"Caravaggio," a blockbuster exhibition at the Scuderie Quirinale through June 13 commemorates the 400th anniversary of the master's death in 1610, and is a gigantic head start to a nearly comprehensive study of one of the most innovative and influential geniuses in the history of art. In this post, I will attempt to describe the exhibition. In subsequent posts, I will share my itinerary for seeing all the Caravaggios in Rome in 2 days. It's overload, but I loved it! Several from Roman collections have been lent to the Scuderie Quirinale exhibition, and one to the Sinebrychoffi Museum in Helsinki until May 9, but there are still over a dozen others in various galleries and churches through the city, the inclusion of which complete the Caravaggio tour.
If you've ever been to Rome, you know it is a complex city with layers of history literally stacked in glorious and decrepit piles everywhere. Among the chaos is amazing beauty. If Paris is Martha Graham, then Rome is Merce Cunningham. Paris is expressive, beautiful, languid, turbulent: Rome breathtaking, atonal, fractured, vulnerable. One can spend a lifetime studying Rome and never see it all, never understand its complexity, and I won't attempt to here. However, I do suggest, as many have before, that you choose your itinerary at least loosely before you arrive in the city, as it is so overwhelming once you are in it, that your trip is likely to be such a jumble of
memories that you can't remember what you actually saw if you don't.
Like the Bernini Elephant in Piazza Minerva, designed to support an ancient Egyptian obelisk, Rome is an amalgam of everything Ancient, Classical, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and Modern.
Many have suggested breaking Rome into historical eras for visits, i.e. going to see the glory of ancient Rome, or choosing the Baroque era as your main focus, and others suggest selecting an artist, such as Bernini or Raphael and touring the museums and churches which feature that artist's work. This post is an attempt at the latter, with the concentration of Caravaggio paintings at the Scuderie Quirinale as a starting point.
This post will cover the "Caravaggio" exhibition. My step by step itinerary to the rest of the Caravaggio paintings in Rome, as well as selected highlights and discoveries along the path of the itinerary will follow in a separate post. Feel free to scroll through to the section that interests you most. As for the turbulent life story of the artist, except where his life intruded upon his paintings, as sometimes it did, I will leave that for other sources and the reader's curiosity. The profound impact of this artist on every subsequent generation of painters, I leave to the experts to analyze and debate, though I reserve the right to add an observation or two. My aim here is to provide a guide to a wonderful trip to the Eternal City focusing on the work of one of its most passionate and influential artists: Michelangelo Merisi, known to us as Caravaggio.
I offer the insights of one who has learned about art by looking at it; an Everyman whose 30 year education in Art History has been entirely a self taught journey. I offer my comments not as serious Art Theory or Critique, but as assistance to those who understand less than I about the History of Art, and trust me to make the study interesting, fun and understandable, as I research and plan my own travels and studies of the art treasures of the world.
The Caravaggio Exhibition
With the overwhelming crowds this exhibition is attracting, I strongly suggest avoiding lines and delays by booking your tickets through the Scuderie's website. The audio guides and wall text through the galleries offer valuable insights and information about the art. I suggest you spend the time to read the walls and the Euros for the audio guide to understand the importance of this artistic giant. With that said, I will also add that the audio guide script was obviously written in Italian and translated to English rather academically, so sometimes it's a little awkward and linguistically convoluted.
The exhibition itself, however, is stunning. Gathered from museums and private collections throughout the world, the paintings selected are all by the hand of the Master and are arranged thematically, in as close to chronological order as is possible to ascertain. The research and scholarship behind the show are extraordinary and the results impressive. The layout permits a great number of visitors to gather around each of the large canvases and provides easy sight lines. The rooms feature appropriately dim lighting, considering Caravaggio was the "inventor of the spotlight," as I like to refer to him. His paintings, especially in his mature years, are especially dark and are flattered by the dim lighting this show provides. However, the focused spotlights on the paintings themselves, in some instances, create glare on the paintings' surfaces and might do well to be scrimmed slightly. I'm sure I will write about my philosophy of the lighting of paintings in museums in another post, as I do have strong opinions about that, but this post is a guide to Caravaggio in Rome.
The visitor enters the exhibition by going up a gently rising and curving grand Travertine marble staircase. Do stop and read the text as you enter. It describes the intent of the curators and gives important background information about the show, the artist and his patrons.
The walls are painted very dark shades of green, red or grey to mark what the curators define as the three artistic periods of Caravaggio's life. Works are arranged more or less chronologically within genres, you'll see. Trust the choices of the curators; they have done a fantastic job.
- Boy with Basket of Fruit (Borghese Gallery, Rome) 1593-94 This painting is considered by some to be an allegory of Christ's love offered freely and ripe, or of the seasons, given all the types of fruit ripe at the same time, which naturally don't appear ripe in the same seasons, or of the senses, or even of a sexual nature: the boy offering his own fruits. Whatever it is, the way Caravaggio's undisclosed light source constructs shadows on the wall to define the space and lead the eye to the boy's nonchalantly tossed back head, heavy lidded (sleepy? sexy? melancholy?) eyes, slightly-parted voluptuous lips, bared shoulder, and ever ripening basket, it's magic.
- Basket of Fruit (Milan, Vineranda Bibioteca Ambrosiana, Pinocoteca) c.1600 As Maurizio Calvesi writes in his essay in the exhibition catalogue, "Caravaggio," edited by Claudio Strinati, published by Skira Editore: But why is the Basket so extraordinarily beautiful? Clearly, not simply because it reproduces the fruit with a precision that could be described as photographic. However, this realism gives rise to a striking formal structure, that can be examined along two complimentary paths. To appreciate the work's fidelity to nature the eye is called to examine the tiniest details, in a labyrinthine approach, dwelling on how the individual fruits and the single leaves are rendered. But to perceive the sculptural quality of this image, our gaze has to embrace the whole, observing how the shade which deepens on the right side of the basket makes the parts in light stand out, translating its natural rotundity into a rotundity which is that of volume, of pure form, permeated by the secret life of a crystalline light, with the whisper of chiaroscuro transitions. So, it's quite realistic. Before Caravaggio, there was an emphasis on making everything in a painting as ideal as possible. If you painted an apple, it should be perfect, ripe and enticing. Here we see an apple with a worm hole, a pear that needs to be eaten soon and grapes with drying, withered leaves. One can see a reference here to the great Still Life paintings of the Low Countries at about the same time, the decaying fruit symbolizing the passage of time. Mortality. Vanitas. "We're all gonna die." "Get right with God." I would add that in this painting Caravaggio has given us a background of the perfect shade of Italian stucco, aged and aging still. That color abounds in the city and country architecture throughout Italy and occupies the majority of the canvas. I will suggest that in his choice to make the rather textured, but plain background such a dominating element of the composition, and to have that background so elegantly splashed through the tiny openings between the fruits and leaves, even through the holes in the leaves on the very top branch, he has invented what we would in modern parlance call Negative Space. Very cool, hip and rather contemporary for c.1600! Are the juxtapositions of the grapes (as symbols of Christ's blood) and the apple (as a symbol of original sin) an argument for the religious interpretation of these works? You decide.
- Rest on the Flight to Egypt (Doria Pamphilij Gallery, Rome) Notice the remarkable landscape in the background of this painting, there are not many this detailed in the entire show. That's one way you can tell it's still his early period. I like the heart shaped composition with Mary and the infant Jesus and Joseph forming the heart, divided by the ivory white skin of the angel in the foreground who divides the picture space pretty much completely in half. On the right, the heavenly bliss, motherly love, tender nature, while on the left, the pursuits of man: music, wine, a beast of burden. The oak tree's leaves are turning brown - life is short, which do you pursue? You decide.
- The Musicians (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) 1595-96 A dynamic and busy composition, the canvas is crammed like so many of the Mannerist canvases of the period. Caravaggio has created a swirl of diagonals to animate the composition. Follow the line of the angel or Cupid/Eros figure on the left as it joins with the diagonal of the red sash on the central figure, then continues to the lower right, where it joins the white robe of the seated figure in front and in the gentle swoop of the drape across his back, leads the eye back to the open space of his exposed shoulder and the faces of the boys. Look closely: the winged figure in the background is holding grapes... Blood of Christ? Wine (as in "wine, women and song")? Is it Cupid with the quiver? Some argue each. Is the figure in the background the same model as Bacchus? The Lute Player? Boy with Basket of Fruit? Lover? Model? Self portrait? You decide.
- Lute Player (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) 1595-96 As the background is significantly darker and the effect of the light brighter by contrast, we can see Caravaggio developing toward his mature style. Again we have the lips, the sleepy/sexy eyes, the theme of music, the temporal nature of the fruits and flowers. Here we also have the deeply foreshortened lute and violin projecting out toward us, almost in 3-D. The table is set at an angle to the picture plane to emphasize this 3 dimensionality and draw the viewer into the picture space, to blur the line between our reality and the reality of the picture, to involve us. Caravaggio will become the master of this blurring of the viewer's space and the picture space as he develops his mature style. The photographic realism of the flowers and fruits invites comparison with those Dutch Still Lifes again. According to the catalogue essay "The Lute Player," by Kristina Herrmann Fiore, the words on the sheet music in the painting are those of the "third madrigal, which goes: 'You know that I love thee, I adore thee/ But do you not know that I die for thee,/ If you knew,/ Perhaps you would take pity on me./ But if you care/ about my fate/ You will see the torment of this burning fire/ Consume me little by little.' Beside the element of interior 'fire,' there is that of the 'air' emitted by the boy's song, while water sparkles in the vase and our gaze takes in the gifts of the earth, fruit and flowers." Allegory? Just a pretty picture? Religious? You decide.
- The Card Sharps (Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth) Again here the background is quite neutral and the shadow on the wall defines the space as rather shallow. The angle of the table and the backgammon set hanging off the edge, again, invites a blurring of the picture space with the viewers', involving us in the action. The action, in the case, is interesting. We are witnessing the fleecing of a young man of some means. The strongly pyramidal composition recalls the composition of many Madonna and Child paintings of the Renaissance, but here is used to show two hucksters in somewhat theatrical clothing, and one of whose gloves have holes in them, the other of whom hides extra cards to help him cheat, in his waistband. The poor dupe, the character sweetly looking down at his cards with an innocence that suggests he has no idea what's happening, is dressed in the fancy lace collar and cuffs and dark satin and velvet clothing of a young gentleman. Caravaggio was the first to paint pictures of gambling cheats in action, and the subject became quite popular throughout Europe in the 17th Century.
- Bacchus (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) 1597 Here we have Caravaggio breaking further away from the Mannerist style with his portrait of the Roman God of Wine. It has virtuoso handling of the glass carafe and wineglass, and the ripples and bubbles in the wine in both vessels suggests that the carafe has just been set down, and the glass is trembling in Bacchus's hand. In a further break from the idealized figures of the Renaissance and Mannerist periods, Caravaggio gives us a slightly pudgy faced god with a sunburned face and hands, a pure white shoulder, and as a final touch of reality, dirty fingernails. He gives us unabated the gritty reality of the street urchins he employed as models. The background is dark, closing in the picture plane and there are the apples, grapes, and wine, which could have religious overtones, especially in the Italy of the Counter reformation, but the figure is still the heavy lidded youth we've come to expect from Caravaggio, seeming to offer his sexuality as well as redemption. You decide.
- St Catherine of Alexandria (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) She looks like a real woman posing in a studio, and that's basically what she is. With the broken wheel of her torment, the sword (her manner of execution), palm to represent that she's a Christian Martyr, and halo of her sainthood, she's got it all: strong diagonal lines, elegantly rich, beautifully rendered fabrics, and the look of the watchful intellect we associate with the character of this scholarly saint. Is that blood on the sword, or has Caravaggio portrayed the light so that we have the subtle reflection of the red cushion on which she kneels in the polished blade of the sword (which looks to one observer to be not of a type which would easily sever a head). You decide.
- Conversion of Saul (Private Collection, Rome - WOW, I'd like to see THAT collection!) 1601 This painting is a wonderful telling of the story of the conversion of the Christian-hater, Saul, into the Christian Disciple Paul (Acts 22). He was riding along to Damascus, when his evil self was thrown off his horse by a blinding light. In that terrible flash, we have Saul/Paul on the ground, illuminated by a source from above. The guard in the far background covers his ears from the thunder, and the bearded figure standing to the left, pointing his spear at a perfect diagonal to the picture plane, sees nothing, but points directly to the source of the light: Christ, in the upper right corner, sustained by a beautiful angel, is Himself the source of the light. Appearing only to Paul, the others are left in a state of panic and fear. The guards react, and the horse throws his head up in panic, and kicks up his leg and swats his tail. The beautiful diagonals and motion in the arms of Jesus reaching down, the spear and the legs of the panicking guard all lead the eye to the main diagonal, lower left to upper right, between Saul/Paul's covered, blinded eyes and the outstretched arms and shadowed face of Christ. Saul/Paul appears nude, though he is in the leather armour of the Roman Empire, his vivid red robe and helmet having fallen off in the tumble. Notice the effect of the juxtaposition of the purple robes of Jesus (as the Prince of Heaven) with the yellow leggings of the guard, and the green shield with Saul/Paul's red robe: how those complimentary colors make each other come alive... (Van Gogh??) with an almost horizontal band of blue extending from the burnished armor and helmet on the guard, though the striped sky on the right. It is interesting to note that this painting was commissioned for the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, was installed, subsequently rejected, and a replacement masterpiece of the same subject is still in situ (in place) today. That's an interesting story in itself which the reader may wish to research more on his/her own. Check the next post on the Itinerary of all Caravaggios in Rome for more on the Cerasi Chapel versrion.
- Crowning with Thorns (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna) c. 1602-04 Here the juxtaposition in clothing is really noticeable. The guard on the left is in 17th century armor, while Christ and his tormentors are in ancient attire. We are at once invited to be a participant, as the one in modern dress is, yet we are excluded by the railing on which he leans, and by the fact that his back is to us, effectively blocking us. Where the composition opens to us is though the half of the canvas where the head of Christ and his main tormentor are, on the right. Visually, we enter on the right directly into the red swirl of the claok, which leads our eye directly to the resigned, yet confident face of Christ. The light is more than a background element, it is a character (the Holy Spirit?), illuminating the exposed shoulder of Christ, the flexed muscles of the torturers and leaving glints on the polished armor of the guard (VERY Velazquez/Rubens, who painted only slightly later, and in different places - direct influence? Some say so). The brightly lit feathers on the top of his hat lead the eye to the nape of Christ's neck; the diagonals of the canes and the bodies all lead the eye to the focus of the painting, which is really quite dark: the actual crown and the face of Christ. The artist has used the suggestive power of the dark, the shadow, to draw the viewer in emotionally as a participant, so we are invited in both compositionally and emotionally. I believe that could be considered a hallmark of the Baroque: the invitation to interact with the artwork on an emotional level as well as spacially. The painting wants to project out of its frame; the sculpture tumbles out of its niche AND they arrest the viewer emotionally.
From a more modern observer's perspective, the negative space is brilliant.
- The Deposition (The Vatican, Rome) 1600-1604 I love Depositions, the characters are always the same and the interpretations are so varied. Here Caravaggio has taken a big step into the Baroque. He's fully there. The slab on which the characters stand juts out into our space. It is the slab on which they lay the body to cleanse it before burial and they seem to be in the act of taking the cleaned body of Christ to the tomb. Present are the regular cast: John the Evangelist (the "Beloved of Jesus") in his usual red and blue, the Virgin Mother in her blue, her face looking old, aggrieved, exhausted and spent, her hand outstretched beside John's head. Mary of Cleophas wailing in the background, Mary Magdeline, quiet and heartbroken, her hand pressed to her forehead, eyes downcast. It is Nicodemus who invites us to participate in the drama of the scene. Looking boldly out of the canvas directly at us, the man who helped take Jesus from the cross looks exhaused and numb from his exertion and filthy from his tragic chores. This is gritty realism which must have shocked the viewers who were used to Perugino's perfect Cruxifictions or a totally idealized young virgin holding her dead son, as Michaelangelo's Pieta of only a few years before. Though the pose of the Christ figures in both the Pieta and the Deposition is nearly identical, the intent is quite different: Mannerism vs. Baroque: the moment of intense drama, and you are invited directly in. And this is a tough drama. The Marys are at their physical ends; the men can barely lift the body. The greenish tint of the dead skin of Christ and the bold red of John's mantle: again, playing with the visual power of complimentary colors. The composition is also remarkable for its motion and power. The perfect yet seemingly natural arc of faces from Jesus on the left, up through Mary of Cleophas on the upper right, with dear Nicodemus inserted in front - the fulcrum of the arc of heads. Remember that this was originally an altarpiece, so looking up at it, you would have felt like you were really looking up at the scene. And the people looked like people you knew, in fact the wall text will tell you about the man whose portrait Nicodemus is, so it made the religious stories actually feel alive and current to the worshipper. Inviting you in, both spatially and emotionally. Baroque.
- The Flagellation of Christ (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples) 1607-1610 With a very dark palatte and not much color at all, Caravaggio gives us this scene of Christ's passion. Christ yields to his captors as two bind Him to the column and a third binds sticks together with which to scourge Him. Again, a divine light from above illuminates Christ and little else, while his captors' faces fall off into shadow. This is an ugly, dirty scene and we are right in the midst of it, with the only foreground figure the kneeling man on the left and the light visually thrusting the body of Jesus out of the frame and into our space. And those forshortened sticks in the very foreground, actually coming out at us. This was shocking stuff to viewers with a Renaissance or Mannerist mindset, like when they started cussing on TV.
- Adoration of the Shepherds (Museo Regionale, Messina) 1608-09 Somehow, with nearly transparent brown and black, Caravaggio has completely defined the entire picture surface into the simple characters and humble stable of the Adoration. The strong light we have come to depend on as a character in Caravaggio's painting comes from the left and brightly illuminates the Virgin, a bright diagonal of red and the baby, whose face is obscured from us. The arc of faces is comfortably similar to that in The Deposition. The halos are so discrete, like they are glass disks illuminated from the side. There is a wonderful still life in the foreground, a simple touch of realism which invites us into the scene. The blindingly white napkin with the loaf of bread and Joseph's carpenter's tool is the point of intersection of all the angles of the composition and such a humble representation of the life of the everyman. How much more humble can they be than lying on the ground? That, with the suntanned, grizzled faces and dirty hands of the shepherds and Joseph's open, welcoming gesture would pull the contemporary viewer right into the scene.
- "Love Triumphant (Amor Vincit Omnia)" (Staatliche Museen, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin) 1602 Look out! Cupid is looking at YOU. Taunting, laughing relaxed, playful, naked. He's got you in his sights, but look out, he's so precariously posed, he's going to have to look away any second! Here Cupid (Love) is trampling, and seemingly about to fall on, the symbols of the pursuits of man: music, architecture, literature, warfare, the celestial arts, and with such glee! The pen and T Square in the foreground, as with paintings before, jut out into our space an blur the distinction between Cupid's space and ours. His almost confrontational nudity begs the question: What type of love is thus victorious? Sacred? Or profane? You decide.
- Judith Beheading Holofernes (Palazzo Barberini, Rome) Well, my goodness, talk about being right the moment of the action! The blood is spurting, the fingers clutching the bed, Holofernes calls out as his eyes roll back in his head: the exact moment between life and death. Judith, though beautiful, is hardly the idealized Judith holding the sword in Mantegna's sweet little scene in Washington's National Gallery. She is a holy murderess, muscles tight and brow furrowed in the action. Her mouth is slightly open, praying? She seems to concentrate, but she also seems a little distant - steeled for the battle, I guess. The old maid whose bag awaits the trophy looks on with a steely strength of her own, and a face chiseled by years of hardship. The sweep of the fabric of Judith's skirt, the curve of Holofernes's arm, the fabric of the tent-flap weighing down on the scene from above, and the strong light from the left balance this strongly horizontal and vertical composition, and the negative space, especially between Judith and Holofernes is dense with energy. I love Judith and Holofernes. Besides Salome with the head of John the Baptist, Judith is the only woman beheading a man in Western art. She can be distinguished from Salome usually by the bag. Judith took Holofernes's head in a sack, with the help of a handmaid, while Salome preferred John's head on a plate. And there's no female attendant at John's decapitation, that deed was performed by the guards. Could there be a Counter reformation message here? The light of God inspiring the Catholic church (Judith) to slay the evil heathen (Lutheranism)? You decide.
- St. John the Baptist (Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome)1602 Is this not the same model as Love Triumphant?? The boy liked to be naked, and apparently Caravaggio liked him to be as well. The S composition is rather beautiful and reminiscent of the poses of some of Michaelangelo's figures in the Sistine Chapel. But gone is the idealized formality there. Here John is unabashedly naked, his fur garment under him. He leans on a pure white linen, referring to the shroud of Christ? He embraces a ram... an interesting switch on the usual iconography. Usually John is shown with a lamb, as he who led the way for Jesus, the Lamb of God. But here, it is a Ram. Same species, but the adult male, a reference to sacrifice, in this case the sacrifice of Christ for all mankind. Gets a little deeper than it first appears. This was not an altarpiece, but commissioned for a private home. Could you imagine the reaction if it had been placed in a church?! Caravaggio had quite a relationship with John the Baptist and painted him several times. We will see several more John the Baptists as we go through the exhibition, and they are dramatically different from this sweet youthful one.
- The Taking of Christ (National Gallery, Dublin) 1602 - The swoop of faces almost seems like the Nike Swoosh logo. John, the Beloved of Jesus, runs, horrified, off to the left. Jesus, sad, scared and resigned, hands clasped from interrupted prayer, leans back, but does not shrink from Judas's kiss. The strong horizontal of the arms clutching Christ and the swirls of John's robe above the heads completely encircle Christ in a red swirl, a claustrophobic clutch. The lantern is mostly hidden from the viewer by the soldier's helment, but lights the scene brilliantly. The dress of the soldiers is modern compared to the robes of Christ and the disciples. Rising from the darkness on the right side of the canvas is a figure, eyes transfixed on the kiss and brightly lit - a self portait. Is the angle of his head and the parallel angle of Judas's head some inference of the artist as irredeemable sinner? You decide.
- Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery, London) 1601 Have we seen that basket of fruit before? Well, go back to the beginning, I think we have! Three days after Christ has arisen to heaven (Luke 24), Disciples Cleophas and another (some say St Philip, but think here we have St James, as he is the pilgrim saint whose attribute is the shell and the man on the right is clearly wearing a scallop shell on his cloak) are dining with a stranger. Here, as Christ breaks the bread, we see the moment when the Disciples recognize their risen Lord, come back to revisit them. The one on the left, reels back in his chair and James stretches out his arms in wonder. Jesus, serene and bathed in light, eyes downcast, blesses the scene while the seving man stands by impassively. A scene from everyday life, yet with deep religious meaning. And in the tradition of the Dutch Still Life, that basket hanging precariously off the table. Could it, as in those works, symbolize the transince of life? Certainly the decaying fruit does. Get right with God now; you could be as dead as that chicken tomorrow. The dramaticly forshortened arms on both Jesus and St James and the chair scooting back away from the table in the foreground jut almost into the viewer's space and bring us right into the scene. With strong shadows on the dark walls, there is a finite space behind the action. We are definitely in an enclosed room, but with the fruit hanging off the table and a space at the table open right in front of us it's as if we are invited to the table too.
- John the Baptist (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri) 1602 A darker, older, wiser, cagier John. The reed cross is here and with spilintered edges, alludes to Jesus coming and the violence of his demise. The strong diagonals and bright downward light make the figure feel isolated in his sylvan surroundings. We interpret his gaze own way, as the shadow hides his eyes and we are free to use the shadow/darkness to our own imaginative purposes. Is that broken branch above his head a reference to his beheading? You decide.
- Sacrifice of Isaac (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) 1603 An earlier painting, we have the full background landscape which would be obscured in darkness in a later work. The light makes a strong diagonal from the Angel's arm through the body of Isaac, whom God has commanded Abrahmam to sacrifice as an act of faith. The Angel intercedes and miraculously a Ram appears as a substitute sacrifice, but Caravaggio has captured the moment of the most drama; the knife almost slits Isaac's throat as the Angel intervenes. By the way, is Isaac the same model as Love Victorious? You decide.
- Dinner at Emmaus (La Brera, Milan) 1606 Painted after Caravaggio was convicted of first degree murder, this canvas is far darker and more austere than the Dinner at Emmaus we saw earlier. With less clutter, less decoration and much more limited palette, Caravaggio focuses on the action. These are NOT the idealized people of Michelangelo. They are scruffy, dirty, poor. The reactions are not as dramatic as the earlier work, but the gentle light and Christ's less hopeful, dark and downturned eyes give this work a much less enthusiastic and upbeat feeling.
- John the Baptist (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte di Palazzo Corsini) 1606 The third of four Johns in the exhibition, this one strong diagonals and light from above give this one a heavier countenance and more masculine strength than the previous two. Present is the water vessel, a reference to the baptism of Christ, and the reed cross, the symbol of Christ's coming and death. With a darker palette and diverted gaze, we are left with the eyes again in shadow, leaving us free to impart our own emotional state to this painting.
- John the Baptist (Galleria Borghese, Rome) 1610 Emotionally distant, resigned to his role in the great unfolding events of his and Christ's life, this John seems older, wiser, more ready for his trials. The sacrificial ram and reed (but not a cross this time) as his attributes, and his dirty foot and broken log (allusion to his sudden end?) project into our space and bring us into his. The background of a wall with vines, closes us into the same space with John and it feels claustrophobic. This John has a more resigned, yet tragic feeling than the others.
- Sleeping Cupid (Galleria Palatina, Florence) 1608 How could this not be one of your favorite images from the exhibition? Dating from his time in Malta, after running from his death sentence in Rome, and being inducted as a Knight of Malta, he had to embrace their code of ethecs and avoid brawls, gambling, drink and debauchery - something very foreign to the violent artist. In this very dark brown and ochre palette, Caravaggio has given us a sweet rendition of Cupid at rest. Once Love Victorious, Cupid is this time relaxed, inert, sweet, not challenging us. His wings are an exquisite hints of brushstrokes and the light bathes and warms his naked body. The arch of white feathers defining the upper wing is perfect. This is a real boy, to whom the artist has added the wings of an angel, but the realism of the figure makes one want to pick up the sleeping baby and place him in his cradle.
- David with the Head of Goliath (Borghese Gallery, Rome) 1610 The crowning acheivement of Caravaggio's career, this composition contains everything Caravaggio worked for his entire life. Instead of the death of the giant by slingshot, or his decapitation by sword, Caravaggio shows us the moment when the victorious young David enters the tent of King Saul carrying the severed head of Goliath. David has the melancholy and tilted head of the early Bacchus, but he does not tempt us, tease us, or play with us. His eyes do not tempt us, they are eyes which have seen a great deal, not the eyes of the innocent Boy with Fruit Basket at the beginning of the exhibition. The light comes from within the tent and the tent flap in the upper left corner closes in the scene and casts shadows over David's shoulder. The angle of his head throws strong shadows over half of his face, the other showing the worry and burden of a man of more years than this young hero. Generally accepted among scholars as a self portait, the horrible head of the giant Goliath may represent Caravaggio's acceptance of his earlier death sentence and his seeking redemption. Is the young David also a self portait as a young man? Or one of his earlier models? If it's a dual self portait, we have the victim, the vanquished, the fallen and the redeemed all in one canvas. On the sword is inscribed "humilitas occidet superbiam" ("humility kills pride"). The palette is entirely mature Caravaggio, the blacks, browns, ochres, red and white. The satin skin of youth and real wrinkles and gaping maw of death, the compelling diagonal lines connecting the two heads. This is one of Caravaggio's darkest masterpieces, one that presages the dark scenes of Goya by many years. As Anna Coliva writes in her essay David with the Head of Goliath in the exhibition catalogue, "It is an expressivity of magnificent, unrepeatable power that holds within it the entire poetics of Caravaggio, according to which a contemplative mind, dolorous and full of infinite commiseration, weeps for humanity. A humanity guilty beyond redemption." Caravaggio. Me. You?
- The Annunciation - (Musee des Beaux Arts, Nancy) 1608-1610 - I think I would have ended the show with Caravaggio's David & Goliath, but seems the curators could not bear to have the visitor leave the gallery with that shocking and horrible image as the last of the exhibiton, so they added The Annunciation. A large and very dark canvas, Mary is almost completely obscured in the shadows and the bed and chair in the bacground are almost lost in the muddy browns and blacks. The angel however, is the one bright spot in the composition. He appears, kneeling on a cloud, with his back almost completely to us, and the Lily signifying Mary's purity, in his hand, almost hidden in the shadows. Mary is in complete profile, and the angel projects forward out of the picture plane, and the intimacy of the scene also invitates us into it. Of the paintings in the exhibition, a rather weak one to end the show, because it was reputedly repainted by others so many times that the image we see is so dark and much of it not by Caravaggio, only the brushwork of the angel looks like that of the rest of the show.