A completely dark room, an LED torch, a food composition and a camera. The sophisticated elegance of the images created by photographer Renato Marcialis
is reminiscent of baroque painting but is actually based on a “minimalist” approach that seeks to achieve extreme technical simplification. Costly equipment on its own is not enough to create a photograph, but a masterful use of light is. So, it is true to say that Caravaggio in Cucina
(Caravaggio in the Kitchen), a project that has taken Marcialis over ten years and which now features 450 images, is a lengthy study on the light used in the genre of still life
“Armati… Disarmati”. (Armed… Disarmed) All images have been kindly supplied by Renato Marcialis
Marcialis prepares food compositions on the table in his study. He then darkens the room completely, opens the shutter of his camera and trains a vibrating torch beam on the subject. Thanks to this movement, the lit zones are detected by the camera’s sensor and the volumes emerge evenly from the darkness. It is as if Marcialis “brushes” light over the objects to make them appear, as the effect is similar to that of light coming in from a small window. It is no coincidence that the photographer often quotes the following comment by Caravaggio: “having put down my brush, I drew with a ray of light, shapes and colours that were otherwise hidden by an immeasurable darkness”.
Even if its title includes Caravaggio’s name, the project was not inspired by his painting. “Twelve years ago,” explains Marcialis, “I was commissioned to create a number of publicity shots by a chestnut farmer. I visited him, near Viterbo, at the end of the summer and he gave me some cleaned and carefully selected chestnuts and some shells too. I collected some branches and leaves from the trees and then went back to my studio to start work on the composition. I found that the still life I had created reminded me of a Flemish painting, so I decided to give it the same kind of lighting as a painting, that is to say, where the subject is lit up against a dark background.”
“having put down my brush, I drew with a ray of light, shapes and colours that were otherwise hidden by an immeasurable darkness”.
“Trionfo di pomidori” (A triumph of tomatoes)
Achieving this wasn’t easy. “You can’t obtain that effect using electronic flashes,” explains Marcialis, “unless you assemble an endless theatre of equipment, and I prefer to keep things simple. So, I tried out an accessory I’d bought many years before to lighten the dark corners of compositions where the flashlight didn’t reach.” The first shot amazed the photographer, who immediately felt he was on the right track.
Naturally, over the years his technique and style has evolved. “In the past, I had tried to give images greater depth, and I had focused on emphasizing the wood of the table, for example. But in the last few years, I have tended to obscure the foreground and background and illuminate the subject only.”
“Tanta pazienza e un pizzico di fortuna” (A lot of patience and a little luck)
The final touch is the print: “I tried using paper, which didn’t work, unlike canvas that, with all its strengths and weaknesses, is perfect. This is also because, once I’ve printed the image, I personally coat them with a layer of clear satin-finish varnish in which I leave visible brushstrokes. So even if were to print the same subject ten times, I wouldn’t have produced ten copies, but ten originals. Anyone who sees these canvases and doesn’t know I’m a photographer, thinks they are paintings.”
The “manual” component of Caravaggio in Cucina is not limited to the craftsmanship of the creative process either. For many years, Marcialis grew the crops that he photographed, himself, in a 1000 square metre vegetable garden in the Marches, and now he picks them from his friends’ allotments (with their permission, of course).
“L’uva è servita” (The grapes are served)
“I study my tomatoes, watermelons and pumpkins. I turn them over in my hands until I find the right side. Then, I photograph them. They are a product I feel.” Food is a founding passion in Renato Marcialis: “I like to taste everything. I am as curious as a monkey. Nine times out of ten I like what I taste. I eat very quickly. Perhaps because in my family I had three other brothers and whoever ate the fastest, ate the most.”
“Gastronomy has always been part of the Marcialis DNA. My father’s father was a chef de cuisine on cruise ships, my father’s brother was a Cordon Bleu de France, my father was a chef barman, and I’ve got other cousins, aunts and uncles who work in catering. Today, my son Riccardo is a very good cook too. My love for the kitchen has been passed down through my chromosomes. If my grandfather had been a tailor, perhaps I’d have become a fashion photographer.”
“I study my tomatoes, watermelons and pumpkins. I turn them over in my hands until I find the right side. Then, I photograph them. They are a product I feel.”