Caravaggio – Stratigraphy
Caravaggio – Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Dei Palafrenieri) – 1605 – 1606 – Oil on canvas, 292 cm × 211 cm – Galleria Borghese, Rome
Caravaggio – Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Dei Palafrenieri) – 1605 – 1606 – Oil on canvas, 292 cm × 211 cm – Galleria Borghese, Rome
There is a close relationship between the ground preparation and the technique of applying the color. With the spread of the free canvas support on a stretcher this relationship became more and more evident. The methods used for the primer, now spread over a light and flexible ground preparation, were perfected, priming and preparation became a single layer, greasy and colored, based on gypsum, boiled linseed oil and pigment (the so-called mestica); the sketch, which, shining through the color, guided the painting and acted as a background and became a central moment in the executive process. The desire to exploit the characteristic transparency of oil colors led in the Sixteenth Century to the use of colored primers and in the Seventeenth Century to the affirmation of very dark preparations, in red or brown. It was in fact found that certain colors, such as blue, green or white, acquired greater power and splendor when applied on a reddish layer (which, however, over time, tends to absorb half-tones and reinforce shadows, exasperating the tonal contrasts of the painting).
Caravaggio, despite the exclusivity of some procedures, was chosen here to exemplify these researches.
Sources state that Caravaggio did not draw but painted directly in color by copying from life: the frequent pentimentos during the work documented by X-ray investigations seem to confirm this fact. The cardinal points of the compositional system were summarily fixed with freehand incisions directly on the preparation: in the image we see these incisions in correspondence with the bust of the main female character, to identify a portion of the right shoulder and the line of the chin.
In 1960 Roberto Longhi proposed that they were used “to fix certain distances between the main masses so as to be able to find the correct pose of the models at each session.” This is a procedure practically exclusive to this artist, who probably developed the method starting from the technique of transferring the drawing using cartoons. The choice of a dark preparation, in red or brown, on the other hand, is generalizable. Some painters, in this period, even used different preparations for different areas, others (as found in the Caravaggio), exploited them by letting them shine through the painting.
Recent investigations carried out on the Supper at Emmaus, a work by Caravaggio preserved in the Pinacoteca of Brera, seem to contradict the historical sources on the fact that the painter did not resort to the preliminary graphic phase: the multispectral infrared scanner revealed, in addition to the presence of the typical engravings , the graphic outlines of the face of Christ, of the apostles and of the hands. Surely Caravaggio did not sketch the composition directly with light tones but, even if he did not perform detailed preparatory drawings on paper or canvas, he began by creating a graphic trace with burnt umber then, on this layer, while it was still wet, he began to paint with fast and loose but at the same time strong and full brushstrokes. The preliminary design thus came to be one with the sketch: the speed of execution perhaps depended on the habit and willingness to copy from the model. Already at the sketch level, the painting appears defined and studied in every detail.
In other words, the painting is built with the paste of the color and not by layers, thus the “impasto a corpo” technique was born, which has remained typical of many areas of the Mediterranean.
Caravaggio did not cut out his figures within well-defined profiles but executed the individual figures as a whole starting from the background and then superimposing those in the foreground onto them. Figures, clothes and objects constructed in succession often overlap, such as the foreheads of the faces that are covered by hair or the arms that continue under the sleeves of the clothes.
“In this work Caravaggio used every power of his brush, having worked on it with such pride that he left the priming of the canvas in mid-tones”.
Pietro Bellori, Le vite de’ pittori, scultori et architetti moderni (“The lives of modern painters, sculptors and architects”), Rome, Mascardi 1672, CCXL.
The rapid final draft went little beyond the sketch or even identified with it, so much so that egg tempera highlights were identified superimposed on the still fresh oil layers. The energy and decision of the painter’s brushstroke was reconciled with an extraordinary attention to the smallest details, painted with a very thin brush. Finally, with a light brown or black glaze, the painter went back to work on the previously spared strips of the reddish preparation, obtaining the dark color of the background which, in fact, overlaps, in some cases, the contours of the figures.
Manfredi Faldi- Claudio Paolini
Painting by Manfredi Faldi
Estratto da: Artis (Art and Restoration Techniques Interactive Studio), Direzione scientifica: Manfredi Faldi, Claudio Paolini. Cd Rom realizzato da un gruppo di istituti di restauro europei, con il determinante contributo della Commissione Europea nell’ambito del programma d’azione INFO2000.
Quest’opera è distribuita con Licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione – Non commerciale – Condividi allo stesso modo 4.0 Internazionale.
The hoped-for mixing between the different methodologies (artistic diagnostics, technical analysis and material documentation) has fully materialized in regards of the overall study of Caravaggio’s painting since the data obtained from the technical analysis and the study of the sources made it possible to define the constants characterizing his pictorial progress. Based on the research carried out on the occasion of the exhibition Caravaggio and his time held in New York and Naples in 1985, the results of which were summarized and clarified in the conference The Last Caravaggio , and thanks to the new documentation offered by various radiographies performed by the “Roberto Longhi Foundation of Art History Studies”, we have traced back to Caravaggio’s way of proceeding in the execution of his paintings, from the use of engravings, to the problem of pentimentos (litt. “regrets”), to the construction of figures by succession and superimposition of planes .
As Roberta Lapucci points out , the first and fundamental opening on the technical and typological aspects of some Caravaggesque works is due to the studies carried out on the occasion of the conference News on Caravaggio, whose proceedings were published in 1975 . The radiographic images of the canvases, the macro-photographs of the brushstrokes and pictorial drafts, graphic reproductions of palettes and color combinations and finally the similar types of faces and hands were compared, allowing an in-depth analysis of each Caravaggesque work. This comparison therefore allowed a detailed study on the individual elements making up each painting, giving us a detailed description of the support, the frame, the preparation, the pigments and the paints. The first vast archive of the collection of technical testimonies carried out on Caravaggesque works is due to the research of Mia Cinotti which then merged into her monograph which dates back to 1983  and which constituted a valid premise for the subsequent technical studies carried out on the occasion of the New York and Naples exhibitions. In fact, every single historical-critical plates relating to individual Caravaggesque works makes use of scientific documentation, presenting the photographic documentation of the radiographs found on each painting and all the data relating to previous restorations.
The sources state that Caravaggio did not make the preparatory drawing first but painted directly in color by copying from life, “without going – the study of Mina Gregori tells us – as a consolidated artistic tradition wanted, through the drawing elaboration that came to idealize the natural datum”. Carel van Mander adds one of his reflections referring to the exclusion of drawing, which certainly also had an anti-Mannerist meaning, in Caravaggio’s new method: “painting on drawings, even if they portray the truth, is certainly not the same as having the truth in front of you and following nature in different colors ” .
The cardinal points of the compositional system were summarily fixed with freehand engravings directly on the ground preparation. Their role certainly concerns the need to reposition the models in the different installation sessions necessary for the realization of the painting.
The identification of the engravings (or as Roberto Longhi  defines them “graffito” or “incisions”) on many works by Caravaggio took place thanks to the raking light inspection on the paintings exhibited in New York in 1985. The detected engravings are traced freehand with the handle of a brush, a stylus or an awl. The painter used them, in his youth phase, to set the limits and some guidelines of the figures, while later only to represent the objects in perspective.
As critics have repeatedly reiterated the presence of the engravings, which is to be considered an exclusive procedure of Caravaggio, represents a sure trace to distinguish an original from a copy, but this does not mean that one must necessarily deny the Caravaggesque autography to a work that it is devoid of it .
We know that Caravaggio abandoned the use of engraving after his flight from Rome and if, as has been proposed, these signs impressed in the preparation served primarily as elements of reference for the position of the figures in the new sessions, this would confirm the hypothesis that in his last years he painted less frequently from the model.
The practice of engraving the preparation was certainly learned by Caravaggio in the workshop of Cavalier d’Arpino where it was used to transpose the drawing already elaborated by engraving the cartoon also for paintings on canvas ( Armenini  and Volpato  described the technique of tracing of cartoons also on canvases).
Caravaggio elaborates this technique to the point of making it a practically exclusive procedure, as we have said, the Sixteenth-Century sources in fact do not refer, in the case of paintings, to the use of engravings to replace the drawing, while attesting the presence of the of a dark preparation, in red or brown.
Caravaggio began to paint with quick and loose brushstrokes but at the same time strong and full. Already at the sketch level, the painting appears defined and studied in every detail and it is built with the paste of the color and not by layers. According to the testimony of Bellori, Caravaggio “left the primer of the canvas in mid-tones” , that is, he used the brown color of the preparation as a half-tone for the shadows.
The figures, the clothes, the objects are painted in succession, often overlapping one another from the background towards the foreground as evidenced by the radiographic image of the Sacrifice of Isaac of the Uffizi: the knife surmounts the sleeve of Abraham, which at in turn it overlaps Isaac’s shoulder. This confirms that the works are not conceived in a structure already designed, but are built by succession and overlapping of planes starting from the bottom. This way of proceeding, facing one figure at a time, precludes Caravaggio from working on frescoes; the mural that he, in fact, paints in the Ludovisi casino, is painted in oil, his paintings are “in oil painted” remarked Baglione  “because he did not operate in any other way” .
The final draft almost completely identified with the sketch, so much so that it was sometimes done on the still fresh oil layers.
It has been hypothesized by Keith Christiansen that “the impetuous speed characteristic of Caravaggio’s works” may depend “on the habit of copying from the model which implied a short time. The energy and the decision with which his brushstroke is prolonged with a tension inimitable is the primary element for recognizing an original work, and I don’t think we can give a better definition than by resorting to the ‘vehemence’ of which Bellori speaks ” .
Manfredi Faldi, Material documentation as a support and verification of the historical-stylistic analysis in pictorial works, Florence 2003
Gli atti sono stati pubblicati soltanto due anni più tardi: AA.VV., L’ultimo Caravaggio e la cultura artistica a Napoli, in Sicilia e a Malta, atti del convegno, Siracusa-Malta, aprile 1987, a cura di M. Calvesi col coordinamento di L. Striglia, Siracusa, Ediprint 1987
Cfr. M. Gregori, Come dipingeva il Caravaggio, in Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, come nascono i capolavori, a cura di M. Gregori, Catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Roma 1992), Milano: Electa 1991, pp. 13-30; e si veda ivi anche l’intervento di R. Lapucci, La tecnica del Caravaggio: materiali e metodi, pp. 31-51; si vedano inoltre i successivi studi: S. Rinaldi, Qualità di superficie nelle due versioni della Buona ventura di Caravaggio, “Ricerche di Storia dell’arte”, 51, Roma, Bulzoni 1976, pp. 27-30; AA.VV., Identificazione di un Caravaggio : nuove tecnologie per una rilettura del San Giovanni Battista, a cura di Gianpaolo Correale, Venezia, Marsilio 1990; M. Calvesi, Le realtà del Caravaggio, Torino, G. Einaudi, 1990; M. Cinotti, Caravaggio: la vita e l’opera, Bergamo, Bolis 1991; AA.VV., Come dipingeva il Caravaggio : atti della Giornata di studio, a cura di M. Gregori, Milano, Electa 1996; AA.VV., Il seppellimento di santa Lucia del Caravaggio: indagini radiografiche e riflettografiche, a cura di G. Barbera e R. Lapucci, Siracusa, Galleria regionale di Palazzo Bellomo 1996; M. Gregori, R. Lapucci, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio e i suoi primi seguaci, Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell’Arte Roberto Longhi, Arti Grafiche Aa 1997; M. Gregori, Un nuovo ‘Davide e Golia’ del Caravaggio, in “Paragone”, LI , 603, 2001, pp. 11-22; M. T. Schneider Per un nuovo ‘Davide’ del Caravaggio: relazione tecnica, in “Paragone”, LI , 603, 2001, pp. 23-28; AA.VV., Caravaggio e i Giustiniani: toccar con mano una collezione del Seicento, a cura di S. Danesi Squarzina, Milano, Electa 2001; AA.VV., Sulle orme di Caravaggio: tra Roma e la Sicilia, a cura di V. Abbate, Venezia, Marsilio 2001
R. Lapucci, cit., p. 33
Cfr. M. Cinotti, La mostra, in Novità sul Caravaggio, Saggi e contributi, a cura di M. Cinotti, Cinisello Balsamo (Milano) 1975, pp. 215-250
M. Cinotti, Michelangelo Merisi detto il Caravaggio. Tutte le opere, con saggio introduttivo di G. A. Dell’Acqua, Bergamo, Poligrafiche Bolis 1983
Cfr. M. Gregori, cit., 1991, pp. 13-4
R. Longhi, Un originale del Caravaggio a Rouen e il problema delle copie caravaggesche, in “Paragone”, XI, n. 121, 1960, pp. 23-36
Cfr. oltre al più volte menzionato studio di Mina Gregori anche quelli di R. E. Spear, Caravaggio and His Followers, Cleveland, 1971 e K. Christiansen, Caravaggio and “l’esempio davanti del naturale”, in “The Art Bullettin”, LXVIII, 3, 1986, pp. 421-445
G.B. Armenini, (1586), ed cons. a cura di P. Barocchi, Scritti d’arte del Cinquecento, Milano-Napoli, 1973, p. 2289
G. B. Volpato, in M. P. Merrifield, cit., 1849, p.737
G. P. Bellori, Le vite de’ pittori , scultori e architetti moderni(1672), ma si cita dall’ed. curata da E. Borea e G. Previtali, cit., 1976, p. 209
G. Baglione, Le vite de’ pittori scultori et architetti. Dal Pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572 in fino a’ tempi di Papa Urbano Ottavo nel 1642, Roma 1642
G. P. Bellori (1672), ed. cons. E. Borea e G. Previtali, cit., 1976, p. 215
K. Christiansen, Caravaggio and “L’esempio davanti del naturale“, cit., 1986, pp. 421-445
M. Gregori, op. cit., 1991, p. 29o
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