Caravaggio: 100 Drawings Just Discovered...Really?

Medusa, after 1590, by Caravaggio; Uffizi Gall...
Medusa, after 1590, by Caravaggio; Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Caravaggio is one of my favorite painters. Imagine my joy when two Italian art experts unveiled last week their discovery of 100 drawings dating to Caravaggio's youth before he came to Rome and became famous. In fact, Caravaggio's formative years are a complete mystery, no one has ever seen any drawings or early work of the master. Which is why the discovery of 100 early drawings by Caravaggio is a major finding.

Or would be a major finding if true.

NOTE: Since I first wrote this post, the controversy has heated up: the Sole 24 Ore, the country's most respected paper, called the finding a hoax in its Sunday cultural page while Claudio Strinati, a major art critic and ex-director of the Polo Museale of Rome has come out with a statement in support of the two experts. Of course, the perfectly rounded figure: 100 new drawings will inevitably draw skepticism...

It's a pity the two experts didn't go the usual route of peer review and publishing their findings in a respected art journal. Instead they chose to produce an e-book and have it published by Amazon in four languages - or so it is reported in the press. I was only able to find the Italian version, here:

Including VAT and wireless delivery, it costs a hefty $17.50 (we e-book readers are not used to such prices!) but then it's a big book (over 470 pages) and it has plenty of illustrations. It is only available on advanded devices like the Kindle Fire, or else you can read it on your computer (Kindle Cloud Reader) or the Kindle for iPad or Android.

I downloaded a sample on the Cloud Reader and quite frankly I found myself a little frustrated. Oh sure, it's well done, the pictures are stupendous. But much time is wasted in the opening chapter on Carvaggio's early life with pictures of the places where he was brought up (the small town of Caravaggio of course, and Milan). 

What I would have liked to see in the opening is a presentation of the method used to identify Caravaggio's work out of the 1378 drawings in the Simone Peterzano archives. True, we're told that as Caravaggio had the reputation of being a fast worker, one could reasonably assume that in the four years he spent in Peterzano's workshop he might have produced over 1300 drawings and other artwork. Therefore, to uncover just one hundred Caravaggio drawings in those archives is not all that surprising.

Maybe. Still, it would have been better to explain right away what criteria were used to identify the drawings. In addition, according to the curator of the Sforza Castle collection where the Peterzano archives are maintained, the two experts worked from black and white photographs they had asked for and not from the originals.

So is this discovery to be dismissed as a hoax - possibly just a novel marketing trick to launch an e-book? 

Not necessarily. The authors of the book are serious people: Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz is the artistic director of the Brescia Musei Foundation (though not on the Executive Board), the author of many publications and an expert on...Caravaggio, of course. He is also the artistic director of the monthly magazine Stile Arte (he really is, I checked). It's an interesting magazine focused on art history as well as contemporary art issues - though no announcement in there of his e-book on Caravaggio, very discreet of him... His assistant in the Caravaggio project, Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli, is a young art historian, published author and expert in the Lombard painting school, with experience in the use of scientific analytical methods, including radiography, reflectography etc.

It's a pity they didn't pick a more conventional route to launch their Caravaggio project in the art world, because doing it this way has caused a negative backlash (take a look at the articles below). It will now take some time before other art historians verify their findings. 

I'm no expert on Caravaggio, but based on the four drawings presented in the opening pages (an old man's head etc) and that are claimed to correspond to details in oil paintings produced later (the old man's head is repeated in an oil painting, pretty much under the same angle), I can say just one thing: the drawings are remarkably similar, yet...they are strangely better drawn than the later paintings! They appear to reflect a better control of the line, more nuances in the shadows than you can find in his later oil paintings.

Very strange. I know what you're thinking: it the drawings are better than the oil paintings - from a purely technical standpoint - then they can't have been done by Caravaggio, right? He couldn't have evolved backwards through time, getting worse at drawing as he grew older and achieved fame with his extraordinary chiaro-scuro oil paintings, a technique no one had ever used before him. 

Well, I would argue the reverse. The fact that the drawings look "better" may just be an unwanted side-effect of using his chiaro-scuro technique. Believe me, it's a daunting technique to execute drawings: you use white paint on a dark background - in effect, it's the reverse of a classic drawing, say lead pencil or ink on a white paper. While it's possible to maintain volume and perspective, certain nuances and light plays are next to impossible to control using the chiaro-scuro technique. 

I know because I experimented with it. I'm not Caravaggio (far from it!) but I liked the challenge of "drawing in reverse" and I did that for a while in 2007-8 (I called that "counterlight painting"). 

Let me show you what it looks like so you get an idea of what I'm talking about. Here's a woman asleep in the subway (I've done a whole series of people in the subway - I love the way people look weird in there):

And here's the drawing it's taken from:

The drawing is more nuanced, if you see what I mean. Did I go "backwards"? No, I don't think so (I hope I didn't!). What happened is that the chiaro-scuro technique constrained me. It forced me to simplify the lines, also the play of light. The simplification is not necessarily a step back, it makes for a stronger overall effect on the viewer (in my humble opinion). All this to explain why some Caravaggio drawings made in his youth before he became the famed creator of the chiaro-scuro technique could well look "better", and yet be really his and hardly a sign that he has evolved backwards!

So are the 100 drawings really his? I'd like to think they are but I don't know, I'm no expert. We have to wait for the conclusions of a peer review, and I sincerely hope we won't have too long to wait!

PS. If you're curious and want to see more of my "couterlight" paintings, you can find them here.

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