An important new study of Caravaggio by a leading international expert stands the conventional modern view of this controversial painter on its head. Caravaggios Eye by Clovis Whitfield rejects the current obsession with Caravaggio as a violent street brawler reputed to have been homosexual and instead provides a compelling picture of a revolutionary whose grasp of new technology threatened the artistic establishments very existence.
Whitfield, a London-based art historian and dealer in Old Master Paintings, finds answers to some of the mysteries of Caravaggios success by regarding him as an artisan who stumbled across a revolutionary way of capturing the appearance of what he saw around him. His revolution was one of technique rather than style and involved the sophisticated use of a camera obscura and so-called burning or parabolic mirrors.
By exploiting new advances in glassmaking and optics and the contemporary fascination with light, Caravaggio found a way of making realistic copies of what the camera obscura projected onto a wall. This was sensational and transformed him from a craftsman doing piece work for a souvenir shop to a name known throughout Europe.
Caravaggios Eye, to be published by Paul Holberton
shows how Caravaggios increasingly sophisticated use of very limited technology brought about the first major change in the understanding of vision for thousands of years. Rather than being limited by the imagery of earlier masters and unlike his colleagues, who were constrained by convention and the master-apprentice relationship, he was able to embark on new subjects. In doing so he became the first to cut and paste images of those he recruited from the streets of Rome the central casting of his day.
Caravaggios arrogance following this discovery provoked a backlash from the artistic establishment. The profession of painting was based on many years of apprenticeship to studios whose practices were not far removed from medieval guilds in which artists recreated sacred stories from the minds eye, reading the sources and interpreting them following established conventions. They were supposed to follow the teaching of their elders and betters but Caravaggios example told them that they could start right away and paint what they saw around them. The idea that this untrained upstart, who could not even draw, could short cut the entire training process and produce magnificent paintings that seduced some of the greatest art patrons of the age caused outrage.
Caravaggios work has not been considered in terms of the scientific advances of his day, perhaps because the audience he has had in modern times has come almost exclusively from the field of art, says Whitfield. Modern science has helped a lot to understand the working method that Caravaggio developed and indeed is a key factor in authenticating the original works.
Whitfield says that there is little information on which to assess Caravaggios sexuality but that the many women he was associated with makes it likely that he was not homosexual. He believes we should look at Caravaggio with fresh eyes as a man who used science that no-one at the time fully understood to change the history of art for ever. It was an astonishing achievement for a man who died aged just 38 in 1610.
Whitfield, who runs Whitfield Fine Art in London, was educated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London University. He was later a Visiting Professor at Indiana University and has organised numerous exhibitions from England and the Seicento in 1973 to the recent Caravaggios Friends & Foes. He has written many exhibition catalogues and articles on 17th century art.