A new study of Caravaggio’s art, richly illustrated with superb and unfamiliar details
It is not always obvious what the purpose of some inventions may be, as it was with the telescope that Galileo came across. Could we know what the use of digital imagery would be, or what will be made of graphene, the strongest material known to man, 3 million sheets of which stand only a millimetre high?
No-one in the sixteenth century realized the potential of the reflected image, for even though it was a new source of wonder that magicians could conjure up, and theatres would use to create wonderment, no-one thought it could replace the creative process that artists used to make images.
The discovery that Caravaggio made when he first started copying from these projected images – fleeting, will’o’the’wisp apparitions that were gone sooner than most could see them – meant that he could produce that real likeness of things that all the Renaissance had chased – but without the drawing that everyone was agreed was the only way to achieve it. This was a piece of opportunism, entrepreneurship, a discovery that suddenly brought him incredible fame and misfortune, a piece of news that made headlines throughout the whole of the EEC and beyond, but this was by word of mouth.
We have grown used in the last century to the idea that Caravaggio was a great painter and find it hard to realize he had been just a jobbing copyist making souvenirs and icons for pilgrims, until he stumbled on the magic of these images, which were quite different from what he saw his colleagues painting. This was the infancy of the appreciation of optical phenomena, which was far from providing a dependable overall design, as in a photograph. He made a mosaic of the fragmentary observations he could see, and his incredible skill as a cut-and-paste director was matched by the choice he made of the actors he chose to play the parts in the dramas he was asked to interpret. This book is about the environment in which this transformation of a painter gilder took place, and the patronage that found this incredible invention so compelling. If beauty was the splendour of the truth, as Plato’s adage went, nothing had ever seemed so real as these pictures.
Caravaggio’s Eye by Clovis Whitfield
published by Paul Holberton publishing
cloth, 280 pages, 175 colour illustrations, price £40 ($65)
ISBN: 978 1 907372 10 0
Distributed in the United States by Casemate Athena
A separate edition L’Occhio di Caravaggio, in an Italian translation by Stefania Pasti, is available and distributed by Officina Libraria.