The Virtuoso of Compassion - Caravaggio

Two museums, London’s National Gallery and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, mounted exhibitions in the fall of 2016 with the title “Beyond Caravaggio,” proof that the foul-tempered, short-lived Milanese painter (1571–1610) still has us in his thrall. The New York show, “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” concentrated its attention on the French immigrant to Rome who became one of Caravaggio’s most important artistic successors. The National Gallery, for its part, ventured “beyond Caravaggio” with a choice display of Baroque paintings from the National Galleries of London, Dublin, and Edinburgh as well as other collections, many of them taken to be works by Caravaggio when they were first imported from Italy.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a new play about the artist, Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts of Mercy, focused on the monumental painting of the same name in Naples that also provides the focus for Terence Ward’s moving nonfiction book The Guardian of Mercy. In November 2016, Caravaggio’s radiant Basket of Fruit moved to Rome from Milan to provide the focus and the poster image for yet another exhibition, “The Origin of Still Life in Italy” at the Borghese Gallery (which boasts its own incomparable collection of Caravaggio’s work). And yet, in the face of so much exposure, Michelangeo Merisi da Caravaggio remains a painter of infinite suggestion and infinite mystery.

Letizia Treves, the National Gallery’s new curator of Baroque painting and the creator of the delightful “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition, reminds us how few people in the mid-nineteenth century had ever seen a real painting by the artist. Many of those who did were unimpressed. John Ruskin called him “the ruffian Caravaggio,” “a worshipper of the depraved.” In general, Victorian Britons preferred the orderly sunlit world of the Italian Renaissance to the dark, chaotic Baroque, with its suffering saints and grimy beggars. It is not so surprising, then, that British collectors bought canvases by Antiveduto Gramatica, Giovanni Baglione, and Bartolomeo Manfredi in the belief that they were Caravaggio originals: dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, overt religious imagery, and gritty, louche scenes from everyday life seemed to authenticate them as much as an autograph (in fact, Caravaggio signed only one of his paintings, The Beheading of John the Baptist in Malta).

Sometimes, as in the case of Giovanni Baglione’s Ecstasy of Saint Francis, exported from England as a Caravaggio in 1947, there were good reasons to be confused about the artist’s identity: Baglione was trying his utmost to paint like Caravaggio, using a theme that Caravaggio had already made famous. On the other hand, some works painted by Caravaggio, like the Dublin Taking of Christ, have spent decades languishing under layers of grime and attributions to artists like Velázquez, Murillo, and the Dutchman Gerrit van Honthorst, who visited Rome before returning to Utrecht and becoming famous for his honey-toned paintings of candlelit interiors.

Caravaggio, as “Beyond Caravaggio” makes clear, was not the only accomplished painter of his day. Seventeenth-century Italy was a veritable magnet for ambitious artists, especially the great cities of Rome and Naples. The versatile Orazio Gentileschi was surely responding to Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight to Egypt with his own startling composition on the same theme. In front of a ruined building, an exhausted Joseph has flopped down asleep on their baggage while Mary, seated on the ground, nurses the infant Christ. Behind the wall of the ruin, their wise-eyed, patient donkey rears its noble head, framed against a gorgeous indigo cloudscape (see illustration in Colm Tóibín’s article in this issue).

Gentileschi’s ability to portray fur in oils is rivaled in this exhibition only by the Neapolitan painter usually known as the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds—art historians cannot agree whether he was Bartolomeo Bassante or Juan Dó. An Annunciation to the Shepherds from Birmingham shows that the Master had a special talent for painting shaggy sheep for feudal lords who drew their income from vast flocks, driven over the breadth of southern Italy by just such brutally impoverished peasants as the tired, ragged men who can barely muster the strength to listen to the angels. Jusepe de Ribera, the Spaniard who spent most of his career in Naples, can make oil paint suggest any texture under the sun. His Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew shows the elderly man tied up and ready to be flayed by a thug, with the saint’s loose, dry skin, wispy hair, wiry beard, and glittering eye all evoked to perfection.

Ribera features prominently in the Met’s presentation of Valentin de Boulogne, the French bon vivant who arrived in Rome about a decade after Caravaggio’s death and who fully merits his own show and his own place in the history of Baroque painting. In a series of groundbreaking essays, Keith Christiansen, Annick Lemoine, Patrizia Cavazzini, Gianni Papi, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin argue that the young Ribera must have worked directly with Caravaggio, and that he and Valentin became the two most accomplished painters in the master’s “realist” tradition—which, like Caravaggio’s, is not so realist after all. Several of the pieces of ancient sculpture that Valentin portrays in his seedy Roman taverns are his own inventions; on the other hand, as Christiansen notes, the up-front immediacy of his Judith and Holofernes makes Caravaggio’s version of the same story look positively mannered. Valentin’s blues are a wonder in themselves, nowhere more marvelous than on the shimmering coat of the father in his Return of the Prodigal Son.

Pointing the way “beyond Caravaggio” are several paintings by the master himself, which show that his own technique can be surprisingly uneven. Boy Peeling Fruit, exhibited in London as a youthful work, is not universally accepted as an original, because the painting is so clumsy in so many places. The boy’s face sinks back behind the left wing of his weirdly obtrusive collar, which seems to have been painted after the face, and with thicker pigment. Beneath his open shirt, the youth’s chest lacks any trace of modeling: no shadow, no sign of ribs, or muscle, or breastbone, nothing but a wash of pale flesh-colored pigment. The fruits in front of him, on the other hand, are beautifully succulent, forerunners of that sublime Basket of Fruit from Milan, in which the apples may be spotty and the grape leaves worm-eaten, but the yellow of the background is as full of light as a ray of sunshine.

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