Is Caravaggio Our Contemporary?
To a degree unparalleled in the artists of the Old Master tradition, Caravaggio would appear to have preserved through four centuries the power to awaken in us the kind of interest that we can ordinarily summon only in respect to our contemporaries. To some he would even seem an emissary of our times sent back into the benighted years of Counter-Reformation Europe, overturning accepted orthodoxies and championing such modern predilections as inverted sexuality and the common man. In the recent exhibition of his paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, there was a well-known depiction of the myth of Narcissus in which that ill-starred youth gazes amorously into a pond of standing water. And like the boy of that myth, when the visitors who pressed through the doors of the Metropolitan came upon the works of Caravaggio, they were startled to discover everywhere images of themselves, and they were enchanted by this reflection.
If the word “enchanted” seems somehow too pallid for the violence which we ordinarily associate with Caravaggio, nevertheless it is appropriate, for we are not really alarmed by him—though we may expect that others will be—and to the extent that he continues to administer a shock it is apt to be of the refreshing and invigorating, rather than the mortal, kind. Furthermore, it is a fair guess that each visitor to the Metropolitan show (which closed in mid-April) experienced at some point during his inspection, and at whatever depths of his spirit, the faintest thrill of self-satisfaction, in the knowledge that he was ever so slightly more enlightened than those stuffed shirts whom Caravaggio once made sick to their stomachs.
But the exhibition at the Metropolitan did not pass entirely without the stirrings of a remoter controversy, even if these were confined to the secular theologians of art criticism and historiography. If the present generation delights to read its own reflection in these paintings, each critic and each scholar seemed equally delighted to discern in Caravaggio's martyred saints and stilllifes a little reflection of himself. Those critics of Marxist inclination—to judge by the reviews, they were easily in the majority—found in Caravaggio's unadorned and anti-aristocratic saints something of the fervor of Leninism, while the more anarchically disposed recognized in his belligerently antisocial behavior a sympathetic consonance with Marcel Duchamp and Prince Kropotkin.
Among the advocates of pure form, by contrast, the influence of Clement Greenberg was plain. The painter Frank Stella, in an access either of merriment or of madness, wrote (in the New York Times Magazine) that Caravaggio was the first post-abstract expressionist, whose formal explorations were unexpectedly proximate to what Stella himself has evidenced in his most recent work. As for those critics who champion realist painting, and who have welcomed the return of the figure and of accurate representation (in the wake, precisely, of artists like Frank Stella), they too clearly perceived something of their own struggle in Caravaggio's divergence from the enfeebled mannerism of his teachers. To all of these there may finally be added the view of Caravaggio as a brilliant and bold exponent of a tradition which he extended rather than undermined, and which sadly is now past beyond recall; such is the view—which may be left to others to characterize—that informs the present essay.
But the Caravaggio who drew the crowds, and who left them feeling that they had gotten what they came for, was the Caravaggio of legend. For his life was so full of curious and romantic incident that one could almost cherish his memory for that alone, without ever aspiring to a disinterested appraisal of his art.
The legendary quality that unmistakably stamps Caravaggio's career has flourished in the obscurity that surrounds and at times engulfs whole portions of his life. The date of his birth, for instance, will probably always remain the subject of scholarly dispute, though it may be placed with confidence between 1570 and 1575. The social position into which he was born is also somewhat uncertain, though the name of his family, Amerighi, was one of the more illustrious of the local gentry. The late Walter Friedlaender, perhaps the preeminent expert on the subject, describes him as coming from “a moderately well-to-do family of artisans,” but his biographer and contemporary Giulio Mancini writes that his father was master builder to the marquis of Caravaggio, the town where both his parents had been born and from which he would take his name, though he himself was born in Milan and spent only part of his childhood in Caravaggio.
In 1584 he returned to Milan to enter the studio of Simone Peterzano, with whom he would remain for four years before a quarrel with his master sent him on his way to Rome. Upon arriving in that city, after several years of unrecorded wanderings, he was reported to be living under the aegis of Pandolfo Pucci, a religious painter from Recanati. He went on to do some hack work for the artist Anteveduto Grammatica, before entering the studio of the Cavaliere d'Arpino in 1595. But due to a serious illness he left after only eight months. Then, providentially, in the abjectness of the hospital ward, his work was brought to the attention of the wealthy collector Cardinal del Monte, in whose house he would reside for the next five years.
By this time his career had hit its stride, and he was working continuously and successfully. But starting around this period of his life, the principal documents concerning Caravaggio come to us from the law courts. In 1604 he was accused of assault after throwing artichokes in the face of a waiter whom he had first insulted. A little while later he was to be found in prison for throwing stones; no sooner was he released than he was once again in trouble with the law, this time for offending an officer. Six months later he was incarcerated for carrying illegal weapons, and less than ten months after his release he had grievously insulted a mother and her daughter.
At this point the life of Caravaggio, seen from a distance of four centuries, reduces itself to a monotonous gridwork of transgressions. Only nine days after his previous malefaction, we learn from one document, Caravaggio's mistress, whose name was Lena, was insulted by a notary, and it would appear that Caravaggio was as always swift to descend upon him. For this he had suddenly to flee to Genoa; when he returned after a month, he learned that his furniture had been confiscated by his landlady, for his rent was six months in arrears. Next we hear of him explaining to an incredulous judge that wounds he had received, and which he could not conceal, were the result of falling on his own sword.
The turning point in Caravaggio's life came in 1606, when he killed another human being. This man was Ranuccio Tommasoni, and the apparent cause was a wager they had made over a game of tennis. In the fray Caravaggio was himself wounded, and now was forced to leave Rome for good. He settled in Naples, but spent scarcely a year in that city before moving to Malta, where, in return for painting at least one portrait of the grand master of the Knights of Malta, he was made one of their order, a distinction which, according to the art historian Howard Hibbard, he had eagerly sought, for it would confirm his aristocratic descent.
Though it might be expected that this conferring of a new dignity would civilize him slightly, we learn that only a few months after his elevation he escaped to Messina from the impregnable fortresses of Malta, where he had been held for insulting another knight of the order. Toward the end of his biography of Caravaggio, Giovanni Baglione, his generally veracious disciple and subsequent rival, reports that he returned to Naples, where he was met by some of his old enemies who apparently wounded him so severely in the face “that on account of the blows he was almost no longer recognizable.” Despairing of revenge, he packed his belongings into a bag and made for Rome, where he was immediately incarcerated for two days, ironically for a crime of which he was actually innocent. For a few days thereafter he continued his journey on foot, before succumbing, on July 18, 1610, to a fatal fever upon the beaches of Port-Ercole.
To affix origins to movements and currents is generally more difficult in the case of Old Masters than it is with more recent art, but usually it is comfortably supposed that with the sack of Rome in 1527 by the victorious armies of Spain, a deep confusion and despair settled upon the psyche of Italian art, and that as a result of this, the sturdy and naturalistic humanism of the High Renaissance began to be overtaken by that amorphous movement known as mannerism. Under the influence of this movement the proportions of the human figure presently dwindle into a nervous attenuation, while the sensible coloring found in the works of earlier masters yields to a willful perversion of nature. In the works of painters like Domenico Beccafumi and Rosso Fiorentino, solid local colors like green and mauve are placed in dazzling and irrational contrast with the palest yellows and deepest scarlets. The studious reconstruction of the real world that had been made possible by linear perspective, a tool which the Florentines of a hundred years earlier believed they had reclaimed from the antique world but which in fact surpassed anything that preceded them, now of a sudden collapses into a claustrophobic flatness, or twists into serpentine spirals. In Rosso's Deposition, for example, the figures are seen squirming about in an almost voluptuous agony, as though sidling along the thin airless space between the back of the painting and the plane through which the viewer looks, like the last stirrings of butterflies pressed beneath glass.
As the mannerist movement advances to Venice and Milan, and down into the south, the cherished humanist conception of man's centrality in the universe is dealt a decisive blow which will leave it altered forever after, and the divine endowment of reason is judged finally to have been overthrown before the supreme mystery of Christ's passion. As Spain secures its hold in the Italian peninsula, the Papacy in Rome acquires a primacy which previously it had never enjoyed, but the price it must pay for this is the growing influence of the Spanish court and the exorbitant Inquisition. Soon it formally promulgates its own anti-humanist doctrine in the grand Third Session of the Council of Trent. From now on, the strictest propriety is to be observed in the depiction of religious personages; doctrine and Scripture must be followed closely; and so as not to incite viewers to licentious thoughts, all figures must be clothed in a seemly manner. Daniele da Volterra is called upon to cover the unsightly nakedness of the figures of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, and this only after the most urgent demonstrations on the part of concerned citizens can dissuade the authorities from destroying the whole work. Under the stern influence of the Jesuits, the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammanati, for the salvation of his soul, is moved publicly to repent of all the naked forms he has brought into the world. And the great Venetian master Paolo Veronese is forced by the Inquisition to suppress all the extraneous details he had lavished upon his depiction of the Feast in the House of Levi. The result is not that the figures in contemporary paintings become less mannered, either in the space they inhabit or in the forms they assume, but that they tend to be more decently dressed, and to be pressed into a more punctilious conformity with Church doctrine.
But it happens toward the end of the century, just as Caravaggio enters the studio of Simone Peterzano in Milan, that the College of Cardinals elects to the Papacy the prelate who will become Sixtus V, and he, together with Clement VIII in the following decade, will lay the foundations for the “Roma barocca” that grows to its fullest flowering in the next century. One of the tendencies that now manifests itself in Italian art, instrumental in the formation of that “realism” for which Caravaggio would become famous, is the so-called anti-mannerism of Santi di Tito and his followers. The figures in these paintings are now endowed with a new sense of solidity, and the earth once more exercises its gravitational pull upon the no-longer volatile forms. Though traces of the old mannerism remain even in these late paintings, and the movement in fact extends well into the 17th century, a new sobriety and high seriousness now reenter painting, and what survives from mannerism in this modified state is only what will serve the purposes of the reformers. And something of this spirit Caravaggio will have found in the paintings of Peterzano.
But this is probably not the only influence that Peterzano would have upon him, nor the only one that would be important in the evolution of his style. Indeed, it is essential to consider—and perhaps the principal strength of the Metropolitan show lay in aiding in such a consideration—that the famous Caravaggio idiom was not born in a vacuum, in flagrant contravention of what preceded it, but rather was in the main an inspired synthesis of various earlier tendencies, impelled, to be sure, by Caravaggio's explosive spirit.
Since we cannot be certain whether Caravaggio ever visited Venice, it may be to Peterzano, who claimed to be Titian's last student, that we must attribute the Venetian motifs that turn up not infrequently in his work. From Peterzano's earlier period Caravaggio would have had the chance to admire, if in a watered-down version, the gold tonalities emerging from a dark, suggestive background characteristic of the later Titian. And in other, maturer works of Peterzano he would have encountered another kind of background, as deeply and as preemptively black as anything he himself would later attempt. For what was new in Caravaggio was not so much his use of chiaroscuro, that interplay of light and shadow, as his application of it, which was more consistent than had been seen before. When the arch-mannerist Federico Zuccaro first set eyes upon the Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio's first truly important use of the chiaroscuro technique, he commented dismissively that it was really nothing more than a rehashing of Giorgione, the early 16th-century Venetian master. But the artists closest to Caravaggio in their use of chiaroscuro were really Antonio and Vicenzo Campi of Cremona. Where the technique had heretofore been applied primarily to peaceful night-scenes and nativities, in the work of these two masters there was introduced a sense of energetic action, combined with a realistic setting of the stage upon which the naturalistic figures perform.
Other features of Caravaggio's paintings that have become identified with him are his graphic realism, his preference for humbler types, and his fondness for depicting violent acts. Here again, however, he is more conspicuous for the frequency with which he resorts to such features than for any legitimate claim he might make to their invention. For abundant examples of the use of humbler types, for instance, we have only to go to the works of the Venetian, Jacopo Bassano, in which we find definitive prototypes for protruding backsides and the begrimed soles of peasants' feet.
True, Bassano is far more of a mannerist than Caravaggio, and in his gorgeously intricate compositions he renders these humbler specimens of humanity with a sweetness with which the later artist would have had little sympathy, and a grace that would seem at any moment to etherealize them to a point no longer compatible with reality. Where, then, might Caravaggio have found a model for the sort of realism that interested him? In addition to the artists of the “reforming” school, like his first teacher, he may also have profited from studying the works of Girolamo Savoldo of Bergamo, whose figures are rendered with a precise and almost tactile plausibility, and also reveal a tendency to emphasize the humbler side of life. Still, like most other artists of the time, Savoldo seems content never to disrupt the relative stasis of his compositions, and the figures in his paintings appear content merely to pause and wonder rather than to commit themselves to any action, let alone a brutal and violent one.
For this last ingredient, so essential to Caravaggio's work especially after 1600, we must look elsewhere. Mannerist painters in general took a greater interest in violence than their predecessors had done. Titian is one good candidate, in works like Cain Slaying Abel or his depiction of the myth of Tityus, in which an eagle is seen tearing out a man's liver. As Friedlaender demonstrates, the principal figure-group in one of Caravaggio's most violent works, the Martyrdom of St. Matthew, is based upon Titian's Death of St. Peter Martyr. And yet Titian is somehow never quite gruesome. For gruesomeness Caravaggio would have done well to look at decapitations by such artists as Callisto Piazza of Brescia, where a headless torso is tilted toward the viewer in such a way that he may, if he wishes, count the veins and arteries and so forth.
Here, then, are most if not all the necessary ingredients for Caravaggio's paintings, and with these in mind we can begin to appreciate them for those qualities of originality and invention they really do possess.
The earliest extant works of Caravaggio are small easel paintings. These probably antedate his years under the aegis of the Cardinal del Monte and might thus have been suitable for sale upon the streets and in the alleyways of Rome. The works of this period already impress us with a great measure of originality, even if this originality is for the time being slightly in advance of his artistic potential. No painting from this time or from before this time by any other artist looks quite like the unpretentious Boy Peeling Fruit, or the slightly later Fruit-Seller (although the earlier work seems reminiscent in the facial type and also in the use of chiaroscuro of the Lombardic tradition from which Caravaggio came).
From the earliest writers on Caravaggio up to the present day, his still-life paintings have always been singled our for special praise. In the context of the Italian artists who preceded him, these are the works that were instrumental in establishing his reputation for exacting realism. And yet this sort of painting, in which he clearly excelled, was confined almost exclusively to his early Roman period, after which he appears to have lost interest in it entirely.
Of these early works, still-lifes figure prominently in three—the Fruit-Seller, the Young Bacchus, and the Supper at Emmaus—and constitute the entirety of a fourth, Basket of Fruit, in the Ambrosiana Museum in Milan. The finest of these is the still-life in the Supper at Emmaus, in which the basket of fruit is placed precariously over the edge of a table as though by some supernatural suspension. We have only to compare the complex interweavings of the wicker basket here with the basket in the Fruit-Seller, or the bunching of these grapes with the clumsy agglutinations of the Young Bacchus, to see by how much this still-life surpasses the others. The apples and the pear are observed with the minutest accuracy, while the bursting pomegranate, the most fluidly painted of the fruits, seems, in the rhythms of its thick rind and pulp, to distill the very essence of vegetable life. In no other painting by Caravaggio or perhaps by any other Italian is the rich, ponderous clustering of grapes suggested so deliciously as here. Neither the leaves that encincture the head of the Young Bacchus, nor the leaves irradiating in all directions from the Basket of Fruit in Milan, can equal the leaf a little to the left of the basket in the Supper at Emmaus.
The connection that suggests itself between these overripe fruits and the languid young men who traffic in them is one of the aspects of Caravaggio's work which have been taken as evidence of homosexuality. Yet in that period of his career when he is just starting to pass out of this early manner of grace and delicacy, and to reveal the beginnings of a certain austerity, we start to see paintings that are clearly inspired by an appreciation of feminine beauty which is in no way abstracted or diminished by the statuesque nobility he typically imparts to it. The serene evenness of the features of St. Catherine, in a painting where she appears with the instruments of her torment lying all about her, and the troubled beauty of Judith in the act of dispatching Holofernes, the enemy of her people, convey a grandeur in human action fully comparable to that manifested by the great heroines of Shakespeare. And then there is that other great beauty, the Madonna of Loreto, as she appears to two humble pilgrims; here Caravaggio displays the “contraposto,” or incongruity, that he often likes to indulge in, contrasting the tall and noble carriage of Mary with the bedraggled humility of the suppliant mother and her son. (It has been suggested by Howard Hibbard that the inspiration for this Madonna, as well as for most of the other women in Caravaggio's paintings of this period, was his mistress Lena, whom he rose to defend when she was insulted by the notary.)
It was around this time, 1600, that Caravaggio received his first commission for an altarpiece, the one for the Contarelli Chapel. This was to make him famous, and also to establish his reputation as a revolutionary. In the three paintings he did for the altarpiece—the Calling, the Martyrdom, and the Inspiration of St. Matthew—we begin to see that combination of chiaroscuro and violence for which he would forever after be notorious and which is only partially suggested in what he had done before.
The underpinning of all of Caravaggio's earlier works had been a rather light tonality, approaching what the Italians might call “solivo,” from the brightness of the sun. But right around the turn of the century the shadows begin to collect in Caravaggio's paintings, in a process that would be fully realized only in the final, almost subaqueous altarpieces of Malta and Messina. But it is worth remembering that however daring these pictures might be formally, from the point of view of doctrine they were probably a good deal less vexatious to post-Tridentine sensibilities than many of the works of the late mannerist period. For there is surely an implicit chastity in Caravaggio's progression from clutter toward a greater sparseness.
In the first of the Contarelli altarpieces, before a clear smooth wall over which pale brown shadows flit, Matthew is called forth to the service of the Lord from his former life of heathenish dissolution and the pursuit of Mammon. The mystical event takes place before the window of an inn, and it is fairly evenly divided into two groups. The painting is not yet as naturalistic as it might superficially appear. Though the men and boys seated around the table seem to have been transported out of one of Caravaggio's earliest genre scenes, and the frightened young man facing us has arrived from his Fortune Teller (in the Louvre), still the figures of Matthew and Christ and the man in front of him are somewhat idealized, and the whole scene is awash in a light of purely supernatural emanation.
There are, however, problems: the two groups of figures fit in imperfectly with the background; they do not respond to one another formally in any very interesting fashion; the recession required for the table and those seated there is hesitant and uncertain; and with the two figures at the right it is a little difficult to determine which hands or arms belong to whom. Nevertheless, it is here for the first time that we see such a radical application of genre-scene realism to a sacred subject, and probably no amount of historical perspective can restore to us the shock that this painting once provoked.
The painting that accompanied the Calling of St. Matthew in 1600 was a depiction of his martyrdom, actually inspired from several mannerist sources of which not the least is Rosso's Moses and the Daughters of Jethro. Movement is generally better served by mannerism than it is by realism, and it is rare at any stage of Caravaggio's development to find as much motion exhibited as here. In a work like Rosso's the individual details are suppressed to yield a more dynamic whole in which all the figures seem caught in a wave of motion sustained throughout the composition. Here, however, Caravaggio is eager to preserve that “real” quality for which he was just then becoming famous. Thus, unwilling to sacrifice any of his painstakingly graphic solidity, he is left to try to generate a plausible sense of motion out of the ten or so semi-autonomous parts. All the figures are brought together in a satisfying manner, and the incorporation of the central motif from Titian's Death of St. Peter Martyr is very graceful indeed. But for all its realism, this painting has about it something of a tableau vivant: although truly “real,” it seems somehow abstracted, as if reality had been mysteriously suspended in its course at the utterance of an incantation.
If these two paintings from the Contarelli Chapel have only partially emerged from their mannerist precedents, in the two paintings that Caravaggio will now do for the Cerasi Chapel we see the emergence of what may be termed his “classical” style. The hesitancies of his earlier works have been resolved, and we have not yet reached the point in his later works where hastiness imparts a certain waywardness to his figures.
The notion of a profound religious experience wholly internalized was not new to Caravaggio, it having been adumbrated in an early depiction of St. Francis. But in that work there is an element of spirituality that is nowhere suggested in the Cerasi Conversion of Paul. One of the things that originally stunned the viewers of this painting was the absence of any specific references to the saint; the painting could represent any accidental event that might take place in any stable. One might almost believe that a dream is being represented here, in which the dreamer, through the curious logic of such things, realizes that he is only dreaming and will not be hurt, and so surrenders entirely to his vision. Still, a feeling of gentle but irresistible dawning is present in this painting, and it is a tribute to Caravaggio's artistry as well as to the genuineness of his conviction that he could have captured so effectively the essence of religious experience.
A similar reduction to essence is found in the second painting that he did for the Cerasi Chapel, the Crucifixion of Peter, in which the saint is depicted with his feet toward heaven and his head to the ground, as was his wish, so that he might see the heavens opening up before him. The X-shape of the composition imparts to the supine Peter and the cross upon which he lies the diagonal force of a ballistic, and the chiaroscuro is used to great effect, weeding out all that is extraneous without merely blacking it out, as in Caravaggio's later Maltese and Sicilian works.
In the paintings that Caravaggio did for the Contarelli and Cerasi Chapels, then, we find the fullest development of his realism and use of chiaroscuro, and we also see him take one further step out of his earlier sensualism and courtliness toward a growing and deepening religiosity. But before he would surrender to that religious fervor demonstrated in his latest works there remained in him at least one more painting of an aggressive paganism, and this may have been the only work at the Metropolitan exhibition by which anyone was actually and sincerely shocked.
This creation, called Amor Victorious, depicts a coarse, nude guttersnipe, to whom the wings of angels are affixed; he is lighting upon, and overturning, a table upon which were once arranged all the grandiose accouterments of human glory. Now the implements of war, armor and bay leaves, as well as tomes of deepest learning and instruments of melodious sound, lie scattered across the floor, having yielded to the inexorable power of love. Though the perspective of the musical instruments is slightly awry, still they are beautifully done, and of all the works displayed at the Metropolitan this is perhaps the most perfect. The anatomy and the suggestion of living, breathing flesh are irreproachable. The left hand that the youth conceals behind his back, a device which Caravaggio uses not infrequently when he does not know how to handle or dispose of an extremity that does not serve his purpose, is here employed to quite deliberate, if somewhat unseemly, effect.
But the classicism of which this is so conspicuous an example was actually an extremely brief moment in Caravaggio's creative life, and no sooner does he bring it to perfection than it begins gradually to fall away, resulting finally in the curious and exotic vegetations of his last years in Malta and Messina. The beginnings of this descent are already evident in the renowned Entombment, a far more ambitious work than anything he had attempted to date, and continue in what may have been his last Roman work, the famous or infamous Death of the Virgin. What so revolted contemporary tastes in this latter painting was the manifest commonness of the Mother of God, who, like all of Caravaggio's dead figures, is shorn even of the mysterious holiness of vitality by being reduced to a corpse in the process of decomposition. The bloatedness of the figure quickly started rumors flying that Caravaggio had used a real corpse as a model, and that it had belonged in life to a prostitute. Though there is an undeniable pathos in this work, in the weeping Magdalene in the foreground and the two men at the bedside hiding their faces in their hands, nevertheless the overall effect is slightly diminished by the perfunctory manner in which all the other figures are bunched together in a scarcely articulated mass. Caravaggio had shown greater care in the individualization of grapes! It is almost as if he were saying, “These people over here are only a crowd; don't look too closely at them.” No great artist before Caravaggio had ever suggested such a thing.
After his flight from Rome, Caravaggio still had great works to create, including the Beheading of John the Baptist and the Burial of St. Lucy. But one work that especially stands out is the Raising of Lazarus, which, as Howard Hibbard observes, would appear to derive from a frieze-like composition by Giulio Romano. Caravaggio seems to have taken greater pains here than in most of his late paintings, and the pathos of the scene remains unaffected by the unquestionably willful artificiality of the composition. Christ, with his arm outstretched exactly as in the Calling of St. Matthew but from the opposite direction, and the woman who supports the reviving Lazarus, flank and give powerful support to the beautifully developed oval of Lazarus and those around him. There is a grace in this that is most unusual in Caravaggio, and that recalls the consummate delicacy of certain works of Masaccio or the Venetian mannerist Andrea Schiavone.
There is a temptation in discussing the paintings of Caravaggio to attribute the enfeeblement of his last works to some premonition of his death, as if he were already, and prematurely, oppressed by the weight of years. But these latest works were painted when Caravaggio was scarcely older than Titian had been when he painted the Frari Assumption, which is seen as the beginning of his artistic life. The weakness of Caravaggio's final works may thus have represented nothing but a lull that would have lasted a year or two. If he had lived out the lifespan of a normal man he might well have gone on to create works of such distinction that everything now surviving would seem mere prologue to what followed.
Still, no one can look upon Caravaggio's two final Adorations of the Shepherds, or Salome Being Brought the Head of John the Baptist, without feeling that they were done in haste by someone eager to be elsewhere and otherwise engaged. There is no longer much that is very shocking or interesting in them, and the character of the artist, so palpably present in the earlier Roman works, seems to have deserted these icy inventions. We have a new sense of a man mechanically going through the motions of a process that had previously brought him fame. At this point, indeed, Caravaggio comes to resemble those feeble epigones who, after his death, would spring up everywhere in Naples, Malta, and Syracuse.
But it is in these works, too, that we may at last find an explanation of what his contemporaries found so objectionable in Caravaggio when they complained (in the paraphrase of the 17th-century art historian Giovanni Bellori) that “he began to paint according to his own inclinations, not only ignoring but indeed scorning the excellent statuary of antiquity and the famous works of Raphael, asserting that nature alone was the subject for his paintbrush.” It is not that these contemporaries were ignorant of the realistic scientific illustrations of Leonardo and Dürer all the way down to Ligozzi, all of whom far surpass Caravaggio in the accuracy of their rendering of nature. What troubled the contemporaries of Caravaggio was neither nature nor nature incorporated into art, but rather an art that was itself antagonistic to the art they knew, and that used nature against art. This was Caravaggio's revolution.
Every square inch of painting that had preceded Caravaggio had had its inspiration in another painting, or in a piece of antique statuary; the greatness of an artist consisted in the skill and originality with which he applied what he had inherited. Caravaggio was the first—and even so only partially—to reject, to derail himself from, that system. It is for this that his contemporaries could not forgive him.
The older system had a solution for every problem proposed, but only on condition that one propose the sort of problem for which it had a solution. Though Caravaggio usually asked the old questions, he was radical in seeking answers outside the perfectly self-contained system of art. And even here he might have been forgiven if he had found satisfactory answers. But although he was a great painter, the answers that he devised, the answers that were specifically his own, were not really good ones.
Titian, for example, in his Frari Assumption, and Raphael in his Transfiguration, could successfully depict a flurry of hands crowding toward a central point while still relying on the “artistic” approach to the creation of art. But Caravaggio, in attempting the same thing in the Madonna of the Rosary, is unbelievably clumsy, not because he is not a great artist but because he is seeking in nature the answer to a question that art itself had proposed (namely, how you depict in two dimensions a flurry of hands). In virtually every one of his paintings Caravaggio commits errors in composition, errors in perspective, errors in the depiction of a face or a figure. These errors result from his trying to force an alliance between an artistic system he has not entirely overthrown and another of his own creation founded upon his notions of nature. He is, as a consequence, the first great painter to paint badly. There were many bad painters before him, and many good painters whose good and bad qualities existed side by side in the same works. But Caravaggio is the first in whom the good and the bad derive from the selfsame source and are inseparable; and this, perhaps, is the defining feature of his rebellion.
In this, at least, Caravaggio may be seen as the prototype of many a modern artist in whom powerful intellectual notions precede and at times preempt skillful execution. Nevertheless, although it has lately become fashionable to call Caravaggio our contemporary, I feel that this is a misapprehension: he might have diverged from the older tradition, but he remained a part of it, and this tradition was rejected by us long ago. His passionate religiosity alone would alienate him from all but a few of his modern viewers, and as for his fairly casual endorsement and frequent practice of violence, one certainly hopes that these did not strike a responsive chord among the peaceable art lovers of the Metropolitan. If he may be called our contemporary at all, it is only in the sense that his brilliant if imperfect formal solutions to certain artistic questions continue to reach into the delighted eyes of those who are willing to accept the Old Masters on their own terms.
Caravaggio is unquestionably a great painter—great for his reinvigoration of an enfeebled tradition, for the beautiful details of the still-lifes of his early period, and for the heartfelt and noble pathos that he could call forth at any period of his life. Indeed, when these factors are taken into consideration, to call Caravaggio our contemporary is to do him a disservice. For it is a fair guess that his paintings will continue to exert their power long after the art and the doctrines of our own time are passed over and forgotten.