Caravaggio’s Left-handed Subjects?

Today I came across an article that discusses a new theory regarding Caravaggio. Researcher Roberta Lapucci argues that Caravaggio used light sensitive substances (in essence, a very primitive form of photography) in order capture his figures on canvas. You should read this article and Lapucci’s arguments – it’s quite interesting.

But although I think that this is a really novel and fascinating idea, I have my doubts. Part of Lapucci’s argument rests on the fact that Caravaggio used an “abnormal number” of left-handed subjects in his early works, since a light sensitive image would have been projected on a canvas backwards. (According to Lapucci, Caravaggio later depicts right-handed subjects in his paintings, which indicates that the artist used improved darkroom technologies in his later career). My problem with this argument is that I can only find three Caravaggio paintings with (possible) left-handed subjects, even in his early works. Just about all of the sitters appear to be right-handed (for example, see Judith Beheading Holofernes, Boy Peeling Fruit, Lute Player, and The Musicians). Here are the only lefties that I found:

Caravaggio, Bacchus, c. 1597
(A discovery regarding this painting was recently in the news – see my thoughts here)

Caravaggio, Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1598
Does Lapucci consider this subject to be left-handed, since
her left hand is closer to the handle of the sword? Hmm.

Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist, 1610
This is a late work (in terms of Caravaggio’s career), but the sitter is using his left hand to hold a staff. (Does that mean, though, that he is left-handed? Or that light sensitive technology was used? Hmm.)

And…that’s it. From what I could find, those three are the only Caravaggio paintings that possibly manifest left-handed subjects. Feel free to try and find others – I’d love to see if anyone finds more lefties in Caravaggio’s work. For now, though, I feel like this part of Lapucci’s argument is pretty weak. You can decide for yourself, gentle reader, whether the number three constitutes an “abnormal number” for left-handed subjects.
  • Kiersten says:

    I can't think of any other left-handed subject, either, but I know that Michael Fried mentions the same thing, so there probably are more out there. In Fried's writings, Caravaggio's subjects are often left-handed because many of these paintings are modified depictions of the artist himself. Fried argues that Caravaggio looked at himself in the mirror (hence the right hand would be the left in the painting), and that the actions of all the subjects in the paintings are metaphors for holding the paintbrush. I'm not sure if I buy it, but it's another interesting idea.

  • M says:

    I completely forgot about Fried's suggestion about the mirror! Your comment caused me to pull out my graduate research on "Boy Bitten by a Lizard" and reread part of Fried's article.

    I was hoping that Fried listed some specific lefties, but I didn't find any. He seems more interested in right-handed subjects to support his theory about reversed images. I agree with you though, Kiersten, it is an interesting idea.

  • heidenkind says:

    You definitely know more about Caravaggio than I do, so I doubt I could think of anything "leftie" images. Lapucci's theory is interesting, I suppose, but to me there is almost no supporting evidence. Even the paintings that could be construed as "leftist" (haha) aren't definitely so, imo. And while Caravaggio wasn't the most prolific artist in the world, three paintings out of his entire oeuvre does not an argument make.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.