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The Real Caravaggio

M in the UK by Bloomsbury in November, and in the US by Henry Holt in February 2000.)

by Peter Robb
Potts Point, N.S.W., Australia: Duffy and Snellgrove (To be published, 568 pp., $35.00 (paper)

Caravaggio’s ‘Saint John’ and Masterpieces from the Capitoline Museum in Rome 1999, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, July 15-September 12, 1999.

an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, April 20-June 20,, Catalog of the exhibition by Maria Elisa Tittoni, by Patrizia Masini, by Sergio Guarino
Wadsworth Atheneum, 59 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image February 1-May 24, 1999.

an exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Mormando Franco
McMullen Museum of Art (distributed by the University of Chicago Press), 235 pp., $40.00 (paper)


More than four hundred years from the day he packed up his things and headed for Rome from the small Lombardy town in which he grew up, Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio (1571-1610) is still, to borrow the wording of one of his contracts, “top painter in the City” (egregius in Urbe pictor). Recent books about the man his contemporaries called Caravaggio (to distinguish him from the other Michelangelos they knew) far outnumber those on Raphael, Titian, or Leonardo; among the old masters, only Michelangelo Buonarroti seems to share a similar degree of popularity. Caravaggio’s paintings, meanwhile, are caught in a game of museological musical chairs as they pass from Rome to Hartford, Rome to Padua, Hartford to Kansas City, Dublin and Detroit to Boston, Kansas City to Milwaukee, Florence to Malta. His fortunes, however, like his notoriously prickly personality, have never stood fast. By 1660, Nicolas Poussin could claim that Caravaggio, by then dead for half a century, “had come into the world to destroy painting.” For Stendhal he was “a great painter, but a wicked man,” and most of the people who have loved his paintings would tend to agree. Just what made him a great painter, however, and what made him a wicked man, have been subjects for unceasing debate. Nor is it clear how much the wickedness and the painting actually bear on one another.

Remarkably, a significant number of Caravaggio’s oils (the only medium in which he ever worked) survive in their original settings, mainly churches, his contracts still preserved in their archives. A survey of his work shows that despite a distinctiveness that was present from the beginning, his style changed radically over the course of his brief career (he died at thirty-nine). He began with bright tones of red, green, gold, and pale flesh against backgrounds of gray or ochre and ended with thin layers of red, rust, brown, and shimmering white emerging from deep darkness. Between the open-mouthed expectancy of the pretty, wiry Boy with a Basket of Fruit he painted early (1593-1594) and the grave expression of his sad-eyed, late (1610) Saint John the Baptist, now hung side by side in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, we can trace the somewhat superficial promise of a young man’s skill through to its fulfillment in a way of painting that strikes for the soul. Caravaggio’s brush could cut as truly as the sword he always carried with him, and together they brought him both his pride and his unspeakable pain.

Caravaggio’s life figured already in contemporary biographies, together with lists of his paintings; he was that important an artist. His story can also be traced through documents such as transfers of real estate, police blotters, the correspondence that attended his induction into the Knights of Malta, the bureaucratic rites that marked his expulsion from the same order, and reports of his sudden unglamorous death on a stretch of malarial coastline north of Rome.

Still, any number of questions about the painter and his paintings may never find adequate answers when four centuries stand between us. Just as biographies of long-dead artists mention a frustrating number of works that no longer survive, so, too, an enormous amount of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art has been preserved without artists’ signatures or contracts to tell us who made it, or why, or for whom. Identifying a painting as a lost Caravaggio is a rare coup, a standing temptation for critics, art historians, and dealers; books on Caravaggio are invariably filled with examples of such “attributed” works, beginning with Roberto Longhi’s landmark 1951 exhibit in Milan, “Caravaggio Show” (Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi). Longhi effectively reintroduced this great painter to twentieth-century tastes by presenting a Caravaggio whose “antimythic” Bacchus “is already modern, almost like Manet’s barmaid at the Folies Bergère,” and who composed his paintings as if they were movies “shot right in front of us using real bodies rather than painted ones.”1

Almost fifty years stand between Longhi’s bold challenge in his catalog for the Milan exhibit and Catherine Puglisi’s sizable 1998 monograph on an affirmed master, the most recent catalogue raisonné, with generous documentation and color illustrations.2 It is perhaps more surprising to realize how radically the generally accepted body of Caravaggio’s work (some sixty paintings) now differs from what Longhi believed it was, guided largely by his own sharp but idiosyncratic eye. Because Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting and distinctive brushwork exerted such a powerful influence on his contemporaries, many of the paintings now attributed to him may well turn out either to be copies of works by Caravaggio, which were already legion in his own lifetime, or independent paintings executed in some version of Caravaggio’s spirit.3

When, in 1944, the restorer Sergio Benedetti spotted Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ in the refectory of a Jesuit house in Dublin, it was covered with layers of grime and ascribed to a Dutch painter, Gerrit van Honthorst. Cleaned and restored, securely identified, the The Taking of Christ can now be seen for what it is, a painting of such significance in its own day that it inspired a host of other artists to try their hand at the same theme, borrowing bits and pieces of Caravaggio’s composition, his figures, his lighting. (One of the best was an Ecce Homo painted by Bartolomeo Manfredi and exhibited in Milwaukee this spring.4 ) Yet among them all, Caravaggio’s version will always stand out for the way it is composed as well as the way it is painted. Characteristically, The Taking of Christ compresses a series of events into a single crucial moment: if the Gospel writers took up several chapters to tell how Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities of Palestine, Caravaggio distilled those chapters to an instant.

Judas told the Romans that he would identify Jesus by greeting him with a kiss. As Caravaggio shows him, the betrayer has just flung his arm around his victim, his lips still puckering, but already a centurion’s steel-clad arm claps across the traitor’s sleeve and a mailed glove takes Jesus by the throat. Balding, snub-nosed, his eyes an uncannily light golden hue, Judas scowls with what seems to be a mixture of deep malice and the remorse that will shortly drive him to suicide. Jesus winces, his hands still twined in the remnants of a prayer.

Caravaggio and his contemporaries all knew the contents of that interrupted prayer, offered in an anguished vigil in the olive grove of Gethsemane. “Sorrowful, even unto death,” Jesus pleaded three times to escape the trouble that loomed before him in Jerusalem: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” The “cup,” as he well knew, meant capture, torture, and crucifixion, the methods by which ancient Rome imposed its Pax Romana on the world.

Caravaggio’s painting catches Jesus at the very moment when he learns that the answer to his prayer is “no”—the twinge of that recognition shoots across his face. Yet Jesus ended his prayer in Gethsemane with an act of resignation, “not as I will, but as Thou wilt,” and Caravaggio also conveys this obedience, by showing how Jesus sways with the crush of people moving in on him from the painting’s right, a rush that reaches its climax in the screaming, fleeing disciple on the far left—John, to judge by his age, his anguished attractiveness, and the traditional colors of his clothes. Jesus sways, but he also stands his ground amid the knot of grasping hands, the cloying intimacy of Judas’ kiss, and his beloved disciple’s panicked desertion; the victim of this drama is also its strongest character.

Caravaggio’s agitated night is bathed in an icy moonlight that glints off the centurions’ armor and Judas’ vulpine eyes. Yet off to the right, amid the mailed centurions, an unarmed bystander holds up an ineffectual lantern. He may be a portrait of the painter himself. In the anguish of Gethsemane, Jesus had warned his sleepy disciples to “watch and pray,” although typically they nodded off instead. Here Caravaggio has painted with a degree of concentration that surely counts as devotion no less than a pair of folded hands. His painting rouses all the senses: we hear the clang of the soldiers’ metal armor, the betrayer’s mumbled greeting, the disciple’s scream; we can almost taste Judas’ perfidious kiss, and smell the press of sweaty flesh, the bloodlust and fear, and most of all, revel in the sensations of touch that evocative painting can set off as effectively as sculpture.

Caravaggio has a particular gift for putting life into luminous skin. Furthermore, as the painter knew with rare profundity, we respond to a great variety of sensory impressions, including the senses that give us awareness of placement in space, of bodies moving, of the cool humidity an olive grove gives off at night to change the texture of the darkness. We know, too, that there is a moment before a violent act has taken place when it all might have been different. The Taking of Christ puts us just beyond that moment, when the disaster has already been set into motion, and slams us with its first blow.


Caravaggio is usually described as a realist painter, his work contrasted with the stylized classical saints, angels, and mythological figures that typified religious art in Rome when he arrived to make a career in 1592. Born in 1571, he had grown up and served his apprenticeship in Milan, where Leonardo da Vinci had left a powerful imprint a hundred years before Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio came along. Details seem to prove that the younger painter was as obsessed as Leonardo with recording physical reality; little touches like dirty fingernails or the reflections in a glass, not to mention the faces of his strong-featured figures, were often clearly culled from life.

In fact, though, with this great artist nothing is ever so simple as painting what he sees. The Taking of Christ has been carefully posed to compress real time into a symbolic instant, and all his best paintings likewise depend on the same sort of artful, but revelatory, arrangement. Contemporaries reported that Caravaggio painted directly onto his canvases without making preparatory drawings, using at most a few guidelines scratched into the surface of the work. Given to bravado, he let them continue to think so, boasting that he worked only from nature. And yet his stately Entombment of Christ (Vatican Picture Gallery) re-creates the complex poses of an ancient Roman sarcophagus, a marble coffin of the second or third century of the Christian era whose sculpted front portrayed the death of the Greek hero Meleager.5 Young, innocent, divine, and prematurely dead, Meleager served as a gentile precursor of Christ.

For all its apparent immediacy, this Entombment is an erudite work, not a poor man’s Bible. It is the artist’s skill that makes us forget that the crinkled hide of wizened Nicodemus and the generously padded bosom of Mary Magdalene descend from a stone ancestor; that when the dead Christ trails a lingering finger across the marble slab of his tomb, he only expresses the quality of life-in-death that the sculpted sarcophagus famously evoked for viewers in Caravaggio’s day.

  1. 1

    Roberto Longhi, Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi, Milano, Pa-lazzo Reale, Aprile/Giugno 1951 (Florence: Sansoni, 1951), pp. xx, xxxi.

  2. 2

    London: Phaidon, 1998.

  3. 3

    In this category, for example, I would include, among more generally accepted paintings, the recently restored and much-debated Narcissus in the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome, and the slack, distasteful Magdalen in Ecstasy (“Klain Magdalen”) in a Roman private collection.

  4. 4

    Manfredi’s Ecce Homo of circa 1610- 1612 (painted, therefore, just after Caravaggio’s death) figures in Dennis P. Weller’s catalog Sinners and Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers (North Carolina Museum of Art, 1998).

  5. 5

    See Avigdor W.G. Posèq, “Caravaggio and the Antique,” in Artibus et historiae, No. 21 (1990), pp. 157-167; Sergio Benedetti, “Classical and Religious Influences in Caravaggio’s Painting,” in Franco Mormando, editor, Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image, pp. 208-235.

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