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Art & artists

Caravaggio – innovative artist as ‘heretic’?

— April 2012

Article read level: Academic

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Cover of Caravaggio's Eye by Clovis Wheatfield

Caravaggio’s Eye

By Clovis Whitfield

Clovis Whitfield argues that Caravaggio painted as he did because he was an outsider, not only geographically, but socially: he was a builder’s son. This background could have been an impossible gap to bridge in 16th-century Rome, replete with outsiders and strays though it was, but it also meant that Caravaggio had grown up understanding how things were made, put together. He was interested in, and appreciated, technological change – the reality behind a composition.

In his early years Caravaggio had worked as a painter and gilder. He probably didn’t have much of a formal artistic training and would not have worked from a stock of drawings and sketches. What brought his startlingly realistic images so swiftly to notice was precisely his non-pedantic, uncluttered, empirical method of learning and practice, though it presented the art establishment with a challenge, and himself with an heretical aspect in the well-policed echelons of art and patronage.

A key technological innovation was the invention of the single lens, with which Whitfield proposes Caravaggio experimented, and which provoked greater visual realism. This, he deduces, is why Caravaggio’s early Roman paintings are still lives – the subject doesn’t move and can be experimented on quite freely (as the Cubists later discovered) – and why he used live models in situ when he was painting, in the absence of a repertoire of sketches. Thus the Ambrosiana Basket of Fruit, ‘with its observation of detail without any supportive perspective design’ impresses of itself. Then, as Caravaggio becomes adept at using the same realism and observational power with figures, still life translates into a dramatis persona in, for example, The Supper at Emmaus.

Early patrons, such as Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, were attracted to his images, Whitfield argues, because their new look associated them, as patrons, with traditional subjects represented in a thoroughly modern idiom, and placed them in the technological vanguard. Recent research on Vermeer has shown how important knowledge of technological developments can be. This book is along similar lines, and we learn of some convincing connections, such as Caravaggio’s time in the Ospedale di Santa Maria della Consolazione when he was kicked by a horse.  It was run by Augustinians, ‘the most learned of the orders’ and particularly interested in investigative natural philosophy. Tiberio Cesari, for whom Caravaggio later painted the Cesari Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, was devoted to the hospital and eventually left to it his entire estate.

This is typical of the connections Whitfield stresses: physical exigency is connected to both intellectual and practical research, from which patronage follows. A similar chain of ideas and patronage is set up by his connection with the  Insensati, a Perugian literary academy and their interest in ‘mechanical’ realism, as in Boy Bitten by a Snake.

There has been some very good Caravaggio scholarship in the last 15 years, biography, monograph and exhibition. He is an artist who continues to startle with the stark emotion of his images; but there is room for another welcome recruit to the agenda of his translation from myth to reality. Whitfield has concentrated on the years following Caravaggio’s arrival in Rome, when his reputation and identity were established as a phenomenal representational rebel – some would say a heretic. Whitfield acknowledges Helen Langdon’s excellent biography as the standard work on Caravaggio’s web of patronage; he has built on its detailed skein of connections.

As Whitfield is a dealer, there is plenty of cross-referencing of works in a connoisseurial way, yet his approach echoes Caravaggio’s own realism and merges with a kind of personal scholarship in a congenial and enlightening manner. If any of the above review sounds ‘done before’, let me stress that the impressive aspect of this large, thorough and very beautiful book is Whitfield’s absolutely consistent focus on the concrete reality of Caravaggio, as someone who was used to and sought practical solutions to the practical problems of imaging in paint. He was a doer, and had a young man’s interest in how it could be done better. 

Caravaggio’s Eye is brave and bold. It trains on Caravaggio the same realizing lens that he used on his subjects. Whitfield admits there is much we do not know, including about Caravaggio’s character, but he presents a nonetheless convincing image of Caravaggio as ‘an outsider who used his wits to see things in a completely different way’, one that was perceived by contemporaries as truthful. Two chapters on his technique really get to grips with how he did this, and are truly enlightening. As the author says: 

The impact of his work was electrifying, then as now: it represented a window on reality that had not been opened before, and accomplished with a technique that no-one quite understood…We have to remind ourselves that perception is a learned interpretation of a visual image, in order to understand at once both the impact Caravaggio had in his own time and the fascination we have for his pictures today.

Caravaggio’s Eye by Clovis Whitfield is published by Paul Holberton Publishing, 2011. 279 pp., 174 colour illus. ISBN 978 1 907372 100


Lindsey Shaw-Miller

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