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Radiant, Angry Caravaggio


an exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, February 20–June 13, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Claudio Strinati
Skira, 247 pp., $70.00
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
Caravaggio: The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, 1599–1600

Four hundred years ago this summer, a half-crazed, middle-aged man staggered into the little Italian seaside town of Porto Ercole, muttering incoherently in his nasal Lombard accent about a missing boat loaded with paintings. His face, with its scraggly black beard, was a maze of half-healed scars; his sweat-soaked clothing was finely made but worn to rags. He must have been carrying the sword that rarely left his side, but there is no record of it, or of those who put him to bed in the town’s tiny hospital, a place more accustomed to hosting ailing sailors, port workers, and galley slaves. We know only that there on his sickbed, his fever, his wounds, and his desperation carried him off in the heat of July. A terse local record notes: “On July 18 [1610], Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the painter, died of disease in the hospital of St. Mary the Helper.” We do not know whether that disease was malaria, syphilis, infection, or heartsickness, and it hardly matters; what mattered, then and now, was the work that this sad, desperate painter had left behind, including the boatload of paintings he had been madly chasing along the coast; those canvases landed in Naples, where one, a John the Baptist, was snapped up by portly, powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese to grace his growing gallery of art.

Four hundred years after the painter’s sad, lonely death, the crowds that flock to any show bearing his name prove that Caravaggio speaks to our time as clearly as he did to his own, despite the fact that we like to think of our globalized, technological, democratic age as an entirely different world from the violent Italy of feudalism and religious repression that forged his inimitable, influential way of painting. Epochal differences may divide his reality from ours, but there are also similarities so deep between our cultures that the man who was once called “Rome’s outstanding painter” can still lay plausible claim to his title.

The current Caravaggio exhibition in Rome has drawn huge crowds from the day it opened in the national gallery called the Scuderie del Quirinale (the eighteenth-century former papal stable that for the past ten years has provided an important and popular venue for large-scale shows). The catalog, a collection of essays on each individual painting by leading Italian and German Caravaggio scholars, is plainly and appropriately aimed at this vast general public. Two more exhibitions have been scheduled for the coming year; more importantly, Rome always houses a spectacular collection of Caravaggio paintings in chapels, churches, and museums, including the Borghese Gallery, the very same collection that Cardinal Scipione Borghese had begun to create when Caravaggio was still alive.

Rome is not the only place to celebrate Caravaggio in 2010. In the ancient Sicilian city of Syracuse, his monumental Burial of Saint Lucy has been newly hung in the convent church of Santa Lucia in the city’s main piazza, to spectacular effect. A series of six exhibitions in different venues in Naples this past winter proclaimed “The Return to the Baroque: From Caravaggio to Vanvitelli.” Caravaggio also continues to inspire new books, both scholarly and general, for he was a quicksilver artist, changeable, inventive, and—essential to his greatness—unflinchingly self-critical. An exhibition like that in the Scuderie del Quirinale, focused deliberately on a restricted group of familiar paintings, will still provide a satisfying series of new discoveries, for anyone and everyone.

There is the matter, for instance, of Caravaggio’s radiance; as the first paintings in the Scuderie reveal, the painter who became a master of darkness began his career in a blaze of light, with a simple basket of fruit whose golden background shimmers as vividly as the gold leaf of a Byzantine icon, but one is real gold and the other is sheer artistry: vibrant, radiant yellow paint. The basket itself teeters cleverly on the painting’s lower edge, threatening to tumble into real space, but the immediacy of the optical illusion is not really what rivets viewers to this little still life; rather, it is Caravaggio’s positive exultation in the forces of life itself, the juice that ripens fruit, the spiky vigor of leaves and branches, the suggestive contrast between different textures of decay: soft spots in the centers of pears or papery dryness along the edge of a leaf.

The Quirinale show pairs this marvelous image with an early painting of a boy with fruit, normally in the Borghese collection, and in this new setting the well-known painting shows how carefully Caravaggio, just arrived in Rome, must have been looking at the velvet textures of Federico Barocci, and particularly at Barocci’s mastery of grays and browns, muted tones that the elder painter brought to life in his rendering of flesh and drapery by bathing them in flushes of hot pink. Caravaggio has tried a similar technique on the boy’s exposed shoulder, and he would continue to study how the blush created by blood surging through capillaries will make even painted skin seem to come alive. At this point in the painter’s career, his fruit is more convincing than his boy, who is more a type than a personality; it would have been hard to predict that the older Caravaggio would become so penetrating a painter of character.

Other early Caravaggio paintings also show Barocci’s influence: the large-eyed, watchful donkey in another bright painting, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery (also exhibited at the Scuderie before traveling to Genoa), recalls the irresistibly soft fur of Barocci’s animals, which Caravaggio would have known—at the very least—from two paintings (a Visitation and a Presentation of the Virgin) in the Roman church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, and we can see the younger man’s experimentation with shades of beige in the background of his Penitent Magdalene in the same Doria Pamphilj collection, a background that is an experiment in pure, muted color and soft texture, testing the capacities of slick oil on rough canvas to awaken, as Barocci does, the whole range of our sense of touch.

Barocci, born in Raphael’s home city of Urbino and active in Rome in the 1560s, is not usually a painter we associate with Caravaggio; his bright palette, soft textures, gentle subjects, and intimate moods seem far removed from the stark lighting and high drama that became the younger artist’s specialties. Yet it is Barocci who gets at the heart of a quality that may explain Caravaggio’s continued draw, for Barocci is a compassionate, even sentimental painter, and Caravaggio confronts the harsh realities of his time with his own piercing compassion, though that compassion has often turned into outrage.

Caravaggio’s career in Rome is filled with outbursts of anger, recorded in police dockets from three different Roman jails, but it is hard to know now whether he came to Rome angry or lost his temper when a tender spirit met the experience of the city’s mean streets—or its dark, corrupt alcoves. His tousle-haired Boy with a Basket of Fruit, probably painted as a show of skill, retains an air of innocence despite his bare shoulder and proffered present, but the louche characters that Caravaggio painted for his first important patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, must have parted company with innocence long before. The devilish little imp who personifies Love Victorious has all the hallmarks of a real boy: long nose, small teeth, premature wrinkles, genitals off-kilter—but it is love as pure carnality, and love as wickedness.

The late Franca Trinchieri Camiz has shown convincingly that another series of paintings—Caravaggio’s The Lute Player in its various versions and a multiple image, The Musicians—probably portrayed Pietro Montoya, a Spanish castrato who lived in Cardinal Del Monte’s house. These youths’ open rosebud mouths imply that their range of skills went beyond music, and their air of boredom hints at a whole greenhouse stocked with such Venus flytraps.

Perhaps it is time to recognize these boys for what they are, to realize that the message in their troubled eyes is not “Come hither” but rather “Help me!”—that is, if the light in their young faces has not been extinguished altogether, as it seems to have been in the used-up redhead who cringes in the rear guard of The Musicians. Look long enough, and carefully enough, at Love Victorious, and the impish grin freezes on the child’s face: How much longer does he need to maintain it, and the rest of his overused body, underneath the weight of his fake cherub wings? His eyes convey fear, perhaps hatred, and, most of all, unspeakable sadness.

The same profile, the same baby-soft hair and crooked genitalia, appear on the enigmatic little creature known as John the Baptist, wriggling on a furry pelt as he clutches a ram close. The ram’s eyes are as kindly as an old dog’s, the little boy’s are frightened, and Caravaggio has portrayed the two of them together as if they are fellow sacrificial victims, the gentle ram destined for the butcher’s knife, the boy for another kind of violent assault—he recoils visibly from Caravaggio’s scrutiny, as if the painter were an accomplice rather than a compassionate witness to some great ongoing injustice.

In and of themselves, the paintings in the Scuderie show suggest that it may have been Caravaggio’s experience with Cardinal Del Monte that turned both his palette and his soul into a battleground between light and darkness. It is hard to see these strange, etiolated boys without thinking about their part in the play of dominance and submission that made up the essence of all courtly life, including the life of the Curia. It was a play of dominance and submission that also, necessarily, involved Caravaggio, the cardinal’s painter.

Cardinal Del Monte was a proud Florentine who served in Rome as ambassador for the Grand Duke of Tuscany as well as a prince of the Church; he was, therefore, in close touch with his native city’s intellectual forefront, the same environment that had only recently produced the young Galileo Galilei, a professor since 1592 at the University of Padua. Del Monte was also an alchemist who performed experiments with distillation in his suburban villa, or casino, a building that still survives amid the hotels and nightclubs clustered around the Via Veneto. There, in 1597, Caravaggio painted a ceiling for the cardinal showing the three divine brothers Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, seen from below in what was usually called “heroic nudity”—although this trio’s nudity, like that of their little nephew, Cupid, looks more clinical than heroic, and Caravaggio achieved it by standing on a mirror and painting his naked self. The crystal spheres of the heavens spin between the three gods, the largest of them traversed by the transparent belt of the Zodiac. Caravaggio executed this ceiling in the oil he knew rather than experimenting with fresco, provoking criticism from his rivals in Rome—but he would have been criticized in any case as his reputation grew.

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