The National Gallery recently wrapped up ‘Beyond Caravaggio’, an exhibition which examined the innovation and influence of one of the most enigmatic figures in art history. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s status as a seminal figure in Western art is indisputable but it was only after the exhibition, a visceral journey through myth and religion, genesis and destruction, that I looked into the man himself. Annabel Howard’s brilliant This is Caravaggio revealed a life characterised by extremes, one with inspiration aplenty for both sensational penny dreadfuls and solemn operatics.
Picture him. Caravaggio dressed all in black; finely made garments which he often wore until they simply fell apart. He cut a dramatic and definitive figure; compact and swarthy with dark hair and eyes. He was a volatile and passionate man, pursuing both pleasure and thrills with resolution. The days saw him paint but the nights were witness to his preternatural prowling. Caravaggio caroused the streets of Rome with a gang of similarly inclined roguish gentlemen, ‘bravi’, armed with stilettos, obscene gestures and their nihilistic motto and call-to-arms of ‘nec spe nec metu’ (‘neither hope nor fear’). Nihilism or rather Dionysian fervour? Composed of dramatic opposites- vicious and sensitive, reckless and reflective -these qualities saw him both adored and loathed by his contemporaries.
What of his technique? It is widely accepted that, by the standards of his day, he painted extremely swiftly and, most shocking of all, without drawing. No sketches are extant and infrared technology has revealed his paintings to be creations produced without the guidance of anything more than the odd impression made in wet paint, mid-craft. It was perhaps this cavalier and instinctive genius which saw his apprenticeship with the Cesari brothers come to an abrupt and mysterious end. Under their tutelage Caravaggio was limited to rather dull and unimportant work, mainly the still life aspects of paintings, in a Rome which, following the renaissance of classicism, was beginning to stagnate.
Caravaggio’s innovation and curiosity perhaps first found its outlet when he experimented with the self-portrait Sick Bacchus. In addition to announcing his affinity with the god of revelry and his lifelong devotion to vigour and anarchy, Caravaggio, by dressing himself up in contrived classical costume, mocks the stale works of the era’s artistic academy; repetitive creations devoid of daring or vanguard qualities. Caravaggio was never interested in the saintly fallacy perpetuated by the art of his day. He was determined to show the beauty of vice and an appetite for life. Flesh, emotion, innocence, experience, the divine and the profane.Soon after Caravaggio had parted ways with the Cesari he found himself under the generous patronage of one Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a voracious collector of books, instruments, antiquities and, most important of all, artwork. Caravaggio suddenly fell into a lavish and rather dazzling world. This was one which afforded him stability and exposure, and this, combined with his maverick approach and exceptional talent, allowed him to flourish, producing works such as The Cardsharps and The Lute Player.
Caravaggio is perhaps most famous for his violent works, those most unnerving for their bloody realism, such as Medusa and Judith Beheading Holofernes. The Medusa was the first Caravaggio I ever saw. It was in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. I’d just seen Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in all its luminous beauty. Everything was plump, sensual, vital and pleasing to the eye. On the way out we passed a glass case with a small circular piece, looking almost crude without the fanfare of a gilt frame. It was Medusa, apparently taking her final breath, the shock and fury of her defeat still registering on her dreadful face. The shining eyes hold you, the waxy snakes writhe, the dark spray of arterial blood seems fresh. The antithesis of Botticelli’s serene Venus, it was with this brutal face I departed, a ferocious piece which deeply fascinated me. I didn’t know of Caravaggio then. Of how he had such a gift for shock and savagery. Yet, his pensive rendition of one of my favourite episodes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses shows his sensitivity and compassion as an artist. The sedate beauty of Narcissus, poised there in rapture at his own reflection, face blooming like a pale flower against black and prussian blue, warns not merely of vanity, but of delusion, hubris and pride. Did Caravaggio see himself in the folly of the young boy?
Caravaggio did not pass through this world quietly. He set it ablaze. Before his death, at the age of 39, a total of 17 police reports had been filed against him, he’d murdered another man, been knighted, and engineered a daring escape from one of the world’s most fortified prisons. It seems he lived on his own terms, without much artistic formality or many enduring personal ties. Yet, he was to provide a guiding principle and commonality for artists of the 17th century art and beyond. His emulators and disciples were so numerous that they were christened the ‘Caravaggisti’ while successive titans, from Velásquez and Vermeer to Rubens and Rembrandt, reflect his influence.
The exhibition was wonderful, for it showed so well the incredible resonance and truth of Caravaggio’s work. The staggered paintings by artists such as Reni, Galli, Gentileschi, de Coster and van Honthorst were truly exceptional, but in the dim light I still felt I was immersed in Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro world, for his own particular vision was so evident in their renditions of grim faces, gaping wounds and emotional rapture. His tender Boy Peeling Fruit greeted you, full of promise, and it was his boyish John the Baptist in the Wilderness, leaning out of glutinous darkness toward the viewer, whose deep crimson cloak formed the curtain call. Youth and beauty were present at both beginning and end, but I was only able to appreciate the turmoil, the melancholy and the inventive interpretation of John after all which had come before. The exhibition was curated in such a way that each artist shone, lending power and purpose, sharing subject and style, while Caravaggio emerged, distinct and yet still mysterious; a man who encompassed many and yet eschewed them all.
Caravaggio’s work is exuberant, refined, meticulous and exaggerated without descending into vulgarity or simplicity. He dramatically explored the range of intense and essential human experience: pain, fear, passion, virtue, grief, tenderness. The grotesque and the divine are summoned by Caravaggio, and the results are something exquisite, terrifying and ultimately deathless.