Archive for Caravaggio

Venetian Red in Rome: Native Son

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on May 30, 2010 by Liz Hager

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

Dublin Lost & Found

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places with tags , , , , on October 12, 2008 by Liz Hager

Caravaggio (Michelangelo da Merisi), “The Taking of Christ,” 1602,  Society of Jesus of Ireland, on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland (©National Gallery of Ireland)

On a Thursday morning in August, 1990,  Sergio Benedetti, chief restorer for the National Gallery of Ireland, and Brian Kennedy, assistant director, met at the St. Ignatius Residence, to discuss restoration of one of the Jesuit’s paintings, which for many years had been hanging in the dining room subjected to the grit and smoke of the coal-burning fireplace.  Benedetti examines the painting and keeps his surprising suspicions to himself. Later that day, he and Kennedy meet with the Director.  Jonathan Harr, in his 1990 book The Lost Painting, recreates the moment:

Raymond was Raymond Keaveney, the Director of the National Gallery of Ireland. . . Keaveney had risen through the gallery’s small ranks to become director a year and a half ago. . . 

. . . Keaveney was seated at his desk when Benedetti and Kennedy appeared at the door. Kennedy told him about their visit that morning to the Jesuit residence. He wasted no time getting to the point. “Sergio thinks one of the paintings might be by Caravaggio.”

Keaveney looked startled. “Are you serious?” he asked Benedetti. 

“It is either by him, or it is the best copy of his painting,” replied Benedetti. 

Keaveney was deeply skeptical. He had learned to respect Benedetti’s professional judgment, and he could see that Benedetti was agitated, in a state of excitement that Keaveney had rarely seen before. But to stumble across a Caravaggio in your own back yard—in Dublin, of all places—seemed wildly improbable. 

Benedetti described the painting to Keaveney. He said he had immediately recognized the subject—the betrayal of Christ by Judas. Such a painting was known to have been lost for many years, Benedetti explained, although many copies had turned up. There was one in Odessa that some art historians thought might be the original, although most regarded it as a very good copy. The quality of the one in the Jesuit residence appeared equally good. “I think it could be the original,” he told Keaveney. “I want to get it into the studio as soon as possible, to study it more closely.

With considerable detective work from Italian scholar Francesca Cappelletti, Benedetti confirmed his suspicions a year later. The two eventually compiled a dossier that tracks the painting from its execution in Rome in 1602 through the many changes in ownership across four centuries and the continent of Europe. The British National Gallery’s scientific department was delighted to examine the painting and found that it contained the same pigments as known Caravaggio paintings—lead-tin yellow, malachite, red lake, bone black, green earth mixed with walnut oil. 

Why was this such an exciting and important discovery? First, Caravaggio was a controversial figure, the bad boy of the Baroque—a genius and a rogue who was often embroiled in scuffles and brawls.  Second,by the 1960s, the Baroque had come back into style, and its painters were much sought after by dealers and connoisseurs. No artist of that era became more fashionable than Caravaggio. Perhaps that’s because the supply is so limited—only 60-80 authentic Caravaggios are thought to exist. Further, it’s not known how many canvases he painted, and no one can say for certain how many have been lost to time. A true businessman, Caravaggio did not hesitate to copy his own paintings or having them copied, repainted by other painters as was the custom before the advent of engravings and photography. Artists of the Dutch School, in particular Gerrit van Honthorst, were predominant Caravaggio copyists. There are as many as twelve copies of The Taking of Christ, which is why Benedetti was cautious in his attribution. 

The Taking of Christ is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery. Fittingly, it occupies a wall by itself. Understandably, it has become the National Gallery’s biggest draw. 

National Gallery Lost & Found exhibit

Copy Stolen in Odessa

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