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…

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