ArtIssue 18

A Terribile Influence

Beyond Caravaggio, National Gallery, London

12 October 2016—15 January 2017

According to Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Caravaggio was an artistic anti-Christ who
came to Rome to destroy painting. Giovan Pietro Bellori (1613–1696), one of Caravaggio’s early biographers, agreed, and criticised the painter for his insolent rejection of painting techniques that had developed slowly and painfully over three centuries: Caravaggio’s art was a rejection of Renaissance ideals, and could only lead back towards the crude, barbarous squalor of mediaeval aesthetics.

For John Ruskin (1819–1900), greatest of art critics, “the ruffian Caravaggio” was “distinguished only by his preference for candlelight and reinforcement of villainy”; his name was synonymous with “vulgarity, dullness or impiety”; in his quest for his version of the truth, Caravaggio demonstrated no capability for finding the beauty in nature; instead he sought “the horror and ugliness, and filthiness, of sin”. Perhaps this depravity wasn’t entirely the artist’s fault: Roger Fry (1866–1934) accused seventeenth-century Italian artists in general of having “invented vulgarity, and more particularly vulgar originality in art”. Yet even in this company Caravaggio stood out: Fry reproached him for his special love of all that is “brutal and excessive”.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) was born in Milan. Relatively little is known of his early life, except that between 1584 and 1588 he served as an apprentice to Simone Peterzano (1535–1599): one of Titian’s lesser pupils now most renowned for having been Caravaggio’s master for a little while. Caravaggio seems to have left home around July or August 1592; Shortly after arriving in Rome he spent time in the studio of Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640), who became known as the Cavaliere d’Arpino after receiving a knighthood from Pope Clement VIII. The apprenticeship did not last for longer than a few months, but at least Caravaggio had a chance to learn how to paint flowers and fruit.

Caravaggio’s early pictures were sold by his friend Costantino Spata, who had a shop near the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi. Few of these paintings survive; the ones that do stand out, not merely for their naturalistic lighting and sleazily effeminate young men, but for the startlingly detailed realism of still life elements. Still life wasn’t new – the Venetian late-Gothic painter Carlo Crivelli (1430–1495) is preoccupied with painting certain vegetables, and shows you every detail you could possibly want to see in a cucumber – but Caravaggio refused to render flowers, leaves and fruits hastily or indifferently, or from mere imagination. He insisted on painting what was in front of his eyes, without making anything up: when he painted grapes, they needed to be washed; leaves were brown at the edges, or partially eaten by insects; nothing was perfect; there are no ‘ideal’ forms of beauty here. A still life for sale in Spata’s shop caught the eye of one of the most discerning patrons of the period, Francesco Maria, Cardinal del Monte (1549–1627); by the end of 1595 Caravaggio was living in his palace.

Another important early patron was Vicenzo, Marquis Giustiniani (1564–1637), who bought and commissioned lowlife ‘genre scenes’ from the painter. Caravaggio’s depictions of gamblers, pickpockets, fortune tellers, musicians and naïve young men in taverns delighted the connoisseurs in Giustiniani’s and del Monte’s circles; The Cardsharps (1594; Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas) alone was copied more than fifty times in a quarter-century. The popularity of these pictures eventually led to a major commission: in June 1599 Caravaggio was asked to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi del Francesi. When the results were unveiled in 1600 he became famous.

St Matthew and the Angel, The Calling of St Matthew and The Martyrdom of St Matthew can still be seen in situ in Rome. The Calling of St Matthew, the chapel’s central image, illustrates the Gospel passage (Matthew 9:9) where Jesus spots Matthew in the customs house and says “follow me”. It looks at first like a scene in a tavern; all the light is directed towards a bearded tax collector who is sitting at a table with three men, two of whom are busily counting money whilst a third tries to figure out the best way of getting rid of some bum who looks like St Peter. Jesus stands at the far right of the frame, in the darkest shadow in the picture, aiming his index finger at Matthew. A boy too well-dressed to be a servant leans on Matthew’s shoulder; Matthew points incredulously at his own chest as if to ask: “who, me?”

St Matthew and the Angel shows an angel in a swirl of white linen counting down on his fingers as he explains exactly what the saint must write in the Gospels; St Matthew, awed and terrified, looks up, obediently ready to take dictation. This is the first depiction of divine inspiration where the artist tries to demonstrate in detail exactly how the process works.

As for The Martyrdom of St Matthew: the picture depicts how the saint was murdered in front of horrified onlookers during a Mass. Caravaggio does nothing to diminish the horror or violence, except to include an angel in the upper-right corner of the frame discreetly handing Matthew a palm branch; the palm traditionally symbolises martyrdom and the victory of the spirit over flesh. Without this little touch this painting would be unbearably grim.

Artists flocked to the Contarelli Chapel, shocked and delighted not only by the ‘naturalness’ of the pictures, but also by how disruptive they were of every convention they’d ever been taught. Caravaggio was the first painter to make use of dramatic lighting as an essential compositional element. Strong realistic light from identifiable sources guides the eye around the canvas, and shows the viewers the important parts of the story the artist is trying to tell. Indeed, Caravaggio’s real innovations concern composition: in his mature work, everything becomes subordinate to the narrative. The colours are never pretty; there are no ‘painterly’ effects for their own sake. Caravaggio wants to show you events as they happened, without traditional symbolism or narrative shortcuts.

Cardinal del Monte and Marquis Giustiniani were the first to realise that a painter like Caravaggio could renew Christian art. Perhaps they shouldn’t have told him this to his face; according to a 1604 description: “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger around Rome for a month or two with his sword at his side and a servant following behind, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that relations with him become most awkward….”

His departure from Milan in 1592 may have been occasioned by a fight in which he wounded a police officer. The artist was rumoured to have taken frequent part in drunken street brawls, though his first recorded legal difficulties (1603) involve nothing more serious than libel. His next major lawsuit involved his landlady, who took advantage of his unexpected trip to Genoa (whither he had fled after seriously wounding a notary) in 1605 to seize all his belongings until he paid for all the damage he’d caused to her property; he had rented a house from her for less than a year in 1604. The tenancy agreement included a request to make alterations; apparently he had demolished much of the ceiling in one room in order to accommodate large canvasses. Her real complaint, however, seemed to be that he’d smashed her windows with rocks when he found that she’d locked him out.

But Caravaggio’s most famous legal troubles involved a 1606 knife fight in which Ranuccio Tomassoni was killed. Circumstances are unclear; either this was a dispute over gambling debts or tennis, or else there may have been a quarrel involving Fillide Melandroni, a prostitute whom Caravaggio occasionally employed as a model. Whatever happened, Caravaggio was forced to
flee from Rome.

Caravaggio moved to Naples, was imprisoned on Malta for brawling, then spent nine months in Sicily making new enemies until it was no longer safe for him to remain; when he returned to Naples he was disfigured in a knife attack. All this time he kept on working; meanwhile, influential patrons in Rome were trying to secure him a papal pardon. The pope’s art-loving nephew Scipione, Cardinal Borghese, was to be bribed with a gift of paintings. In summer 1610 the pardon seemed finally to be imminent; Caravaggio decided to sail for Rome. En route he is said to have fallen ill; on 18th July 1610 he died, aged thirty-eight, at Porto Ercole in Tuscany, which is a hundred miles north of Rome, and thus not on the usual route from Naples. The cause and circumstances of his death remain mysterious.

The National Gallery’s ‘Beyond Caravaggio’, co-organised with the National Galleries of Scotland and Ireland, boasts paintings from major British collections and features some of the best Caravaggio-influenced work by artists including Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639), Guido Reni (1575–1642), Nicolas Régnier (1588–1667), Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632), Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656), Adam de Coster (1586–1643), Georges de La Tour (1593–1652) and – above all – the great Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), whose genius for representing spiritual anguish surpasses that of Caravaggio himself. All these painters adopted Caravaggian elements in their work and made them part of their own distinctive styles. Yet perhaps the most impressive of the ‘Caravaggisti’ is the nameless painter responsible for the Annunciation to the Shepherds (ca. 1630; City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham): he has managed to capture the effect of light on the wool of dirty sheep in a dank cave as only Titian or Rembrandt could. The picture is a genuine masterpiece.

Of course the main reason to see ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ is the master’s own work, particularly The Taking of Christ (1602, National Gallery of Ireland), which was lost for 200 years, then rediscovered in the dining-room of the Irish Jesuits’ House of Study in Dublin in 1990. This is an astonishing picture, and may be Caravaggio’s finest single canvas. It shows the seconds immediately following Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and depicts the chaos surrounding the Son of Man’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The background is dark; all the figures are cut off at the waist; in the confused jostling it’s impossible to tell whose hand is whose, who is holding up that lantern above a soldier’s helmet, where those soldiers are coming from – all that you can clearly make out is the treachery of Judas, and Jesus’ sorrow at what is going to happen. Nothing else matters. This picture alone might justify all his departures from Renaissance classical tradition, and shows just how radically he re-invented narrative painting.
Caravaggio had dreadful habits – the lack of preparatory drawing, the unappetising colour schemes, the taste for violence and melodrama. You had to be a genius to copy his storytelling techniques without producing sordidly tacky results (as several paintings in this exhibition sadly demonstrate). Happily, geniuses did eventually adopt his devices, not least Rembrandt (1606–1669) and Velázquez (1599–1660). Cardinal del Monte and Marquis Giustiniani were right: Caravaggio really could, and did, renew Christian art. That he managed to do so in between drinking contests, brothel visits and the occasional stabbing incident is a mystery of divine Providence.


Catalogue by Letitia Treves, with contributions
by Aidan Weston-Lewis, Gabriele Finaldi,
Christian Tico Seifert, Adriaan E. Waiboer,
Francesca Whitlum-Cooper and Marjorie E. Wieseman. £20 hardback.