Pasolini on Caravaggio’s Artificial Light


The Review’s Review

Caravaggio, Self-portrait as the Sick Bacchus. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pasolini’s pen was preternatural in its output. Collected by the publishing house Mondadori in their prestigious Meridiani series, his complete works in the original Italian (excluding private documents such as diaries, and his immense, largely unpublished, epistolary exchanges in various languages) fill ten densely printed volumes. The twenty thousand or so pages of this gargantuan oeuvre suggest that, in the course of his short adult life, Pasolini must have written thousands of words every day, without fail. 

Allusions to painting—and to the visual arts more broadly—appear across the full range of Pasolini’s writings, from journalistic essays to poetry and work for theater and film. The intended destination of the textual fragment below, which remained unpublished during Pasolini’s lifetime, remains uncertain. We know, however, that it was most likely penned in 1974. The “characterological” novelty of Caravaggio’s subjects, to which Pasolini alludes in passing, underscores some of the parallels between the two artists’ bodies of work: an eye for the unlikely sacredness of the coarse and squalid; a penchant for boorishness to the point of blasphemy; an attraction to louts and scoundrels of a certain type—the “rough trade,” of homosexual parlance.It is striking, for instance, that some of the nonprofessional actors that Pasolini found in the outskirts of Rome and placed in front of his camera bear an uncanny resemblance to the “new kinds of people” that Caravaggio “placed in front of his studio’s easel,” to quote from the essay presented here. Take Ettore Garofolo, who for a moment in Mamma Roma looks like a tableau vivant of Caravaggio’s Bacchus as a young waiter. Even the illness that ultimately kills that subproletarian character—so often read as a metaphor of the effects of late capitalism on Italy’s post-Fascist society—is born out of an art historical intuition that is articulated in this fragment on Caravaggio’s use of light. 

But it was equally an exquisite formal sense—a search after “new forms of realism”—that drew Pasolini to Caravaggio’s work, particularly the peculiar accord struck in his paintings between naturalism and stylization. Pasolini professed to “hate naturalism” and, with some exceptions, avoided the effects of Tenebrism in his cinema. It is, instead, the very artificiality of Caravaggio’s light—a light that belongs “to painting, not to reality”—which earns his admiration.

The Roberto Longhi mentioned below is Pasolini’s former teacher, an art historian at the forefront of Caravaggio studies. It was Longhi who resurrected the painter from a certain obscurity in the twenties, arguing for the consequence of his work to a wider European tradition from Rembrandt and Ribera to Courbet and Manet.

—Alessandro Giammei and Ara H. Merjian


Anything I could ever know about Caravaggio derives from what Roberto Longhi had to say about him. Yes, Caravaggio was a great inventor, and thus a great realist. But what did Caravaggio invent? In answering this rhetorical question, I cannot help but stick to Longhi’s example. First, Caravaggio invented a new world that, to invoke the language of cinematography, one might call profilmic. By this I mean everything that appears in front of the camera. Caravaggio invented an entire world to place in front of his studio’s easel: new kinds of people (in both a social and characterological sense), new kinds of objects, and new kinds of landscapes. Second: Caravaggio invented a new kind of light. He replaced the universal, platonic light of the Renaissance with a quotidian and dramatic one. Caravaggio invented both this new kind of light and new kinds of people and things because he had seen them in reality. He realized that there were individuals around him who had never appeared in the great altarpieces and frescoes, individuals who had been marginalized by the cultural ideology of the previous two centuries. And there were hours of the day—transient, yet unequivocal in their lighting—which had never been reproduced, and which were pushed so far from habit and use that they had become scandalous, and therefore repressed. So repressed, in fact, that painters (and people in general) probably didn’t see them at all until Caravaggio.

The third thing that Caravaggio invented is a membrane that separates both him (the author) and us (the audience) from his characters, still lifes, and landscapes. This membrane, too, is made of light, but of an artificial light proper solely to painting, not to reality—a membrane that transposes the things that Caravaggio painted into a separate universe. In a certain sense, that universe is dead, at least compared to the life and realism with which the things were perceived and painted in the first place, a process brilliantly accounted for by Longhi’s hypothesis that Caravaggio painted while looking at his figures reflected in a mirror. Such were the figures that he had chosen according to a certain realism: neglected errand boys at the greengrocer’s, common women entirely overlooked, et cetera. Though immersed in that realistic light, the light of a specific hour with all its sun and all its shadow, everything in the mirror appears suspended, as if by an excess of truth, of the empirical. Everything appears dead.

I may love, in a critical sense, Caravaggio’s realistic choice to trace the paintable world through characters and objects. Even more critically, I may love the invention of a new light that gives room to immobile events. Yet a great deal of historicism is necessary to grasp Caravaggio’s realism in all its majesty. As I am not an art critic, and see things from a false and flattened historical perspective, Caravaggio’s realism seems rather normal to me, superseded as it was throughout the centuries by other, newer forms of realism. As far as light is concerned, I may appreciate Caravaggio’s invention in its stupendous drama. Yet because of my own aesthetic penchants—determined by who knows what stirrings in my subconscious—I don’t like inventions of light. I much prefer the invention of forms. A new way to perceive light excites me far less than a new way to perceive, say, the knee of a Madonna under her mantle, or the close-up perspective of some saint. I love the invention and the abolition of geometries, compositions, chiaroscuro. In front of Caravaggio’s illuminated chaos, I remain admiring but also, if one sought my strictly personal opinion here, a tad detached. What excites me is his third invention: the luminous membrane that renders his figures separate, artificial, as though reflected in a cosmic mirror. Here, the realist and abject traits of faces appear smoothed into a mortuary characterology; and thus light, though dripping with the precise time of day from which it was plucked, becomes fixed in a prodigiously crystallized machine. The young Bacchus is ill, but so is his fruit. And not only the young Bacchus; all of Caravaggio’s characters are ill. Though they should be vital and healthy as a matter of consequence, their skin is steeped in the dusky pallor of death.

Translated from the Italian by Alessandro Giammei and Ara H. Merjian. 

From Heretical Aesthetics: Pasolini on Painting, to be published by Verso Books in August.

Alessandro Giammei is an assistant professor of Italian studies at Yale University. Il Rinascimento è uno zombie will be published by Einaudi in 2024.  

Ara H. Merjian is a professor of Italian studies at New York University. He is the author of Against the Avant-Garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art, and Neocapitalism. Fragments of Totality: Futurism, Fascism, and the Sculptural Avant-Garde will be published by Yale University Press in 2024.