Monday, February 22, 2010


I'll start out by saying that this is one I should know, and may in fact actually know. I'm just not sure. The word came up in my last Finnegans Wake meeting, and here is the Joycean sentence that provoked this post:

"In fact, under the closed eyes of the inspectors the traits featuring the chiaroscuro coalesce, their contrarities eliminated, in one stable somebody similarly as by the providential warring of heartshaker with housebreaker and of dramdrinker against freethinker our social something bowls along bumpily, experiencing a jolting series of prearranged disappointments, down the long lane of (it's as semper as oxhousehumper!) generations and still more generations."

Leaving aside the question of whether I understand any of this, I will say that it does tend to confirm my sense of the word in question. What I think chiaroscuro refers to is a style of painting, pretty obviously originally an Italian one, which uses the play of light and dark to highlight what the painter wants our eye to focus on. I know that "oscuro" must refer to darkness, and though I don't know quite how, I think the "ciar" must refer to clarity or light. Shall we see?

Well, given my outrageously wrong guesses on some recent posts, it's heartening to see that I seem to have played this one right. Chiaroscuro is precisely a word about the mixture of light and dark and my etymological understanding is correct. Hooray!

Ignorance, of course, has its several levels. What I don't know about chiaroscuro is far more than what I do know, including the other meanings the word has accrued. For one thing, in a technical sense, it refers not just to such bold contrasts, but even subtler effects of light and shading. And though we usually think of chiaroscuro in terms of masterly paintings of the past, you have only to think of the effects sought in film noir cinematography and in many, many comics and graphic novels to know that chiaroscuro is alive and well and living in Sin City.
Or at least slumming there from time to time...


  1. Love this word. I think it was Caravaggio who perfected the technique.

  2. Maybe you'll write a novel called Chiaroscuro one day. It does lend itself to dramatic possiblities.

  3. Caravaggio did so well by chiaroscuro that an entire group of Dutch painters followed the style and became known as the Utrecht Carravaggisti. But the real chiaroscuto king was Rembrandt. Caravaggio painted dark and light. Rembrandt painted the regions and gradations between the two.

    Oh yeah? Well, I happen to have Caravaggio and Rembrandt right here. And here.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Funny you should mention that, Seana. I don't know much about Caravaggio, but what little I do know is fascinating. I've been thinking for awhile that his rather erratic life, coupled with his great art, would lend itself to the big screen well.

    In his case, his life seems to imitate his style: moments of brilliance through his art surrounded by a lot of darkness from his life.

  5. Peter, some nice posts on Caravaggio and Rembrandt. It's true that we don't really appreciate what Rembrandt did until we see what had been done before.

    Brian, enough said--time for you to get to work on that screenplay.

  6. Peter,

    Nice linkage (and writing) there. The first two posts were from before I started reading your blog, and they're real treats.

    Peter and Seana,

    I never put chiaroscuro and film noir lighting techniques together before, but it makes all the sense in the world.

  7. No, me either. Not that I actually spent time thinking about chiaroscuro, since I wasn't even sure I knew what it was.

  8. The word chiaroscuro made me think that this
    short story collection might interest you.

  9. It does interest me, as does the website that mentioned it. Thanks.