The Battle of Light with Darkness

Caravaggio: The Final Years

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Nicola Spinosa
An exhibition at the National Gallery, London, February 23–May 22, 2005.
Electa Napoli, 191 pp., £25.00 (paper)

Caravaggio: L’ultimo tempo 1606–1610

An exhibition at the Museodi Capodimonte, Naples October 23, 2004–January 23, 2005

The murder that sent Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio on the run in 1606 proved, if anything, that life was not so cheap after all in Baroque Rome—at least for an artist of talent. Small-time local street bosses like his victim, Ranuccio Tomassoni, were not much missed, but no one could paint like the man everyone simply called “Caravaggio,” and that fact saved his life as he made his way from Rome to Malta and then to Sicily. It was not so much his skill at what he called “imitating nature” that saved him, although his talent for painting fruit had once been enough to earn him a modest living. It was not even his bold experimentation with light and shadow, although this was the aspect of his painting that his imitators grasped first. What kept Ca-ravaggio alive over the next few years was an ability he shared with his fellow countryman Leonardo: the ability to capture life itself in a painted image.

He would have known about Leonardo early; he was born either in or near Milan in 1573, where Leonardo had worked in the last years of the fifteenth century and his father worked, like so many men from the town of Caravaggio, as a builder, rising eventually to the position of major domo and architect to the Marquis of Caravaggio. But the young Caravaggio also must have looked carefully at the great Venetian oil painters—Lorenzo Lotto and Titian, especially—before coming to Rome, where he learned still more about the interplay of light and shadow from paintings by the mature Raphael and Raphael’s Venetian rival, Sebastiano del Piombo.

Unlike Leonardo and Raphael, Caravaggio was never one for sketching. He composed directly on a stretched canvas, scoring lines into the dark brown undercoat. He worked exclusively in oil paint, in a restricted range of pigments; with typical foul humor, he railed against the cinnabar-reds and azure-blues in which contemporaries like his former employer Giuseppe Cesari, the Knight of Arpino, swathed their ancient Romans and their biblical apostles, “saying,” in the words of his biographer Giovanni Bellori, “that they were poisonous colors.” And he looked relentlessly at the world before he committed it to paint. He watched the way that blood surged beneath human skin, and painted figures that flushed and paled like real people. He watched the little old ladies that everyone else ignored, with their wrinkles, goiters, and dirty bonnets, and saw how much more quickly they understood the way of the world than the glittering nobles who pushed them aside. He honored them in his paintings just as they were, living sibyls who pass unnoticed. He painted young women with plain, strong features and lubricious boys decked out as Cupid, Bacchus, or John the Baptist, and he painted Jesus, over and over, at a moment when Christianity itself was racked with doubt.

London’s National Gallery opens its show of Caravaggio’s final years with two paintings of Jesus at the Supper of …

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