Southern Baroque

Art History and Murder!

David, Death of Marat, 1793

“Murder can be an art, too.” – Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope (1948)


When I was a kid, I used to watch rerun episodes of “Perry Mason” on TV all the time. Maybe that series initially sparked my interest in murder mysteries. Even now, as an adult, I still like to read detective stories and watch murder mystery shows. Lately I’ve been coercing my husband to watch episodes from the fourth season of “The Mentalist” almost every night. I guess “The Mentalist” is my modern version of “Perry Mason.”

Anyhow, I thought it would be fun to write a post on art history topics that involve murder. I’m not necessarily interested in depictions of murder, though. Gruesome depictions of murder are commonplace (yawn!) in art, including David’s famous Death of Marat shown above. Instead, I thought it would be interesting to discuss when artists or art historians have been murdered, committed murder, or accused of murder. These were the three cases that came to my mind:

Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, 1621-25

1) In 1606, the volatile painter Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassini. The pretext for the duel had to do with a tennis match, but art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon believes that these two men were really fighting over a prostitute. Graham-Dixon believes that Caravaggio was attempting to castrate Tomassini, since Tomassini bled to death from a femoral artery in his groin.

But Caravaggio’s associations with murder go even further. It is also thought that Caravaggio himself was murdered. While on the run from his murder conviction, Caravaggio fled to Malta and then Porto Ercole (Italy). Scholars think that Caravaggio was murdered either by relatives of Tomassoni or by the Knights of Malta (or at least one knight from Malta). The latter theory is suggested because it appears that Caravaggio was convicted of inflicting bodily harm on a noble knight in Malta. The knight (with or without his fellow knights) may have pursued Caravaggio and killed him.1

Mengs, Portrait of Winckelmann, after 1755

2) This murder story is probably one of the least expected, I think. The 18th century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who is best known for his studies on Greek sculpture and open homosexuality, was murdered in 1768. After visiting Vienna (and being received by the Empress Maria Theresa), Winckelmann stopped at a hotel in Trieste on his way back to Rome. At that point, he was murdered at the hotel by a man named Franceso Arcangeli. Winckelmann was showing coins that had been presented to him by the Empress Maria Theresa, so it is possible that the motive for murder was monetary. However, Professor Alex Potts has mentioned other possible reasons for murder (including conspiracy or a sexual motive). Potts also explored how Winckelmann’s murder affected scholarship (both Winckelmann’s own scholarship and a later interest in the deceased art historian’s work).2

Left: Ana Mendieta, Untitled from The Tree of Life Series, 1977. Right: Photograph of Carl Andre

3) This murder story involves not one, but two, 20th century artists. In 1985 the performance artist Ana Mendieta (depicted above on the left) fell 34 stories to her death, falling from her apartment in Greenwich Village (in New York). The only other person who was with Mendieta at the time of her death was her husband of eight months: Carl Andre, the minimalist sculptor. Andre was charged with second-degree murder, but was acquitted after a three-year struggle in the court system. Art in America claims that evidence was suppressed in the trial, due to sloppy work on the part of the police and prosecutors.

The turbulent relationship between this couple has been turned into a play, “Performance Art in Front of the Audience Ought to be Entertaining.” The play is set on the night that Ana was murdered, but the curtain falls before Ana actually dies – in other words, the theatergoer is left to decide what happened right before Ana died.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Do you know of other artists or art historians who have been involved with murder cases?

1 The death of Caravaggio is explored by Andrew Graham-Dixon in his book Caravaggio andin his BBC documentary, “Who Killed Caravaggio?” Watch Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 on YouTube.

2 Alex Potts and Joahann Joachim Winckelmann, History of the Art of Antiquity: Texts and Documents (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006), p. 15-15. Text available online HERE.


Female Artists and Nativity Scenes

Evie Hone, detail of "Nativity," 1946. Stained glass window located at Saint Stanislaus College, Tullabeg

Keeping in line with the theme for this week on female artists (in connection with my ongoing GIVEAWAY!), I wanted to write a Christmas post on female artists who painted Nativity scenes. This was a much more frustrating project than I anticipated; it was difficult to come up with examples to share. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that there aren’t too many (extant) examples out there, but I am a little disappointed. In some ways, it seems a little ironic that the most famous artistic scenes about birth were created by men!

One of the examples that I enjoyed discovering was the Nativity window located at Saint Stanislaus College in Tullabeg, Ireland (see detail above). This window was created by the artist Evie Hone in the mid-20th century. Originally trained as a painter, Hone turned toward stained glass later in her career. S. B. Kennedy writes that this change to stained glass “gave [Hone] free rein to her growing power as a colorist.”1

There are a few contemporary nativity scenes which I think are interesting. Janet McKenzie was commissioned to create The Nativity Project. I think her painting Mary and the Midwives (2003) is quite interesting, not only in terms of style but also subject matter and composition. I also think Flor Larios’ Nativity Star (n.d.) is fun, as well as the Nativity scenes by Valerie Atkisson.

As for more historical art (pre-20th century), I have learned that most of the nativity paintings either longer exist (or are not available online). For example, a Nativity by Lucrina Fetti (17th century) was destroyed during the Napoleonic era.2  Similarly, I can’t find any location for the nativity scene that was made by Victorian artist Eleanor Vere Boyle (etched in brown ink on vellum).Another “untraced” painting was created by the discalced Carmelite nun, Maria Eufrasia della Croce painted a nativity scene for the church San Giuseppe a Capo al Case. The painting received quite a bit of praise. In the 17th century, Filippo de Rossi said that this painting was created by “a most excellent nun and painter of the place.”4 Even Bruzzio was able to drum up some praise for this painting, saying that “even if it is by a woman it is not a displeasing work.”

It is disappointing that these works don’t exist anymore. However, don’t let this thought keep you from enjoying the Christmas holiday, friends! Do you know of any other nativity scenes (or “Adoration of the Shepherds” scenes) created by female artists? Please share! One of the only other examples (which is kinda-sorta similar to Christmas nativity scenes) is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Birth of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1635).

Happy holidays!

1 S. B. Kennedy, “Evie Hone,” in Dictionary of Women Artists, vol. 1 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), p. 402. Available online here.

2 Myriam Zerbi Fanna, “Lucrina Fetti” in Dictionary of Women Artists, vol. 1 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), p. 520-21. Available online here.

3 Ellen Creathorne Clayton, English Female Artists, vol. 2, p. 358.

4 Marylin Dunn, “Convents,” in Dictionary of Women Artists, vol. 1 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), p. 26. Available online here. See Franca Trinchieri Camiz, “Croce,” in Dictionary of Women Artists, vol. 1 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), p. 421. Available online here.

5 Camiz, 421.


Caravaggio Exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum

Caravaggio, "Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness," 1604-05

Well, my friends, I did it. Last week my husband and I went down to Texas on an art pilgrimage. We first stopped in Houston to visit the Rothko Chapel (Rothko is my husband’s favorite artist), and then traveled up to Fort Worth so that I could visit the Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum. We hit a lot of great art museums and installations during the trip, but I loved the Caravaggio exhibit the most of all. It was a pretty phenomenal experience to see so many Caravaggesque paintings (and actual works by Caravaggio) in a single space. Monochromatic backgrounds, tenebristic lighting, and dirty fingernails reigned supreme. It was awesome.

The exhibition display is pretty interesting. The exhibit is sectioned-off into areas that are dedicated to different types of subject matter (as is presented in the exhibition catalog). With the exception of a few paintings, most of the works by Caravaggio are not given too much visual prominence among the other works in the exhibition. Instead, everything is combined together so that one can get a sense of the breadth and influence of Caravaggio’s style. I appreciated this comprehensive approach; I think that it was very easy for the exhibition to prove Caravaggio’s influence as a painter.

However, I don’t think that it was easy for all museum visitors to tell which works were by Caravaggio without help from text labels and audio guides. I overheard one women telling someone that Caravaggio had painted a self-portrait in the background of one painting – and she was looking at a work by Simon Vouet! I would imagine that many typical visitors did not know the difference between Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and his Caravaggesque follower, Cecco del Caravaggio. When I visited the museum on a busy weekend afternoon, the strongest visual indicator for Caravaggio’s paintings were the audio tour crowds that naturally formed. If a visitor didn’t know enough about Baroque art to pick out a work by Caravaggio, they simply needed to spot a crowd of people standing with their heads cocked, listening to an audio device.

There were several details that I noticed during the exhibition about Caravaggio’s work. I was very struck with how Caravaggio’s tenebrism are even more striking when viewed in-person, especially in the painting Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (see above). The bright flesh of the saint seems to hum and glow with life, as does the brilliant vermillion drapery. Such vivacity is only offset with the exception of a few areas that are cloaked in dark swaths of shadow. The whole painting is indescribably impressive.

Caravaggio, detail of "The Cardsharps," c. 1596

One of the things that I loved about this exhibition was that I noticed several details in Caravaggio paintings that I had never noticed before. I remember noticing the slightest trace of a mustache on one of the figures in The Cardsharps (c. 1596, see detail above). I was impressed with the light, wispy quality of the feather stuck in the same figure’s hat. I also stopped for a long time to admire the texture of the shimmery, blue satin on Mary Magdalene’s dress in Martha and Mary Magdalene (c. 1598), something that is completely lost in some reproductions. Even the curl of Mary’s hair casts a dramatic and striking shadow, which doesn’t translate well in a reproduction.

Several of the Caravaggesque paintings were striking as well (although not as striking as the works by Caravaggio, in my opinion). Ribera’s work impressed me the most. I particularly liked the leathery, tanned skin of Ribera’s Saint Jerome (c. 1623; Cat. 35). I remember looking at the fingers of that saint for some time.

That being said, I didn’t think that all of the Caravaggesque paintings were very good. Some of them, in fact, looked simply ridiculous (to the point of being eyesores) when hung in the same room with Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness. I wasn’t surprised to see that the museum placed The Holy Family in Saint Joseph’s Workshop (attributed to Carlo Saraceni or Guy François, c. 1615; cat. 41) and The Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia (Guy François, c. 1608-13; cat 12) behind two temporary walls. They looked like pretty poor paintings in comparison with Caravaggio’s work. When I complained about those paintings to my husband, he said, “When I saw those paintings, I got the impression Caravaggio influenced all kinds of painters, even ones that weren’t very good.” I’m not sure if the exhibition intended to convey that message, but that point was definitely made! I personally think the should have been taken out, though. These were some of the last two paintings that I saw during my visit, and it left a bad taste in my mouth (or a bad impression on my eyes, I should say). I had to turn and look at Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness for a few more minutes afterward, just to cleanse by visual palette.

Caravaggio, "Sacrifice of Isaac," 1598-99, Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection Foundation

All in all, I really enjoyed the show (despite seeing the paintings by Saraceni and François – ugh!). I would have liked to have seen a few more paintings that have been attributed to Caravaggio (some of which have had their authenticity and provenance called into question), but those paintings were only on view when the exhibition was in Canada earlier this year. Hopefully I’ll get to see Saint Augustine (c. 1600), Saint Francis (c. 1598, cat. 30) and Sacrifice of Isaac (c. 1598-99, shown above; cat. 53) another time, so that I can form my own opinion about those pieces.

Me outside the Caravaggio show, December 2011


Ancient Greeks and Romans Broke their Pediments

Diagram of broken, segmental (rounded) and open pediments

Like other Baroque art historians, I love the broken pediment as an architectural feature. A broken pediment is  “broken” at the apex of a triangular pediment. I usually don’t differentiate between the “open” and “broken” pediment when I teach by students about these features, but I know that many architectural historians choose to differentiate between the two. An “open” pediment refers to when the base of the pediment has been removed (or “opened,”). One of my favorite broken pediments from the Baroque period (which actually has been broken, opened, and also shifted backward) is found in the Cornaro Chapel, designed by the artist Bernini (1645-1652).

Both open and broken pediments were popular in Baroque art. Baroque scholars love these kinds of pediments; they serve as good examples of how 17th century architects added a little bit more dynamism and movement into their architectural features (in contrast to the harmony and symmetry that characterized much of the architecture of the Renaissance).1

But I think that it’s hard for Baroque scholars to remember sometimes that the idea of segmenting pediments was not developed during the Baroque period. In fact, the broken and/or open pediment existed in ancient Rome and Hellenistic architecture from Alexandria.2 Unfortunately, not many extant examples of architecture survive from Alexandria, so scholars need to look to Roman and/or Nabatean art that copied Alexandrian architecture, such as the Market Gate of Miletus, Treasury at Petra, and Pompeiian wall paintings (all shown below).

I often teach my students about how the Greek Classical period is similar to the art of the Renaissance, and how the Hellenistic period is similar to the art of the Baroque period. The broken pediment in Hellenistic architecture is a further manifestation of this fact. It’s also interesting to see that the Romans picked up on this architectural feature that would probably have been conceived as “distorted” by Greeks who lived during what has been termed the “High Classical” period. In this light, the broken pediment is another manifestation of how Roman architecture was interested in the re-invention of Classical Greek architecture. No wonder they latched onto the Hellenistic invention of the broken pediment.

Here are some examples of broken pediments that appear in ancient Roman art:

Market Gate of Miletus, 2nd century CE. Currently located in the Pergamon Museum (Berlin). Image courtesy of Thorsten Hartmann via Wikipedia.

Facade Al-Khazneh (The Treasury), Petra, Jordan, 2nd century BC -2nd century CE. Image courtesy of Bernard Gagnon on Wikipedia.

Detail of second style wall paintin from cubiculum M of the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, Italy, ca. 50-40 BCE

Arch of Tiberius, ca. 26 C.E. (rebuilt around core of earlier monument, ca. 30 B.C.E.), Orange, France

Broken pediment from Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan, c. 150 CE. Image courtesy of Jerzy Strzelecki via Wikipedia.

What are your favorite examples of the broken (or open) pediment in architecture?

1 That being said, there are examples of the broken pediment that exist in Late Renaissance architecture. For example, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger employed broken pediments on the top story of the façade of the Palazzo Farnese (ca. 1530-1546).

2 See Judith McKenzie, “The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt, 300 BC to AD 700, Volume 63” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 105. Source available online here. See also Judith McKenzie, “Alexandra and the Origins of Baroque Architecture,” available online here. The latter citation also includes a discussion of how the earliest surviving examples of the segmental pediment (a rounded, semi-circular pediment) are found in Alexandrian architecture.


Book Review: “Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome”

"Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome" by David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze

I recently had the pleasure of reading the new exhibition catalog, Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome. I’ve read this book with a great deal of personal interest – not only do I love Caravaggio, but I will be traveling to Texas later this year to see this historic exhibition! Many of you are probably aware that I highlighted some details from this catalog on a post at Three Pipe Problem – particularly information regarding the painting, Saint Augustine (c. 1600) which recently has been attributed to Caravaggio.

When opening this book for the first time, I was immediately struck by the beautiful images. This catalog is chock full of gorgeous, simply delicious color reproductions of paintings by Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti. There are numerous detail images for many of these paintings, too. The catalog also includes several dozen images that are not included in the actual exhibition, too. Honestly, I would own this book just for the reproductions themselves.

But praise for this catalog goes beyond the reproductions. This book also includes a lot of great essays about Caravaggio, written by prominent scholars like Sebastian Schütze, Francesca Cappelletti, and Michael Fried. That being said, though, this catalog isn’t for someone with just a casual interest in art history or Caravaggio. The essays are pretty dense, and some writers (I’m particularly thinking of Fried and Schütze) use art historical terms that would be unfamiliar to the casual reader.

The first half of the book is dedicated to essays about general history regarding Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti (even mentioning Caravaggio’s plate of artichokes that recently grabbed a bit of attention in the news). This section also includes a theoretical essay by Michael Fried. The essay is interesting (and, granted, is written in a slightly more approachable way than many of Fried’s other essays on similar topics of absorption and spectatorship), but it seems quite out-of-place with the other historical essays in the book.

Caravaggio, "The Cardsharps," c. 1595

The second part of the book is dedicated to thematic essays related to works in the exhibition. I loved this section of the book the most. The essays are generally organized by different types of subject matter: gypsies, cardsharps, musicians, saints, etc. It’s really fun. I was interested to learn that Caravaggio’s painting The Cardsharps has inspired more copies and variants than any other work by Caravaggio.1

In fact, themes of gambling (which expands to include dice players) and were popular among Caravaggio’s Roman followers. One popular subject matter for the Caravaggisti was The Denial of Saint Peter (as can be seen in Bartolomeo Manfredi’s work of c. 1616-18). These scenes were often expanded to include depictions of soldiers playing dice or cards. Interestingly, though, the Caravaggisti were not inspired by Caravaggio’s personal treatment of the subject; Caravaggio’s Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1609-10) includes only three half-figures. Instead, the Caravaggisti used Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) as a prototype for their Denial of Saint Peter scenes. One can see similarities in composition by comparing Manfredi and Caravaggio’s paintings, particularly since both works involve groups of men huddled around a table. In addition to these similarities, Nancy E. Edwards points out that “The Denial of Saint Peter and The Calling of Saint Matthew have similar subjects: an apostle’s response to Christ’s call of faith.”2

Anyhow, that interesting tidbit of information is just a taste of what is available in this great catalog. I would heartily recommend it to anyone that has a keen interest in Caravaggio or the Caravaggisti. I only have one small complain about the book itself: it needs to have an index! I know that it is not common for exhibition catalogs to have indexes, so I realize that this complaint is geared more toward a cultural standard than this particular book. However, I have noticed that exhibition catalogs are becoming increasingly more scholarly in their content. If museums want scholars to use their catalogs as an academic resource, more indexes need to start showing up in catalogs!

As I read Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome, I wrote down a makeshift index on the last page of my book copy (see above right), with some of the topics that are particularly interesting to me. If there was an index, I would be spared such effort…

1 Nancy E. Edwards, “The Cardsharps,” in Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, edited by David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 180.

2 Ibid., 199.

Thank you to H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem, Inbooks and Yale University Press for supplying the review copy.


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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.