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Caravaggio and Me

The ability of Caravaggio’s work to evoke in the viewer a powerful emotional response is undoubtedly the reason why he has always provided a source of inspiration for artists and patrons. He was an artist who broke from ensconced tradition of the prevailing mannerist view of the world, and he was as influential on his contemporaries as he was on the subsequent generations of artists he anticipated.

Caravaggio’s disdain for the authority in both life and art attracted animosity and adulation with equal degrees of fervour at the extremes of passion. To what extent the reputation of his life influenced the opinions on his art by his contemporaries is a matter of pure speculation. We may never know how different Caravaggio’s art may have been if he had a sweeter disposition but it is quite likely that he would have attracted a more extensive patronage.     

Caravaggio’s life and personal reputation have very little influence on the modern viewer. The work is allowed to speak for itself. For myself I was blissfully unaware of the controversy of Caravaggio’s life when I first encountered his art so I can attest that it had no influence on my earliest experiences.

It was my Caravaggio that expanded my appreciation of the baroque in Italy. I was under the belief that after the Renaissance Italy degenerated into insipid mannerism and that the baroque was the era of the Dutch with the emergence of masters such as Rembrandt and Rubens. But what I did not know was that the influence of Caravaggio was fundamental to these artists who knew of the work of the Caravaggio and the Dutch Caravaggisti such as Gerrit van Honthorst and Hendrick ter Brugghen.       

My first Caravaggio in the flesh did not occur until I went on a holiday to Paris. During a visit to the Louvre I managed to find two memorable works. The “Fortune Teller” (1598) in the Louvre is Caravaggio’s second known version of this subject with the earlier 1594 version hanging in Rome. This was not an uncommon practice for Caravaggio and he frequently made copies of some of his more popular works on request for paying customers. The interesting thing about this is that by the time the copy was rendered Caravaggio’s work had evolved into a darker and more physiologically ambiguous phase. Therefore the Louvre rendition was based on an earlier idea of composition and technique that he normally would not have performed by 1598 except for the commission.

It is hard to imagine how Caravaggio would have felt about these copies given his temperament. However when you look at these two paintings together it is easy to imagine that he approached the task at hand with a sense of genuine appreciation for the challenge and really could not help to impose in this copy at least a small portion of his intervening years of experience. The attention to detail and pronounced difference in the emotional impact of the copy could not have been performed by an artist that was not deeply attached to both the subject and the painting itself.

The Louvre Fortune Teller and Me

The different emotional impact of the copy is achieved by a subtle shift in the position of the young man. Interestingly the fortune teller has not changed at all (obviously her motives remain the same). We can read into the original painting that the figure of the youth expresses a hint of cynicism and doubt. The youth in the original does not seem so much of a willing participant and you get the impression that he would soon realize the loss of the ring and would not hesitate to bring the dagger at his side into quick action to avenge the loss. In the copy it is obvious that the youth is beguiled by the gypsy and it is easy to imagine the youth would remain blissfully oblivious to the deception.

The difference between these paintings raises another interesting question. How did Caravaggio alter his composition if he was simply a slavish copying technician? The model used was obviously the same model used in numerous early works such as “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” (1593), “Bacchus” (1597) and “The Lute Player” (1595). In these paintings the age of the youth has not changed in the intervening four year period, in fact if anything he actually looked younger in the second version of The Fortune Teller. It is possible that he relied on earlier preliminary drawings, but every indication is that Caravaggio never drew except directly on the canvas. The answer may be that even if Caravaggio used the exact same models in the later pictures (which seems unlikely) he could actually visualize beyond the absolute physical representation of the model, and he did in fact paint partly from imagination.

The second painting in the Louvre that I remember clearly is the “Death of the Virgin” (1601). This picture was originally painted for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere but was rejected by the monks because “he has indecorously done a bloated Madonna with exposed legs”. However the real reason may have had more to do with the fact that it was widely known that Caravaggio has used a favourite prostitute friend as the model for the Virgin! Obviously the rebuff did not cause Caravaggio too much concern as this was not to be the last time he used the same model again in the “Madonna dei Palafrenieri” and the “Madonna di Loreto”.

The monks were not alone in their condemnation of the painting. In 1660 Nicolas Poussin was reported to have said "I won't look at it, it's disgusting. That man was born to destroy the art of painting. Such a vulgar painting can only be the work of a vulgar man. The ugliness of his paintings will lead him to hell." Fortunately Caravaggio also had his supporters and it was Rubens who convinced the Duke of Mantua to purchase the work. From there it found its way to England and eventually to the collection of Louis XIV.

In spite of the riches of Paris it is ultimately unfulfilling as a location for discovering Caravaggio. The next stop for any serious student of Caravaggio had to be Italy.

Florence offered a few very interesting works. The “Sleeping Cupid” (1608) in the Palazzo Pitti is a late work which must have been performed during his time in Malta after he fled from Rome where he faced a charge of murder. The god of love is rendered with the pallor of a corpse. The distended stomach and the rigidity of the figure suggest that the model was in fact a child’s corpse. Although it is true that the Renaissance masters such as Leonardo studied corpses to understand anatomy no one before Caravaggio has rendered dead flesh with such conviction, in spite of the fact that he probably had no intention to make the figure recognizable as such.     

The Uffuzi offers us “Bacchus” (1597), “Medusa” (1598) and “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (1603?). Both Bacchus and Medusa are rather small paintings and do not significantly contribute to Caravaggio’s technique. At this stage of his career Caravaggio had come under the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte and his regression to the stylistic forms of his earlier work was largely to perform for the Cardinal. These two paintings were a gift from the Cardinal to Fernando de’ Medici and this explains how they came to end up in Florence.

The “Sacrifice of Isaac” is a far more interesting painting and is a rare example of Caravaggio incorporating a landscape into the painting. This may have been a reaction to the popularity of his rival Annibale Carracci who was admired for his landscapes. The painting has been dated from 1592 to 1604 and the importance of the work with respect to Caravaggio’s progress as an artist can only be guessed. If it is an early work then it may be the first time that Caravaggio used dark shadows in his style, known in the Italian as “Chiaroscuro”. For my mind I find the work to be the stylistic and compositional equivalent to “The Rest on the Flight to Europe” (1595), and lacking any historical evidence to provide a conclusive dating I prefer to think of this work as being produced in this earlier period. 

The final destination on my quest to view Caravaggio was to visit his home town, the Eternal City, Rome. We spent many days traipsing through various churches, galleries and museums to find examples of his work. It is only in Rome where such a significant proportion of his oeuvre is available to discover the full depth of his artistic achievements. It is not possible to do justice to all of Caravaggio’s Roman works but I will attempt to highlight my experiences with the greatest of them.

In the church of Santa Maria del Popolo there is a little chapel just to the left of the main altar called the Cerasi chapel. There two of Caravaggio’s most magnificent paintings, the “Crucifixion of St Peter” (1600) and the “Conversion of St Paul” (1600) sit facing each other on opposite walls. The viewing conditions are not ideal as only a handful of people can cram into the front of the chapel at any point in time and it is necessary to feed a constant stream of coins into the machine to keep the lights burning.

The Crucifixion of St Peter is one of Caravaggio’s greatest works and is in stark contrast to Michelangelo’s famous version of the same theme in the Vatican. Caravaggio has reversed St Peter and the full horror of his expression is clearly evident, unlike the contorted Peter in the Michelangelo work. Caravaggio has also dispensed with the crowd and the only additional figures to Peter are the anonymous executioners toiling away at their grisly trade. The depiction of Peter is all too human, there is nothing divine about this scene in a traditional artistic sense. 

The Gallery Borghese holds the world’s largest collection of Caravaggio paintings in one room. Unfortunately while I was there the “Self Portrait as Bacchus” (1593) and the “Boy with a basket of Fruit” (1593) were absent as they were on tour in “The Genius of Rome” exhibition in London. It was my first experience with the other side of the exhibition equation, and I could really begin to appreciate exactly how difficult they must be to organise.

Paintings that were in residence were the “Madonna de Palafrenieri” (1605), “David with the head of Goliath” (1610?), “St Jerome” (1605) and “John the Baptist” (1610). The head of Goliath is a self portrait of Caravaggio in deep despair. Many commentators believe this is Caravaggio’s last painting and suggest that it is a fitting finale to a life full of violence. However Peter Robb in M[3] argues that this David was from a much earlier period (1606) and that in contrast to popular opinion Caravaggio’s last painting was the only slightly less depressing “Martyrdom of St Ursula” (1610) and in fact Caravaggio was working towards a new period of renewal as he headed back to Rome.        

The Palazzo Barberini was well worth a visit even though many painting were absent due to their inclusion in the London exhibition. Fortunately the wonderful “Judith beheading Holofernes” (1599) was present. This is a milestone painting where Caravaggio’s undertones of suggested violence of his earlier works have finally spilled over into this very overt act of vengeance. This painting inspired many of the Caravaggisti including Artemesia Gentileschi who produced a very similar work in 1612.

The final highlight of the Roman tour was the magnificent Galleria Doria Pamphili. This gallery is in the style of a traditional 17th century gallery where paintings are stacked high on the walls. The two important works are “Penitent Magdalen” (1593) and “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” (1595). The Magdalen used a prostitute friend for a model but in comparison to the use of a similarly employed model to portray the virgin I guess the choice of subject is somewhat more appropriate! The “Rest on the flight to Egypt” is a wonderfully serene painting. The notes on the sheet music are so clearly visible that you cannot but help to hum the tune in your head as you view the picture.

So after travelling half way around the world to view Caravaggio paintings in their native format I was delighted when I heard that I will soon be able to view them in my home city. I am sure that the forthcoming exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales will attract both new admirers and detractors. But instead of criticising his lifestyle, or his radical approach to art, or his disrespect of religious themes I can imagine that criticism will be more likely in the form of over rated or over hyped! But perhaps that is just as well, for Caravaggio without controversy would hardly be Caravaggio at all.     

Bibliography

Caravaggio, Timothy Wilson – Smith. Phaidon Press Limited, London. 1998.

Caravaggio, Edited by Stefano Peccatori and Stefano Zuffi. Dorling Kindersley, London. 1999.

Rome, Where to find Caravaggio, Livia Velani and Giovanni Grego. Scala, 2000.

M, Peter Robb. Duff and Snellgrove, Sydney. 1999.

The Uffuzi Gallery Official Guide, Gloria Fossi. Giunti Industrie Grafiche, Prado. 2000.

 

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