A Summer for Caravaggio: Part III

In this final installment from our three part study of Caravaggio’s life, OMNP takes a look at some of events and exhibitions surrounding the master this year.

Recalling the pathos of the Caravaggio legend in this anniversary year of his death has predictably led to an upsurge in interest in the media. The New York Times’ staff abroad paid due diligence  earlier this Spring, with two features on the artist; Elisabetta Povoledo retraced his life through the series of his works situated about Rome,  while Michael Kimmelman chalked  up the artist’s modern day appeal to that of a capricious libertine shrouded in centuries of mystique.

Kimmelman, from “Caravaggio in Ascendance: An Italian Antihero’s Time to Shine.” (New York Times, published March 9th, 2010)

“That Caravaggio left behind no drawings, no letters, no will or estate record, only police and court records, makes him a perfect Rorschach for our obsessions. He was outed in the 1970s by gender studies scholars, notwithstanding the absence of documents to indicate he was gay. Pop novelists and moviemakers have naturally had a field day with his life. Exhibition organizers cook up any excuse (“Caravaggio-Bacon,” “Caravaggio-Rembrandt”) to capitalize on his bankability. Newly discovered “Caravaggios test the market every year.”

Kimmelman’s latter points were particular poignant in lieu of some the events surrounding the artist of late.  Recent exhibitions have included a landmark retrospective of his work at the Scudiere Quirinale, and Dora Pamphilj collections in Rome, and two shows at the Art Institute of Chicago. The past few years have also resulted in several discoveries of new works both legitimate-the British Royal Collection’s “Boy Peeling Fruit” and “The Calling of the Saints Peter and Matthew” (see image # 10) and dubious- like “The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence;” recently renounced by the art historical authorities of its owner, the Vatican (see image #8.)

If there was one item, however, that set the barometer for Caravaggio-mania this Summer,  it was the bizarre series of events taking place in Porto Ercole, where the artist died of sun-stroke. In early July, an investigative group of forensic scientists led by Silvano Vincenti, President for the Italian National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environment Heritage, unveiled what they believe to be the bone remains of the artist from a local tomb (see image #7.)

Opportunistic  PR?  It seems that if new paintings by the artist can’t be discovered, the next best thing is the artist himself.  As Ms. Povoledo reported in regards to the ongoing research,

“So far..art historians have shown very little interest.

“Quite honestly, I don’t see why anyone would be remotely interested in finding Caravaggio’s bones,” Keith Christiansen, curator of Italian and French paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, wrote in an e-mail message. “I thought relic worship went out with the Middle Ages.” “

Conversely, it would be hard to dismiss the recently finished exhibition, “Caravaggio’s Friends and Foes”, (see image #9) at Whitfield Fine Art in London, as trivial. The exhilarating experience of the master’s works never really allows for a standard retrospective to become that perfunctory, yet it was the resourcefulness of this show that made it one of the most memorable in recent memory, which without a single painting on view by the master, invoked his disruptive presence in the works of his contemporaries.

Works by several familiar cast members from the Caravaggio legend made appearances here, for which Whitfield’s engrossing catalogue provides additional back stories and anecdotes to encapsulate the competitive cauldron of Roman painting at the time.

Most notable is a self-portrait of Giovanni Baglione (linked here), Caravaggio’s long-time rival. As the three time head of the Academia di San Luca- a distinguished institution of artists which had the strong backing of the Church, Baglione was in an eminent position for most of his career, yet was plagued by Caravaggio, the insolent and superiorly talented upstart, who defied the Academy’s tradition of study and prospered nonetheless.

You might think then that Baglione would paint a more flattering portrait of himself; a testament to self-devotion and resolve in the face of such adversity. To wit, we can see how he trumpeted himself as a cavalieri-a distinguished painterly emissary of the Church. One ornament of particular historical note from this painting is the gold chain of the cross that he wore as a trophy of sorts, awarded to him for his painting of “Sacred and Profane Love,” a rival work to Caravaggio’s “Amor Vincit Omnia, to which the latter described in a poetic riposte as:

“The gift which he wears around his neck unworthily,

For I certainly think that-if I am not mistaken-

An iron one on his feet would be more fitting”[i]

Amidst this veil of ostentation, however, lies a definite sense of insecurity. Despite his success, you get the feeling that this guy wasn’t very happy during his lifetime; his unevenly painted eyes and slight frown bear the expression of a sallow, anxious man.

This speaks volumes when considering some of the calamitous events that befell Baglione as Principe of the Academy. Aside from his public defamation by Caravaggio, the exhibition catalogue notes that Baglione also suffered a premeditated attack by the sword of Carlo’ Il Bodello’ Piemontese, a young painter who had been excluded from the Academy due to his age.  Suffice to say that heavy was the head that wore the crown.

Different aspects of Caravaggio’s influence are also explored; while any standard survey of Baroque art would mention the oeuvre of some of the more well known Carravagisti from Spain or Utrecht, what drove this show were some fantastic works by some relatively unknown followers, like Angelo Caroselli’s “Allegory of Love” (see image #1) and Piero Paolini’s “A Lesson in Astrology” (see image #2.)

Caroselli’s painting particularly stood out as an example of liberated subject matter that became employed in Caravaggio’s wake, as young artists began to experiment with the newfound possibilities of Rome’s street life. The claustrophobic nature of this composition channels the feeling of a late night inside a sweaty, overcrowded tavern. Here, a courtesan shares a moment of hustler’s levity with us, as she works her magic on a drunken suitor. It is a steamy scene of lascivious courtship that is as charming as it is arresting. As the catalogue notes, it was also a tableau later imported by the Dutch Golden Age, noting the similarity of the exchange taking place here to works like Vermeer’s “Procuress” .

Outside of the legion of works by Caravaggio’s devotees and detractors, a final painting of note entitled “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife,(see image #5) by Giuseppe Cesari, known as Cavalieri’ D’Arpino, distinguished itself as an example of a style that influenced the master himself. D’Arpino could afford not to be affected by the Caravaggio revolution, because he occupied lofty artistic heights- reserved in Rome as the leading painter of the time. He actually took the master in during his first years of struggle, letting him stay at his studio as an apprentice painting various ornamental motifs for his numerous high-profile commissions.

Predictably enough, egos clashed between the two, and Caravaggio left D’Arpino’s studio after a year to try to make it on his own. Yet for all of the high drama of his tenebrism that would define his career, D’Arpino’s softer, more etiolated palette had an influence in some of Caravaggio’s more intimate works such as “The Rest on the Flight from Egypt” (see image #6.)

NOTE OF CORRECTION: In part one of this series, OMNP mentioned that Caravaggio did not have a birth date, as cause for the anniversary celebration of his death. This was a mistake; the artist’s birth date Is recorded, taking place on September 29, 1571, in the town of Caravaggio, the name of which is the source of the artist’s nickname.


Caravaggio Reconsidered (Slightly Revised) [stiftungleostrauss.com]

An Italian Antihero’s Time to Shine [Michael Kimmelman, NY Times]

Rome’s Soft Spot for Caravaggio [Elisabeth Povoledo, NY Times]

Vatican Reverses Itself, “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” Not a Caravaggio [ArtDaily]

‘Newly found’ Caravaggios on show [BBC]

Image archive of Caravaggio’s paintings [OMNP]

[i] Friedlander, Walter.”Caravaggio Studies, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1955.), p. 273

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