Caravaggio at the court of Cardinal del Monte (III). The Basket of Fruit

Caravaggio's Basket of Fruit, preserved today at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, is another revolutionary work by the Lombard, not only because of the realism of the fruit, but also because of the innovative conception of light and space. Here's why.

This beautiful painting preserved at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (fig. 1) was part of Cardinal Federico Borromeo ’s Collection and is first described in a notarial deed of 1607: “A painting one arm’s length, and three quarters of an inch in height, where on a white field is painted a Basket of fruits part in branches with their leaves, and part protruding from them/among these are two bunches of grapes, one of white, and / the other of black, figs, apples, and others by the hand of Michele/Agnolo da Caravaggio.” Cardinal Borromeo arrived in Rome in April 1597 and stayed there until the fall of 1601: he was initially housed in the Palazzo Giustiniani but later found accommodation in Piazza Navona. The cardinal had the opportunity to get to know Caravaggio personally, whose character and customs he describes in his De delectu ingeniorum: “In my days I knew a painter in Rome, who was of filthy habits, and always went about in ragged clothes, and gross in marvel, and lived continuously among the servants of the kitchens of the lords of the court. This painter never did anything else, that was good in his art, except to represent the tavernkeepers, and the gamblers, overo the girdlewomen watching the hand, overo the baronets, and the fachini, and the sgratiati, who slept at night in the squares; and he was the happiest man in the world, when he had painted a hosteria, and there within who ate and drank. This proceeded from his customs, which were similar to his works.”

Apparently, therefore, Borromeo did not think much of the painter or even of his manner of his subjects, which he calls “sozzi” as his “costumes” were. However, we know that the subject of still lif es was a theme greatly appreciated by the cardinal, as is evidenced by his love for the paintings of Jan Bruegel, of which he was an ardent collector: the Fiscella therefore would seem to be a work perfectly corresponding to his tastes, and created for that reason. The making of the painting must lie between April 1597, the date of Borromeo’s arrival in Rome, and 1599, the year in which Borromeo drew up a will, the contents of which were later included in the 1607 notarial deed whose contents we have just read. Given that at this time the painter was working in the service of Cardinal del Monte, the most probable hypothesis is that it was Del Monte himself who had it made specifically according to Borromeo’s tastes and then donated it to him: a type of delicacy that the cardinal showed to his other friends on more than one occasion, as happened, for example, in the case of the Medusa. It should be added that gifts of paintings between the two cardinals are an established fact, as emerges from their correspondence of 1596: after all, the two knew each other very well, since Del Monte was the Milanese’s successor as protector of theAccademia di San Luca; moreover, he was a devotee of Borromeo’s uncle, Saint Charles, in whose honor he had a church built in 1616 in Cave (Rome), which is still dedicated to him today.

Evidence for the hypothesis that this was a gift from the cardinal lies in the fact that when Borromeo tried to commission a painting from Caravaggio himself he got a flat refusal, as is testified in the memoirs of his secretary Giovan Maria Vercelloni. Vercelloni reports how Federico had asked Merisi to paint him a picture of the Virgin with a starry mantle, which, however, the painter did not want to do. Eventually, after various and repeated insistence on the part of the cardinal, the painter, as Vercelloni writes, gave him this answer : “if you want to see the starry Virgin go to Paradise. The cardinal fell silent...and used another painter.” In the end, therefore, not only did Borromeo not have a high opinion of the painter’s favorite costumes and subjects, but the thing was reciprocal, in fact Caravaggio also had little interest in the cardinal. Turning now to the contents of the painting, some of the fruits in the basket (figs, grapes, pomegranate, quinces) have a typically autumnal seasonality, and next to them appear other fruits that are characterized by longer ripening period, but those that are painted here occur in varieties late (such as yellow peaches), in addition there are several yellow and red flattened pears such as the noble, or angelica, or monteleone, also all of which are late ripening, while the species of apple that most closely resembles the yellow apples with red streaks depicted here seems to be the annurca, which is also autumnal. The basket thus appears somehow to have an autumnal character. If, moreover, it was in the painter’s will to endow the painting with an allegorical value, this should be linked to the positive value of the autumnal fruits described in Bovarini’s book: a decidedly important symbol for the Accademia degli Insensati to which can be coupled the equally relevant symbolic value of the jug of water containing the flowers, a subject, too, that Caravaggio realized. It is necessary at this point to reflect on the fact that The Pitcher with Flowers and the Basket of Autumn Fruit are the two symbolic images most frequently found frequency in his early works, in fact they are seen in the Boy with the Vase of Roses, the Boy Bitten by the Lizard, the Lute Player, the Bacchus of the Uffizi, and finally the Boy with the Basket of Fruit, and furthermore these are the only two subjects painted by Caravaggio as autonomous still lifes; in fact we know that Del Monte also owned the painting with the Carafe of Flowers and all this must be the result of a precise logic. It should be noted, however, that Borromeo made a mistake when he described the Fiscella as a “basket of flowers”(Musaeum: ex qua flores micant): if there was therefore an intention to express symbolic concepts with this painting, he evidently was not interested in them, or was unaware of them. However, what we can say with certainty is that Borromeo was very fond of the beauty of the work, which is why (as he writes in the Musaeum) he tried to obtain a pendant from the painter without any success, so the prelate appreciated Caravaggio’s technical skill but not his costumes, which he calls “sozzi.”

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit (1594-1598; oil on canvas, 31 x 47 cm; Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana)
1. Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit (1594-1598; oil on canvas, 31 x 47 cm; Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana)

The Fiscella, from a pictorial point of view, is of fundamental importance, as it contains very significant and truly innovative elements compared to previous works; here Caravaggio begins to conceive and experiment with new ideas related to the representation of space. In the earlier works, the figures were usually placed in a clear dimension, a simplified space with a close and restricted cut; they are usually placed in front of a wall on which a blade of light is projected: this allows the viewer to sense well both their volumetry and that of the place in which they are placed, and their existence in an existing and realistic space is perfectly perceptible. In the case of his early paintings, Caravaggio uses two basic tools to give the perception of three-dimensionality: firstly, as is logical, he uses linear perspective with which he constructs the figures and objects, which gives us the feeling of their physical concreteness; secondly, he makes use of the lighting that affects the figures and the environment in which they are situated, and the different way in which the light rests on the forms creates discontinuity, that luminous discontinuity that is indispensable for us to perceive exactly their three-dimensionality and their position in space; for example, closer objects appear brighter, or in the case of an object placed in its entirety at the same distance, as may be the case with a back wall, the progressiveness of the digradation of light gives us the perception not only of the position of the light source but also of the realism of the wall. Any object in fact is subjected to the play of light and shadow, which varies in intensity depending on its position in relation to the light source.

In the Fiscella Caravaggio begins to investigate these aspects, perspective and light, in depth, and thus begins to make experimental use of the role these two elements play in an observer’s perception of space. In the case of this painting he consciously and totally resets to zero their function as far as the description of the place where the fiscella is placed is concerned; Caravaggio in this case removes any value from them, thus going so far as to create a space from a perceptual point of view that is completely artificial. The Canestra in fact rests on a plane devoid of perspective lines capable of describing its depth: in fact it is only a two-dimensional line, as if this plane were placed in a position absolutely perpendicular to the observer’s point of view, so that the table or shelf on which it rests lacks that linear perspective that is capable of making the surface on which it rests intuitively measurable; in this way space is no longer intuitable or even measurable by the observer. Added to this is the fact that Caravaggio deliberately eliminates any light digradation present in the space surrounding the fiscella: in fact, behind the canestra he paints a wall made only with a completely uniform yellow, on which no shadow can be seen, something that must be intentional since Caravaggio never fails to include shadow in his other works.

Behind it he purposely paints an undifferentiated field devoid of any luminous variation, something that on closer inspection is impossible, or unnatural, as Luigi Moretti observes very well: “The basket of fruit has a centralized reality against an almost emptied background, purposely monotonous, almost devoid of formal and autonomous existence.” So these two such singular choices(the absence of linear perspective and the absence of luminous diversification of the back wall), which combined together impede the viewer’s perception of space, cannot be the result of chance, both conditions being in fact completely unnatural; therefore, they must forcibly be the result of a very precise design. Especially considering that in the same painting the opposite happens: in fact, the Canestra and its fruits are endowed with both perspective construction and light diversification, which serve to give them three-dimensionality; to these two qualities is added their perfect verisimilitude that serves to make them perceived as absolutely tangible and real. In addition to this, the canestra protrudes from the table toward the viewer: we see this from the shadow it casts on it, and this only further increases the perception of its relief.

We therefore come to the conclusion that Caravaggio wanted the canestra and the space around it to be captured as two completely dissimilar elements, that is, the ultimate in realism is contrasted with a space that is completely implausible. We therefore find ourselves in a situation in which the space of the second floor is annulled, and at the same time the space that is represented in the painting is deliberately only that of the foreground, which is projected toward the viewer. The canestra thus wants to place itself in dialogue and continuity only with the space in which the observer exists, and it is there that it wants to exist, as is also the case with the Medusa: for this reason Caravaggio has artificially deprived it of a rear space. This particular construction represents a very important strand of research in Caravaggio’s art that will have a very fruitful development, the incipit of which we have already been able to appreciate through the illusory space in which the Medusa is situated. As Moir well guessed, the Fiscella represents a further and more complex degree of advancement on this plane. The mode that was chosen to represent the basket and the fruit obeys laws and purposes that are entirely different and indeed opposite to those that govern the space in which it was decided to place them, which instead is entirely devoid of both perspective and luminous variability. This condition isolates the basket from the aseptic and artificial environment in which it has been placed, and the result of this operation is that the eye ultimately focuses only on the basket and its marvelous realism. In the Fiscella, therefore, one perceives the non-commensurability between the three-dimensional and tactile realism of the still life and the lack of dimensionality of everything else in the painting. This innovative experimentation concerning the way of understanding and setting space and light makes this work a true cornerstone of the painter’s art moving in new directions; it is a first solid point of arrival for his research, the tangible fruit of his reflection and also the foundation from which to start subsequent developments in this direction.

From the iconographic point of view, several plausible Roman-Classical models have been advanced as possible precursors of Caravaggesque still life. I would tend instead to liken it to the peculiar subjects of Lombard painters who in a slightly earlier period were beginning to turn their attention to the genre of still life as a subject in its own right, as happens in the case of Arcimboldi’s fruit bowl, the works of Figino or Vincenzo Campi, who in particular depicts, in one of his compositions, a basket with a weave exactly identical to Caravaggio’s (fig. 2). We also know from several sources that the Cremonese painter made individual still lifes with baskets of flowers and fruits, but unfortunately they have been lost, thus preventing us from making further comparisons.

2. Vincenzo Campi, Still Life (second half of the 16th century; oil on canvas, 72 x 91 cm; Private collection)
2. Vincenzo Campi, Still
(second half of the 16th century; oil on canvas, 72 x 91 cm; Private collection)

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (fig. 3) was another painting certainly executed for Cardinal Del Monte and was the largest painting Caravaggio had created up to that time. It measures 173 by 133 centimeters: the figure of the saint, if she stood upright, would definitely be very tall, and her proportions would be greater than natural, for these reasons this work is to be considered a relative of the large figures contained in the Contarelli Chapel canvases with which it should be placed in connection and perhaps executed in the same period since it was precisely in the execution of the Contarelli canvases that Caravaggio began not only to increase the scale of his figurem but also to use the blackness of darkness as is also the case in this painting.

In dealing with a work of this size, a new need arises for the painter, that of the representation of a large and ample space in which to place the figure, a problem that he had hitherto somewhat avoided, while it was necessary, in the case of a figure of this size, to face and solve it, so firstly it was necessary to think about the form of this space and secondly to construct it, and to identify what means were most suitable to make it perceptible to the observer. For this reason, the painter’s path so far in the study of spatial representation takes a further step forward in this painting. If the space behind the Fiscella consists of a monotonous wall that avowedly denies the possibility of its realism, in the painting of St. Catherine this is replaced by a deep black color. In this case it is the darkness that plays the same role as the monotonous yellow of the wall in the Fiscella, namely, the darkness serves to nullify the importance of the space behind the saint in order to make the viewer focus only on the tangible reality of the Catherine, which is achieved by means of intense lighting that makes her stand out from the darkness, and enhances the characteristics of her realism, in this way the figure manages to appear to the viewer just as if she were in the flesh before him. With regard to the conception of space, on the other hand, the perspective with which the wheel is equipped appears to be modeled precisely for the purpose of making clear and perceptible only the dimensional volume that stands in front of the Saint, the wheel serves to delimit the right perspective fifth that starts precisely from Catherine and projects itself true to the observer, confirming this intent it can be further observed that it was at first drawn entirely: only later was it modified and broken so that its upper part would give the impression of projecting toward the viewer. The perspective lines that delineate the perimeter of the cushion on which the saint leans also advance on the floor, delimiting the bottom plane on which the female figure insists: in this way the wheel and cushion proceed together facing the viewer’s space, projecting toward him (these two elements are the tools used by the painter to create a projecting perspective). On closer inspection, darkness had already been employed by Caravaggio in The Sick Bacchus, but in that case its use was due to the figure’s close optics and restricted framing. Moreover, the table space in front of the figure is minimal: this is a mode often found in portrait painting of the period, think for example of Scipione Pulzone, Antonis Mor or even Jacopo Zucchi. In the case of the saint, on the other hand, the relationship between darkness and light is used with a clear perspective intent in order to rationally organize the environment, thus becoming the tool that painter uses in order to manage and homogenize a large space. The first tool employed by Caravaggio in his research concerning the perception of space by was a yellow monotone wall, but this had the defect of being unrealistic and thus in the long run unserviceable for a painter like him who had set himself the goal of absolute verisimilitude. On the contrary, the black space of the shadow is perfectly realistic and therefore this can finally be the credible and ideal means to manipulate through the play of light and shadow the viewer’s perception and achieve the desired goal: to make the image perfectly immanent for the viewer, as if it were here and now before him. The shrewd use of darkness for this purpose, namely, to manipulate the viewer’s perception, represents a key advance for Caravaggesque painting and will prove to be one of the decisive elements in the development of its revolution.

3. Caravaggio, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1598-1599; oil on canvas, 173 x 133 cm; Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza)
3. Caravaggio, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1598-1599; oil on canvas, 173 x 133 cm; Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza)


Caravaggio also made several other paintings for the cardinal, but they took up themes that Merisi had already developed independently before coming into contact with him. Caravaggio ’s first pictorial phase in Rome centered mainly on poetic-moral value: the content of his art and his efforts during this phase were directed toward this kind of intellectual depth, but from the time he entered the cardinal’s service the course of his research began to change and pointed more decisively in the direction of pictorial innovation. During the period of about four years that Merisi remained in his service he was certainly able to benefit from the continuous exchange of ideas with the prominent figures who made up the del Monte circle, and, as we have seen, influences from his patron and the culture of his court began to emerge more clearly in his paintings. The way in which he begins to use the relationship that exists between light and space in his paintings becomes extremely more refined and the result of experimental research. During these years, one can isolate a true path of maturation regarding these subjects: his journey began with the Medusa, continued with further advancements regarding the Fiscella, and reached its first moment of synthesis with the Saint Catherine. It is precisely with this painting that he will begin to find a solution to the problem he had posed: in fact, here he finally begins to use darkness as a suitable tool for shaping the dimensional perception of the observer for illusionistic purposes. All of this clearly demonstrates how the road Caravaggio is setting out on in these years points more and more decisively toward the problems of the construction and rendering of pictorial space and its relation to light, a direction that will find its next and decisive landing place in the execution of the Contarelli canvases. This new fundamental direction was born precisely during the Del Monte period and was most likely influenced by the cultural ferments existing in the cardinal’s circle and in particular by his contact with the ideas of his brother Guidobaldo, who was one of the most important scholars of perspective and scenography of his time.

Another fundamental and decisive fact that began to materialize precisely in these years was the abrupt change of direction regarding the themes Caravaggio treated in his paintings, as we have been able to see in the striking case of the disruptive way of representing the subject of Medusa: this painting constitutes to all intents and purposes a watershed and a fundamental cornerstone for the history of aesthetics. It is these ferments that will later lead him to the definitive maturation of his revolutionary style, they are the thread of a discourse that will come to complete maturation in the Contarelli canvases, which constitutes the public manifesto of his revolution, by the way it was probably through Del Monte’s intervention that Merisi obtained this commission.

These passages are of extreme importance and have a fundamental character: having well in mind what happened in this period will be the lever that will allow us to understand what we will see in his painting in the future, when his art will really go much further than what we have seen up to now.

The cardinal was one of Merisi’s most important collectors, and came to own eight of the painter’s paintings: a Carafa di fiori (lost), a San Francesco in ecstasy (not precisely identified), the Bari preserved in Fort Worth, the Buona Ventura in the Pinacoteca Capitolina, the Santa Caterina d’Alessandria now in the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza in Madrid, the Concerto, the Suonatore di Liuto in the Metropolitan, and finally the San Giovanni Battista in the Capitolina, which became part of his collection by testamentary disposition of Ciriaco Mattei’s son, Giovan Battista. All these works were put up for sale in 1628 shortly after the cardinal’s death and were all purchased by members of the circle of the Insensati or Humorists. Cardinal Pio di Savoia purchased the Buona Ventura and St. John the Baptist while the other paintings ended up in the collection of Maffeo Barberini’s nephew, Cardinal Antonio.

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