In Roma’s historic center, at Vicolo del Divino Amore, pretty close to Piazza Navona, we can see what once was Caravaggio’s painting studio. In 1600 the name of the alleyway was different, but the palace is almost the same. The story of his painting studio was carefully described in the official archival of that age Police; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was wanted for murder, that’s why he had to quickly escape from Roma, leaving all his stuff inside his studio painting. The hostess wanted to take back the rent money and she asked to confiscate all the objects inside the studio and the Police, therefore, drew up a checklist of the objects.
Caravaggio’s studio was made by a big room with a garret over it; he had broken the ceiling of the room to create a wide and high studio painting for large canvases he used to paint. According to the archives from that time, he had divided the big room in two and had placed a big glass lens in the partition wall. It’s documented that Caravaggio attended a glazier’s workshop that sold mirrors and lenses too and it’s documented many painters of the age used the “Camera Obscura” (from Latin, means “darkroom”) created by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s darkroom is such as a box or a tent in which an image of the outside is projected inside. Camera Obscura with a lens in the opening have been used since the second half of the 16th century and became popular as an aid for drawing and painting, especially for landscape painters.
Recently, some critics of art and photographers suggested that Caravaggio went further, turning his whole studio painting into a big Camera Obscura. According to the hypothesis about Caravaggio’s studio, the first room was the one where the action took place. He had built a little stage where his models took place; the presence of the pedestal can be easily deduced by his paintings: Caravaggio used to paint with a perspective from below and the action had necessarily to take place higher. The second room, all painted in black, was used by Caravaggio and his canvas: in this room, the image projected through the lens appeared upside-down.
The first question is: how could Caravaggio see his colors in total darkness? According to a famous historian of art and restorer, Dr. Roberta Lapucci, who studied Caravaggio’s color chemistry, he added a photo-sensitive material to his paint. The second question: how could Caravaggio paint, over the projected image, in the darkness? There was a powder, called “powder of fireflies”, used often in theatre to make special effects, in those days. It was a fluorescent substance that could give him that touch of luminescence he needed, for a very short time, but he was quite fast to paint.
If this theory is true we can affirm, somehow, that Caravaggio created Photography 250 years before its official date of birth. This is just a theory to be proved, of course, but we know that Photography means “writing with the light” (from ancient Greek “light (φῶς | phôs) and writing (γραφή | graphè)” and Caravaggio is the painter who brought the light to the center of his work. Caravaggio was the one whose work was based on the light: where the light comes from and where it goes. That’s why he is called “The Creator of Light” and the photographers see him as such a Father of Photography. In some of his paintings, we can even see the concept of light in sequence, a cinematic vision of light that later on will lead to the seventh art: cinema.
Caravaggio did use the sunlight but he also loved to paint night scenes, lighted by torches. On a night of August 1599, the Papacy slaughtered the young Beatrice Cenci and her family by terrible torture first and beheading then (just killing them wasn’t good enough for the Papacy), because of the death of her powerful father, Marquis Francesco Cenci, an awful man who used to abuse and sodomize her daughters and sons since they were children. Caravaggio was there and Artemisia Gentileschi too, looking at the horrible slaughter. Beatrice’s slow beheading stayed in their minds, because, after it, Caravaggio and Artemisia both painted many beheadings.
In the same Roman painting studio, Caravaggio painted the most famous among his Madonnas: “la Madonna dei Pellegrini” (in English, The Madonna of the Pilgrims) ordered by the Church of Sant’Agostino. To paint the Madonna of the Pilgrims Caravaggio used as a model the beautiful Maddalena Antognetti, called Lena, a courtesan of the higher status, who frequented rich merchants and Senior members of the clergy. But Lena was Caravaggio’s lover as well, and for her love, he assaulted the Notary Mariano Pasqualone on a summer night of 1605. In the following trial transcripts, Lena was indicated as “the woman of Caravaggio” and in the trial transcripts the “scandalous meetings” between Lena and Caravaggio, poorly endured by the painter neighborhood were also mentioned. Probably because Lena was his woman Caravaggio painted her in a carnal and sensual way, like a true person, nearby the meager and scraped off door-step; all the Madonnas were painted up in the air and carried by angels, so far. The Council of Trent had forbidden “all the lasciviousness of a shameless beauty in the Holy figures”; it is, therefore, reasonable to think that the scandalous Lena showed as a Madonna would be rejected by the customer, but it didn’t happen.
About this painting, another issue debated was about the “dirty feet of the Pilgrims in the foreground”. The “feet detail” was seen as a regrettable and disgusting example of Caravaggio’s artwork by the hypocrite and sanctimonious critics of art and high levels of the Papacy as Cardinal Borromeo who hated and persecuted the painter. The pilgrimage had to be done barefoot and Caravaggio, during the Jubilee of 1600, could see a multitude of torn, poor, and dirty pilgrims arriving in Roma.
People loved that painting (Roman people loved Caravaggio and all his paintings) and people’s will was enough to shut his enemies' mouths. Today we can admire “la Madonna dei Pellegrini” in the Church of Sant’Agostino, few meters far from Caravaggio studio. The painting is still set in the original frame — broken into few parts — a frame that belonged to Caravaggio’s front door, where he first painted Lena-Madonna to probably show everybody “Here’s my woman!”
During his short but intense life (he died when he was 38) Caravaggio was persecuted and used by the Papacy at the same time; I also cannot refrain from noting that the city of Roma hasn’t even been able to place a plaque in the palace where Caravaggio studio-painting was. And what about the tiny alleyway, Vicolo del Divino Amore, flooded with dirt and trash, where Caravaggio lived, loved, and painted? Same sad destiny. By the way, if the city of Roma keeps mistreating Caravaggio, the Street Art paid a due award to him, painting his portrait on the Caravaggio studio walls. It’s a kind of humble tribute made by new artists to the greatest Artist whose feet ever touched Roman soil.
All my love and thanks go to Laura Salvinelli, great photographer who explained to me what Camera Obscura by Leonardo is and helping me with this article.