We All Make Mistakes
| Knight, Pimp & Occasional Painter |
Michelangelo Merisi, known to most as Caravaggio, was hardly a man you would want at the dinner table. Hot tempered, violent and vain were the nicer ways of describing his temperament. His career should have lasted another forty years, but was cut short in the prime of his artistic life. The years leading up to his death were intense. After establishing a career in Rome under the top patrons of the city, he went south to Naples, then Malta. He managed to win the favor of Alof de Wignacourt, the Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta. Caravaggio was made a Knight of Malta, then stripped of that honor and thrown in jail for fighting with another knight. Within a few months he escaped prison and Malta to make passage to Sicily, where he lived in relative secrecy until Pope Paul V issued a pardon for his death sentence “bando capitale” for killing a rival named Ranuccio Tommasoni on a tennis court in Rome. The artist could not outrun his problems fast enough.
When he returned to Italy, he stopped in Naples. The gods of good fortune were sick of Caravaggio’s impetuous behavior and graced him with no favors. He was attacked by four men leaving a bar in Naples. It was later discovered that the knight Caravaggio fought with in Malta was behind the attack. Giovanni Rodomonte Roero and three others gave Caravaggio a sfregio or slash to the face, along with a proper beating. The newspapers even reported to Rome that Caravaggio was killed.
Though Caravaggio lacked prudence, he had no shortage of resilience. He survived the attack and boarded a ship bound for Rome. This would be his last trip at sea. Upon arrival at Port’ Ercole he was arrested. This time for mouthing off to the Spanish captain in charge of the port. He was put in jail, still ailing from his injuries in Naples. By the time he was released, the boat sailed back to Naples with Caravaggio’s paintings on board. Furious as he was, Caravaggio made his best attempts to track down the boat, but died on either July 18th or 19th 1610. He was thirty nine years old.
FUN FACT: Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), who was the namesake of Caravaggio, died an old man at age 89. It was not uncommon for artists to live very long lives, unless they were struck down by misfortune or bad habit. (Raphael, born April 6th 1483-April 6th 1520) died of complications from syphilis presumably contracted from one of Rome’s many courtesans, which is a code word for high priced hooker. He was 37.)
| Rejection is tough to swallow |
Caravaggio painted two major commissions which were rejected. Let us keep rejection in perspective. The canvas were not simply disliked. It was not as if the patrons thought “Well I think they could be better…” The rejection was like an empirical decree from God, since the subject matter was religious. An impious gesture toward the Catholic Church was liable to get a painter banned from a city or even killed. Caravaggio spent his early years in Milan, where the puritanical rule of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo saw many artists exiled.
The support of a patron was critical in the 1500’s. And in spite of Caravaggio’s absurd behavior he was in the good graces of the Colonna and Del Monte families. These relationships afforded him opportunities to re-do mistakes without loosing commissions. So what was the cataclysmic screw up that could lead one of the most favored painters in history to shrink in rejection?
| Who is the subject? |
I write on this site about Dynamic Symmetry and Design. Most people don’t know that artists use straight lines to organize complex compositions. They employ the Golden Section, a term which is SO abused on photography websites it makes me ill. (The rule of Thirds IS NOT a golden section division) But even if one uses grids to organize an image the image can still fail.
One of Caravaggio’s major failings (in the rejected canvases) are as follows:
- He fails to properly establish the subject to a degree that is easy to read. Remember, just because it is Legible, does not mean it Communicates.
- He clutters the scene with TOO MANY figures, who are cut and cropped at angles that add confusion instead of clarity.
- The overlap of figures create formless blobs on the canvas.
There are also problems which were an issue to the 16th century clergy. We might not notice these details, but are nevertheless very important to understanding the progression of Caravaggio’s work.
- In Catholic terms, the dirty bottoms of someone’s feet are not suitable content for a painting. There are a handful of anatomical parts which the church does not want to see. I am sure you know what they are because you have never seen them in any religious painting. But a lesser known example are the dirty bottoms of the feet. Caravaggio became famous for inserting them, whenever possible, but his patrons were not amused.
- While we are discussing anatomy, the ASS of a horse should not have a prominent position in a painting of a saint. He made this mistake twice and it was even accepted in the re-do of the Conversion of St. Paul.
- Caravaggio should not cover the face of the Saint in the painting. The patrons want to see the face of the Saint. If you cover the face, the painting becomes anonymous and the subject is lost. Likewise in our photographs, we do not want someones hand blocking the face of our subjects. How often I see some intruding hand, umbrella, or sign blocking the main subject. While this can be done as a joke (see HCB’s in Naples) This is not advisable as a general guideline.
When he is forced to re-think the compositions, he makes considerable strides. The greatest accomplishment was not on the first re-do of the Conversion of St. Paul, but on the re-do of St. Matthew & the Angel.
| St. Paul’s Problems |
The original painting of St. Paul has a few glaring mistakes. Now just to be clear, artists all make mistakes. This is not my attempt to comb through the errors of artists and assert some type of superiority. Artists make mistakes, which leave clues for us as viewers. We can learn from these mistakes, see what they changed, and gain a better understanding of their craft and ours. All in all, the collective body of artists in history make more mistakes than successes. Its just the way things go. By highlighting the mistakes we begin in internalize some of their techniques so that we may learn them and move on. If we were forced to learn everything by trial and error the tradition of art making would not move. Michelangelo learned from Verrocchio, Raphael learned from Michelangelo, and Caravaggio learned from all of them. Its a progression.
Back to the mistakes of St. Paul. Squint your eyes. What do you see? A mis-mash of light and dark speckles. Where are the brightest spots? One is on St. Paul, this is good, but where is the other? Its on the backside of the horse. This bright spot, intended to be a light ground for the dark horse is WAY TOO bright in value. It is as contrasty as St. Paul himself. Thus the two compete for visual attention. In a royal court, the king wears the biggest crown so as to not be confused with the duke. Paintings are no different. If you want a figure to be the main subject, be sure they are lit and that there is no other value competing with them.
The second problem is the number of cropped body parts throughout the scheme. Caravaggio was famous for not making preparatory sketches. He was a hot shot and liked to paint on the fly. Sometimes it worked, but there are a large number of early canvases that do not work because they lack a cohesive design. If he had taken the time to sketch a few schemes, he might have saved himself hours with a brush. In the worst cases, he painted over sections on the finished piece. The failed under paintings have shown through over the years. Drawing is not mandatory, but advisable everyone. It is there to help us. But there was no convincing Caravaggio. We will let him sink his own ship.
| Do Not Cut at the Joints |
An old painters secret that photographers pick up on is “Do not crop a figure at the joint.” While I often read articles stating “There are no rules in photography, blah blah blah…” the truth is THERE ARE RULES. Whether you call them conventions, rules, guidelines or traditions, artists have collectively been working on solutions to depicting 3D scenes in 2D forms for thousands of years. If someone tells you “There are no rules in photography…” kindly thank them for their time and back out of the room. They do not know what they are talking about.
Now, whether you use the rules, bend them or break them is entirely up to you, but you ask any artist who is well trained where to crop a figure and they will rattle off a list that will baffle you. One place you do not crop is at the joint. WHY? because it looks like they are decapitated. In the first St. Paul we have a list of bad crops and body part alignments. They are noted on the picture above so you can see what I mean.
- ( I ) The horses head grows out of the soldiers shoulder.
- ( II ) We lose the shoulders on both boys at the top, their arms float in space.
- ( III) The boy on the left has his arm cut at the elbow, it hardly seems attached to his body.
- ( IV ) St. Paul’s head looks like its the ball of the knee in the soldier.
- ( V ) The soldier’s left foot is cut off.
- ( VI ) The horses hoof is cut off.
- ( VII ) The placement of the soldier’s shield creates the illusion that he only has one arm.
- ( VIII ) And lastly, the quick change of value at St. Paul’s knees make it look as if he has lost his legs. In short, everything is anatomically correct, but does not read properly. The figures create a sense of confusion and result in a failure. Might I add, I wish my failures were as grand as Caravaggio’s, but when he finally gets things right we will see his pictorial power shine through.
In the second version of the Conversion of St. Paul, we are presented with a simplified scheme. Half of the figures were eliminated. The ass of the horse is still prominent, but at least the light is on his shoulder and the fallen St. Paul. Overall its still not one of his most successful images, but it corrects many of the problems in the first painting and was accepted for installation at the church.
| A Fired Sculptor |
Caravaggio was given the commission to paint the “St. Matthew and the Angel” because a Flemish sculptor, Jacob Cobaert, was on the verge of being fired. He was taking too long to complete the work and the patrons were fed up with the delay. When a partially completed sculpture was delivered, it was immediately reject. As a result the job switched from being a sculpture to a painting. The patrons of the Contarelli Chapel described the painting of St. Matthew in a contract.
| Difference of Opinion |
Caravaggio’s first attempt possessed a formal problem and a conceptual problem.
THE FORMAL PROBLEM
Since the original commission was a sculpture, Caravaggio seemed to have a block of stone fixed in his head. The Angel and St. Matthew look as if they could be a painting FOR a sculptor to use as a reference. They rest on a heavy floor, are linked in a confined space, and subscribe to all the laws of gravity that you and I know. Sculptors do not like huge floating masses suspended in marble for a practical reason. Marble is soft and will break.
THE CONCEPTUAL PROBLEM
St. Matthew was rejected by the priest because,
“…the figure with its legs crossed and its feet rudely
exposed to the public had neither decorum nor
the appearance of a saint. That was of course precisely
Caravaggio’s point: Christ and his followers looked more
like beggars than cardinals.”
-Andrew Graham Dixon
| Back to the Drawing Board |
When Caravaggio paints a new St. Matthew he makes all the corrections required for a successful work of art and pleased his patrons.
Simplicity: The picture has been stripped of any element which does not relate to the subject matter. There are no leaves and branches, in fact there is hardly anything other than a furniture and a book. Caravaggio succeeds in the pictorial power of this image because he simplifies his the scene.
Figure to Ground: St. Matthew and the Angel are light figures on a dark ground. Unlike the earlier St. Paul, there are no bright distracting elements which draw attention away from the subject. Caravaggio reduces the background in the second versions of both paintings.
Dominant Lines: The image has a dominant vertical, horizontal and diagonal design. The strength of the formal elements, particularly that diagonal gives a movement and gravity to those figures.
Arabesque: The second St. Matthew has the angel perched way above the figure. There is a beautiful arabesque which cascades down the canvas. This arabesque loosens the feel of the image. You can certainly design with lines, but there are no straight lines in nature. The finish piece needs to be softened with a curvilinear element to give the design a natural look.
Matthew’s Make Over: St. Matthew went from being a humble beggar, taking dictation from a winged child to an elderly sage bestowed a message from a divine authority. Last time I checked winged children do not send messages to old men with beards. FedEX offers a lot of delivery services, but angels are not one of them. Caravaggio takes advantage of the 2D surface of a canvas and demolishes the everyday sense of gravity. The entire scene is as majestic as any 16th century priest would love to believe.
| Translation for a Photographer |
What can we gain from looking at painting? We are not the first people to make a likeness of another human. It is a practice that goes back tens of thousands of years. As a result we can learn great deal from those who came before us. The early artists noticed the challenge of depicting a scene from life on a 2D surface. Over centuries they experimented, documented and passed along lessons to future generations. Presumably to save them the headaches they encountered in learning their craft.
Caravaggio shows us that if we want to strengthen our pictures we might try to:
- Simplify the composition.
- Be sure the subject (whatever it may be) reads and is well lit.
- Eliminate extra details, even if they simply fall into shadow.
- Take advantage of the 2D form. We have more luxuries than the sculptor who is tortured by gravity.
- And remember, everyone, even the Masters made mistakes. The good ones learned from their mistakes and kept moving.
If you are interested in Caravaggio I highly recommend Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio A Life Sacred and Profane. It is an outstanding read about his life, work, criminal activity and will explain the myth of Caravaggio killing a man over a game of tennis. He did indeed kill a man on a tennis court, but there were no racquets in sight.
Enjoy the read.