Caravaggio Candy; a Struggle to Turn to the Light

Exhibit Marks 400th Anniversary of Artist’s Early Death

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 4, 2010 ( For this art historian, visiting the new Caravaggio exhibit in Rome is like being a kid in a candy store. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, the former papal stables on the Quirinale hill have assembled 25 authenticated Caravaggio paintings (no copies or “school of” or fakes) for a tour-de-force exhibition.
Examples from Caravaggio’s early work to his premature death at the age of 39 allow visitors to trace the extraordinary rise of this brilliant yet troubled artist. The limited selection encourages viewers to linger and spend time with works instead of the artistic marathon of many other major exhibitions.
The show opened last week and will be around until June 13, but if this week’s attendance is any sign, it is sure to be a blockbuster. Advance tickets will help to avoid the lines.

The exhibit offers not only a vast swathe of Caravaggio’s works, but also allows one to see his world: One room contains pictures of his friends while in another, the three paintings produced for the Mattei family have been reunited, as if we were walking through a 17th century living room.
Caravaggio was born Michelangelo da Merisi in 1571 in the Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, who served as archbishop until his death in 1584. Caravaggio’s father died when he was 5, a victim of the great plague that saw the heroic ministry of St. Charles. After studying oil painting under Simone Peterzano, a former student of Titian, he moved to Rome where he found work producing still life and genre paintings for Roman nobles and prelates.
Visitors glimpse Caravaggio’s circles of leisure and luxury while walking through the first rooms, as pale young men wreathed in thick curls gaze out from their canvases, one offering fruit, another a musical instrument, still another a glass of wine. The enchanting languor of their dreamy expressions and soft flesh, hair and robes seems to be broken by Caravaggio’s almost photographic realism with a basket of near rotting fruit or an old stained cushion. All is not what it seems in Caravaggio’s world.
The captivating “Bacchus” from the Uffizi, where the flushed faced deity tipsily proffers his glass, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Musicians” are the first tastes of this Caravaggio paradise.
Caravaggio’s elite clientele allowed him to travel in exalted circles, but his works remained hidden in their exclusive palaces, away from the eyes of the public. Caravaggio had more to offer than images of vain amusements, but as the years passed and his commissions remained the same, his frustration grew. The impending Jubilee Year of 1600, however, held a new direction for Caravaggio. As preachers exhorted the pilgrims to conversion, so Caravaggio turned away from secular subject matter, never to return.
In 1599 Caravaggio obtained the commission for the St. Matthew cycle in San Luigi dei Francesi, (which is not in the exhibition, since one can see it for free in the church.) Nor are the works from Santa Maria del Popolo, the “Death of St. Peter” and the “Conversion of Saul.” Instead the organizers managed to wrest the first version of the “Conversion of Saul” out of its private collection, so that viewers can see how Caravaggio’s meditation on Saul’s life-changing moment transformed as he worked on the piece.
At the core of the exhibition are Caravaggio’s passion narratives. While there is no crucifixion of Christ from the master’s hand, he did paint several scenes surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection. The “Crown of Thorns,” the “Flagellation,” the “Deposition” and the haunting “Doubting Thomas” illustrate Caravaggio’s reflections on the central mystery of the faith. His humble gentle Jesus, head bowed as he accepts the taunts and tortures of his jailers and the betrayal and doubts of his friends poignantly renders Christ’s obedience to the Father.
In these later works, Caravaggio’s youthful mood of idleness disappears, to be replaced with the harsh realities of following Christ.
A turbulent life
Caravaggio’s art unflaggingly pointed the way of conversion for others, but the artist seemed unable to preach to himself. Quick to anger and to defend his pride, Caravaggio’s life in Rome is marked by arrest after arrest, mostly for aggression. Many of his works reflect the violent life of the Roman alleys at night. The “Taking of Christ,” the celebrated painting rediscovered in Dublin only a few decades ago, is an honored guest of the exhibit. The small frame seems to barely contain the crowd around Judas and Christ, as soldiers clanking in their armor and brandishing weapons close in upon them.
Despite his personal penchant for confrontation, Caravaggio’s later art focuses increasing on the virtue of humility. Unlike his contemporaries, Caravaggio tended to not place the principal subject in the heart of the canvas as the culmination of the composition, but instead chose to place his sacred figures on the lowest border of the canvas. In the case of the “Adoration of the Shepherds,” as one’s gaze follows the line of figures, the eye descends to find the key figure, the infant Jesus, lying on the ground. One must almost bow to see the Christ Child, emulating the pastors above.
This contrast between the virtues he painted and the violence he lived is best expressed in his unique handling of light and dark. Caravaggio’s signature chiaroscuro infuses his everyday characters and settings with a dramatic element of the supernatural. In the “Supper at Emmaus” from London, the canvas appears to be three men sitting around a table as an innkeeper prepares to take the order. The still life of bread, chicken and fruit on the table look much like typical Roman trattoria fare. But as the mysterious light streams in from its unseen source, bathing the central figure of Christ, the startled apostles recognize Jesus in their midst.
Perhaps this was Caravaggio’s great gift to his Christian tradition of art, his ability to perceive the presence of the supernatural in the midst of the ordinary, mundane and even vulgar. But none of his artistic perception would save him from the event that would end his career in Rome.
In 1606, Caravaggio stabbed and killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a Roman street fight. Facing execution, Caravaggio fled Rome and headed south. At the apex of his career and after only six years of celebrity and major commissions, Caravaggio had to leave behind all he worked for and run for his life.
The exhibit contains several of his non Roman works, produced in Naples, Sicily and Malta, reflecting his constant movement in the last years of his life. Caravaggio received a papal pardon in 1609, but died suddenly on the Italian coast, just a days walk from Rome. His numerous enemies gloated; Giovanni Baglione wrote, “So he died miserably, just as he had lived miserably,” while his patrons bemoaned the loss of his paintings. Caravaggio was soon forgotten until the pioneering work of Italian art historian Roberto Longhi restored this great artist to his pedestal.
This year, numerous ceremonies are planned for the anniversary of Caravaggio’s death. Articles, conferences and concerts will extol his works and read his life story as a lesson in “bad boys do it better.”
Caravaggio’s body of work seems to tell a different story than his biography. His figures, turning toward or away from the light, seem to reflect the struggle every person faces in trying to live out his or her vocation. The humility of his martyrs and the simplicity of his saints appear to rebuke his earlier self indulgent boys and all their ornaments. It seems to me that alongside the literary and musical tributes to Caravaggio’s life, perhaps the greatest gift to this artist would be a prayer for his soul.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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