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Spot Caravaggio, hiding in plain sight


Four more hidden portraits of the great Baroque master Caravaggio have apparently been discovered in one of his paintings.

According to ANSA, the Italian news agency, Rossella Vodret, a Caravaggio scholar and Rome Museum Superintendent, has suggested Caravaggio may have used himself as a model for the faces of four men in the painting Adoration Of The Shepherds.

''For Caravaggio, the presence of a self-portrait in his paintings became almost a kind of trademark,'' said Vodret, who was quoted by ANSA.

In the Adoration, Caravaggio seems to have used his own face as it would haved looked at four different stages of his life. These were then imposed on the faces of three shepherds and Joseph, who are witnesses to the birth of Christ. The men appear to range in age from a fairly young fellow to a greybeard. The painting is one of Caravaggio’s last works and was painted while he was in exile from Rome, living in Sicily.

It may not have been ego as much as necessity that drove him to use his own image in the painting -- Vodret suggested Caravaggio simply may not have had enough other models to choose from at the time.

Still, most scholars agree that Caravaggio – whose full name was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio -- appeared in several of his paintings. His Young Sick Bacchus (1593), completed at the age of 22 while recovering from a long illness, is widely accepted as a self-portrait.

And in his painting of David And Goliath (1609), Caravaggio gave the giant's severed head his own face. Some scholars argue that that was intended as a kind of symbolic gesture of penance for the wild life the artist lived in Rome. In 1606, Caravaggio killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. In Malta in 1608 he was involved in another brawl, and yet another in Naples in 1609. By the next year, after a relatively brief career, he was dead.

The Adoration Of The Shepherds had recently undergone a public four-month restoration at the Italian parliament buildings in Rome, ANSA reported. During this period, visitors were able to watch the restoration experts at work on the painting. It shows Mary sitting on the stable floor, propped up against a wooden box, with the Baby Jesus in her arms. There are four men in the picture, traditionally interpreted as Joseph bringing three shepherds to worship the baby.

Mary's slumped position, the donkey and ox in the background, the straw and tumbledown wooden furniture all create a sense of simplicity and display the realism that Caravaggio was famous for. The painting was commissioned by the Senate of Messina, Sicily, for the Capuchin church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

The artist was paid 1,000 scudi for it - the highest sum he ever received for a single work.

The painting is now scheduled to return from Rome to its home at the Regional Museum in Messina. It will reportedly on rest there only briefly, before joining several other exhibitions over coming months commemorating 500 years since Caravaggio’s death.

Comments (9)

Fascinating! I'm a huge Caravaggio fan and hadn't seen this news. I'm looking forward to seeing two of his paintings in Naples in September. Thanks for sharing, Sandra.


I hope you have a great time in Naples, Colleen! BTW, have you seen Simon Schama's Power of Art series? For all the dramatics, I really enjoyed the segments on Caravaggio and Bernini. Thanks to Annie in NC for suggesting the series to me!

Very interesting! It's so cool the way that art historians are constantly making new discoveries, even about 500 year old paintings. It would be a fun job (for my next life). :) Glad you are enjoying Power of Art!

I did see that Schama series, and enjoyed watching the conflicts he portrayed so dramatically. :) Just remembered I have a biography around here somewhere - "M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio." I started it but never finished. It would be good pre-Naples reading!

Very cool! I love Caravaggio's work. Personally, I am all for artists using their own faces, especially the way Caravaggio did, IMHO, it add to the painting.


Hi Annie -- isn't it wonderful to think that discoveries are still possible, even on such well-known subjects as this?

I hope you're enjoying the Schama series, as well. I must confess, I found the segment on Turner was a bit long.....I think he must have been a favourite of Schama's!

Colleen, I think the biography sounds like wonderful pre-Naples preparation! It must be such a fascinating city.

Candi, I also love catching these little glimpses of artistss in their works, it makes them somehow seem more real. There was another story recently about a reflection of Caravaggio that he captured in a wine vessel, but in the reproduction it was impossible to see and appreciate.

Wonderful post. Caravaggio is a favorite of mine - Rome houses many of his paintings. Such a treat to always finding new information on this unusual artist. The man has some narcissistic and anger management issues for sure. I was fortunate to have a tour on campus here with a Caravaggio historian quite a few years back...truly amazing genius in use of light.mahalo for this post.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, love the title. Interesting to learn how Caravaggio used himself in different stages in this painting.

It's a beautiful painting and I enjoyed learning more about it. Thank you so much for sharing the information with us. Have a great week.

Very interesting. With his tendency towards violence, it makes me wonder if it was more his ego or lack of models.

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