Writing about a close-up of a fly’s foot has led me to thinking about the infinitesimal details in tempera paintings by Carlo Crivelli–particularly since my favorite Crivelli painting prominently includes a fly.

Madonna and Child by Carlo Crivelli (circa 1480)

The enigmatic religious artist Carlo Crivelli painted this Madonna and Child some time around 1480.  The painting is a masterpiece of gothic style: a bejeweled Mary with Byzantine eyes holds baby Jesus on a cracked parapet.  Jesus grasps a struggling sparrow but his mood is somber.  Both figures are contemplating a fat black fly which has landed near Christ’s embroidered pillow.   Christ actually looks like a healthy baby (he frequently looks nothing like a real child in art) and Mary looks like a beautiful, wealthy noblewoman but the painting is still sad and intense. The fly seems to indicate that death and misery will soon mar whatever is most perfect and flawless.  The great oversize pickle and peaches dangling by the Virgin’s face also hint at something earthy and corrupted about existence.  In the background tiny figure hatch schemes and chase each other through the fulsome forests and orchards of Le Marche.  After looking closely at this painting, it will come as no surprise that Crivelli also painted extremely visceral scenes of the torture of Christ and the suffering of his followers.

We know very little about Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435 – c. 1495).  The artists’ biographer, Vasari–with his Florence-centric worldview–elected not to not to write about him at all.  Even the dates of Crivelli’s birth and death are unclear.  Although he signed his works Carlo Crivelli “Veneti” (“of Venice”) he spent most of his life working in Le Marche where lovely sinister cliffs drop precipitously into the Adriatic. He is said to have studied under Jacobello del Fiore–or was it with Vivarini, or maybe Francesco Squarcione in Padua?  At any rate, he was apparently a master of his own shop by 1457, when he was imprisoned for six months for an adulterous affair with Tarsia Cortese, the wife of a sailor.  Additionally he was a vegetarian.  Crivelli scorned oil painting, which was sweeping into fashion throughout the Renaissance art community to concentrate wholly on egg tempera, which suited his exacting, microscopic detail.  He modeled raised objects in gesso on his panels so his paintings venture slightly into the third dimension. Usually it is the gemstones and the tears which pop out from the panel.  Although he had many commissions from the conservative religious community, his work fell steeply from fashion after his death.  For a brief time in the nineteenth century pre-Raphaelite painters embraced his paintings for their sumptuous allegorical detail and their vivid, strange emotions, however Crivelli has once more fallen into near obscurity.