Everyone’s favourite baroque and roller. I’ve been meaning to post this since last Saturday, July 18th, the quatercentenary of Caravaggio’s death. All week, Italians and the tourism boards of towns from Milan to Sicily have been celebrating — happily for all Carravagio moved, or decamped, restlessly from place to place.
The “and” in the story of art; the original dirty realist
As Robert Hughes wrote of Caravaggio, typically aggrandising both himself and his subject, “there was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same.” Caravaggio was a hinge in the history of art — the “and” between before and after. One of the great seminal moves he made was to collapse the high and the low, marrying his still unsurpassed technique in traditional picture making to depictions of frankly realistic low life, his models.
This was revolutionary. Commissioning abbotts complained of the dirty soles of St Peter’s feet. His bald peasant saints were thought vulgar. But we are blase: the marriage of high and low has been prevalent for a cnetury and a half, resparked by Courbet, culminating in the celebrated university subjects on Madonna (not His mum) in the 90s. My favourite example of this conceptual mash in Caravaggio’s work is his painting of Cupid, Amor Vincit Omnia. This all-conquering Love God is also just a cheeky rent boy who can barely wait to drop the claptrap of arrows and feathers, clamber back into his filthy shirt and pants and run off with his mates to cause trouble.
He “put the oscuro into chiaroscuro”
… as a biographer, Gilles Lambert, put it. Though the Spanish painters own the colour black, it was Caravaggio who invented the template for film noir; his oscuro was darker than any shadows before. The noir also allowed him to dramatise his compositions to an operatic pitch, isolating his subjects from the distraction of inessential staffage. The great example of this in the ouevre is The Calling of St Matthew. Christ looms from beneath the shaft of light casting Him into shadow and pinning the sainted tax collector with His irresistible summons. Caravaggio appropriates the hand of Michelangelo’s Adam for the Christ.
He had already painted Salome with the Head of the Baptist, with his own head for John’s. In the amazing David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio gives us another decapito self-portrait, perhaps only a year before his mysterious death at 39 by misadventure, or fever, or assasination. (He had an attempt made on his life in Naples where he had repaired from a pursuit by enemies in Sicily.) It’s a testament to his superb eye and visual recall; Caravaggio painted from life — close your eyes and try to remember the details of your face. It’s also a memorial to the steadiest part of this unsteady man: the hand that held the brush. This was the same hand that wielded knives and swords, which wounded a policeman, injured a knight, and killed a man in the uncertain circumstances of a brawl over money. How to fit that into our sympathy, our feeling for Caravaggio as an artist, I do not know. You could say beheadings were on his mind; he made at least seven major pictures where the subject lost his head: three Davids and Goliaths, three Salomes and Baptists and the Judith and Holofernes. From this last self-depiction from one of the greatest realists who ever painted, one can only infer a soul in a crisis.
Michelangelo Merisi da Carravagio, 29 September 1571 — 18 July 1610.