Sunday, November 28, 2010


Caravaggio: sex, violence and film noir
David Eskerdjian

“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.

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