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Caravaggio: sex, violence and film noir

Why is the artist, who died 400 years ago, now so popular, when for so long he was quite beyond the pale?

Now you see it: "I Bari (The Cardsharps)", around 1594-95, out of sight for nearly a century and now at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Wort

“Neither Annibale Carracci nor Caravaggio is now usually reckoned among the most famous masters; they fell out of fashion in the 19th century, though they are coming into their own again.”

From the perspective of 2010, 400 years after Caravaggio’s untimely death at the age of 39, this quotation is outrageously beyond its sell-by date. Amazingly enough, it comes from E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, which was first published in 1950. If Gombrich’s words remained unmodified until the 16th edition (1994), this has more to do with the unchanging nature of the main text of The Story of Art than with some weird petrifaction of the otherwise notoriously fickle history of taste.

Oddly enough, the emendation remains a half-truth, with the sentence now proclaiming: “Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio fell out of fashion in the 19th century, but have come into their own again.” On the contrary, in the intervening six decades the trajectories of Caravaggio and Annibale, his great rival in Rome around 1600, could scarcely have been more polarised. In scholarly circles, Annibale has indeed recovered from the disdain of the 19th century, but remains a secondary figure in the public imagination. Conversely, in the meantime Caravaggio has become the ultimate old master superstar—his only real rival is Vermeer, and it may be no coincidence that they have both been the subjects of biopics (Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio”, 1986, and Peter Webber’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, 2003)—not just within the academy but, even more crucially, far beyond its confines. The chronicle of both Caravaggio’s critical death and his ultimate transfiguration repays scrutiny and will be examined here, yet of itself the mere fact of his rediscovery does not entirely explain his apotheosis, which it is now almost impossible not to think of as inevitable.

Perhaps the first point to be made is that Caravaggio was both immensely admired and at the same time profoundly divisive of artistic opinion in his own day. On the one hand, he famously won prominent commissions in Rome and elsewhere (one of his least thrilling paintings was an altarpiece for St Peter’s, the Madonna dei Palafrenieri, around 1605-06, now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome), while on the other hand a seemingly unprecedented number of his productions were rejected by his patrons. Similarly, for all that an impressive tally of his artist contemporaries lined up to denounce his works, it was no less a figure than Rubens who pounced on his cast-off Death of the Virgin, 1601-03, altarpiece for his Gonzaga masters in Mantua (it has always moved in the best circles, since it was subsequently in the collection of King Charles I, before entering the French royal collections, and ultimately the Louvre).

During the 17th century, his influence was incalculable, not only upon the so-called Caravaggesques, but also upon the productions of artists who were less directly under his spell, including a whole range of major painters, not least Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velázquez. In the same vein, while the leading historians of art such as Van Mander, Baglione and Bellori had very different and seldom wholly besotted opinions of his merits, he was universally agreed to be a giant who could not be ignored.

Moving on to Luigi Lanzi’s Storia Pittorica della Italia, which is the great history of Italian art from around 1800, Caravaggio remains a name to be conjured with, but the reasons why he is not wholly to be admired could not be more clearly expressed. It is not so much his manner as his subject matter—and his biography—that are deplored. Thus, on the credit side he is “memorable in this age, because he returned painting from mannerism to truth” (“dalla maniera alla verità”). Moreover “it seems that his figures inhabit a prison illuminated by minimal light coming from above” and “nevertheless they delight through the grand effect resulting from the contrast of light and shade”. However “he predominantly represented brawls, murders, and nocturnal betrayals; to which arts he himself was no stranger, for they ruined his life and brought infamy to his history.”

Oddly enough, Lanzi also claims that “there are few of his paintings in Rome”, when actually the overwhelming preponderance is still there, and indeed even today there are remarkably few works by Caravaggio outside Italy, which may have had a significant effect on early attempts to understand his art. Be that as it may, by the middle of the 19th century, when as generally open-minded—not to mention omniscient—a figure as Gustav Friedrich Waagen, the director of the Royal Gallery of Pictures in Berlin, was compiling the five substantial volumes of his Treasures of Art in Great Britain (second edition, 1854) and its supplement, the Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain (1857), he has scarcely a good word to say for him. In discussing a painting by Pier Francesco Mola in the National Gallery, he condemns it as “a specimen of that tendency to follow nature alone, without any discrimination as to choice, or regard to the moral requirements of the subject, of which Michael Angelo da Caravaggio was the founder.” Further on, in Devonshire House, a genre scene of “Guitar and flute players, and a singer, holding a full goblet” provokes the following distinctly back-handed compliment: “This artist, who, on account of the meanness of his conceptions, so seldom gives satisfaction in subjects of a higher kind, is here quite in his element.” Best of all, a Saint Christopher in the Royal Institution in Edinburgh is deemed to combine “the moral vulgarity, and, at the same time, the off-hand power of the master”. Tellingly, in view of the fact that the rediscovery of the artist has simultaneously involved the strikingly successful clarification of both the limits and the extent of his oeuvre, not a single one of the supposed Caravaggios he lists appears to have been by the master.

If anything, the encapsulation in Baedeker’s Central Italy (my copy dates from 1909) is fractionally less severe, but we are left in no doubt of the need to keep our distance and possibly equip ourselves with a clothes peg for the moral and aesthetic equivalents of our noses: “CARAVAGGIO (1569-1609 [sic.]) was the chief of the NATURALIST SCHOOL. He was triumphant in the possession of popular favour. On the other hand it was objected that his drawing was bad, that he failed in the essential of grouping the figures in his larger compositions. Nevertheless the mass is presented with such startling reality, and animated with gesture so impassioned, that every figure fitly asserts itself, while a corresponding force in colour conveys an impression powerfully suggestive of the turbulent licence then prevailing.”

That very year, Lionello Venturi published his first contribution to Caravaggio studies, Note sulla Galleria Borghese (Notes on the Borghese Gallery), and then only a few years later, in 1913, with a short article entitled “Due opere di Caravaggio” (“Two works by Caravaggio”), the youthful Roberto Longhi (1890-1970) set out upon a lifetime of engagement with the master (ironically, Longhi was later to reattribute both the paintings in question to Giovanni Antonio Galli, lo Spadarino). This labour of love—for Longhi was among the most impassioned as well as articulate of art historians—culminated in the “Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi” he and others organised at the Palazzo Reale in Milan in 1951, followed by his monograph on the artist the year after. The years 1951 and 1952 also witnessed two mighty articles on Caravaggio in the Burlington Magazine by Denis Mahon, still one of his greatest champions at the grand old age of 99, while in 1953 Roger Hinks published the first serious monograph on him in English. Even then, it must have seemed almost incredible that Caravaggio’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria, around 1598, could have been let go for a song to the Thyssen Collection by the Barberini family in the 1930s, and moreover that it was granted an export licence by Mussolini’s Italy.

The story of the study of Caravaggio in the 20th century, and especially its second half, and on into the first decade of the 21st has on the whole been a cause for celebration, from the early pioneers such as Venturi and Longhi to his modern exegetes. In addition to an impressive volume of deathless prose, and alas even more that is deathly, this has involved both straightforward but amazing archival discoveries (the information concerning his birth on 29 September 1571 and baptism the next day in Milan, not the nearby town of Caravaggio from which he took his name, is an extremely recent find), and the re-emergence of a considerable number of major works, such as the absolutely electrifying Taking of Christ, around 1602, in Dublin, which was previously only known in the form of copies, and the hauntingly sombre final Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, 1610, in Naples, which instead came out of nowhere.

It is clear that the last few decades have witnessed an expansionist phase, which has resulted in the acceptance of a less unitary Caravaggio, and the acknowledgement of what would once have been anathema, namely the fact that he sometimes painted what is to all intents and purposes the same picture twice. None of this means that we are close to seeing the end of violent disagreements concerning the parameters of the Caravaggio catalogue raisonné, a state of affairs which is nothing if not healthy. Amazingly enough, the art market—and especially the auction houses—have played almost no part in all this frenzied activity, for the simple reason that virtually all Caravaggio’s works are in public collections, while the overwhelming majority of those that have passed into museum collections have done so either by bequest or in hush-hush private deals—I Bari (Cardsharps), around 1594-95, in the Kimbell Art Museum, which vanished after it was auctioned in 1899 and resurfaced in Texas in the 1980s, being a perfect case in point. Astonishingly, the last generally accepted Caravaggio to go under the hammer was the Conversion of the Magdalen, around 1598, in the Detroit Institute of Arts, which was acquired in 1973, but only after it had been bought in at Christie’s in 1971 because of misplaced doubts about its autograph status.

So what is it about Caravaggio that makes him so special for our age? In my opinion, it is a unique combination of factors. Not just his homicidal bad-boy image, although it cannot be said to have done him any harm in the posterity stakes. Not just his gay icon potential either, although that must often in the past have been the objection that dared not speak its name, and may not be as innocuous in the age of David Laws’s resignation [the British politician who quit his financial ministry post after it was revealed he had inappropriately claimed expenses in order to keep his homosexuality secret] as enlightened opinion would like to think. Not even his subject matter and all that low-life genre: Vasari records, of the brother of the early 16th-century Florentine painter, Franciabigio, that “the same Agnolo painted for the perfumer Ciano, an eccentric man, but respected after his kind, a sign for his shop, containing a gipsy woman telling the fortune of a lady in a very graceful manner”, which sounds as if it was pure Caravaggio avant la lettre, but would not have looked anything like.

In the end, and not forgetting all these contributory factors, paradoxically the real reason we revere Caravaggio is because we agree with so many previous commentators down the centuries about his art, but love what they loathed. It is the collision of unfiltered naturalism with an operatic sense of drama that makes Caravaggio so overwhelming, and it may not be by chance that his public breakthrough came in the age of film noir, when highly wrought chiaroscuro was the dominant cinematic—and therefore visual—mode. Now more than ever, our jaded sensibilities require extreme stimuli, and we are exceptionally impatient. The immediacy and directness of Caravaggio, allied to the death-fixated violence of so many of his creations, seem ideally suited to the present age. It may have taken an astonishingly long time for his hour to come, but from today’s perspective it is now virtually impossible to imagine that his sun will ever set.

Current and forthcoming Caravaggio exhibitions: “Caravaggio and the Caravaggio-esque Painters in Florence”, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, until 17 October; “Caravaggio and his Circle in Rome”, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 10 June 2011-11 September 2011

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