The Photographic Camera: An Invention Of The Sixteenth Century ?

This story tells about the origin of photography, as well as about the origin of that we presented in the previous article.

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio had an intensive life. His works, full of contrasts of light, depict the intensity in which the painter lived all his life. The subjects are presented in the climax of the action. They are expressive and eloquent, painted with accuracy and incredible precision. An almost photographic precision. Actually a real photographic precision.

It seems that Leonardo da Vinci was working on a device called camera disegna luce, a device capable of drawing light, thus a kind to photography. This seems incredible, but let’s not forget that this genius was able to invent the helicopter.

Leonardo said in his Codex written during his stay in Rome:

“The paint is a good starter, but if you take a photo you become smarter.”

But unfortunately, he had no time to finish and realise his project.

A century after Leonardo’s invention, another inventor called Guzzaglio Cornafresca found the notes describing Leonardo’s device in his attic. They were abandoned by the Master during his escape from Rome. As he couldn’t take everything with him he had to choose between this notebook and the Mona Lisa.

Reading the notes, Guzzaglio became aware that the invention was easy to achieve with the “modern” equipment of the late sixteenth century he had at his disposal.

Cornafresca had the certainty that the village blacksmith, an old man retired from his activity, was his wife’s lover. Indeed she had bought a huge amount of poorly wrought iron objects. Why would she have done this if not to have an excuse to see her lover? Then Guzzaglio Cornafresca went to visit the blacksmith’s wife to disclose the truth. She confessed that, yes, her husband had indeed spent all his time visiting Catherine Cornafresca, his only client. Despite the evidence, the blacksmith’s wife was too in love to believe in the betrayal of her husband. Guzzaglio decided that the only way to convince her would be to take a photograph of the lovers in the act. This could have been the beginning of the pornographic picture. That very day the blacksmith was sick and Catherine was in bed with her other lover, the young Caravaggio. Caravaggio feeling threatened by this devilish device he had never seen before, jumped out of bed and directly punched Mr. Cornafresca. With this chevalresque method Caravaggio got all the details about the machine, how it worked and how to print a photograph. At that time Caravaggio was an aspiring unknown painter. He realized what treasure he had in his hands. He kept the equipment for himself and ran away while taking his first photo the First photo which was entitled Judith beheading Holofernes later on.

We can see Catherine abusing Guzzaglio because she had deprived him of her lover in the critical moment. On the right there is the blacksmith, who, despite of his illness, came to see Catherine. A wonderful shot which makes Caravaggio the master of photography of his time. He had the presence of mind to take the picture when he escaped, instinctively choosing the right time and the right camera angle. The result is an image of an unusual epic power which allowed the artist to sell it as a painting of the biblical event Judith and Holofernes. Not at all. This is a photo printed on the canvas. Definitely retouched with paint, as Caravaggio had some basic knowledge and some experience as a house painter. An image that equals and exceeds the depth of Hamilton, the realism of Salgado, the red of Steve McCurry.

Caravaggio was determined to be a painter but despite all his commitment and countless attempts, his paintings were always disappointing. Below: the painting he drew from the photo :

Only photography managed to show what he wanted to express. It is true that he was wild and erratic by nature. He did not have the patience to spend hours, days, months in front of his canvas to compose the image gradually, with brush strokes. On the contrary he was good at improvisation, he had the ability to seize the moment, essential qualities of  a good photographer. He acquired the necessary speed and reflexes during his eventful life. His nightlife full of taverns tours, binge drinking, fighting and rioting  provided excellent material for his pictures, and gives us an invaluable document of the society of the early Baroque.

By printing his photos on canvas, the artist managed to fool everyone. He did not realize that he was creating a new art- photography. We must give credit to Caravaggio, mediocre painter but genius of photography, as a precursor of this noble art, who outrun this discovery for two centuries.

Here is a “photo of the photo” taken by one of our journalists.

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