be preferred to a sworn existence. 

Thus, the warrior who lets himself be killed in a crowd of enemies rather than surrender to mercy is violence suffered by the righteous and wise man. 

It is for this reason that the king of France who supported the Florentine rebels had offered them about twenty green banners carrying this verse of Dante: “Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara”. 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Battle of Marciano
The “Cerca trova” seen on the green banner of the Florentine rebels in Vasari’s fresco therefore corresponds well to Dante’s verses. 

On the other hand, Vasari diverted its meaning sarcastically to the benefit of the glory of Duke Cosimo I of Medici. 

The word freedom no longer appears, and for a good reason, since for Vasari it can only be on the side of Florence and in fact his “Cerca trova” can be summed up to “who seeks me finds me! or developed to “Who seeks false freedom while fighting Florence finds punishment!” 

Vasari’s frescoes in the Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio had no other purpose but to affirm the greatness of Duke Cosimo I, and for this reason, the inscription “Cerca Trova” can only be seen in this context as an element of political propaganda, without hidden mystery. 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence