Giovanni CARIANI | Portrait of Giovanni Benedetto Caravaggi [Ritratto di Giovanni Benedetto Caravaggi]

Giovanni CARIANI
Lombardy 1465 /1505 – Venice

Portrait of Giovanni Benedetto Caravaggi [Ritratto di Giovanni Benedetto Caravaggi] c.1517-20
oil on canvas
84.4 (h) x 84.0 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866

The inscription above the left shoulder of the sitter, ‘IO. BENED. CARRAVAG.s/PHILOS.s ET MEDICVS/AC STVDY PATAVINI/RECTOR ET LECTOR’ [Giovanni Benedetto Caravaggi, Philosopher and Doctor and Rector and Reader of the University of Padua], and the signature below this, ‘JOANES CARIANI/.PI.’, leave no doubt as to the identity of the sitter and the artist. The subject is Giovanni Bendetto Caravaggi, a native of Crema. Caravaggi became Rector of the prestigious University of Padua; he also lived for a time in Bergamo where this work was painted. Further identification is provided through the family crest prominently adorning the dark wall panel, at head height above the inscription. Around the same period Cariani also painted a portrait of the sitter’s brother, Giovanni Antonio Caravaggi, which carries the same coat of arms.[1] The size of both paintings and the attitudes of the subjects suggest that the two portraits formed a deliberate pair.[2]

While the prominent balustrade in the foreground demonstrates the artist’s debt to Titian,[3] Cariani’s style is rooted in the Lombard portrait tradition. Strongly grounded in naturalism, and focused more on conveying an everyday flavour than were the painters of neighbouring Milan or Florence and Venice,[4] Cariani was known for his unidealised interpretations of sitters and attention to detail. Here he portrays his subject as a rather remote and stiff man with his gaze averted. In fact, in countenance and demeanour he appears less animated than other portrait subjects by the artist from the same period.

The view through the window shows a romantic landscape in the foreground with two knights on horseback in a clearing. Above a broad expanse of lake an impressive castle sits on a hilltop with mountains in the distance. The mountains and valley were inspired by the Bergamo region, alluding specifically to the sitter’s geographic location at the time of the portrait’s execution. Billowing clouds evoke an expressive mood. While the landscape in this painting is depicted in daylight, the scene from the window behind the brother’s portrait shows a castle on a hilltop in the evening. This idea of the juxtaposition of day and night was common in portrait pairings.

Giovanni Benedetto Caravaggi wears a scholar’s cap; and his sumptuous shimmering red mantle and the gold ring on his left index finger suggest also that he was a man of wealth. The prominent position of the large open volume, through which Caravaggi is leafing, reinforces the image of a man of learning. Here the printed book may also be evidence of enlightened scholarship consistent with a senior university identity, since at this period such volumes were the prerogative of the upper echelons of society, following Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439.

Simeran Maxwell

[1]Giovanni Antonio Caravaggi c. 1520–1530, oil on canvas, 93.5 x 93.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

[2]His brother sits facing the opposite direction in his portrait, suggesting that they would have been facing one another.

[3]Titian (1488/1490–1576).

[4]See Andrea Bayer, ‘Brescia and Bergamo: Humble reality in sixteenth-century devotional art and portraiture’, in Painters of reality: The legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005, pp. 105–112.