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Verisimilitude, or the appearance or semblance of truth, is an important concept when it comes to artwork in the past because artists wanted to make sure to portray their subjects as realistically as possible. Techniques such as one point-perspective and shading that were shared among Renaissance painters ingeniously gave paintings the semblance of two or three dimensionality. In this essay I will act as an artistic philosopher in order to critique and compare baroque works of art to modern-day television program, Dexter.
This popular television show was about a seemingly ordinary man who hid an extraordinary secret from the world, the fact that he was a serial killer. Verisimilitude really played well within this TV show because the slayings had to look real and believable, and let me tell you, there were a lot of those throughout the series, not only because Dexter was a killer himself, but also a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Homicide unit. It is interesting to analyze baroque artwork from the past and make comparisons to this film because of how important verisimilitude has stayed throughout the ages.
The word baroque refers to a style of European art of the 17th and 18th centuries that is portrayed through magnificent detail. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is said to have pretty much created this style of art on his own, and for this reason, I am going to choose his painting “Martyrdom of St. Peter” to discuss. This painting expertly depicts the first bishop of Rome, St.
Peter being crucified upside down in Nero’s Circus, which was a circus in ancient Rome, located in present day Vatican City. This painting takes me back to this very moment, where three unidentified men are attempting to lift St. Peter who is nailed to a cross, upside down into his crucifixion position. The method of illumination of St. Peter and the men, the main focal point of the painting, against a dark background, forces the viewer to face the harsh reality of the situation which is realistically depicted through use of oil on canvas. Caravaggio uses this illumination to remind us, through mundane hideousness of the dirty, shoeless men’s actions and movements, that the slaying of Peter was not a gallant gesture but a severely demeaning execution. I think Caravaggio does a great job of depicting the creamy, olden skin of St. Peter along with the correct physique of an older man during this time period. I notice each individual hair on his grey beard along with the exhausted, regretful and excruciatingly embarrassed look on his face as he meets his clearly displayed demise at the hands of three men whose faces are somewhat hidden as to not take away from St. Peter himself. I notice the ripples of muscle and veins on the men’s bodies, which make for a realistic look because the cross must be very heavy. The reality that Caravaggio was able to grasp onto and recreate in this picture truly shows how undignified St. Peter’s horrifying execution was.
I chose Caravaggio’s “Martyrdom of St. Peter” because it relates to my chosen, modern day comparison, the Television show Dexter. The depiction of humiliated, dehumanized victims run rampant throughout the show, and I found that these scenes somewhat mirror “Martyrdom of St. Peter” by Caravaggio. The slaying of victims in Dexter is crafted well through use of fake blood and force. Dexter has a routine in which he covers an entire room with plastic sheets before executing the murder. Although the slaying of St. Peter was done in public while Dexter’s killings were done in private, they are both very gory. In the painting, you are able to see the nails pierced through St. Peter’s hands and feet and through the wooden cross. In Dexter, he uses a multitude of weapons, a nail gun being one, and through realist film making the viewers are able to witness the piercing of nails through skin, muscle, ligaments, and bone. I have always been interested in this type of film, because it seems easy for a producer to depict every day life within a show or movie setting, but to take it to the next level and depict gore and horrendous murder scenes in front of a camera seems quite difficult and exciting, because of all of the extra things they need such as fake blood. Joshua Meltzer, the prop master who was responsible for assembling and placing all of the crime scenes in Dexter is an absolute genius to me. He made the props look ridiculously real. “Recently, the Dexter prop department has adopted an ingenious time-saving measure: portable silicone “pools of blood,” which can be laid down underneath a victim. Meltzer augments them with reusable blood drops, which can be peeled off and stuck to a surface like Colorforms. “The cleanup is much easier; you don’t have an actor laying in a pool of syrup for hours and then dripping it all over every time we change the camera angle”” (Watkins).
One very famous Renaissance artist that was an expert at verisimilitude was Leonardo da Vinci. As depicted in the Mona Lisa, this artist was capable of such amazing realism that it is said that her eyes actually move, following your eyes. I had the honor of actually visiting the Louvre, where I got to see the Mona Lisa with my own eyes, and I can vouch for the statement about her moving eyes. I also noticed how the corners of Mona Lisa’s eyes and mouth were shaded in a way that caused them to look different to different people based on where they were standing while viewing this piece of art. This amazed me to the point where I had to research more into this in order to find out how this was achieved. I found that this technique was called sfumato, and its purpose was to generate convoluted visual and psychological effects, making the subject of the painting look three dimensional, using smoky blurring and contours. “The study and representation of human anatomy and of nature, foreshortening, capturing human movement and expression, one-point perspective and the creation of soft shadows which give the illusion of three-dimensionality to painted forms — all these techniques which took centuries to develop-have the magical effect of making objects represented by art come to life before our eyes. This kind of naturalistic art is not necessarily “realistic” in the sense of capturing human life as it actually is. For instance, some of the paintings of the surrealists were realistic in their anatomically accurate and three-dimensional representation of the human body, but fantastic in their rendition of reality” (Moscovici).
Some characteristics of Western European baroque art that still ring true in today’s modern art three-dimensionality and life-like nature. To create these characteristics in art requires diligence, originality, and manual talent that are still very appreciated in modern art today. Why would modern artists want to throw away the masterly elements that made art beautiful for five centuries? This style of art is also timeless. “In an artistic world that prides itself upon pluralism, openness and variety, artists who desire to continue the legacy of realistic representation should be able to coexist with those that have rejected it” (Moscovici). If the murder scenes in Dexter didn’t look real, nobody would believe in the plot of the show because they would be so unimpressed by the main theatric of the show. For this reason and many others, the prop master Joshua Meltzer takes a massive amount of time to create and assemble the perfect gore infused scenes in every episode of the show. Some other reasons that verisimilitude in film is very important is because conclusively, the thing that matters most is that a film preserves believability within its own internal context. Filmmakers of films like Dexter rely on the suspension of their audience’s beliefs during the showing of the film. This can only be done as long as the usually unbelievable parts of the film are consistent with the information we are given. In real life, serial killers are usually caught and brought to justice, but we are told that Dexter does not get caught, and we run with it. Characters within Dexter perform in ways that are persistent with who they are displayed as and the universe within Dexter remains firm. Things that differ from the set up rules that would ruin the suspension of the audience’s beliefs never happen.
If realism were missing in the “Martyrdom of St. Peter”, viewers past and present would not be able to believe that it happened. This is why Caravaggio had such a responsibility while painting the works that he painted. He was a religious painter, and although we do not know what St. Peter looked like, the responsibility of Caravaggio was to depict him and his horrifying experience using verisimilitude so that his viewers believe that this is actually what happened during this time. If this painting were abstract, many viewers would think that the subject and idea of the painting were also abstract, defeating what Caravaggio wanted to depict. That is why realism is so very important when mirroring events that actually happened in the past, so that it stays believable for years to come. St. Peter and St. Paul represent the foundations of the Catholic Church. St. Peter was known as the rock on which Jesus proclaimed that his Church be built, as stated in the Gospel of Matthew 16:18, and St. Paul established the seat of the church in Rome. “Caravaggio’s paintings were thus intended to symbolize Rome’s (and Cerasi’s) devotion to the Princes of the Apostles in this church which dominated the great piazza welcoming pilgrims as they entered the city from the north, representing the great Counter-Reformation themes of conversion and martyrdom and serving as propaganda against the twin threats of backsliding and Protestantism” (Stone). This was a very important stance that Caravaggio had, and his artwork had to reflect this through realism. Caravaggio actually depicted his religious subjects so spot on that there were complaints from his audience about lack of decorum within his art. Illuminating light and dark shadows are what truly brought Caravaggio’s paintings home when it comes to verisimilitude, just as dark shading helped da Vinci so much in his paintings. “Caravaggio’s technique was one of verisimilitude whereby he remained faithful to truthful detail beyond that normally seen. He created a type oh hallucinatory realism that grips the spectator’s attention to the symbolic meaning of the detailed content of the composition. His figures thus became the vehicles for contrast between light and dark. His scenes are posed, re-enactments of events, creating an artificial and contradictory reality. By focusing our attention on the dramatic lighting Caravaggio excludes all but the essential and telling detail” (Stone).
In conclusion, I believe that verisimilitude is indeed a pressing need in modern day art including painting, sculpture, architecture and film. The reasons why I believe this include the simple fact that if belief within the set up universe of the artwork, weather the components in the artwork are real or not cannot be establish, then the artwork will fail to exist because people will stop associating themselves with it. Another reason that verisimilitude is and should be a pressing need today is that it just plain looks awesome. With new technology and skill, artists are now about to paint, sculpt, and much more, art that looks and/or feels ridiculously real, and during the research for this essay I encountered photos of this kind of art, and I was very amazed. All in all, belief needs to be established in order for a piece of art to work, if realism is what the artist is aiming for.
I have witnessed shows and books in which verisimilitude was not established properly, and for that reason, they failed. Consistency is key when it comes to this form of art, and Dexter definitely showed consistency, and so did Caravaggio in his series of religious paintings including “Martyrdom of St. Peter”.
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