None more black - The shadows of a Caravaggio painting

The usual vibrant reproduction of "The Calling of St Matthew".

The usual vibrant reproduction of "The Calling of St Matthew".

It is interesting that, if you think about it, a picture doesn't end at its frame. That is why looking at a picture on your computer, and the same picture in a museum can provoke different emotions. Your computer screen is surrounded my what ever is on your wall, but art in a museum is often purposefully lit, with the architecture of the room and surrounding artworks that frame the mind.

Caravaggio was a renaissance painter who used light and shadow as characters in his compositions. His style can be described as chiaroscuro - literally 'clear' and 'dark'. I might have underestimated how dark his pictures can be when seen in their intended setting as opposed to in a book or on a screen.

A simulation of the painting by natural church window light as it looks in Rome.

A simulation of the painting by natural church window light as it looks in Rome.

I recently had the opportunity to see a Caravaggio close-up. 'The calling of St Matthew' is one of three Caravaggios in San Luigi dei Francesi, a church in the center of Rome. An image ripe with metaphor and foreshadowing, the Christ figure points to call a reluctant disciple with a hand that closely resembles the hand of God in Michelangelo's 'creation of Adam' (physically located just across the river in the Vatican). The Caravaggian twist is to place this hand in a dark room with tax collectors in 17th century dress rather than a fantastical scene of clouds and cherubs.

What is interesting is that, though the picture is lit in the church with artificial lights on a coin-operated timer, when the light goes out the painting is only lit by a small window on a nearby wall. In this natural lighting, the painting is so dim, the mid-tones of the painting become part of the deep shadows. All that remains are the brightest parts of the image.

There is significantly more scuro than chiaro in the real world setting. The reproductions in books are trying to preserve the details of the picture at the expense of the shadowy reality of the physical space around the original.

The remaining highlights show the artist's focus in the painting - the had of Jesus, the perceptiveness of the youngest boy to the event, the cross-frame on the window. The bowed head of Matthew is so dark it can barely be seen. The light is not on him yet. Perhaps if the scene was painted a few seconds later...




A first look at Biccari

The Road to Biccari

When it comes to travel photography, the first day at a location can be overwhelming. It takes time to dig beneath the postcard pictures and cliches to reveal a unique perspective through the camera. I think the best images come with an extended stay or repeat visits. 

This summer I planned a brief trip to Italy to see the sights of Rome and drive to spend a day in my dad's hometown of Biccari, near the city of Foggia. It is a nested hill-town in Puglia surrounded by open fields and ruins of ancient fortifications. 

Unwisely, due to the time restraints of the trip, my wife and I only spent one day there. It was brief, but we were blessed by a series of wonderful events. I carried some photographs of my dad from when he was a boy to help locate one of the houses he grew up in. In my other had was a Leica M3 loaded with HP5 so I could add new memories to the collection.

Halfway down the first street we explored, we stumbled into what looked like the house in the picture. Formerly a dwelling and blacksmith's shop, the building is now a butcher's run by Onofrio Moccia with his wife.

The Moccias made us feel at home. Onofrio took us under his wing to show us around town and find the locations I had only seen in the photographs I was holding. A war memorial, the cathedral in the center of the town, the convent and cemetery on the hill, the lake in the forest beyond the town.

We met people who knew my dad's family and told stories about my grandparents who I'd never met because they died before I was born. While we had coffee in a shop, every person who dropped in spent time looking at the old images and were able to recall memories of the people and places they saw.

So this brings me back to the photographs I took. Overwhelmed by a new place and the excitement of sharing stories with new people, the new photographs barely scratch the surface of how beautiful the town is, or give a sense of the emotions of the visit. I'm eager to return and soak up the character of Biccari. One day isn't enough, even for a picturesque small town. 


The best picture in my world

Group of men in Biccari Italy in the 1960s

There is a picture in my shoe box of prints of my dad from when he was a lad. He is with a bunch of friends on a street somewhere in Italy. It might be in Biccari, where he grew up, but its possibly somewhere else because you are more likely to take pictures on vacation. Looks like they are getting ready for a wedding. 

The photographer was either scrambling for an acceptable exposure, or a creative genius - the men are a bit under exposed and the street and sky are completely blown out. You can barely make out the buildings they are standing next to because they are so bright. Perhaps the contrast was also a function of the printing process. 

I completely love everything about this picture. I'll be trying to replicate the style of this picture in a future portrait.