Venetian Red in Rome: Native Son

Editor’s Note:  Summer being the travel season, Venetian Red is hitting the road. Christine Cariati holds down the fort in San Francisco, while Liz Hager files all month from Italy.


Michelangelo Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci, Rome
The upper source of light in the painting mimics the natural light from the Chapel windowbut what about the mysterious second source of light?

Though Michelangelo Merisi (1571—1610) hailed from the little village of Caravaggio in Lombardi, Rome claims the painter as its own. The Eternal City is already home to a dozen or more of the attributed Carravaggios, which are spread among its churches and gallerias. The current exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale has brought perhaps 20 more Carravaggios to the city.  In a world that contains perhaps 60- 80 authenticated Carravaggios, June was beginning to look like a month in which one might temporarily satisfy a life-long craving for the painter’s work.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci, Rome

Despite being a braggart, brawler and rogue (or maybe because of them), Carravaggio was an enormously popular painter during his lifetime. Given his lifestyle, however, he was dead at 39.  His reputation fell into neglect for 300 years, until Roberto Longhi single-handedly put him back onto art historical map. Longhi made a persuasive argument for the originality of Carravaggio’s charioscura technique and his influence on subsequent masters, including Gerritt von Honthorst, Rembrandt, Georges de la Tour and Joseph Wright of Derby.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci,

Carravaggio moved to Rome in 1591 or 92. It was tough going at first (lots of paintings of fruit bowls), but he eventually found work on important projects through the cultured and powerful Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte . (The Cardinal was also a supporter of Galileo.)

It was the Cardinal who in 1596 recommended the young painter for the Contarelli Chapel project (through Pope Clement VIII to project overseer Virgilio Crescenzi).  Nothing Carravaggio had done before the St. Matthew cycle approached the scope and power of this first public commission. The paintings are massive—the two horizontal paintings occupy most of their respective walls, right and left of the altar.

Venetian Red captures the Carravaggio viewing frenzy at the Contarelli Chapel, 5/30/2010

The cycle was instantly controversial, and one glance at any of the other typically Baroque paintings in the church will instantly convey why. As near perfect examples of the Carravaggio’s mature style, the paintings feature the intense light and dark rendering that paradoxically obscures the human form (that Renaissance artists had worked so hard to promote) and defines it in highly naturalistic way. In respect to the latter accomplishment, it would seem that Carravaggio was thumbing his artistic nose at then current Baroque and Mannerist conventions. Further to the probable annoyance of his patrons, it’s as if the primary subject of each painting is not St. Matthew, but the unseen, divine source of light.  The first version of  The Inspiration of St. Matthew was actually rejected (and subsequently destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in WW2).

Whew, that’s better.

There was a substantial crowd jammed in front of the chapel, but for a Carravaggio lover the wait to get to the front was well worth it.

Wider Connections
Carravaggio: The Final Years
Jonathan Harr—The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

12 Responses to “Venetian Red in Rome: Native Son”

  1. Oh those Carravaggio paintings are magnificent! I had so little cash on my first trip that I happily discovered that a patient wait brought in new groups whose leader would feed coins into the lights so that you could actually see them! I would just insinuate myself up front and wait, and the coins kept pouring in. My other favorite church nearby is Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon. There are great masterpieces in that church and I always see the Carravaggios, the Pantheon, and the church built on the foundations of a Temple to Minerva–the patron saint of craftsmen. That little angel whispering to St. Jerome is one of the most beautiful figures in Renaissance art to me. I always think of Carravaggio as one of the great mad men of that period. They were like Van Gogh–unstable and passionate, and mostly feared for their wildness. Have always had a soft spot for the savants who burned at both ends. Massaccio was another, and Hugo Van der Goes. It’s a glorious set of pictures. Thanks for sharing! Love Rome!

  2. Tess,
    Happy to assist in a trip down “la corsia di memoria(?).” I wholeheartedly agree that the churches of Rome, being free of charge present some of the best bang for your art Euro. Although it contains only a single painting (that I could see), my favorite has to be Sant’Ivo, Borromini’s tiny jewel of a church, wedged in between the two wings of the existing Palazzo. Regrettably no picture can adequately capture the vertiginous space created by the narrow dome, which whisks a viewer straight to the heavens. And the medallions above the palazzo colonnade of the bees (symbol of the Barberinis) were amusing.

  3. Hello V.R,
    Thanks for sharing this trip through the eternal city. So many masterpieces to look at, and so mùany future posts in V.R…Enjoy!
    Regards from France (will you drop by here too?)

  4. Hi Liz,
    I look forward to more posts from Rome which is one of my favourite cities.
    My best art experience there was a Rotho retrospective. It was totally unexpected and just down the street from my hotel. I went in the early morning and there were less than twenty people there. I couldn’t believe I had him all to myself – almost.

    My favourite church in Rome is St. Clemente . It is quite unique in that it is not overly lavish as churches usually are. Instead it is built in three historical layers. It was like walking back through time as we descended. I highly recommend it.

  5. Louise kahler Says:

    thank you Liz for these incredible shots- what enjoyment!

  6. What a summer treat to visit Italy and it’s artists through the eyes of a perceptive and knowledgeable viewer – Viva Italia! I am particularly fond of Caravaggio’s sly little rent boys, with their dirty hands and bowls of fruit. But there is no disputing his mastery of dark and light and the tragedy of his early death. Is there any follow up on the recent excavations where archaeologists claim to have discovered where he was buried (or at least, think they may have discovered his grave?)

    • Nancy
      Interesting item indeed. . . I can’t shed any light on it at the moment.

      On a related note, I think I’ll have to post a list of all the Carravaggios in Rome, I keep bumping into them, tho admittedly many of them are off their original walls, having been lent to the Scuderie show. There is one however that I will probably have to save for next time; a ceiling fresco (apparently the only one Carravaggio ever painted) at the Villa Ludovisi. The villa keeps minimal hours two days a week. Something to look forward to. . .

  7. my computer screen is only 15″ and the paintings don’t enlarge so it’s hard to see some of the detail, e.g. the Watteau. But the amazing use of light in Caravaggio’s work stands out beautifully and makes me realize how important that use of light & dark, chiaroscuro, is.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      i re-set the Watteau so it enlarges, have a look. It’s an incredibly dramatic picture, so much light and energy. In person it’s not much bigger than the enlargement, but it certainly keeps your attention.

  8. I just discovered your site today with a link from the NY Times article on Burchfield, how timely. I recently returned from 2 weeks in Italy–my first trip there–with only 2 days in Rome but I managed to see the Caravaggio show at the Scuderie at 6 p.m. with the “Caravaggio Card.” I thought it was spectacular–24 Caravaggios in one place! It was a life-changing event for me. I toted the exhibition hardcover home with me. Since you seem to be an avid admirer as well, I wondered if you saw the show and what you thought of it. I thought the lighting a bit over-the-top. The Caravaggio show at the Palatine in Florence was good, as well. My deceased father, a part-time painter of dark brooding scenes, was a huge fan of Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer and I grew up with these images in art books. Italy was amazing; I plan to return next year.

    • Judy
      Alas, I did not see the Carravaggio show at the Scuderie. After 3 tries, the last with an estimated wait of 4 hours, I caved and dropped out of the line. I felt like a wimp, until I realized that most of the Carravaggios in the show are permanently housed in Rome anyway. Just an excuse to go back next year, as if we needed one!

      As it was, I saw a fair number of Carravaggios outside the show; they just kept popping up unexpectedly all over the place, like this one at the Capitoline, which was attached to the easel by a tiny little chain!

      And several friends of mine who saw the show said that, apart from the thrill of seeing all those Carravaggios in one place, the show was crowded and stuffy!

      • Well, I look forward to the list of all the Caravaggios in Rome you post for the rest of us when we return to Rome! I’d like to see that ceiling fresco. The show was indeed crowded–90% enthusiastic Italians–but with patience, one can ease to the front eventually. Also, because I had only two days in Rome and one was to be spent at the Vatican, I had to forfeit the permanantly installed alterpieces and those you did see and share with us here in favor of the show, which was an agonizing decision. I think a week in Rome is minimal for the art lover. What a great website you have created. Thanks for the response.

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