life . Portrait . street

Madison, WI


Fontana Giusti

November 2023
The month I discovered I'm a baroque artist

As I start writing this post and collecting the materials, I realize this might be a long one, but it’s going to be a good one, I can feel it, so bear with me…

The prompt: Apollo e Dafne, Bernini, early 1620s

Apollo and Dafne’s story is from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It’s full of layers, and it features a very high dose of toxic masculinity and patriarchal abuse. This is my modern feminist take on it, I know, but you should see for yourself if you don’t want to take my word for it… 

I initially explored that direction: the story, mythology, and it what it tells us, and I produced some weird prints with my gelli plate out of that exploration: 

Medusa - a manifest to free chaos
Colonialism is a product of patriarchy

These pieces happened on me, the gelli plate is not a tool of control, and for both of these, I kept going, and kept going, until the piece said something and I was happy with the visual effect.

And yes, I’m a proud feminist, always was. So while I’m rarely actively preaching – blame being shut down too often – this is very much in my mind, and it will often find its way into my work. 


But then as I kept on playing with ideas, I started working on Dafne, and the laurel tree she turned into, and then with Apollo and his bad boy ways:

Dafne - that beautiful thing

No matter how you look at it, Daphne was turned into a thing, she was a thing of bait and desire, a thing to own, a thing to use as your symbol (the laurel tree), and a thing of stone. 

Apollo taking ownership of the thing, but not his behavior

But I was dissatisfied, because that was not the work I was going for...

These prints helped me transition from the month of October, very physical, about tangible printmaking, paint, inks, glue, sticky stuff, into a mode of ideas, concepts, aesthetic choices. Something more abstract, which is ironic because the prompt was a marble statue, and I don’t think it gets more tangible than that. 

For this next segment I don’t want to go into details, so I’ll do this as fast as I can, and I recommend you look it all up if you’re interested in the topics.

You see Bernini, in his time was a revolutionary, he grew to prominence in opposition to his masters, breaking rules and capturing his scenes mid-movement, doing things with cold hard stone that nobody thought possible before he did them. As an example, look at how Michelangelo sculpted David, standing, gloriously beautiful, statuary (right), and then look at how Bernini, who came after Michelangelo, sculpted the guy, mid-action, taking aim in the distance, focused, un-posed, not very statuary. 

Michelangelo's version, a classical beauty
Bernini's version, a balancing act

In doing that, he defined an aesthetic that shaped the way Rome, where he lived and worked, developed because, in the context of the counter-reform, the Church immediately recognized the power of what he was doing, and used it for propaganda. The Church (catholic) commissioned other artists to adopt this new aesthetic, one that made men feel small, with the goal to inspire awe and reverence towards God and the Church that represented him and mediated his word – succinctly, the context was that all over Europe (educated) people were translating the Bible in their local idioms, they were printing these translations at a much faster rate than monk copyists could, with the use of revolutionary Gutenberg presses, and that gave them direct access to God through the holy scriptures without the help of a priest, and they also started protesting the Church’s questionable ways and calling for reform.

That gave rise to a phenomenal creative period in Italy. Art was used as a propaganda tool by the Church, so it was funded abundantly, and the artwork of that time, still now, is some of the most highly valued ever – dizzying amounts, that is when it makes it through the cracks of the Italian government that rightly keeps a tight grip on its national treasures.


And this is where I landed, looking for inspiration in the new art of the 17th Century, its groundbreaking rules, its depiction of movement with dynamic composition, etc. So of course I looked at painting (sorry Bernini, you’re still the greatest, but no, I was not going to try to work in sculpture).

And I played with composition, with light, to render a version of Daphne’s story (the photograph on the right side of the screen if you’re on a laptop, below if you’re on a smaller device). 

It was hard, so hard, I spent so much time placing my hand, the tree behind the backdrop, the light behind the tree, etc. When I was done, I actually hated it. 

I know that’s an unfair feeling, and this photograph says something. But that’s how I felt.

This wasn’t it for me.

So I kept going.


Daphne's metamorphosis

And as I did, I stumbled upon someone I love very fiercely. She’s one of the painters of that time, alongside golden-boy Caravaggio. She was a phenomenal figure, someone living a powerful story of her own, she was a master but also a woman living under patriarchal rule. I found Artemisia Gentileschi.

The self-portrait that cracked my approach to portraiture wide open:

Autoritratto come allegoria della Pittura - Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting

I’ve known Artemisia since high school, and not just because my high school art history lessons were better than yours – though they were, seriously, I did high-school in Rome and art was all around us, so we were always field-tripping it, not kidding. No, I’ve known her since high school because my best friend’s mother moved to Rome to write Artemisia’s biography when my best friend was a little girl, and they had such a beautiful life in Rome that they stayed until we graduated high school – by the way, this is the story of how I met my best friend.

But to stay on track, Artemisia was a master painter in her own right, and with her art, she went where no other artist of her time could go, because she was the only woman: she painted her own self as the allegory of painting. 

Isn’t that an extraordinary statement – not to mention an extraordinary work of art…

So as I was exploring baroque paintings, I stumbled on this, and it struck a chord, a deep one. There was this strong woman, who made a name for herself (though she got forgotten by scholars, only to be  rediscovered recently), portraying herself as her own craft, mid-movement, in a very dynamic stance and yet a delicate pose, taking up the entire frame. The colour palette is gorgeous, and so is the light. Also, she’s wearing a skull around her neck, because we’re all going to die, let’s not forget it… 

I felt compelled. I had to walk in her steps. 

And so I did.

And I struggled. But not for the reasons you’d expect.

The light was easy to set up, I relied on a single light source, at 45º to the side, and 45º above me, what’s known as Rembrandt lighting. I don’t remember how I modified it exactly, but I probably diffused it with a simple umbrella.

The background was also very simple. I used two painted backdrops: my hand-painted Terre-de-Sienne canvas backdrop taking the left 2/3 of the frame, and my green backdrop-in-a-bag by Ultraviolet Backdrops on the right 1/3 of the frame – FYI I’m linking Ultraviolet because if you’re on the fence about getting yourself one of their backdrops, I say do it.

No, the part I struggled with was with positioning myself and filling the frame, and getting my expression focused but soft, and the hands visible, but only where they belong, and being at the exact right angle for the light to hit my face where it needed to without losing the right eye behind the nose… The hard part was working with a digital camera, seeing the result, not being happy, and doing it again and again and again, until, finally, when I was really close to giving up, I finally got it.

You read that right, the hard part was working with a digital camera. It brought the perfectionist out of me. With film I just shoot hoping for the best, and when I reveal my images I go with what I got and I’m happy. On digital I cannot let go. But in this particular project, I needed this.

Did you notice the skull ring on my finger? That’s a little post-halloween touch, I borrowed it from Adriano’s trick-or-treating bag 🙂


Autoritratto come allegoria della Fotografia - Self-portrait as the Allegory of Photography

That first portrait flooded my creative gates, and I found my voice
- OK maybe not my whole voice, but certainly one of its tonalities

You already know what I did after that self-portrait, don’t you?

I made everyone (who accepted) pose for me in variations of that setup. I started with myself again, then my kids, then my husband, then myself the kids the husband again for our end-of-year greeting cards. A day or two later, I was already taking it to events chasing new faces to photograph, in a variety of different light scenarios… I lost count of how many faces I photographed in November, I could not, and still cannot, get enough.

I started with myself (again) and my kids:

here I borrowed from the impressionists -sue me
when I discovered the lighter backdrop was actually a drape
and I haven't looked back

Then my kids again, with different colours, different textures, and different lights:

Then applied it to our end-of-year greeting card pictures:

And at the same time I took it out, actively chasing faces, adapting to a variety of light situations, sitting as many people as I could convince to:

By then I'd invested in better lights and modifiers, and I took some more self-portraits to figure my new equipment out:

And a portrait of my beautiful neighbour Lea:

I feel like I just got started. I’m turning this into a product. My product. 

A very beautiful and very versatile product that’s embedded in the aesthetics that forged my eye since I was very young. 

A product that’s all mine, that was waiting for me to find it, and that I’ve fallen in love with. 

A product I had no idea I’d create when I started the month. But I did, because I looked at Baroque art with a fresh perspective and asked myself questions I’d never thought of. 

So far I’ve brought it as a popup studio/photobooth to communities and events, and I look forward to doing more.

And I have more ideas for this product in the future.

For starters, I plan to bring it to schools. I hope Madison’s ready, because I cannot wait to start delivering a truly artistic picture day to local families. I’ll finish this season of preschool photography with my current set, and then to make a full switch. This is better, and now that I’ve found it, it feels truer to my work – not that I disavow my current set, it’s still great, but if you work with any creatives you’ll know we move on pretty quickly

Now, I’m also thinking about how to apply baroque principles to group situations, but that’s another beast, I’ll report back if I ever manage to convince anyone to make art – true art, complex art, challenging art, the kind that takes thought, preparation and time – out of group shots…

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