IF MICHELANGELO Merisi da Caravaggio, known today simply as Caravaggio, were our contemporary, he would be often in the news. Violent, captious, cruel, and reckless, he was notorious even by the standards of late 16th-Century Rome. A good source on the Italian capital circa 1600 is John L. Varriano’s “Caravaggio: the art of realism,” which catalogues “a level of sadism that would be shocking in any age.” But to give you an idea of the sort of man Caravaggio was, I can think of nothing better than to cite his flirtation with the Knights of Malta, who soon having deemed the painter “foul and rotten” expelled him from their ranks.
This means that an age which not only celebrated violence but mandated it — the Knights of Malta were crusaders against the Ottomans, and under Caravaggio’s occasional client Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII, military expansion left Rome greatly in debt — found the man to be too much to bear. At age thirty-eight he died while on a pilgrimage back to Rome in hope of receiving a pardon for his crimes, chief among them his murder of the well-bred pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni, possibly the result of a failed attempt at castration. A charming fellow, you will no doubt agree.
One would expect a man with this curriculum vitae to have painted in a vivid and dramatic manner, and so it was. The current National Gallery of Canada exhibit features twelve of Caravaggio’s works, a remarkable number when one considers that only seven of his paintings are held in North America. Seventy of his works are thought to be extant, a number having been destroyed in fire and war. There are fifty-two paintings by thirty-one painters in “Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome,” including (and this was a great and pleasant surprise for me) “The Entombment” by Rubens.
This juxtaposition of works by Caravaggio and his emulators has the effect of heightening one’s appreciation of the man’s talents. A good example is the 1598 painting “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” for which the courtesans Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni modelled: it was the latter who was the occasion of Tomassoni’s bleeding to death through a femoral artery at his groin. The conflation of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany serves to remind us that Caravaggio was by necessity a painter in the service of the Holy See, and as such part of a tradition which includes Mel Gibson and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom regards Caravaggio as an influence. A “characteristic theme of the Counter Reformation,” (the phrase is Howard Hibbard’s) the repentant Mary is a trope represented by several artists, including the French painter Simon Vouet. In Caravaggio’s treatment the emotional focal point is not Mary but Martha. Caravaggio exploits the psychological insight familiar to contemporary horror movie directors, which is that it is sometimes more powerful to see the response of an onlooker to an event than it is to see the event itself. By comparison, the paintings of the followers are flat and unengaging.
This is not to say there are not fine examples of Baroque style in the exhibit. Gerrit Honthorst, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Jusepe de Ribera, and Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi are represented by excellent and important works of the Caravaggisti. Nonetheless one cannot but be impressed by how singular and forceful a painter Caravaggio was. His stylistic range is perhaps narrow, and it is an indication both of his strengths and limitations that in his artistic maturity he abjured the still life and the painting of landscape, architecture, and even to a large degree animals. Caravaggio is interested only in human beings, and within this sphere only in the moment at which a dramatic scene reaches its climax. In the days before film he was the nearest equivalent of the high-speed camera, capturing the split-second in which the face contorts in pain or the shock fully and suddenly registers itself upon the nerves. His compositional, tonal (by which I mean his effects of light and dark whose technical name is “Tenebrism”), framing, and even modelling choices are all subordinated to a sort of emotional pornography, in which the usual boundaries between life and art, painting and audience, sacred and profane, dissolve.
Even when the emotion is tempered, as it is in one of the two “Sacrifice of Isaac” paintings on display, Caravaggio has laboured to achieve an arresting and even shocking intimacy and vividness. Like the man, the works are dramatic and at war against convention. “Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome” is at the National Gallery of Canada until September 11, 2011.