July 18, 1610: Porto Ercole, Italy. The ports and city on the northeastern shore of the Tuscan city remained under Spanish jurisdiction. Two days prior, a man whom resembled a Spanish outlaw, was arrested and imprisoned upon arrival in the port. Authorities were unable to identify the man's true identity because his real identity was also that of a convicted outlaw, Michelangelo Merisi. Some time before he was released from the jail, Merisi contracted malaria and it would claim his life on this day. Merisi, known throughout Europe as simply "Caravaggio" (after the city he was from), was not just a murderer on the run; Caravaggio was a famous artist, made infamously popular by his paintings of graphic and sometimes violent biblical scenes. Even today artists, historians, and students marvel at the expression and realism Caravaggio maintained throughout his master works (6). In 1891, historians and artists began to investigate the possibility that many Renaissance painters traced their masterpieces with the help of a camera obscura. Today they are still finding evidence that questions the talent of some of history's most astounding masters (10). But could Caravaggio have really forged his entire career; or are the mistakes made by the "masters of tracing" being wrongfully assigned to the real innovators of art?
First, let's understand what exactly a camera obscura really is. As defined in Marilyn Stokstad's Art History, the camera obscura is an early developed camera-like device used mostly in the Renaissance. Later it would be used widely for recording images from nature. Construction and operation of the camera was fairly simple: beginning with a dark room or box, a hole would allow light in from one side of the room. The camera then operates by flashing a bright light through the opening (and occasionally passing through a lens). An inverted image of an object from outside of the camera would then be cast onto the inside wall of the box or room allowing the operator to duplicate the exact image being projected (11). Although there are no specific documents confirming or disconfirming that Caravaggio traced images from the camera for use in his master works, historians and artists of the present have found disputable evidence that the great masters of the Italian Reniassance may have in deed utilized convex lens technology. (10.)
The painting above, Officer and Laughing Girl, was started by Johannes Vermeer in 1658 and finished by 1660 (13). As a master painter of his time and a popularly commissioned artist Vermeer was praised for his precise attention to detail and form. Some believe a little too precise. Although history does not provide us with proof that Vermeer used the camera obscura, many artists and art historians have suggested its use. The "photographic perspective" and its geometrically perfect features given to the painting's details have convinced a great deal of art enthusiasts. American artists Joseph Pennell was one of the first to begin exploring the possible use of the camera in Vermeer's paintings. The graphic artist calculated the angles of the actual setting in 1891 which proved in a few different ways exactly how picture perfect the painting was (10). In modern photographs the foreground of the chosen setting will appear closest to the viewer when in focus. The shoulder of the man is showing just that. In comparison to the head of the girl, it is clear the lens was in focus on the closest subject. But even in the background the maps tell the same story. An art historian named James Welu investigated the maps and globes of Vermeer that can be found throughout the world preserved by museums. The map of shown here is of Holland, and shows Vermeer had painted every last detail in his work exact to the map he owned (10). (12)
Similar geometric details have been argued about the painting to the left, The Aronlfini Portrait, done by Jan Van Eyck in...
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