University of South Africa, Pretoria
 Susan Grundy
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Caravaggio and the camera obscura

The web entwining Caravaggio with contemporary advances in camera obscura technology is compelling. For example, there was an indirect link between Caravaggio’s patron of the late Cinquecento, Cardinal Del Monte, and the Venetian nobleman Daniele Barbaro, already mentioned. In 1545 Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, c.1490-1576) painted Daniele Barbaro’s portrait.21 This smallish painting shows the realistic attributes Hockney associates with the use of camera obscura technology as a mechanical aid to painting, especially portraits. Ten odd years after this portrait sitting Barbaro is promoting the use of the camera obscura to painters, and in “describing the use of the convex lens, he shows that the image is much sharper and can therefore be outlined by a pencil.”22 It is hard to imagine Titian lacking interest in Barbaro’s drawing theories or the intellectually active Barbaro mutely sitting through a portrait session with the great master and not mentioning them. Of course, Titian was a great master draftsman, and if he did use camera obscura technology, he most obviously used it intermittently. In any case, Barbaro sat for a Titian portrait, and Titian appeared among the witnesses at a baptism in Venice in 1549, some four years later on. The ceremony was for the infant Cardinal Del Monte, who grew up to become Caravaggio’s first major patron at the turn of the sixteenth century. Titian, it turns out, was a friend of Del Monte’s father.23 So Barbaro knows Titian who knows Del Monte’s father, whose son ends up patronizing Caravaggio.

Titian weaves back into the story through Caravaggio’s teacher, the Milanese Simone Peterzano who apparently used titiani alumnus, Titian’s pupil, meaning he either studied with Titian or in Venice at the time of Titian.24 Before going to Rome in the late 1590s Caravaggio traveled around Lombardy and visited Venice.25 He had a particular interest in Giorgione (c.1477-1510) who, it is said, created “form directly out of colour, dispensing with preparatory drawings on paper.”26 Painting from life, no solid evidence of drawing and a lack of studio assistants, with certainly no pupils, as is ascribed to Giorgione, sounds a lot like Caravaggio, and also sounds a lot like Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio, followers of Caravaggio. But Giorgione, if he was using camera obscura technology, was also still using it inconsistently. It was Caravaggio who took optics to new heights. Peter Robb, journalist and biographer, states that Caravaggio “undertook a singlehanded and singleminded exploration of what it was to see the reality of things and people. … [and] rendered the optics of the way we see so truly that four hundred years later his newly cleaned paintings startle like brilliant photos of another age.”27 However Robb does not believe that Caravaggio’s paintings are photographs of another age, despite having said it.28 Yet it cannot be denied that Caravaggio must have been intrigued by optics. Where does such painting come from?


Guidobaldo Marchese Del Monte


Caravaggio was surrounded by people who knew about optics, or were investigating the phenomenon. His patron Cardinal Del Monte must have certainly known about Della Porta’s work. Michael Gorman, in his essay Art, optics and history: new light on the Hockney thesis, states that the cardinal’s brother Guidobaldo was in correspondence with Venetian Giacoma Contarini, who “personally supervised the final work on Della Porta’s new camera obscura in Venice.”29 Della Porta had gone to Venice in 1580 and, under the advice of this Conatrini, he found a Murano artisan capable of manufacturing a specific mirror he was looking for.30 Della Porta considered that he had worked out how to use a biconvex lens and a concave mirror together to re-flip and re-invert the camera obscura image projection. “The extraordinary result [of Della Porta’s research] was a device that projected magnified upright images,” states Gorman.31 This information was printed in the second edition of Della Porta’s book, Natural Magic, in 158932 (but also 1591 in some sources).

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