In his time, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was the most conspicuous example of a new kind of artist, one that has become familiar as a Bohemian stereotype since the Romantic era: a forceful creative temperament with a short fuse; a lone genius at odds with the establishment; a visionary dismissive of convention.
In fact, in his brief heyday as the most famous artist in Rome, he was a bit of a bad boy rock star with a tetchy, combative nature, quick to take offence and always ready for a fight, whether verbal or physical. His most immediate biographers were not well disposed towards him but, even allowing for exaggeration, he seems to have been a contrary presence, and was quick to reach for the sword he always carried.
Every one of the succession of moves he made during his relatively short life, from Milan to Rome, where he thrived, thence to Naples, Malta, Sicily and back to Naples, was prompted by a need to get out of town fast after an altercation.
He was born near Milan in 1571 and was apprenticed to a Milanese painter. For whatever reason, he never pursued the dominant method of mural painting, fresco. He was, from start to finish, a painter in oils. He does not even seem to have drawn much. Preparatory sketches are unusually absent.
A decisive moment came in 1606. By then a figure of renown, well established in Rome, he stabbed and killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a fight during which he was gravely injured. A dispute over a gambling debt and a contentious tennis match have been traditionally cited as the issues but, as so often with Caravaggio, the absence of concrete evidence has encouraged numerous alternative, often more elaborate, theories. His usual way of dealing with legal issues was to call on the protection of powerful patrons, including ecclesiastical figures. But killing someone was a step too far and he had to flee Rome.
He went to Naples where he lived and worked under the auspices of the influential Colonna family, but soon moved on to the Knights of the Order of St John in Malta, becoming an honorary knight and official artist to the order.
He worked industriously and seemed poised to engineer a papal pardon. His portrait of the man he hoped would negotiate his pardon, the Knights’ grand master Alof de Wignacourt, which is in the Louvre, is a tangle of calculated ambiguity and mixed messages. Caravaggio’s non-too-subtle mockery of the man he hoped would be his salvation indicates just how easily his egotism and arrogance could land him in trouble.
Starker and darker
Characteristically, his productive, promising Maltese arrangement came to grief when he took against, attacked and gravely injured another knight. Escaping from detention, he scarpered again, teaming up with an old artistic friend in Sicily. They travelled and worked together. Caravaggio remained productive, managing to produce a few amazing paintings, although his style became starker and darker, and his behaviour increasingly erratic. There is a theory that his odd behaviour accords with the symptoms of lead poisoning, and he used lead pigments routinely. In any case, his paranoia may have been justified. It’s generally assumed that old enemies caught up with him when he returned to Naples. A brutal attack left him badly scarred. But when he died, the following year, the cause of death was recorded as fever, which is entirely possible.
At the time, he was en route to Rome, confident that he was in line for a pardon, but he was shaken when he was temporarily detained en route. He was held in error, but sadly he did not live to learn that his pardon had been granted. Although it is undated, it is likely that one of his last paintings may have been an especially bleak work in which the figures are etched against a deep black background: David with the Head of Goliath. Although he has felled Goliath with a stone, the youthful David holds a sword and looks disenchanted with the whole business. The head he holds is a self-portrait of Caravaggio.
A typical Caravaggio composition features a group of figures in a dark interior, illuminated by one powerful, precisely angled light source. The actors are sharply defined and captured at a moment of drama, with flashes of intense colour picked out amid the deep shadows and bleached highlights. Though not everyone agrees with him, David Hockney persuasively argues that Caravaggio used a camera obscura: hence the dark settings and spare lighting. As mentioned, he worked directly from life rather than from sketches, and used the point of his brush to mark pivotal points in a composition, probably as an aid to repositioning his models after a break.
Not only does he focus on decisive dramatic moments – Christ calling Matthew, The Supper at Emmaus, The Betrayal of Christ, The Resurrection of Lazarus, The Crucifixion of St Peter, A Boy Bitten by a Lizard – he also draws us right into the heart of the action, which is rendered in jarring close-up, in a hyper-realist manner. He further unsettles the spectator's habitual sense of control by undercutting the integrity of the picture plane. He was fond of violently expressive hand gestures that reach forcefully towards us, the viewers. And, famously, a plate of fruit teeters precariously on the edge of the table in The Supper at Emmaus, intruding into our space and encouraging a feeling of instability. This device is fully evident in earlier works in the exhibition, including Boy Peeling Fruit and Boy Bitten by a Lizard.
Even though he clearly drew on, and was significantly shaped by, the work of many of his Renaissance predecessors, practically every aspect of his approach made his contemporaries look stilted, tame and slow. The figures in his paintings are not exalted Biblical characters but drawn directly from fellow artists and friends, and included Roman street life. The rough vitality of his milieu feeds directly into the nature of his paintings. For some contemporary observers, the world’s dirt and grime was all too evident in his treatment of notionally elevated religious subjects. But the immediacy of his realism wowed his audience, including younger artists.
He did not run a big studio but was tremendously influential. The Beyond Caravaggio exhibition marshals work by 30 estimable artists who fell into his orbit in one way or another. Most immediately, the Caravaggisti adapted and developed various aspects of his approach. Those aspects include the dramatic presentation of partial figures in close-up, selective directional lighting and tenebrism, in which subjects are picked out against dark grounds in shallow pictorial space as though by spotlight. His sheer forcefulness was inevitably diluted and diverted, but he did help to shape significant talents, including Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi and, odd though it may seem, many Flemish and Netherlands artists. Less directly, but unmistakably, his impact is clearly felt in the work of such artists as Gustav Courbet and Edouard Manet. The American artist Frank Stella argued that he had managed to create a whole new type of space for painters, a "working space" that proved to be essential for the development of Modernism.
Perhaps surprisingly, his sexuality is a subject of continued debate. Commentators point to circumstantial evidence that allows room for doubt in describing him as homosexual per se. His social circle included women who worked as prostitutes, for example. There are references to potential connections with one woman. To such evidence, one can only say: just look at the paintings. It would be extraordinary if he were not gay. There is every indication that he lived and worked in a thriving gay culture. Needless to say, it was neither open nor advertised as such, partly because sodomy was a grievous offence.
Beyond Caravaggio is at the National Gallery of Ireland, Clare Street, Dublin from February 11 until May 14. Advance booking is advised at nationalgallery.ie Tickets €15, concessions €10. A fully illustrated hardback publication is available for €25
PAINTINGS IN THE EXHIBITION
The undisputed star of Beyond Caravaggio is Caravaggio himself. One of the National Gallery of Ireland's prize works, The Taking of Christ, on indefinite loan from the Jesuit Community, shares the limelight with the National Gallery London's The Supper at Emmmaus. This latter painting was last in Dublin in 1992 for an exhibition curated by Sergio Benedetti, Caravaggio and his Followers, something of a prototype for the new, much larger show. Benedetti is the person who identified The Taking of Christ, then hanging in the Jesuit residence in Leeson Street, as a Caravaggio the same year.
Two other well-known works by the artist are also on view, Boy Bitten by a Lizard and, from the Royal Collection, Boy Peeling Fruit.
The exhibition is jointly organised by the National Gallery of Ireland, the National Gallery, London and the National Galleries of Scotland. Other distinguished visitors in the Dublin show include fine paintings by Guido Reni, Orazio Riminaldi, Mattia Preti and Artemisia Gentileschi, whose superb treatment of Susannah and the Elders, from Burghley House, was long thought to be by Caravaggio. There's a notably gentle treatment by her father, Orazio, of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (together with the NGI's own more dramatic David and Goliath by Gentileschi).
Beyond the Italian artists, there is Georges de La Tour's ethereal Dice Players, probably one of his last works. Equally magical is Hendrick ter Brugghen's The Concert, in which Caravaggio's heightened drama is translated into something much gentler but as compelling. Valentin de Boulogne's A Concert with Three Figures is considerably more boisterous and Caravaggesque. And there are strong pieces by Matthias Stom, Dirck van Baburen, Willem van der Vliet, Nicolas Régnier, Nicolas Tournier and Gerrit van Honthorst. The show does not look to Caravaggio's impact on more recent painting.