University of South Africa, Pretoria
 Susan Grundy
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Caravaggio’s hand in the camera


Caravaggio's Sick Bacchus (c.1593). The painting has the squashed look Hockney associates with a collage made from a mirror lens projection.


Caravaggio's  Bacchus (c.1595). Lapucci (1994) and Hockney (2001) cite  the model's "left handedness" as evidence of the use of lenses.


Caravaggio's  Matthew Called (1599-1600). Caravaggio stunned the Seicento art world when he revealed his huge, 3m x 3m, canvases in the Contarelli Chapel, at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. (This illustration cropped on the vertical.)


Caravaggio’s artistic maturation actually follows the Hockney/Falco claim for how the developing camera obscura influenced painting. A contemporary of Caravaggio’s, Giovanni Baglione (c.1566-1643), stated there were “some small paintings by [Caravaggio] portrayed in the mirror.”33 Hockney claims that the mirror Baglione is talking about is in fact a concave mirror lens.34

With a mirror-lens projection, the usable image is never much more than a foot (thirty centimetres) across – this is an optical characteristic of all concave mirrors, no matter how big they are. Outside this “sweet spot” it is impossible to get the image into sharp focus. Paintings made with the help of a mirror-lens must therefore be very small, or must be a collage of small glimpses; details of hands, clothes, feet; fragments of landscape – and still lifes.35

 He cites Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus (c.1593-4, fig 3)36 as just such a pieced-together collage.37 Certainly Baglione is insistent that the Bacchus concerned is small. Caravaggio’s other Bacchus (c.1594, fig 4)38 in the Uffizi, at one metre high, is not (particularly) small. Further, “some” indicates a group, and there are indeed five with average dimensions around 70cm high and 60cm across. All look as if the models have been splattered up against a windscreen at high speed, the collaged look that Hockney has noted. Around 1594, the estimated date of the Uffizi Bacchus, Caravaggio does indeed appear to move back from the action. He also starts to regularly include more than one figure, as in his Cheats (c.1594).39 The stage is still dark and dramatic, still Caravaggio, but the feeling of being squashed up against the model is gone. David Hockney explains that this is an improvement “you would expect from a conventional lens [he means biconvex], which can project a wider field of view and therefore more of the figure in one go.”40 Hockney goes on to postulate that someone gave Caravaggio a new lens, possibly his powerful patron of the time Cardinal Del Monte, introducing him to the idea of using it instead of a concave mirror to project the camera obscura effect. Caravaggio’s experimentation with simple lens-projections covered a period of about five years, in other words first his group of “small paintings done in the mirror” (the concave mirror-lens), followed by the Uffizi Bacchus and other medium-sized paintings from around that time (using a biconvex lens). Sometime around 1598 or 1599 however, Caravaggio must have begun to experiment with a different lens system, one with which he was able to achieve the multi-figured Matthew paintings in the Contarelli chapel that dazzled the Seicento art world when they were unveiled in 1600.


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