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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Venus De Milo-How She Might Have Looked

The unexpected discovery of one of the most famous statues in history

Venus de Milo (Between 150 and 125 BC) attributed to Alexandros of Antioch. 204 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

The Venus de Milo has the incongruous distinction of being one of the most well-known objects in art and yet it remains an enigma.

The story of the statue’s discovery is shrouded in romantic mystique, and historians can only speculate on how she might have looked in her original form.

And yet the Venus de Milo continues to engross those who spend time looking at her. Carved in marble, partially nude, and wearing an inscrutable expression on her face — perhaps one of confidence — her story is a remarkable one.

Venus de Milo (Between 150 and 125 BC) attributed to Alexandros of Antioch. 204 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

An unexpected discovery

Sometimes known also as Aphrodite of Milos, the Venus de Milo was carved in marble sometime between 150 and 125 BC. The circumstance of the sculpture’s original creation is a mystery, but it is known that at some point it found itself interred in a small cavern or niche on the Greek island of Milos and left for hundreds of years.

Then, in the spring of 1820, a farmer by the name of Yorgos Kentrotas was roaming the rugged countryside in search of stones to use as building materials, when he stumbled upon a sealed chamber in a wall. Removing some of the stones, he found this antique treasure within its depths.

The statue was considerably damaged: split into several parts with its arms missing and a fractured plinth. Moreover, unbeknownst to those who first saw her, she had lost her original decorative colouration — since the sculpture was probably painted in vivid colours and adorned with jewellery as was the custom at the time.

For many years, it was believed to have been created by the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles. But as the years passed, more evidence was uncovered, namely an inscription found on a fragment of the plinth giving the name of Alexandros of Antioch — which was lost shortly after its arrival at the Louvre in 1821.

Its journey to the museum in Paris began when a French naval officer named Olivier Voutier anchored his ship in the harbour at Milos. Going ashore to hunt for antiquities near an old theatre, he noticed the local farmer Kentrotas had found something interesting.

The Frenchman felt certain that the sculpture was important and convinced his local vice-consul to buy it. They paid a good price for it. The statue came to France in 1821 and was given to King Louis XVIII, who gave it to the Louvre Museum, and there it remains today.

An extreme posture

Venus de Milo (Between 150 and 125 BC) attributed to Alexandros of Antioch. 204 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Two distinct features of the Venus de Milo give the sculpture its memorable and inimitable charge.

The first is the extreme contrapposto posture, which describes the way the figure’s weight is shifted onto one standing leg. This is what gives the whole statue its natural “S-curve”.

In the case of the Venus de Milo, the twist of the hips and the kink in the left leg are unusually pronounced. Look again at the statue and let your eyes explore the shape of the form suggested by the beautifully modelled drapery of her robe.

The second aspect is the low waistline of the robe, which appears to be almost slipping off her hips, giving the sculpture more than a hint of eroticism.

It is this eroticism that provides the basis for the most likely identification of the statue as Venus, the goddess of Love — the Roman counterpart to Aphrodite.

How she might have looked

The Venus de Milo was originally found in several pieces, making her exact original form a matter of conjecture. The three main pieces that were recovered from Milos — the nude upper torso, a draped lower body, and a section of the right hip — seemed to fit together without controversy.

The fact of her missing arms prompted the local Milos farmer to continue to dig. He later found a hand holding an apple, two herms — square stone pillars with a carved head on top — and a further fragment of an upper arm.

A proposed restoration of the Venus de Milo (1916) by Adolf Furtwängler incorporating the arm fragments found with the statue at the time of its discovery.

Various artists and historians proposed how these parts might be assembled to form the complete statue, with some debate as to whether the stone pillars with heads on top were connected with the Venus statue.

In the latter years of the 19th century, the German archaeologist and art historian Adolf Furtwängler sketched out what might be the most convincing configuration, in which the figure’s left arm is resting on an unadorned pillar, with her hand resting on the pillar holding an apple.

The hand holding the apple, carved from the same Parian marble as the figure, seemed to confirm the identity of Aphrodite or Venus. In the Classical beauty contest known as the Judgement of Paris, Paris gave the prize of the golden apple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, who in return promised to give him the beautiful Helen of Troy, thereby triggering the Trojan War.

Furtwängler rejected the idea that the herms were part of the original form, arguing that the aesthetic effect of such an arrangement would be “distinctly unpleasing”.

Given the inability of historians to agree upon the sculpture’s original form, the Louvre made the decision to show the Venus de Milo without its arms or an adjacent pillar. Two centuries later, standing alone yet somehow indomitable, the sculpture continues to be an all-important part of the museum’s collection.

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Michelangelo’s David-Looking for the Sublime

The most famous statue in the world still has the power to inspire

David (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Marble. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

What tends to strike viewers when they first see Michelangelo’s David is its size: it stands at over 5 metres from top to bottom, so that when you’re standing beneath it, your only choice is to look upwards.

In this way, the statue looms. It rises like a column, dominating the environment of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence where it is currently housed.

Then, after a few more moments of looking, some people begin to sense that David’s proportions are a little off-kilter. For a heroic statue, his hips and legs are curiously narrow, whilst his neck and head are weighty and substantial.

The meddling of proportions was intentional. Michelangelo carved the statue to meet its original commission, to stand along the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral alongside a series of other prophets. As such, the statue would have been seen from street level; Michelangelo’s solution was to follow classical methods by enlarging the proportions upwards so that from below everything would look correct.

Yet there’s no escaping the fact that this is a sublime work from the hands of an exceptional artist. And it isn’t only art history that confers greatness on this marble sculpture: Michelangelo’s contemporaries thought it was far too good to place high on the roof of the cathedral and instead placed it in the busiest square of the city. In the Piazza della Signoria, where a copy still stands, it could hardly have been more prominent.

And then there is Giorgio Vasari’s famously gushing judgement: “Anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by another sculptor, living or dead.” Praise indeed from the first historian of art…

The young hero

The statue depicts the youthful David, the future king of Israel. Over his left shoulder he holds a slingshot with which he has (or is about to) fling a rock at Goliath, the Philistine giant. The rock will hit Goliath in the centre of his forehead and Goliath will fall to the ground, whereupon David will cut off his head to finish the fight.

Despite the valiant narrative, Michelangelo has given David a decidedly brooding posture. His distant gaze, and the way his arm hangs impassively at his side, seem to tip the scales away from heroic vigour towards a more introspective poise.

What we are looking at, then, is David in a moment of contemplation. Most interpretations conclude that the sculpture shows David before his battle with Goliath, sizing up his opponent. The furrowed brow, the thick stare, and the veins bulging from his lowered right hand, make the case for a man calmly sizing up his enemy.

David (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Marble. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

Yet I always found David to be a lonely figure. He appears somewhat companionless, an outsider even. I take this ambiguity as part of the statue’s meaning. For this is really a portrait of a noble figure, intended to represent the psychological balance of the whole man rather than a moment in a narrative drama. David the warrior is easy to glorify, but David the honourable, worthy, distinguished yet also real, vulnerable, contemplative, is a much more complex prospect. And works of art that aim at such complexity tend to last the test of time.

The hardest block of marble

The statue of David was also an opportunity for the young Michelangelo to display his unprecedented skills as a sculptor. He was 26 at the time of the work’s commission, having just returned to Florence in 1501 after a period working in Rome. Famously, the statue was carved from a single piece of Carrara marble, a huge block of stone that had been rejected or abandoned by at least two other artists prior to Michelangelo’s undertaking.

The marble block had languished untouched for over a quarter of a century. Another Florentine sculptor by the name of Agostino di Duccio had been assigned the task originally. Beginning in 1464, Duccio wrestled with the massive piece of stone, getting as far as marking out the legs, feet and torso, perhaps even chiselling a hole between the legs. Ten years later another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was commissioned to take over from Agostino, who seems to have left the project midway. Rossellino didn’t last long either, and the unfinished sculpture remained untouched for the next 26 years.

The block that Michelangelo inherited was in rough condition. In September 1501, the church authorities settled on the 26-year-old as the next to try his hand at the imposing mass of marble. Michelangelo had recently proved his worth by carving the emotionally powerful Pietà, showing the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. By April 1504, the statue of David was complete.

Detail of ‘David’ (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

David’s languid pose

How does a person look when they are standing upright? In Egyptian sculpture, the answer to this question emphasised the natural symmetry of the human body. Egyptian sculpture was front-on, with level shoulders, symmetrical arms and hips.

These traits passed onto early Greek sculpture. Yet one of the most interesting aspects of the development of sculpture in Greece was the inception of a new type of posture. Known since the Renaissance as contrapposto, this nuanced but fundamental invention offered a turning point in the course of naturalistic representation.

The contrapposto technique can be readily seen in this sculpture, the so-called “Spear Carrier” attributed to the Greek sculptor Polykleitos. The image shown below is a marble Roman copy made after the bronze original, which has been subsequently lost.

Doryphoros by Polykleitos (Spear Carrier), Roman copy after bronze original of c. 450 BC. National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy

Notice the distribution of weight, being borne on one leg whilst the other is relaxed. The deliberate asymmetry of the legs instigates movement throughout the rest of the body. The hips tilt, thereby causing the torso to squeeze on one side and open on the other. In this way, broader symmetry gives way to a more flexible pose overall; one arm is raised (holding the missing spear) whilst the other hangs down to one side. The head is turned as if gazing into the distance. The sculpture can be viewed from many angles — seen “in the round” — and still deliver its full impact.

During the Italian Renaissance, this classical pose was explicitly revived. Taking inspiration from Roman sculptures that were being unearthed across Italy at the time, Italian sculptors reawakened and expanded the method. Indeed, contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “counterpoise” and was coined in the time of the Renaissance.

David (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is probably the most famous statue that makes use of contrapposto. David’s left leg is emphatically relaxed, adding further weight onto the right leg. The important tilt of the hips is there; along with it the right arm hangs long, almost heavily, so that the entire torso and shoulders lean to one side. In all, the arrangement is asymmetrical yet harmonised, yielding a gentle S-shape in the body to give a sense of serene contemplation predicated on muscular strength.

A Florentine emblem

With its imposing naturalism and understated sense of self-confidence, the figure of David soon began to attract attention. A 30-strong committee gathered to reconsider its purpose — including venerable artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangallo. Given that the six-tonne statue was probably too heavy to lift to the roof of the cathedral, the committee considered several alternative locations, with the Piazza della Signoria — the political heart of Florence — eventually selected.

David in the Piazza della Signoria, with the leaf loin covering added by 16th-century city officials. Photo taken between 1860–1870 by John Brampton Philpot

First, the great statue had to be moved the half-mile from Michelangelo’s workshop behind Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral to the piazza. The event was captured in a diary entry from a local herbalist Luca Landucci:

“It was midnight, May 14th, and the Giant was taken out of the workshop. They even had to tear down the archway, so huge he was. Forty men were pushing the large wooden cart where David stood protected by ropes, sliding it through town on trunks. The Giant eventually got to Signoria Square on June 8th 1504, where it was installed next to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, replacing Donatello’s bronze sculpture of Judith and Holofernes”.

The statue soon became a symbol of the Republican ideals of Florence. Fearless, sovereign and self-sufficient, it seemed to say so much about the independent spirit of the city.

It remained in the Piazza della Signoria until 1873, when it was moved into the Galleria dell’Accademia to protect it from weathering. A replica was placed in the Piazza della Signoria in 1910.