Sep 292015


Today is the birthday (1571) of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, an Italian painter active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily between c.1592 and 1610. Caravaggio’s family name was Merisi (or Merigi or Amerighi) and da Caravaggio means “from Caravaggio.” His given name comes from the fact that his birthday is the Feast of Michael, the archangel, known in English as Michaelmas — Caravaggio was born in Milan where his father, Fermo Merixio, was a household administrator and architect-decorator to the Marchese of Caravaggio, a town not far from the city of Bergamo. His mother, Lucia Aratori (Lutia de Oratoribus), came from a propertied family of the same district. In 1576 the family moved to Caravaggio (Caravaggius) to escape a plague which ravaged Milan, and Caravaggio’s father died there in 1577. It is assumed that the artist grew up in Caravaggio, but his family kept up connections with the Sforzas and with the powerful Colonna family, who were allied by marriage with the Sforzas and destined to play a major role later in Caravaggio’s life.

Caravaggio’s paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, had a profound influence on the development of Baroque painting. It’s perhaps shallow of me to say Caravaggio is my “favorite” painter; I like dozens of painters and works of art. But if for some reason I were forced to make a choice I’d probably place Caravaggio above all others.


Caravaggio trained as a painter in Milan under Simone Peterzano who had himself trained under Titian. In his 20s Caravaggio moved to Rome where there was a demand for paintings to fill the many huge new churches and palazzos being built at the time. It was also a period when the Church was searching for a stylistic alternative to Mannerism in religious art which evolved in the late Renaissance. Caravaggio’s innovation was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro (light-dark) which came to be known as tenebrism (the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value). It is sometimes said that Caravaggio “put the oscuro in chiaroscuro,” that is, his paintings are noted as much for the darkly shadowed passages, which seem to make brighter the illuminated sections.


He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success poorly. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope after killing a young man, possibly unintentionally, on May 29, 1606.

An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, recounts that “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at the age of 38, he died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole in Tuscany, reportedly from a fever while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.

Caravaggio was famous while he lived, but was forgotten almost immediately after his death. It was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. His influence on the new Baroque style that eventually emerged from the ruins of Mannerism was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the “Caravaggisti” or “Caravagesques”, as well as tenebrists or tenebrosi (“shadowists”). I can think of no better tribute to the master than to present a gallery of my favorites.

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My inspiration for a recipe comes from Caravaggio’s painting The Road to Emmaus. First, here is the tale from Luke 24:

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

19 “What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.


Caravaggio took many of his themes from gospel stories. This one is a great favorite of mine because it underscores the importance of fellowship over a meal in the gospels and in the life of Jesus (for which he was regularly berated by the authorities). Caravaggio’s painting shows bread and a roast fowl along with a basket of assorted fruit. It is at the same time both plain and elegant. Well, today being Michaelmas, you should probably have roast goose (as per my post linked above), but I won’t be a stickler. I can’t readily get goose in China, so I’m going to roast a duck. But go ahead and roast anything you want. I have three rules:

  1. I don’t ever stuff a bird. With very fatty birds, such as goose and duck, the stuffing usually ends up soggy. I make up a “stuffing,” because I like the flavors that contrast with the meat. But I prepare it separately in a skillet, wrap it loosely in foil, and bake it beside the bird for about 30 minutes.
  2. I don’t ever baste a bird. I stick it in the oven and forget about it. I rub most (non-fatty) birds with fat of some sort before I put them in the oven. For fatty birds I use a sharp fork to deeply prick the skin all over so that the fat seeps out as the bird cooks – creating a self basting action.
  3. I roast on the highest heat possible. For me that’s 260°C/500° I think that the high heat is the absolute key. In my (long) experience, slow roasting dries out a bird, while high heat/quick roasting keeps the meat – especially the breast – moist. People always complain about dry tasteless turkey breast because they roast the bird for hour upon hour at low heat. On the rare occasion when I roast a turkey, I do it on high heat, and no one ever complains that the breast meat is dry.

I also always carve at the table and not in the kitchen. I used to be scared of doing this when I was younger, but now carving at the table is an essential part of the meal, to my mind. Have a warmed serving platter beside you to fill and pass around whilst you are carving. Separate the legs from the body by severing the skin around the thigh/body area, then simply snap off the leg, followed by cutting through the joint. For most birds I then snap the thigh and drumstick and then cut through the joint, keeping the pieces whole. Let the diners strip the meat on their plates or just pick the pieces up and gnaw. For a turkey I do strip and slice the meat. For ALL birds, big and small, slice the entire breast off by cutting down the base of the breast from the keel. That way you end up with two large breast pieces. Then cut vertically through the meat in thick slices. This is by far the best and most efficient way to carve a turkey breast.

Caravaggio’s painting is more a symbolic image than a realistic portrayal of a meal in Jesus’ time or his own. The bread is obviously crucial. Jesus “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” and at that point their eyes were opened. That’s how we get the idiom that “breaking bread” means eating together. Breaking bread is an act of communion, literally and figuratively. Break bread with you friends and family today.

Jul 082014


Today is the birthday (1593) of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation following that of Caravaggio. In an era when women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community or patrons, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.

She painted many images of strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible—victims, suicides, warriors—and made it her specialty to paint the Judith story. Her best-known work is Judith Slaying Holofermes (a common medieval and baroque subject in art). That she was a woman painting in the 17th century and that she was raped and participated in prosecuting the rapist, long overshadowed her achievements as an artist. For many years she was seen as a curiosity. Today she is regarded as one of the most progressive and skilled painters of her generation.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome, the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. Gentileschi was introduced to painting in her father’s workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked alongside her. She learned drawing, how to mix color, and how to paint. Since her father’s style took inspiration from Caravaggio during that period, her style was just as heavily influenced in turn. Her approach to subject matter was different from her father’s, however, as her paintings are highly naturalistic, whereas Orazio’s are idealized. Orazio was a great encouragement to his daughter since, during the 17th century, women were commonly considered lacking the intelligence for professional work. Gentileschi had to resist the traditional norms and psychological pressures of her time, brought on, in part, by the jealousy of contemporaries over her obvious abilities. By doing so, she gained great respect and recognition for her work.


The first work of the seventeen-year-old Gentileschi was the Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susanna and the Elders) (1610). At the time some, influenced by the prevailing misconceptions, suspected that she was helped by her father. The painting shows how Gentileschi assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the style of the Bologna school, which had Annibale Carracci among its major artists. It is one of the few paintings on the theme of Susanna showing the sexual accosting by the two Elders as a traumatic event.

In 1611, her father was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino della Rose inside the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace in Rome, so Orazio hired the painter to tutor his daughter privately. During this tutelage, Tassi raped Gentileschi. Another man, Cosimo Quorlis had helped Tassi with the rape. After the initial rape, Gentileschi continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, with the expectation that they were going to be married and with the hope to restore her dignity and her future. Tassi reneged on his promise to marry Gentileschi. Nine months after the rape, after he learned that Gentileschi and Tassi were not going to be married, Orazio pressed charges against Tassi. Orazio also claimed that Tassi stole a painting of Judith from the Gentileschi household. The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Gentileschi’s virginity. If Gentileschi had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, the Gentileschis would not have been able to press charges. During the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had enjoined in adultery with his sister-in-law, and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. During the trial, Gentileschi was subjected to a gynecological examination and being tortured using thumbscrews to verify her testimony. At the end of the trial Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year, although he never served the time. The trial influenced the feminist view of Gentileschi in general during the late twentieth century.

Gentileschi was surrounded mainly by the presence of males since the loss of her mother at age 12. When Gentileschi was 17, Orazio rented the upstairs apartment of their home to a female tenant, Tuzia. Gentileschi befriended Tuzia; however, Tuzia allowed Agostino Tassi and Cosimo Quorlis to accompany Gentileschi in Artemsia’s home on multiple occasions. The day the rape occurred, Gentileschi cried for the help of Tuzia, but Tuzia simply ignored Gentileschi and pretended she knew nothing of what happened. Gentileschi felt betrayed by Tuzia, and because Tuzia was the only female figure in her life, Gentileschi’s works contained a strong sense of solidarity and unity between women.


The painting, Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith beheading Holofernes) (1612–1613), is striking for the violence portrayed. Compare this with Caravaggio’s depiction of the same scene (below). Gentileschi’s Judith is really going at it, whereas Caravaggio’s looks as if she could barely break the skin from the way she is holding her arms at such a distance, and the blood just gently trickling on the pillow.


A month later, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. Shortly afterward the couple moved to Florence, where Gentileschi received a commission for a painting at Casa Buonarroti. She became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the Medici family and Charles I. It has been proposed that during this period Gentileschi also painted the Madonna col Bambino (The Virgin and Child).

While in Florence, Gentileschi and Pierantonio had a daughter, Prudentia, around 1618; they also had a second daughter some years after Prudentia. It is noteworthy that both daughters were painters, trained by their mother, although nothing is known of their work.

In Florence, Gentileschi enjoyed huge success. She was the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). She maintained good relations with the most respected artists of her time, such as Cristofano Allori, and was able to garner the favors and the protection of influential people, starting with Granduke Cosimo II de’ Medici and especially, of the Granduchess Cristina. She had a good relationship with Galileo Galilei, with whom she corresponded by letter for a long time.


She was esteemed by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger (nephew of the great Michelangelo): busy with construction of Casa Buonarroti to celebrate his notable relative, he asked Gentileschi to produce a painting to decorate the ceiling of the gallery of paintings. The painting is allegorical, Allegoria dell’Inclinazione, “Allegory of the Inclination (natural talent)”, presented in the form of a nude young woman holding a compass. It is believed that the subject bears a resemblance to Gentileschi. Indeed, in several of her paintings, Gentileschi’s energetic heroines resemble her self-portraits.


Her success and gender fueled many rumors about her private life. For example, some speculate that the case of her rape released her from societal pressures, having created an understanding of why some of her works were filled with defiant and violent women, rather than examining the style of those influencing hers. Notable works from this period include La Conversione della Maddalena (The Conversion of the Magdalene), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player,  and Giuditta con la sua ancella (Judith and her Maidservant). Gentileschi painted a second version of Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith beheading Holofernes), this one larger than the Naples version. Despite her success, financial excesses borne by her for her husband led to problems with creditors, and she fell out with her husband. She returned without him to Rome in 1621.


Gentileschi arrived in Rome the same year her father Orazio departed for Genoa. While there is not enough evidence for this, some believe that Gentileschi followed her father to Genoa, asserting that this time together would have accentuated the similarity of their styles, making it often difficult to determine which of the two painted certain works. Most of the evidence, however, supports the notion that Gentileschi remained in Rome, trying to find a home and raise her children.

Although the master had been dead over a decade, Caravaggio’s style was still highly influential and converted many painters to following his style (the so-called Caravaggisti), such as Gentileschi’s father Orazio, Carlo Saraceni (who returned to Venice 1620), Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Simon Vouet. Painting styles in Rome during the early seventeenth century were diverse, however, demonstrating a more classic manner of the Bolognese disciples of the Carracci and the baroque style of Pietro da Cortona.

It appears that Gentileschi also was associated the Academy of the Desiosi. She was celebrated with a portrait carrying the inscription “Pincturare miraculum invidendum facilius quam imitandum”. During the same period she became friends with Cassiano dal Pozzo, a humanist and a collector and lover of arts.

Despite her artistic reputation, her strong personality, and her numerous good relationships, however, Rome was not so lucrative as she hoped. Her style, tone of defiance, and strength relaxed. She painted less intense works. For instance, her second version of Susanna and the Elders (1622) The appreciation of her art was narrowed down to portraits and to her ability with biblical heroines. She did not receive any of the lucrative commissions for altarpieces. The absence of sufficient documentation makes it difficult to follow Gentileschi’s movements in this period. It is certain that between 1627 and as late as 1630, she moved to Venice, perhaps in search of richer commissions. Evidence for this is that verses and letters were composed in appreciation of her and her works in Venice.


Although it is sometimes difficult to date her paintings, it is possible to assign certain works by her to these years, the Ritratto di gonfaloniere (Portrait of Gonfaloniere), today in Bologna (a rare example of her capacity as portrait painter) and the Giuditta con la sua ancella, (Judith and her Maidservervant). The latter painting is notable for her mastery of chiaroscuro and tenebrism (the effects of extreme lights and darks), techniques for which Gerrit van Honthorst, Trophime Bigot, and many others in Rome were famous. Her Venere Dormiente (The Sleeping Venus), and her Ester ed Assuero (Esther and Ahasuerus)  are testimony to her assimilation of the lessons of Venetian luminism.

In 1630 Gentileschi moved to Naples, a city rich with workshops and art lovers, in search of new and more lucrative job opportunities. Many other artists, including Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, and Simon Vouet had stayed in Naples for some time in their lives. At that time, Jusepe de Ribera, Massimo Stanzione, and Domenichino were working there and later, Giovanni Lanfranco and many others would flock to the city. The Neapolitan debut of Gentileschi is represented by the Annunciation in the Capodimonte Museum. She remained in Naples for the remainder of her career with the exceptions of a brief trip to London and some other journeys.

Naples was for Gentileschi a kind of second homeland where she took care of her family (both of her daughters were married in Naples). On Saturday 18 March 1634 the traveler Bullen Reymes records in his diary visiting Gentileschi and one of her daughters (‘who also paints’) with a group of fellow-Englishmen. She received letters of appreciation, being in good relations with the viceroy, the Duke of Alcalá, and started relations with many renowned artists, among them Massimo Stanzione, with whom, the eighteenth-century writer Bernardo de’ Dominici reports, she started an artistic collaboration based on a real friendship and artistic similarities.


In Naples for the first time Gentileschi started working on paintings in a cathedral, dedicated to San Gennaro nell’anfiteatro di Pozzuoli (Saint Januarius in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli) in Pozzuoli. During her first Neapolitan period she painted Nascita di San Giovanni Battista (Birth of Saint John the Baptist), and Corisca e il satiro (Corisca and the satyr). In these paintings Gentileschi again demonstrates her ability to adapt to the novelties of the period and handle different subjects, instead of the usual Judith, Susanna, Bathsheba, and Penitent Magdalenes, for which she already was known.

In 1638 Gentileschi joined her father in London at the court of Charles I of England, where Orazio became court painter and received the important job of decorating a ceiling (allegory of Trionfo della pace e delle Arti (Triumph of the peace and the Arts) in the Casa delle Delizie of Queen Henrietta Maria of France in Greenwich). Father and daughter were working together once again, although helping her father probably was not her only reason for travelling to London: Charles I had convoked her in his court, and it was not possible to refuse. Charles I was a fanatical collector, willing to ruin public finances to follow his artistic wishes. The fame of Gentileschi probably intrigued him, and it is not a coincidence that his collection included a painting of great suggestion, the Autoritratto in veste di Pittura (“Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting”), which is the lead image of this article.

Orazio died suddenly in 1639. Gentileschi had her own commissions to fulfill after her father’s death, although there are no known works assignable with certainty to this period. It is known that Gentileschi had already left England by 1642, when the civil war was just starting. Nothing much is known about her subsequent movements. Historians know that in 1649 she was in Naples again, corresponding with Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily, who became her mentor during this second Neapolitan period. The last known letter to her mentor is dated 1650 and makes clear that she still was fully active.


As Gentileschi grew older, her work is sometimes described as more graceful and “feminine.” I’m not really comfortable with such stereotypic labels, but it is true that the brutality and forcefulness of her earlier work was muted now. Works in this period include, Susanna e i vecchioni (Susanna and the elders), Madonna e Bambino con rosario (Virgin and Child with a Rosary), David and Bathsheba.


Gentileschi was once thought to have died in 1652/1653, however, recent evidence has shown that she was still accepting commissions in 1654—although increasingly dependent upon her assistant, Onofrio Palumbo. It might be speculated that she died in the devastating plague that swept Naples in 1656 and virtually wiped out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists.

For today’s recipe I have chosen a 17th century Florentine recipe for cappelletti, cappelleti alla cortigiana (courtesan’s cappelleti). “Cappelletti” means “little caps” referring to the shape of the pasta. Traditionally they are served as cappelletti in brodo, that is, in rich broth, one of my favorites. You will find my standard recipe for pasta under the HINTS tab. When I make filled pasta I like to make a big batch and freeze most. To do this, place the pasta on metal trays in the freezer making sure they do not touch. When they are frozen place them in zip top bags. This way they stay separate while frozen.


Cappelletti alla Cortigiana


1 batch of fresh pasta
3 ½ oz/100g pork belly
½ capon breast
7 oz/200g soft Italian cheese (e.g. ricotta)
1 ¾ oz/50g matured hard Italian cheese (e.g. Pecorino)
2 eggs
ground nutmeg
ground ginger
fresh ground black pepper


Simmer the pork belly and capon breast in separate pots in light broth until tender. Remove both meats and chop then very fine. Mix all together thoroughly with the cheeses, eggs, nutmeg, ginger, pepper and salt to taste. Start off with very little of the spices and add until their flavor comes through but is not overwhelming.

Roll the pasta using a pasta machine into long strips as thin as possible (usually the second to finest setting). Cut the strips into 1 ½” by 1 ½” (4cm by 4cm) squares. Dab about 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of each square. Lightly dampen the inner edges with water and fold over the square diagonally to form a triangle. Press the edges to seal. Take the base corners of the triangle and pull them together. Overlap them slightly and press them together to form the “cap.”

Bring the capon broth to a gentle boil. Add a few threads of saffron, and then the cappelletti. Because this is fresh pasta they will cook in just a few minutes. Be very vigilant to be sure the pasta remains al dente.

Serve in the broth with grated hard cheese and a sprinkling of nutmeg or ginger.