Caravaggio, Chiaroscuro, and Me

October 11, 2013  •  2 Comments

I write from Rome, which is, by the way, a very pleasant way to begin a blog post.

There are lots of good reasons to come to Rome, and to Italy, but I am here to take a photography class from two of my photography gurus, Judith Goodman and Frank Van Riper, who happen to be a world class Italo-philes as well as world class photographers. For the next week or so, I'll be with half a dozen fellow photographers at a villa in Umbria, learning how Frank and Judith do things. (I admit up front that pasta and wine will be part of the curriculum, too.)

Frank has encouraged me to think more about shadows when I work, and so it seemed appropriate to start the trip with a day in Rome devoted to looking at paintings by Caravaggio. That's my smuggled snapshot of his "Judith Beheading Holofernes" above, taken at the Palazzo Baberini today.

(If you, the reader, have ethical problems with taking photographs where there are "No Photos" signs, you might want to pass this post by. I committed this crime, for no better reason than that I wanted a record to study. I didn't use a flash and I don't see the harm in it. But others may.)

Caravaggio, who died more than 400 years ago, had a great 20th Century, reputation-wise. He was lifted from relative obscurity into the pantheon of immortal artists. Today, the room that houses the Palazzo Barberini's two Caravaggios was crowded. At 4 p.m., when Church of Santa Maria del Popolo opened for evening visitors, hordes of tourists surged through the doors and crowded into the side chapel that has two famous Caravaggios, one showing St. Peter being nailed, upside down, to his cross and the other depicting St. Paul, thrown from his horse by a the shock of a vision on the road to Damascus. That's a fragment from the St. Paul painting above right.

The vogue for Caravaggio is due in part to the growing appreciation for his pathbreaking genius for chiaroscuro, which is an Italian word for shadow and light. In the Caravaggio works that I looked at today, none of the principal subjects is fully, directly lit. Their faces are rendered against dark backgrounds. Parts of the face are shrouded in shadow. But the most telling elements of those faces, often the eyes, are bathed in light. This emphasizes them and the emotions their subjects are feeling.

Of course, he was not the first artist to use shadow and light. But I didn't see any paintings that did it better than he did. His shadows are abrupt and realistic. Fine details are still visible, even as the image fades almost to black.

That used to be an effect that portrait photographers strived to emulate. Nowadays, the fashion is the opposite. The trendy portrait photographers use large-format camera and flat, even harsh, lighting to capture every pore and every beard hair in the subject's face. I guess the idea is to make a statement about the banality of human existence. 

But I prefer Caravaggio's style. That's an image I made earlier this week on the left, for a client's web site. It's unretouched, since I don't have all my editing tools available on the road. But even when it's polished, it won't have a fraction of the drama Caravaggio captured. I just wish I could do it half as well as he did.

Update: The day after I posed this, I was photographing in a farmers' market in Rome when I saw a flower vendor speaking to a customer. She stepped into a wash of cloud-filtered sunlight coming in from the broad, open doorway of the market. It illuminated her face, and I got the picture at right. Maybe part of Caravaggio's secret was just the sunlight in Rome.



Marilyn Marcosson(non-registered)
The Borghese palace in Rome has a multitude of Carvaggio's that held our attention several years ago. Your explanation of the use of shadow explains why we found them more dramatic and hence interesting than others. Thanks, Marilyn and Ed
Caravaggio had an interesting personal life, too. Thanks for the blog. Sounds like an interesting class, and you are in a great place to enjoy photography, wine and food. Candy and I were two weeks in Italy last year. Great time, but missed these paintings though. Best to Ann
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