The Caravaggisti

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The Caravaggisti

Caravaggio 's Followers in Rome.

During the final years of his life and for about two decades following his death, Caravaggio's example was avidly imitated by a number of painters at Rome. This trend developed in the years immediately following 1600, as the successes of the artist's works in the Cerasi and Contarelli chapels were recognized. The dark and brooding elements of his style soon appeared in a number of works by other artists, including those of Giovanni Baglione (1566–1643), Orazio Gentileschi (1576–1639), Tomasso Salini (1575–1625), and Bartolommeo Manfredi (1582–1622). While he lived, Caravaggio detested this trend, and he tried to protect the secrets of his working methods. Two of the earliest imitators, Giovanni Baglione (1566–1643) and Tomasso Salini (1575–1625), became his sworn enemies. In 1603, Baglione sued Caravaggio and his friend Orazio Gentileschi, charging them with libel. He believed that the two were responsible for writing verses that accused him of being a plagiarist. Baglione's techniques were very different from those of Caravaggio and remained true to the Central Italian tradition of making major preparatory studies before beginning to paint. At the same time, his works did copy Caravaggio's dramatic chiaroscuro and he did try to cultivate the great master's sense of realism. While he later developed a style notably independent from Caravaggio, his works around the time of the famous libel case were, in fact, highly derived from Caravaggio's style. Baglione's close friend, Tomasso Salini, was also affected by the popularity of Caravaggism evident in Rome in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, although Salini's art continued to make use of many Mannerist design principles. While he derived inspiration from Caravaggio, Salini also became the artist's sworn enemy, in part because of the role that he came to play as a witness for Baglione in the 1603 legal case.


introduction: The painter Vincencio Carducho (1578–1637) was born in Florence, but soon moved to Spain where he eventually worked with his brother painting in the Escorial, Philip II's mammoth palace outside Madrid. Despite his Italian origins, the artist was schooled in the Spanish court and considered himself a Spaniard rather than an Italian. His Dialogues on Painting were one major contribution to art theory in seventeenth-century Spain. They were written in the form of a conversation between master and student. In the following excerpt, Carducho considers the art of the great Caravaggio and criticizes the widespread tendency of the time to imitate the artist. Carducho argues that, in the hands of lesser lights, Caravaggio's style soon degenerated into a pale reflection of the great master's art and that the rise of the Caravaggian style might soon destroy the careful traditions that painters had developed in previous centuries.

In our times, during the pontificate of Pope Clement VIII, Michelangelo Caravaggio rose in Rome. His new dish is cooked with such condiments, with so much flavor, appetite, and relish that he has surpassed everybody with such choice tid-bits and a license so great that I am afraid the others will suffer apoplexy in their true principles, because most painters follow him as if they were famished. They do not stop to reflect on the fire of his talent which is so forceful, nor whether they are able to digest such an impetuous, unheard of and incompatible technique, nor whether they possess Caravaggio's nimbleness of painting without preparation. Did anyone ever paint, and with as much success as this monster of genius and talent, almost without rules, without theory, without learning and meditation, solely by the power of his genius and the model in front of him which he simply copied so admirably? I heard a zealot of our profession say that the appearance of this man meant a foreboding of ruin and an end of painting, and how at the close of this visible world the Antichrist, pretending to be the real Christ, with false and strange miracles and monstrous deeds would carry with him to damnation a very large number of people by his [the Antichrist's] works which seemed so admirable (although they were in themselves deceptive, false and without truth or permanence).

Thus this Anti-Michelangelo [that is: Caravaggio] with his showy and external copying of nature, his admirable technique and liveliness has been able to persuade such a large number of all kinds of people that his is good painting and that his theory and practice are right, that they have turned their backs on the true manner of perpetuating themselves and on true knowledge in this matter.

source: Vincencio Carducho, Diálogos de la pintura, in A Documentary History of Art. Vol. II. Ed. Elizabeth G. Holt (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Books, 1958): 209–210.

Manfredi and Gentileschi.

Perhaps the two greatest Caravaggisti active in Rome at this time were Bartolommeo Manfredi and Orazio Gentileschi. Both managed to run successful studios and both were given a number of commissions, although their works followed two different paths. Manfredi treated many of the same themes in his paintings that Caravaggio had immortalized in his early career, including tavern scenes, concerts, and other genre paintings of daily life. At the same time, Manfredi was a successful painter of religious themes, although he rarely accepted public commissions. He was, in other words, primarily a painter patronized by wealthy Romans and churchmen, who bought his works to display in their private collections. His style was notable for its coarse realism, and his critics attacked it as vulgar. By contrast, Orazio Gentileschi's paintings derived a similar inspiration from Caravaggio, although this artist generally sanitized his works of the earthy, often lower class dimensions evident in the great master's immortal creations. During the artist's long years in Rome, he painted a number of religious and secular themes illuminated with the dramatic light typical of the earlier master. He usually arranged the figures in his compositions close to the foreground and cast a white light from the right across them. While he attempted to capture Caravaggio's realism, his works sometimes showed a naiveté concerning anatomy. In contrast to the homely quality of Manfredi, Gentileschi's works abounded in rich brocades, tapestries, and other elegant trappings of aristocratic life. The artist managed to have a successful career in Rome, not only as a painter, but also as a decorator. He was responsible, in fact, for many of the decorative mosaic designs that adorn the interior of St. Peter's dome at the Vatican. Later in life, he left the city, and after travels to Genoa and Paris, he ended up as a painter in the court of Charles I in England.

Decline of Caravaggism at Rome.

While the movement reigned at Rome during the 1610s and early 1620s, its influence lessened after 1623. In that year, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII, and he was to reign until 1644. During his relatively long pontificate, he and his family were to commission a number of monuments and artistic works in Rome notable for their grand, triumphal style, rather than for their gritty realism. It was during the Barberini pontificate, for instance, that much of the interior decoration of the new St. Peter's Basilica was completed. The artist who spoke most vigorously to these new demands was Gianlorenzo Bernini, and his own design principles, revealed in the sculptures and architecture that he crafted for his Roman patrons, were to take a very different course from the brooding spirit of Caravaggio and his followers.

Caravaggism in Naples.

It was in Italy's largest city, Naples, that Caravaggism exerted its greatest influence over artistic culture in the seventeenth century. Caravaggio had fled to Naples in 1607 after having killed a man in a brawl, and in southern Italy he had executed a number of commissions, often for some of the most influential families in the region. In Naples, he continued to experiment with new design techniques. In some of his paintings, he softened the intense realism typical of his most famous Roman pictures, although he continued to concentrate his attentions on a small number of figures placed in the extreme foreground of his pictures. The works that he produced soon acquired many admirers among the artists in Naples, and three Caravaggisti—Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (c. 1570–1637), Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), and Artemisia Gentileschi (1597–1652)—continued his experiments in realism there after his death in 1610. The style of Caravaggesque painting they helped to create in the city flourished in Naples far longer than in the rest of Italy. All three artists demonstrated a taste for violent themes that were often gruesomely portrayed and which relied on elements of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro. The eldest of these figures, Caracciolo began to make his mark on the Neapolitan artistic scene around age thirty. During the early 1600s, his works show a steadily increasing sophistication of technique, enlivened toward 1610 by the experience of having seen Caravaggio's Neapolitan works. After a visit to Rome in 1614, his works acquired a greater finesse and certainty of technique, and during subsequent visits to Genoa, Rome, and Florence, he also came into contact with the idealized works of the Carracci school. In the years that followed he tried to forge a new style that united the insights that he had culled from this very different tradition to his longer standing Caravaggism. At the same time, Caracciolo was an avid painter of frescoes, a medium that few of the Caravaggisti practiced, and he left behind a legacy of numerous ceiling frescoes in Naples notable for their grand and heroic style. While many of the Caravaggisti were attacked even in the seventeenth century for their highly derivative and imitative style, Caracciolo managed to transform the great master's realism and lighting effects into a vehicle for presenting his own subtle psychological insights. The second member of the Neapolitan Caravaggisti, Jusepe de Ribera, was not an Italian, but a Spaniard. Born the son of a cobbler, he trained in Spain as a painter before moving to Rome around 1613. There he received a few commissions, and he forged a close relationship with the Utrecht Caravaggisti, a group of painters from the Dutch city of Utrecht that were active on the Roman scene at the time. These included Hendrick ter Brugghen, Dirck van Baburen, and Gerrit van Honthorst. In contrast to the life-painting the Roman Caravaggisti practiced at this time, precise draftsmanship and brush-work characterized the works of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, something that can be seen in the works of Ribera at this time, too. By 1616, Ribera had moved on to Naples, which was controlled then by the kingdom of Spain. Here he was to achieve great success as both a painter and engraver, completing many commissions for the Spanish officials and nobles that were flocking to southern Italy at the time. He continued to execute many works using the contrasting darks and lights of Caravaggism, but during the 1620s and 1630s he developed a second style, notable for greater lightness as well as swift and expressive brush strokes. By 1630, his reputation as a painter of the first rank had been established, and in that year Diego Velázquez visited him in Naples, and came to find inspiration in elements of Ribera's style. Thus the Caravaggism that was so widespread in Naples was to leave its mark on the greatest painter of seventeenth-century Spain.

Artemisia Gentileschi.

Perhaps the most fascinating of all the followers of Caravaggio to emerge in seventeenth-century Italy was Artemisia Gentileschi, the daughter of the Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi. Trained by her father, she came to be the first female painter in European history to be celebrated throughout the Continent for the depth of her artistic insight. Unlike other female professional painters of the time she did not confine her work merely to still lifes and small devotional pictures, but instead took on large historical themes, which she came to endow with considerable depth of feeling. A precocious talent, she was painting in her father's studio by the time she was a teenager. Around this time Agostino Tassi, one of her painting teachers, raped her, and her father soon sued. As a result of the publicity the trial generated, Artemisia was quickly married off to a Florentine, and the couple moved immediately to Florence. It was in the period directly after her marriage that she painted one of her undeniable masterpieces, Judith Beheading Holofernes, a subject that Caravaggio had also treated. In this story from the Apocrypha, Judith triumphs over the Assyrian conqueror Holofernes and saves Judea by getting the general drunk in his tent. She then proceeds to behead him. Gentileschi's portrayal of the account is gruesomely realistic, so realistic that many people still find the picture difficult to view. Generations of connoisseurs, too, have seen in her account a psychological depth and rage arising from her unfortunate mishandling at the hands of men. Artemisia remained in Florence for a number of years and was admitted into the city's prestigious Academy of Design, the association of prominent painters in the city. She apparently developed a successful career in the city as a portraitist, although few examples of her works in this genre have survived over the centuries. By 1630, she had likely separated from her husband and had taken up residence in Naples. Her early works had often flouted convention by treating subjects that required her to paint female nudes. In Naples, though, her art took a more conservative turn, with the artist often painting religious subjects for Spanish patrons who lived and worked in the city. A trip to England to visit her ailing father in 1638 came to last three years, during which Artemisia finished some of the projects on which he had been at work during the final years of his life. She then returned to Naples, where she continued to support herself as a painter in the Caravaggistic tradition until her death in 1652. Widely admired and yet controversial in her time, she was one of the artists chiefly responsible for carrying Caravaggio's realism as well as his insights concerning light and shading to Florence and Northern Europe.

Impact of Caravaggism.

The impact of Caravaggio's artistic vision came to spread, not only throughout Italy, but everywhere in Europe during the first half of the seventeenth century. Groups of Dutch artists, like the Utrecht Caravaggisti, were to bring with them the insights that they had obtained while observers on the Roman scene. At home, their dark and brooding musings on grim situations were admired for a time, before new movements arose to supplant their popularity. Still, the techniques that these Italian travelers had acquired while in Rome and other centers were not lost, but continued to affect painters like Van Dyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt in the years to come. In France and Spain, many artists came to be influenced by the fashion for Caravaggism as well. While the popularity of the movement persisted in few centers past 1650, Caravaggesque naturalism dramatically enriched the vocabulary of techniques available to artists in the later seventeenth century.


R. Ward Bissell, Orazio Gentileschi and the Poetic Tradition in Caravaggesque Painting (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981).

F. Benito Domenech, Ribera, 1591–1652 (Madrid: Bancaja, 1991).

M. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989).

Alfred Moir, Italian Followers of Caravaggio (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).

Benedict Nicolson, Caravaggism in Europe (Torino, Italy: U. Allemandi, 1989).

Arthur von Schneider, Caravaggio und die Niederländer (Marburg an der Lahn, Germany: Verlag des Kunstgeschichtliches Seminar, 1933).

Richard E. Spear, Caravaggio and His Followers (New York: Harper and Row, 1975).

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The Caravaggisti

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