by Roderick Conway Morris

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Caravaggio the Confessor

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME, Italy 12 May 2010
Uffizi. Florence
Bacchus by Caravaggio, 1597



Caravaggio's paintings were inextricably bound up with his life and provide a virtual narrative of his turbulent development, a story fraught with ambiguities and alternative readings. This almost confessional aspect of his works, along with the immediacy and extraordinary power of their emotional impact, have surely contributed to his current popularity.

His documented career spanned only about 15 years, ending with his lonely death on the seacoast at Porto Ercole on 18 July 1610. He was making a desperate attempt to reach Rome to seek a papal pardon for the killing (most likely accidental) of an opponent in a brawl, which had led to his flight and an in absentia death sentence four years earlier. A letter with the news of his demise which arrived at the Vatican described him as that 'famous and most excellent painter'. During the 20th century, he became widely recognised as one of the greatest artists of all time.

The 400th anniversary of his death is now the occasion for a number of exhibitions and events in Italy, the most ambitious of which is Caravaggio, a show of 24 paintings universally accepted as being by his hand at the Scuderie del Quirinale (until 13 June). Some 16 other works remain in churches and galleries around the city, so around 40 of his paintings (not all the pictures at the Scuderie can be displayed for the entire duration of the show) will be on view in Rome - nearly two thirds of all pieces generally ascribed to him.

The artist was memorably recorded by one of his principal patrons (who came to own 13 of his paintings) as saying that 'it took him as much labour to produce a good picture of flowers as of figures'. The first painting to greet the visitor is Caravaggio's celebrated 'Basket of Fruit', his ground-breaking still-life, loaned for the first time ever by the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Virtuoso still-life elements of symbolic significance play an important part in his oeuvre and a similar basket reappears, perched on the edge of a table, in his 1601 'Supper at Emmaus', from the National Gallery in London, which appears later in the exhibition.

Born in Milan in 1571, Caravaggio studied under Titian's former student Simone Peterzano. Caravaggio moved to Rome, probably in 1592, where after a period of struggling to make a living he was taken up by the wealthy connoisseur Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte and accommodated in his palazzo. The next group of works here - the 'Lute Player' (the best picture he ever painted, the artist was once quoted as saying), 'Musicians' and 'Bacchus', all from the mid-1590s - evoke the milieu of the art- and music-loving cardinal, patron of the Sistine Chapel choir.

The languid, full-lipped, androgynous cast of adolescent figures in these works has been interpreted as evidence of the homosexual proclivities of this cultivated circle, but equally reflects Baroque conventions, the classical costumes suggesting neo-Platonic notions of idealised beauty.

All the contemporary records of Caravaggio's amours point to heterosexual relationships, but two paintings here, 'Cupid Triumphant' from Berlin and 'St John the Baptist' from Rome, are nude images of smiling young boys, from 1601-2, which have given rise to multiple interpretations.

'The Cardsharps' and 'The Fortune-Teller' were also originally in del Monte's apartments, and could have been intended as satirical warnings that youthful time is better spent engaging with music and the arts than consorting with wastrels, low-life characters and women of easy virtue.

The artist did not receive any major public commissions for religious pictures until the end of the century. But when he did, he became almost overnight the most influential innovative sacred painter of the age. The thunderous chiaroscuro effects of his 'Deposition' and his first version of the 'Conversion of Saul' on show here, both from around 1600, serve as dramatic markers of the revolution such works constituted.

A pivotal picture is 'Judith Beheading Holofernes' from Rome's Palazzo Barberini National Gallery. Its shockingly graphic rendering of the event is based on a thoughtful reading of the Old Testament Judith, a book regarded as canonical by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches but apocryphal by Jewish and Protestant traditions. There can be little doubt the picture had a serious religious purpose, but it equally encapsulates the paradoxes of Caravaggio's life in that the model for the heroine - blonde, sensual and full-breasted in a diaphanous blouse - was almost certainly the young prostitute Fillide Melandroni with whom the artist was involved at the time.

In 1605, the artist found it politic to flee to Genoa temporarily to avoid threatened imprisonment. 'Rest on the Flight to Egypt', which, unusually for Caravaggio, contains a significant landscape element, has itself migrated from Palazzo Doria in Rome to Genoa to star in a landscape exhibition at Villa Doria, Caravaggio and the Art of Flight, to inaugurate the newly restored princely residence and gardens (until 26 September). In mid-May, the three Florentine loans to the Scuderie - 'Bacchus', 'The Sacrifice of Isaac' and 'Sleeping Cupid' - will return to Tuscany to feature in Caravaggio and Caravaggesque Paintings in Florence at Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi (22 May-17 October). Caravaggio's 'St Francis in Ecstasy' - the saint is almost certainly a portrait of his great patron Cardinal del Monte - will travel from the US this autumn with other pictures from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford for 'Caravaggio and other Painters from the 1600s', at Castel Sismondo, Rimini (23 October-27 March 2011).

As Caravaggio's career progressed, his brushwork tended to become looser and his modelling softer. His chiaroscuro became generally darker, tellingly illustrated by his two treatments of the 'Supper at Emmaus', painted before and after his flight from Rome, the first of 1601 from London, the second of 1606 from Milan. The latter clearly expressed his sombre psychological state, as do a number of other works from his period of exile when he wandered between Naples, Malta and Sicily.

Caravaggio signed only one picture, his enormous canvas of 'The Beheading of St John the Baptist', still in the cathedral at Valetta in Malta, in which his signature is traced out on the dungeon floor as though he had dipped his brush in the blood streaming from the Baptist's semi-severed neck.

However, the artist not infrequently placed self-portraits in his works. He appears here, for example, holding up a lantern in 'The Taking of Christ', from Dublin. And again, at the exhibition's close, in the 1609-10 'David with the Head of Goliath', in which his own face is that of the vanquished warrior, a tragic memento of his own defeat and untimely end.

First published: Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024