Alchemical frescoes by Caravaggio at Casino Ludovisi
When in 1599 the Cardinal Del Monte became owner of the vineyard near Porta Pinciana decided to put in a park and restored the villa so that it could host musical entertainment that he loved very much; but the Cardinal had another passion: dabbled in chemistry, medicine, pharmacy, or as it said then magia naturalis.
In the Villa there was a small room, a "camerino" or small study that remained hidden and to be used as a private library that the Cardinal wanted to decorate the ceiling with a profane subject that recalls his passion for alchemy; to realize the small fresco of m. 2 x 3, he called Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio.
On the small barrel vault Caravaggio brought on stage the mythological world, the personification of the elements of the alchemical science, in the upper physical world represented by a transparent globe which contains a smaller one around which debate Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto.
Caravaggio painted the three gods as the personification of the three elements air, water and earth in accordance with the principles of the alchemical text of Girolamo Cardano who had ruled out the fire considered a "compound" as changed by burning. Did not exist anymore the opposition hot-cold and wet-dry and the elements in opposition only are the earth and the water, while from the contrast was excluded the air could not penetrate them. So it was that in the fresco Neptune and Pluto, water and earth, arguing on the one hand of the globes while Jupiter, air personification, was at the opposite side.
But the fresco offers to the careful visitor, also another interpretation: a secular and mysteric creation of the world where the gods represent the elements of Paralcelso's theory : mercury, salt and sulfur, which in themselves assume the value of energy-generating universe.
The Universe is The large transparent globe and inside another two globes: a small and dark globe in the center represents the Earth and the biggest and bright globe, moved to the side, represents the Sun.
In this Caravaggesque Universe does not appear stars, constellations or planets but only four of the 12 symbols of the zodiac signs, Pisces, Aries, Taurus and Gemini; the choice has a reason dictated by the perspective of the righteous observation point at the entrance in the Studiolo where the eye catches first the Sun in the position of the Summer Solstice, astronomical event that corresponds to the regenerative phase of nature and at the same event astrological celebrating the birth date, July 5, of the Cardinal del Monte.
But in this that it is the only fresco that Caravaggio has realized, there are other peculiarities: academics are of the opinion that the face of Neptune is the self-portrait of Caravaggio and that the model for the bodies of the gods was himself with a little devices. On the scaffolding from where he frescoing would place a mirror that recovered him from the bottom upwards thus obtaining a realistic view of the bodies from the visitor's point of view. Finally also the Cerberus at the foot of Pluto is rather special, not the monstrous beast of the ancients but a dog eye lively and playful to which may have been the model "a black dog, and Cornacchia called him" inseparable friend of Caravaggio.
by M.L. ©ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (Ed 1.0 - 28/12/2016)