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June 18 2010

Letters: Art from the sublime to the ridiculed

A lot is being made of the 400-years-since-he-died stuff on Caravaggio's bones (Report, 17 June). Artist on the run from a murder etc. As though Rome wasn't a violent city in 1600. I suppose you could walk anywhere late at night etc.

The critics say he invented chiaroscuro, or dramatic shading never seen before. A lot is known about Caravaggio's studios, more than most of his contemporaries. They describe the dark walls and a hole in the ceiling (known because he was sued). A few people have made serious suggestions that optical projections were used, and as there are no known drawings, and no record he ever made one, the evidence is very strong indeed.

No conventional historian has bothered to ask how these paintings were made. They think it is of little interest. It is of major interest to us now. The similarity to today's Photoshop techniques is fascinating. This seems to me to make him a more interesting artist, not less. It accounts for the new kind of space he opened (like TV close-ups), it accounts for the dark walls and the hole in the ceiling. His bones are neither here nor there because of this – a minor event compared with the implications for our time of his new techniques.

Sometimes I'm not sure what "art history" really is. It ignores picture-making techniques, has never known how to deal with photography, and cannot connect the past with today very well. Look at it a little differently and there is a much bigger and more important story for us today than a bag of old bones.

David Hockney

London

• I agree with Mark Brown (Report, 9 June) that the figure wearing a lion's head in the restored Tintoretto must represent Hercules. But Hercules frequently symbolises Fortitude (see, for example, the campanile of the Duomo in Florence) and fortitude is closely associated with magnanimity, so closely according to Aquinas that magnanimity is simply one of its subordinate parts. Seneca describes magnanimity as the most resplendent of the virtues, to which Latini adds that one leading characteristic of the magnanimous is that they are careless about small expenses. Lorenzetti, in his fresco cycle in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, offers a celebrated illustration of these ideas, showing the figure of Magnanimity crowned, with shining garments, ready to dispense gold coins. I wonder if this may tell us something about Tintoretto's crowned and shining figure to the right of Hercules, who is allowing gold coins to spill from the goblet at his feet?

Quentin Skinner

Department of history, Queen Mary, University of London

• Lucy Worsley is spot-on (Comment, 18 June). Just what we need – less intellectualism in history and more sexing up of flaky evidence (cue arched eyebrow and hanging question mark). I was particularly impressed by her hard-science pig-squashing experiment to prove that Henry VIII was a complete proverbial because of a bad joust day. I intend to drop my heaviest tome on my cat this afternoon in an attempt to confirm her findings. While wearing roller-skates.

Jim McDermott

Woodford Halse, Northamptonshire

• I have enjoyed the political caricatures created by Steve Bell and Martin Rowson for more years than I care to recall. Their cameo appearance on BBC4's excellent Rude Britannia (Last night's TV, G2, 17 June), where they discussed the history of 18th- and 19th-century English cartoon/satire, was fascinating. Why is there so little biting satire directed at the royal family today, unlike those times?

Dr Paul Clements

Goldsmiths College

• The statue of Eadgyth (Remains confirmed as those of a Saxon princess, 17 June) is surely one of the earliest examples of Rude Britannia. She is shown lightly caressing her bosom with her right hand while her left is daintily pulling up her skirt to reveal her right leg.

N Bailey

Saffron Walden, Essex

• Did anyone else notice the similarity between the photograph of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (G2, 15 June) and some of Monet's "water lily" paintings? Oil or watercolour? Or both?

Greg Hetherton

Hove, East Sussex


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


June 16 2010

The mystery of Caravaggio's death solved at last – painting killed him

Remains found in Tuscany are likely to be the artist's, proving that lead poisoning was one cause of his death 400 years ago

He killed a man, brawled constantly, rowed with patrons and fled justice while revolutionising painting with his chiaroscuro style. Now, as if to underline how dramatic Caravaggio's short life was, researchers say he may have quite literally died for his art.

Scientists seeking to shed light on the mysterious death of the Italian artist in 1610 said they are "85% sure" they have found his bones thanks to carbon dating and DNA checks on remains excavated in Tuscany.

Caravaggio's suspected bones come complete with levels of lead high enough to have driven the painter mad and helped finish him off.

"The lead likely came from his paints – he was known to be extremely messy with them," said Silvano Vinceti, the researcher who announced the findings today .

"Lead poisoning won't kill you on its own – we believe he had infected wounds and sunstroke too – but it was one of the causes."

Art historians already suspect that Goya and Van Gogh may have suffered from the ill effects of the lead in their paints, which can cause depression, pain and personality changes.

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio after the Lombardy town where he grew up, was a young man at the height of his career in Rome when he killed a man in a brawl in 1606, fleeing to find new patrons in Naples and then Malta, only to be thrown off the island two years later for more brawling.

"After a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ballcourt to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument," wrote one observer.

In between fights he found time to astound his contemporaries with his shocking realism and use of light and shade – chiaroscuro – although he won no favours with religious authorities in Rome when he reportedly used a famous prostitute as a model for the madonna.

From Malta, Caravaggio moved to Sicily, where his paintings became as dark and shadowy as his worsening moods which prompted him to sleep armed and tear up paintings after any criticism.

Returning to Naples, Caravaggio was the victim of a possible attempt on his life, leaving him with the wounds Vinceti believes became infected and spurring him on to Tuscany were he hoped to obtain a pardon for the Rome murder.

How Caravaggio died there, at 38, has been shrouded in mystery ever since – a blank page that Vinceti and a team of archaeologists and forensic scientists have set out to fill 400 years after his death.

To test existing theories that he died of malaria on a Tuscan beach, was devoured by syphilis, or was murdered by one of his many enemies, the team needed to start by locating Caravaggio's remains, which had never been found.

Vinceti went into action when a document was unearthed suggesting the painter was buried in the tiny San Sebastiano cemetery in Porto Ercole.

Discovering that the site had been built over in 1956, the team headed for the town's municipal cemetery to where the bones had been shifted, turning up nine potential sets.

"Set number five turned out to be from a tall man – Caravaggio was described as such – while tests showed he was between 38 and 40 and died around 1610," said Vinceti.

The team's next stop was the town of Caravaggio to compare DNA from the bones with local people. No descendents were found but families with the same surname were traced, giving samples which were 50 to 60% compatible with the bones.

Add in the toxic level of lead in the remains and Vinceti is convinced he has his man, adding to his reputation as Italy's foremost cold case historian, which he won when he dug up the remains of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a philosopher at the court of the Medicis, to prove he had been poisoned.

Now Vinceti is aiming for Leonardo da Vinci, hoping the custodians of his tomb will let him in to create a facial reconstruction of the Renaissance polymath.

Vinceti's press conference today at which a purported fragment of Caravaggio's skull was displayed on a silk red cushion could not have been better timed.

Shunned after his death before coming to be recognised as one of the fathers of modern painting, an exhibition of Caravaggio's work at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome this year celebrating the 400th anniversary of his death attracted 580,000 visitors.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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