Caravaggio by Michael John Angel

Home / Articles


by Michael John Angel

Published on 1 January, 2002

There has been a lot of near-nonsense written over the past few years by art historians and modern artists, neither of whom have any background in the practical aspects of realistic figure painting, about the incised lines in Caravaggio's paintings. The main idea seems to be that Caravaggio , instead of sketching his placements with a charcoal or a brush, used a sharp stick to gouge the placement lines into the plaster.

But why on earth would he have done that? It is true that he had emotional problems; he was a homicidal maniac, but he was not a mental deficient.

A second idea is that these gouges are reference marks for the placement of the models, while the artist used some kind of projection device to throw an image onto the canvas. But again, why would he do that, rather than use a charcoal or a brush, as everybody else did?

The Madonna dei Palafrenieri
Oil on canvas, 1606
115 x 83 inches (292 x 211 cm)
Galleria Borghese, Rome

These incisions appear from time to time, when one is transferring the full-sized drawings, the cartoons — particularly in areas where the plaster, the gesso (gesso is Italian for plaster), is thick and fresh. These gouges are, in fact, a nuisance and most painters try to avoid them. Recent studies — for instance on Caravaggio's The Madonna dei Palafrenieri — have shown that the deepest incised lines are indeed where the plaster is thickest. Caravaggio was always in a hurry to meet his deadline (he was the best kind of professional artist: he almost never missed a deadline and, when the client needed changes made, he made them, sometimes completely re-painting the work). The oil imprimitura (the first coat of paint, the primer) would then be applied a little earlier than it should be and the cartoons traced a little too soon, these two things cumulatively causing the pencil, or the hard end of the brush, to gouge our famous incisions. This does, in fact, happen.

To transfer the cartoons onto the canvas, a painter will rub charcoal onto the back of the cartoon, or onto the back of a tracing, then trace over the lines on the front, thus imprinting the charcoal onto the imprimitura. A frequent argument against the idea of Caravaggio having used cartoons is that there is no charcoal present under the painting. But this absence is not surprising. Unless the painter fixes the charcoal under-drawing, it either mixes in with the paint, or is brushed off as one paints; it would be impossible to keep it, in fact. Or Caravaggio may have used dry pigment on the back of his cartoons. Or oil paint, as Bouguereau and others were to do in the 19th century. This last, though, is unlikely, as some of the paint would have dried and no trace of such a thing has been found.

The fact that the incisions do not follow the outlines of the figures, but only place them in a general way, is, for me, the most suggestive aspect of this whole polemic. Cartoons are not well understood by the layman; at best there is some kind of general idea that a large, fully detailed drawing is made on a big piece of paper (cartoni means big papers, in Italian). But many painters prefer to work up their details in paint, progressing from a bold, general lay-in to a finished product. However, the initial placement of the elements is best done using a series of full-size gestural construct drawings; i.e., cartoons, each on its separate piece of paper, all of which can then be moved around until the best positionings, the tensions, rhythms and inclinations which give the drama and emotional clout, are reached. It is, in effect, a cut-and-paste method and is far better, because faster and easier to control, than sketching directly on the canvas, erasing, moving, erasing again, and so on. The Caravaggio incisions have all the hallmarks of the gestural construct: a kind of simplified figure, which concerns itself with gesture and proportion and not with the articulation of the outline.

The early biographers of Caravaggio make a big fuss about his lack of drawing. This in no way excludes his use of these gestural construct cartoons, which are working tools and, not being marketable, are thrown away afterwards. The word drawing, in Italian disegno, is a tricky one, particularly in a 16th century Roman context. The ideas in Rome's art world of the late 1500s, were neo-platonical and conceptual, heavily under the influence of the legendary Michelangelo Buonarotti , who never used models. An artist created solely out of the imagination. To copy nature was not to be an artist, it was seen as cheating, a very similar prejudice to that which exists today, against artists who work from photographs. Disegno, in its full-blown sense, meant conceptualization — what used to be called idealization, before that word came to mean prettification.

Caravaggio, who came from the north of Italy and brought with him Northern Italian ideas and methods, was at loggerheads with all this. However, to call him a pure Empiricist will not do, either; the Northern Italian styles combined Empiricism and Conceptualism. Let us consider a portrait by Titian , the Man with the Blue Eyes in the Pitti Palace, as an example and we will see an individual who contains the essence of his group. That is to say, we will see the likeness of a unique person, which has been simplified, slightly generalized and conceptualized to evoke also the type: he is the incarnation of youthful self-confidence.

Portrait of a Man with Blue-Green Eyes
Oil on canvas, 1540-5

So also with the rest of Titian's work and with that of Veronese , Moroni , Lotto , Savoldo , etc. And similarly with Peterzano, the self-professed "student of Titian", who was Caravaggio's first teacher, in Milan. This is not true, however, with Tintoretto , whose work was almost entirely conceptualized; i.e., came almost entirely from his imagination, with very little recourse to the live model.

To think that Caravaggio does not combine the conceptual and the empirical is absurd. Look at any Caravaggio painting: if you were told that it is a photograph of a group of models, you would not believe it for an instant. So something has been done. Something has been modified from plainly observed Nature. Caravaggio has architecturalized (i.e., conceptualized) the forms, simplifying them to give them more power. He was always the ideal painter for the church of the Counter Reformation, following religiously (every pun intended!) the dictates of the Council of Trent. This required artists to apply Ockham's razor, to eliminate needless backgrounds, fanciful dress and jewels, to leave out excessive esoteric and scholarly reference and make the subjects of the holy stories comprehensible to, and felt intensely by, the person in the street.

All this seems to bring us a long way from incisions in the gesso, but all these considerations are germane to Caravaggio's working methods.

The heavy-handedness of the incised lines argues strongly for the use of cartoons. When one is sketching placements directly onto the gesso, one's hand is not heavy; a normal touch with the charcoal, or with the brush, produces as dark a mark as one wants. Tracing over a cartoon, however, generally causes one to press quite hard, as there is the worry that the pressure will not carry through the thick paper (one experience with a transfer that is too light to see, because not enough pressure was applied, is more than enough to guarantee that one will press hard next time. Transferring is boring and it is irritating to have to do it over).

Caravaggio was a profound painter of religious subjects, a very professional artist, very practical and fast in his working life, albeit a social lunatic and a psychopath. He painted more than a hundred paintings in just eleven years and many of them are big. His working methods were efficient and fast; it is inconceivable to this writer that Caravaggio would not have exploited the efficacy of the cut-and-paste nature of gestural cartoons. It was common practice and the evidence of the incisions points to his having done so.

MJA. Florence, 2001

Further Reading