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.
By LIZ HAGER
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Carravaggio: The Final Years
Jonathan Harr—The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece