Shadowy Realism

Negative Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century Neapolitan Painting

in Nuncius
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Realism is closely related to knowledge: in order to create an artwork that is a faithful account of reality, or that seeks to convey such an impression, knowledge is necessary. Some currents of seventeenth-century painting may seem to exemplify this connection; in particular, the painters following Caravaggio are usually described as realists or naturalists, and are often attributed an uncompromising ambition to transmit visual knowledge about the world, perhaps similarly to the “New Scientists.”

If the Caravaggisti do represent and transmit knowledge, however, it is a highly shadowy one. Literally speaking, the major innovation of these painters was the audacious use of darkness. More abstractly, their paintings are full of lacunae and ambiguities. Some recent discussions of realism in philosophy make it possible to conceptualize realism as “negative” or “minimal.” In this paper, such ideas will be brought to bear on Caravaggist painters in Naples just after Della Porta’s time.


Journal of the Material and Visual History of Science (Formerly: Annali dell'Istituto e Museo di storia della scienza di Firenze)



Isabelle Thomas-Fogiel, Le lieu de l’ universel: Impasses du réalisme dans la philosophie contemporaine (Paris: Seuil, 2015).


Markus Gabriel (ed.), Der Neue Realismus (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2014); Mario De Caro, Maurizio Ferraris (eds.), Bentornata realtà: Il nuovo realismo in discussione (Torino: Einaudi, 2012).


Ibid., pp. 11–12.


See, for example, ibid., p. 45.


Ibid., pp. 215–274.


Itay Sapir, Ténèbres sans leçons: Esthétique et épistémologie de la peinture ténébriste romaine 1595–1610 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2012), pp. 187–227.


Giulio Carlo Argan, “Il ‘realismo’ nella poetica del Caravaggio,” in Scritti di storia dell’arte in onore di Lionello Venturi (Roma: De Luca Editore, 1956), Vol. II, pp. 25–26.


Ibid., p. 99. “The critical attitude towards the epistemological shortcomings of visual images and pictorial representations,” and in particular of linear perspective, is already anticipated by Leonardo da Vinci and in the writings of the protagonists of the Protestant Reformation, as well as, later and more radically, in the ideas of Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo; see ibid., pp. 109–111.


Ibid., p. 113.


Ibid., p. 120.


Ibid., pp. 121, 125, 161.


Ibid., p. 173.


Ibid., p. 186.


Ibid., p. 188.


  • Figure 1

    Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul, 1600–1601. Oil on canvas, 230 × 175 cm.Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo (Cerasi chapelle)

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  • Figure 2

    Jusepe de Ribera, Isaac and Jacob, 1637. Oil on canvas, 129 × 289 cm.Madrid, Museo del Prado

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  • Figure 3

    Jusepe de Ribera, The Trinity, 1635. Oil on canvas, 226 × 118 cm.Madrid, Museo del Prado

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  • Figure 4

    Jusepe de Ribera, The Vision of Belshazzar, 1635. Oil on canvas, 52 × 64 cm.Milan, Galleria arcivescovile

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