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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Paintings that Made Caravaggio

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The Paintings that Made Caravaggio


Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi in 1571 in Lombardy most likely in Caravaggio. When he was thirteen Caravaggio was apprenticed in Milan to a painter named Simone Peterzano who was a pupil of Titian. Titian, who famous works are displayed at Capodimonte. During this time Caravaggio was able to develop his version of mannerism. In 150 he went to Rome ready to use his practices and skills. At this time the prevailing artistic style in Italy was mannerism which refers to most sixteenth-century art.


Mannerism is recognized for its concern with developing and varying styles of Raphael, Michelangelo and other masters of the 1500’s into a style that shows everyday events as spectacular and important. An example is the Accademia of the Carracci which helped to strengthen the connection with Raphael in order to continue to reinforce a classical style that would adapt to the taste of the wealthy or those with lofty tastes. The artists that followed these ideas were called Emilian and included Domenichino, Giocanni Lanfranco, Guercino, Guido Reni, and of course Annibale Carracci. This style was widely accepted and desired in Rome.


Caravaggio’s painting style also arose as a reaction to mannerism. It was very contradictory to the mannerism as Caravaggio went in the direction of naturalism. Caravaggio was able to create a new path for other artists. It is important to note however that the influence of Raphael and Michelangelo are very visible in Caravaggio’s work and that he did not disdain or criticize the current style. Other influence on Caravaggio’s style was his training in Lombardy where he had as a model Lombard art along with late gothic art which is distinguished by a particular attention to nature. In terms of traditional techniques Caravaggio used the relation between objects and natural and artificial light and the ability of color to construct and define. The genius in his work I believe rests in his ability to master the effect of light so well that the objects in his painting appear lifelike.


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Caravaggio’s works are commonly separated into four periods. The Milanese period which reflects the training of Peterzano and the influence of Savoldo, Moretto and Lotto. Next comes the first Roman years consisting of his works completed from 15 to 15. During this time he generally painted small pictures until he caught the attention of Francesco del Monte who bought some of his paintings and later in 15 gave Caravaggio his first commission. This was the paintings in the Contarelli Chapel of Saint Luigi de’ Francesi. These include the Calling of Saint Matthew (which is one of my favorites), the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, and Saint Matthew and the Angel. His third period is noted for the extravagant commissions he received from the Roman churches. This period ended abruptly due to his flight from Rome in 1606. Afterwards the last 4 years of his life were very hectic while he moved from place to place. He painted mostly for churches before dying in 1610 of malaria on his way back to Rome.


When he was just over twenty he went to Rome where he worked for Cavalier d’Arpino. There he painted primarily still life of flower and fruit. His first famous independent works are done before 155 which include the Sick Bacchus and the Still-Life with Flowers and Fruit both of which are now at the Borghese Gallery. The Sick Bacchus is portrait he painted of himself. The first aspect that is apparent of the painting is the unmodified and objectively painted boy. His characteristics are in no way improved or altered by Caravaggio. Secondly, the fruits and leaves on the window ledge and in the boys hand show incredible realism in their surface texture. Similarly in his Youth with Flower Basket the same technique to portray texture can be seen. What I believe makes this painting even more amazing is his ability to accurately portray the gaze of the young boy. Similarly in Youth Bitten by a green Lizard, in the Longhi Collection in Florence, we see the vivid reaction of the boy. What is most interesting and beautiful about this work is the glass vase in front of the boy. The light inside the vase looks like an actually photograph accompanied by the reflection of the window inside the vase.


With these paintings Caravaggio was able to create his reputation and attract the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. Del Monte had eight paintings of Caravaggio, of which five are dated from his second period which shows that he was revered at an early age by famous collectors. His Basket of Fruit which is in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan displays his ability to paint the different textures of fresh and old fruit. Similarly in the same painting he contrasts green and browning leaves. The interpretation that I take from this painting is that life is cyclical and that nature is at different stages of life. Some of the fruit are ripe while others are only a few days away, versus those that are past their prime. Another wonderful display of texture can be seen in the Bacchus. The way the wine glass is painted with the ripples towards the sides allows me to think that the boy might have indulged a bit too much of wine that he cannot keep a steady hand.


Aside from this style of painting, in 155 Caravaggio for the first time took on religious subjects which were most popular at the time and genre scenes which he would help popularize. Saint Francis in Ecstasy which is located in Wadsworth Atheneum is a very religious painting which shows traces of Peterzano’s influence and that of Lombard. In addition some of his brushstrokes visible in this painting were learned by studying Venetian paintings. What Caravaggio focused a great deal on is the conception of color as a structural element which goes back to texture and how he was able to portray it by changing the tint of the color.


Martha and Mary Magdalen where she is being scolded for her vanity shows Caravaggio’s preference to illustrate a specific moment instead of event. The expressions of the two women are captured in an instance and does not appear as a long drawn out conversation.


Another characteristic of Caravaggio is to paint genre scenes. One of his favorites is that of cards, a subject that he is very familiar with, which can be seen in I Bari. The other theme shown in two similar paintings which were painted only a few years apart shows a Gypsy reading the palm of a youth while removing the ring from his finger. Both are called the Fortune Teller but one is found in the Louvre and the other in Musei Capitolini. What I think is noteworthy is the way Caravaggio painted the Gypsy’s intent on her face. You can just barely make out the slight smirk that she is trying to hold inside from the young man. Caravaggio was also very reluctant to focus on subject matter of the past. He believed that the subject matter of painting should not be drawn from ancient or modern history. Furthermore it shouldn’t be celebrative or commemorative. A painting shouldn’t have moral lessons or set up an example. An artist should not study old masters in order copy a certain style. Caravaggio claimed that his lessons are not drawn from history but from his own life. According to his conception, the painter must be a careful observer of what exits around him and not a student of preexisting technical and cultural traditions. At first this approach was not accepted very well. However Caravaggio’s outlook became increasingly overpowering and it eventually influenced every artistic trend in Europe. Bellori, a writer who was most critical of Caravaggio’s writes “Merisi knew no master other than the model.”


In the last years of the sixteenth century, Caravaggio was gradually gaining acceptance among a select audience which translated in the improvement of his social and economical position. During this time he made some of his most fascinating creations such as Mary Magdalen which is in the Galleria Doria Phamphili in Rome. Bellori says “he painted a girl on a chair with her hand in her lap, drying her hair; he painted her in an interior and by adding an ointment jar and jewelry he imagined her as Magdalen.” What this quote reveals is that painting was not planned from the beginning as an exemplary description of Magdalen, but how the identification is almost made afterward at the moment when Caravaggio added the ointment jar and jewelry. The way that I interpret Caravaggio’s intention in Mary Magdalen (taking in consideration the fact that he claimed to not paint history) is that his painting is not of Mary Magdalen. His painting is in fact of a women that would be recognized by the observer as Mary Magdalen.


Saint Catherine of Alexandria part of the Von Thyssen Collection is of a female figure just as in Mary Magdalena in an interior without any architectural illusions. The image appears as a blend of royalty and nobility (seen in the clothes) with the face of a common Roman woman. The detail of the cloth on the woman is part of the centerpiece of the painting. Many followers of Caravaggio have attempted to copy this style but had little success.


In the Rest During the Flight into Egypt in the Galeria Doria Pamphili in Rome the atmosphere that is seen is that of relaxation and gentleness. To this I like to credit the orangish tint that covers the whole painting. Added to this is the calm eye of the donkey, the patient expression on Joseph’s face and the understanding concentration of the angel. All of this is done to help put the baby to sleep. In the background it can be seen the landscape that Caravaggio chose to include, again standing firm to his naturalism. What I also notice is the variation in the seasonality of the plants. Some leaves are already brown while others are still green. Again this shows his understanding of seasonality and time.


The exact opposite of feelings is created in Judith that is located in the Barberini Palace in Rome. Instead of relaxation I see tension and instead of serenity there is anger. The tension is visible on Magdalen as she musters all her energy to slice with her sword. Even more apparent is the release of tension vivid on the expression of Magdalen’s husband. The malice and anger is seen on the old woman’s evil stare of approval. The realness of the painting is best described by a passing English traveler. She says “This picture is too well done; it struck me directly, that it must have been taken from life. The idea threw me into a trembling, and made me very sick; producing the same effects on me, that perhaps I might have experienced from the presents of [a] real execution. This is Caravaggio’s most brutal display of aggression. The key in achieving such a vivid display lies in the extremity of all aspects of the painting, the redness of the blood, the sharpness of the sword, the wide opening of the mouth, and the dark stair of the servant.


The Abraham and Isaac in the Uffizi which is dated around the close of the sixteenth century due to its similar style to that of The Rest During the Flight into Egypt. It has the similar yellowish tint along with the inclusion of a detailed landscape. This episode draws a parallel with the son of Abraham and the Son of God both who are innocent victims. Although this can be said what I noticed first is that the son of Abraham is struggling as opposed to Christ who did not. What is most important to note about this painting is the way the distant objects in the purposely-blurry landscape fade or melt into each other.


The reason I have mentioned The Abraham and Isaac and Mary Magdalen is to talk about the aesthetic of exclamation by which Caravaggio is able to create a violent atmosphere full of energy and tension. Another painting that uses the same approach is the famous Head of Medusa in the Uffizi gallery. The most amazing part of this painting is the representation of the hair as snakes. Additionally it should be noted the originality of the screaming head as it is stuck on an ancient shield.


The majority of Caravaggio’s works include at most three figures with a background that seems to be of little interest to the figures that prominently stand out. In contrast the Calling of Saint Matthew has seven figures while the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew has thirteen. Despite there numbers the figures are considerable smaller in size allowing for the display of the background. Another novelty is that of echelons that have never been present in Caravaggio’s works previously. The manner with which he achieves this is not through the architecture of the setting but from the arrangement of the figures. I find it very interesting to learn that Caravaggio was not set on the final version of the painting immediately as he begun it despite their appearance as if time was stopped. With the use of X-ray analysis it has been proven that Caravaggio among other artists sketched on their canvas a different idea. After changing their mind they simply painted over their original idea and created their current masterpieces. For example in the calling of Saint Matthew originally the figure of Christ stood alone and was not covered as is in the final version, by that of Saint Peter. The addition of Saint Peter served in showing that he is the mediator between God and man. As Christ is raising his hand so is Saint Peter but without the same power of command. This is also to remind that Saint Peter would be the first pope. What is different about this painting when compared to the Counter Reformation is that this important event is represented as an ordinary day event. It shows two people that have just come in and asked to speak to someone that is inside. Saint Matthew is simply pointing to himself asking, is it me you want to speak to.


In the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew we see the complexity that Caravaggio is capable of. This is one of the few times where the painting is extremely busy. With the help of X-ray analysis it is shown that originally there were only three figures in the entire painting compared to the current thirteen. The multitude of figures shows Raphael influence on Caravaggio. With the same technology it was discovered that Caravaggio changed his mind rather quickly of the fate of the painting and made changes directly on the canvas without redrawing his plans on paper. This painting is also known for its innovation and its numerous explicit and implicit symbols and meanings. Looking at the echelons we see the three partially nude figures in the foreground. There are six figures on the left in the background that show different state of minds and are also grouped in couples. Then there is the angel on top with the boy underneath him. Matthew is on the floor while the killer is on top.


The middle piece of the three Saint Matthew paintings is Saint Matthew and the Angel. The original was first rejected because it made Saint Matthew appear to be learning how to write. As a result Vincenzo Giustiniani offered to acquire it even thought it was later destroyed during the Second World War. The second version that Caravaggio completed featured the Angel hanging down from a cloud while counting on his fingers the arguments that he is telling Saint Matthew to write and develop.


After the competition of the three wall paintings for San Luigi dei Francesi Caravaggio was commissioned for two more paintings; the Crucifixion of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul by Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi for their chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo. In the Crucifixion of Saint Peter there are three men and Saint Peter but without a landscape. What I take from this is that Caravaggio does not want to give to much importance to the event as it is a sad one. Comparing this to Lady Magdalena, both are deaths but Saint Peter’s is not taken to extremity. The colors of the painting are subdued, Peter’s mouth is not wide open, the amount of blood is limited and the expressions of the men are hidden as to not glorify the moment and maybe to show that they are simply carrying out their duty.


One of my other favorite works is Conversion on the Way to Damascus which is also found in Santa Maria del Popolo. Here you can see the use of light as it is used to draw your attention to Saul. It is coming from the upper right corner where the rays are visible. The servant and the horse are more in the background. I understand this as his are reaching up towards God accepting His will. If it was not known otherwise it would be thought this is simply a man that fell of his horse while the servant is calming the horse down and taking it back to its stall. The use of hand gestures as is seen in the Conversion on the Way to Damascus is also present in Supper in Emmaus. Here is the moment of the disciple’s recognition of Christ. Their hands are away from their body as if they were about to move.


As many of Caravaggio’s works, Madonna dei Pellegrini in Sant’Agostino in Rome was criticized and taken down days after it was mounted. One of the “problems” of the painting was the pilgrims dirty feet. The size of the barely noticeable halos was also not approved along with the fact that the Child and the Madonna were looking down at the pilgrims. It is also enough to mention that the model for the Madonna was also a lover of Caravaggio’s among others.


It is only best to end with the only mural painting by Caravaggio. This is the ceiling painted in oils for the alchemy room of Cardinal del Monte which we saw in the Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi. It was probably created between 157 and 1600. What is special about this fresco is that it is done in oil. Caravaggio probably did not like much to fresco because it took away from his ability to change what he had painted previously. With the use of oil however he was able to come to a compromise and create this masterpiece.








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