Friday, May 28, 2010

Dutch Still Life - Willem Heda's "Still Life with Pastry and Silver Pitcher" at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands

I love the 17th Century Dutch Still Lifes. Scholars still argue what they are about, but coming as they did out of the post-Reformation Netherlands, my vote goes to the more religious interpretation; I think they are more than simply pretty pictures of expensive things.

Since the Reformation in Holland banned religious painting as idolatry, paintings of overtly religious scenes changed from devotional images to historical ones, and the pious found new ways to express their religious convictions through the art they commissioned. There were still religious paintings: in fact, at the same time as these paintings were popular, Rembrandt and other Dutch artists painted many religious themes. However, they were not intended as objects of devotion as previously, but as historical ones, telling stories from the Bible which were applicable moral lessons in the 17th Century. These Still Life paintings could just be pretty pictures of fancy, hard to paint objects, as some assert, but I agree with those who interpret them as religious messages.

Beginning rather humbly as a genre in the early 1600s, the view of the tabletop was originally from a decidedly high viewpoint: standing, looking down on the scene. The objects featured were everyday objects arranged as a group, usually with a dark background and the front edge of the table showing.

As the century progressed and the Still Life genre became more popular, the images also became more complex, both in the number and variety of objects, and in the inclusion of the corner of the table. This was also the era of the “gentleman collector,” who amassed rare objects and expensive, fragile serving pieces from around the world. These paintings reflected the growing interest in “curiosity cabinets” and collections of exotic and expensive items among the Dutch upper and middle classes.

And yet there is more to these paintings than than a display of fine and rare objects. There is more to them than bravura painting techniques, a wealth of texture and color, glass, liquids and metals painted in nearly photo-realistic style. The condition and placement of the objects in relation to the tabletop and the viewer would also have communicated a religious message to the contemporary viewer. In these 17th Century Still Lifes, references to long life and “getting right with God” abound. They would have been recognized instantly in the 17th Century, but the symbols are all but lost on a modern viewer.

To examine some of the iconography of the 17th Century Dutch still life, I am going to look at Willem Heda’s (1594-1680) Still Life with Pastry and a Silver Pitcher, at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands. Painted in 1658, it is a late and splendid example of the tabletop still life.

We are looking at the table from barely above the level of its surface. We are looking almost across the top of the sumptuous pastry which dominates the left side of the canvas. This low perspective pushes all the objects together so that they visually overlap, block and interact with one another, and we see very little of the table’s surface. Some of the objects reflect other objects. In the pitcher, for example, we can clearly see the reflection of the crab, the wineglass, the overturned Nautilus cup, and the multi-paned window which illuminates the scene. In the silver plate on the left, we can see the reflection of the very costly blue patterned Chinese-import plate leaning above it.

The painting presents a strong horizon line directly through its center. Along this central band is some very fine textural representation. The gigantic, perfect pastry on the far left, the crust of the bread, the peel and fruit of the lemon, the iridescence of the Nautilus shell, the fine weave of the linen napkins, the gleam of the leather knife sheath, and a myriad other details create an interplay of color and texture which pulls us right into the painting, as we find ourselves examining the veracity of the smallest details and interpreting them as metaphors for the rich textures of our lives.

My favorite detail is the fine Venetian glass flute in the center background. Filled with a bright red liquid, it may refer to the blood of Christ, if you agree with to the religious interpretation of the Still Life. If you do go with this interpretation, then the unbroken bread in the foreground and the wine in the Venetian glass would be clear references to the Last Supper. If you don’t agree with the religious interpretation of the painting, then you still must admit the objects are rendered masterfully.

The contemporary viewer would have been as impressed with the quality of the rendering as we are today, but would have been instantly aware of the Vanitas, “We’re all going to die,” “Get right with God” theme represented. Indeed, I think the religious interpretation is the real text and subject of the entire genre.

In this painting, as in so many others, the plates are hanging precariously over the edge of the table – the one on the left seems to stay on the table only of its own volition! These plates could fall off the table at any time, which the contemporary viewer would have understood as a reference to the uncertainty of life.
The long, unbroken peel of the lemon on the right expresses the wish for a long, unbroken life for the person who commissioned this painting. The wineglass is not empty, but it is not full either: the implication being you don’t have too much time to get right with God. The coruscating Nautilus shell cup, lying on its side is clearly empty and not fulfilling any task, reminding us that we are to be useful as well as valuable in this life, because it is short. The knife, sheathed but uncapped, is unusable at this time unless removed from its sheath, but is still balanced precariously over the edge of the table.

Think about the crab for a moment. Some might consider the inverted crustacean to be a jarring and inappropriate juxtaposition with the other elements of the composition. An expensive and rare delicacy, it would only be served on the table of a wealthy person, however, dead and inert, and with one leg removed and placed on the plate in front, it is at the same time an expensive delicacy rendered photograhically and another reference to the Vanitas theme. The contemporary viewer would have been as wise as we are to how unpleasant this item will be in just a day or two. “Get right with God, the time is short before you start smelling too, no matter how expensive or rare you might be” is the message here.

In many of the paintings of this genre, we see the edge of the table, which often has a chip or knick in it, referring to the impermanence of life. Often a candle burned low and extinguished sits among the valuable items, the extinguished flame an obvious reference to the ephemeral nature of life. In this painting, the top of the wine carafe is open and the contents are evaporating. Even that large, beautiful pastry (meat pie?) on the left won’t be so pretty, nor smell so heavenly after a few days, so eat up!

Life is uncertain. It is a banquet to be savored and lived fully. We are to be useful and productive. We are to shine and reflect the beauty of those around us. The presence of the salt reminds us that we are the “salt of the earth.” These are the messages hidden in these beautifully chosen and artfully arranged objects. They may not be the sweeping, baroque, Counter-Reformation Saints and Madonnas of Ruebens and Van Dyke, Heda’s contemporaries in neighboring Catholic Flanders, nor his fellow countryman Rembrandt’s starkly lit biblical scenes, but they convey a religious theme nonetheless, and unlike some of the objects depicted in them, Dutch Still Life paintings will be around for us to quibble over for a long, long time.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

2 Day Itinerary - Caravaggio in Rome - Day 3

Lest you think I did nothing on my 3 day holiday to Rome besides run after Michelangelo Merisi, our Caravaggio, rest assured, I had an extra day to do nothing and loads of free time in the evenings.

Rome takes on a special charm after dark, so don't exhaust yourself so much in the day time that you miss the evening. And there's so much to see, your tour doesn't stop when the museums close.

Here's a shot of a ruin which had its columns pillaged some time or other and they built an arch to keep it standing. Only in Rome!

I was fascinated with the crests of the noble families on the buildings. If I commissioned stuff like that, I'd probably want some credit for it too. If you pay attention, you notice you see the same emblems frequently: the Borghese Dragon, the Barberini Bees, the
Doria-Pamhilj Dove and Fleur de Lis.

On my third day, I visited my favorite Piazza, indeed perhaps my favorite public space: Piazza Navona, where the crest of one of the noble families I visited over the past two days, is quite in evidence. Innocent X, the Doria Pamphilj Pope, continued the building programs of Urban VIII, his predecessor, even though he did not like working with the genius Bernini. Innocent's crest appears on the Four Rivers Fountain by Bernini and on the Facade of St. Agnes in Agony, on the west side of the piazza, designed by Bernini's rival Borromini.

The Doria Pamhilj Dove is even perched atop the ancient Egyptian obelisk. Look up! Grab a gelato, and watch the freak show that is Piazza Navona. The mimes, puppeteers, pigeons, artists, children, drunks, fashionistas, hippies: they're all here. Grab a seat and watch.

I headed inside the Church of St. Agnes in Agony. The seventeenth century high Baroque building stands atop where St. Agnes was taken to be tortured for her Christian faith.

They dragged our beautiful young heroine weighted with chains from horses, right here in Piazza Navona, a horse racetrack at the time, tried to burn her at the stake, and many other despicable tortures, but she was spared and the executioners burned. Finally they just stabbed the poor girl to death. Her attribute is the Lamb, because of her meekness.

In a small chapel to the left of the main altar, you can visit her head, the small brown thing in the gold case. Be respectful.

St. Agnes was a popular Patron Saint among Roman women and in centuries prior to ours, one had a hard time getting in the door of this church for all the poor, humble women on their knees praying on the front steps and filling the interior. Now, it's full of tourists and I am certain the atmosphere feels quite different.

Having a train to catch in the afternoon, I decided to wander toward Termini Station for a visit to Santa Maria Maggiore, passing some interesting and anachronistic uniforms.

Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the four Basilicas or Titled Churches of Rome, so it is particularly splendid. The ceiling is covered in the first gold brought back from the New World - a gift from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain - Columbus's backers. That is the Gold of Montezuma. Let that give you chills for a moment.

Also inside is the tomb of one of the men responsible for the entire Baroque reinvention of Rome, Johannes Bernini, humbly placed to the right side of the great altar, but with little fanfare or decoration.

On the other side of the main altar is the Borghese Chapel, dedicated to the glorious Borgheses and decorated to impress. Over the altar is a very old Byzantine icon which performs miracles, like the chapel itself isn't miracle enough!

But the best secret of Santa Maria Maggiore is that they actually have the manger in which Mary laid Jesus in the stable when there was no room the them in the inn.
Under the main altar and huge Baldocchino, there are stairs leading to a marble lined crypt. As you descend, you see this big white praying Pope.
Follow his gaze: that big
crystal urn with the gold baby on top contains pieces of wood that by fact or tradition or both are the actual manger of Jesus.

Santa Maria Maggiore is a little overwhelming, so I went to Piazza Repubblica for a delicious lunch in the colonnade and with time for one more stop before my train, I visited the Basilica of Saints and Martyrs.

The building was originally the Baths of Diocletian and was turned into a church by none other than Michelangelo himself, so it's pretty impressive. Mind boggling, too, how huge the building is, how the church does not take up all of it, and how it was originally a public bath. Very interesting history, though less to see inside than many other churches. The new doors are spectacular.

Monday, May 10, 2010

2 Day Itinerary for Caravaggio in Rome - Day 2

Now that you have had a chance to rest and assimilate all that you saw Day1, don't worry, Day 2 is not quite so packed. Again, you will want to rise early and visit the churches before the crowds arrive. Remember that the churches are open from 730 to noon and again from 4 to 7, so plan your day around their midday closure, and consider that when they open the doors in the afternoon, there are hordes of eager tourists looking for something to do in the late afternoon and crowding around the very pieces you are there to see. You encounter fewer crowds either early in the morning or close to closing time, and unless you're a freak for church architecture, churches generally take less time to tour than galleries, and there's always a place to sit. Please be respectful when you enter these churches, they are holy sites to some people, whether they are to you or not - do try to honor that.
Day 2 -

We will start Day 2 at the Pantheon around, say 8 am. I trust the reader will easily find such an august landmark and will want to linger in the shade of the Piazza and drink capuccino all day, but I encourage a sip from one of the fountains instead. Hold your finger over the flow of the water, and it will be diverted into a convenient arc for sipping. Designed that way thousands of years ago to keep the Roman population hydrated with the fresh water from the Roman aqueducts, and still in use today! OK, do all that, and when you're done, turn your back on the Pantheon and walk along the left side of the piazza to its end, where you will turn left on a little pedestrian street, the Via Guistiniani.

Walk one block and the first stop of the day is ahead on the right corner: the Chiesa de San Luigi dei Francesi, the church built by the French kings in Rome. It was built to dazzle the visitor, and it does, as only the many Louis could.

Inside, notice all the Fleurs de Lis everywhere, the symbol of the House of Bourbon. There are so many flourishes and tombs in here, you could spend quite some time. Go ahead, today is more at your own pace than yesterday.

We have come here to see the Chapel of St. Matthew. You won't be able to miss the crowds around it, in the front left corner of the church. With three Caravaggio paintings overwhelming a very small chapel, they are a wonderful argument for leaving works of art in situ: the viewing conditions in modern museums and galleries cannot approximate the viewing experience of seeing the work in the environment for which it was designed. Even with the crowds, it is possible to lean against the side wall or a column and soak in these three amazing paintings.

Over the altar is the Inspriation of St. Matthew. He jumps up from his desk as an Angel appears. The diagonal slash of his body, the perfect arc of the Angel floating above the startled Saint are isolated in a field of black. Notice the foot of the stool on which St. Matthew rests his leg; it is hanging off the ledge in the foreground, moved suddenly as Matthew jumps up and practically falling onto the altar table, just as the corner of the desk and the edge of the book jut forward from the picture plane. The mostly vertical folds in his robes give the painting a strong vertical axis leading the eye directly to the Angel, and there is a remarkable bit of negative space between the head and shoulder of St Matthew and the heavenly visitor.

On the left wall of the chapel is the scene of The Calling of Matthew, my personal favorite of the three. The light appearing from the right side of the canvas acts on the viewer like looking into bright light in real life; it almost blinds the viewer to the scene in the shadows directly below the wedge of light and window on the right side of the canvas. There, in the shadows of the holy light which falls on a startled Matthew, sitting counting his revenue with his colleagues, is a barely discernable Jesus with the merest hint of a halo, reaching his hand out in exactly the gesture as Adam on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. With Jesus, and echoing his gesture is St. Peter, clad as he always is in blue and yellow. Caravaggio uses all his tricks to draw the viewer into this painting: the mystery of the shadows, encouraging us to fill in those dark places with our imagination, the open place at the table, inviting us to join the group on the left, the moment of obvious communication between Matthew and Jesus, with the two boys' brightly illuminated faces completing an illuminated line between the two principal figures. Like the Conversion of Paul at Santa Maria del Popolo, included in Day 1's itinerary, the light is that of the Holy Spirit, calling the Apostle to his destiny. Here we also see Jesus and Peter in the robes of bibilcal times, whereas Matthew and his colleagues are wearing the clothes of successful men of the 17th century, another of Caravaggio's tricks to involve the viewer directly and bring the story to life.

On the opposite wall of the chapel is The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. According to tradition, St. Matthew was killed as he was conducting mass at the altar. Here Caravaggio presents the moment of highest drama. The soldier sent by the evil king kills Matthew with his sword as horrified spectators look on. Considered by some to be the first true Baroque painting, it does represent a strong break from the Mannerist style which preceded it. Gone is the detailed background of the Mannerists with the perfectly rendered architectural details - dissolved into clouds and shadow, a suggestion of the altar table in the backgound. The shadows only fully reveal the twist of the murdurous soldier and the fallen body of the saint, reaching up to take the palm of martyrdom from the angel descending from above. Gone are the formal poses of the Mannerists, changed into violently twisting forms half hidden in shadows, every illuminated detail carefully aligned to lead the eye directly to the center of the action. The action threatens to spill out of the frame on the right, with the youth falling backwards toward us.

Soak in all you can here, the next stop is very close. As you leave the Church of St. Louis, walk to your left down Via della Scroffa for only a couple of blocks, where you will find the Via Coppelle, where you will take a Left and find on your right, half a block up, the Piazza and Chiesa St Agostino - the Chuch of St. Augustine. Here I show not the front of the church, which so dominates the piazza that the reader cannot miss it, but rather the corner so that you can see that despite the flourish of the Baroque scroll on the facade of the building, there are still the flying buttresses of the old gothic structure.

Inside the church, explore what you like, it is quite lavish and includes many important works like Raphael's fresco Isaiah on the third column on the left in the nave. There is also the chapel of St. Monica, which contains the body of the mother of St. Augustine. But to find our Caravaggio treasure look just inside the front door to your immediate left. The Madonna of the Pilgrims, or the Madonna of Lareto is one of my favorites of this entire journey and I think one of Caravaggio's greatest masterpieces. The light exposes only enough details to make the otherwise rather still composition sparkle with life. The pilgrims are not idealized in any way, they are filthy, desperate people seeking redemption. The filthy feet of the man in the foreground were once judged unsuitable for an altar, but the church kept the painting despite objections to it. And one can easily see why. The tenderness of the Madonna as she introduces the weary ones to her blessed child: everything about them bespeaks humility, from their bare feet, bowed heads, averted eyes and barely perceptible halos to the somber palette. Mary's red sleeve offers the only burst of color in the canvas, drawing the eye to the baby it enfolds. The pure white skin of the Madonna and the Child and the shocking white of the cloth in which she cradles him (referring to the shroud in which they will lie him in the tomb) draw your attention and combine with the light falling on the male pilgrim's side to form a perfect diagonal line which divides the canvas in half and gives it a very dynamic feeling. The light defines the door to the Holy House to which the pilgrims make their journey of faith, but the details of it are left in the dark for us to imagine, as so much is in Caravaggio's work. The baby holds his hand in benediction, blessing those who seek redemption.

The reader should be about ready for a snack and a jolt of macciato, so as you leave the church, go back to your left down the Via Coppelle, take a right back at Via della Scroffa, then left again at the Church of St Louis, on Via Giustiniani and back to the Pantheon. Relax. Have a coffee or a pizza. When you are ready, prepare yourself: the next stop is a doozie.

Leave the Piazza by walking beside the Pantheon along its left side, as you face it. You will pass Piazza Minerva with Bernini's delicious little elephant holding the ancient Egyptian obelisk in front of the Church of Maria Sopra Minerva (inside is Michelangelo's The Risen Christ and many other treasures, when you have time). Continue forward down the Via de Cestari, stopping in the Ecclesiatical Tailor to get a pair of Pope socks to remember your trip by, until you get to Via del Plebiscito (3 blocks or so), where you will take a Left on the busy street. Continue 4 blocks and you are in Piazza Venezia. Take a Left on Via del Corso and a block ahead on your right will be stop 3.

Step into the 17th Century palace of the Doria-Pamphilj family and transport yourself to the Rome of Pope Innocent X. With the state apartments open to tourists as well as its fine picture gallery (the Velazuez portrait of the Doria Pamphilj Pope Innocent X alone is worth the visit), the Doria Pamphilj Museum is one of Rome's quiet gems. Allow yourself the luxury of the free audioguide, narrated in great part by one of the descendants of this noble family. The collection is broader than most, due to the interest of Camillo Pamphilj in Northern European art, so here you will find the usual roster of Italian Renaissance Masters, joined by Breughal, Tenniers, Metsys, Durer and many other artists from the north. The palace itself is also part of the tour, allowing the visitor a small glimpse of the opulence the 17th century offered the rich.

The Doria Pamphilj Museum owns three Caravaggios. The Rest on the Flight to Egypt is on loan to the exhibition in the Scuderie Quirinale. John the Baptist is alleged to be a copy of the one in the Borghese gallery, though experts once labeled them the other way around. Either way, it is on display, but since it is a copy of one in the exhibition you saw on Day 1 of the itinerary, we can pass over it here and concentrate on The Penitent Magdalene.
Using an uncharacteristically high angle, we are looking down at the pitiful Mary Magdelene, the most popular penitient in the history of religious art. Her jewels are on the ground beside her with the jar of ointment which usually accompanies her. The carafe is rendered with the perfection of a Flemish Master, but the bowed head, gentle curve of the neck and light falling on the wall to define the space is pure Caravaggio. She is seated,and we are looking down upon her. This angle is an interesting twist Caravaggio uses to involve us emotionally in the painting: we are looking down on the figure, making her appear vulnerable, and asking us to take pity on her. She has rejected the worldy things, as evidenced by the jewels on the floor, and presents a sad and lonely figure. Dressed in clothing of the 17th century, Caravaggio asks us to relate to her as he or she would to a real person, further involving us in the pathos of the scene.

After the Doria Pamphilij Museum, there is only one more stop for the day, and you may want to play this one by ear, because it is a huge museum stuffed to the rafters with fascinating ancient stuff, including my favorite sculpture from all of antiquity: The Dying Gaul, and containing only one Caravaggio at the moment.

Fortunately, the next stop is quite close. Leaving the Doria Pamphilj, and going to the right down Via del Corso, back to Piazza Venezia, turn right at the piazza and follow the exit to the right of the gigantic wedding cake monument to Victor Emmanuel, the first King of unified Italy, twisting to your left, you will see souvenier stalls, gelato stands and a staircase leading to one of the most beautiful and historic piazzas in Rome: Michelangelo's Piazza Capitolino.

Take the stairs slowly and let the piazza come into view. Surrounded on 3 sides by monumental buildings, the square has a history of over 1000 years and is worthy of further research and comment, but not here and now.

I will let it go with the tidbit that these buildings show Michelangelo's study of ancient art and architecture very clearly, as they have for the first time since the buildings of antiquity, a double order pilaster: columns which are 2 stories high, providing unifying vertical lines to the facades, and making a very grand impression indeed.

The collection includes two Caravaggios, but John the Baptist is on loan to the exhibition at the Scuderie Quirinale, leaving only The Fortune Teller in the Pinacoteca Capitolina. Having visited the Capitoline Museums before, I knew what to expect, so let me warn the reader: there are 3 buildings chock full of fabulous Roman antiquities, interconnected by tunnels which offer some of the best views possible of the Roman Forum. On a mission to study Caravaggio, however, for this trip, I skipped over everything in the ancient collections except Dying Gaul, an old friend I had to visit, and went straight through the tunnel to the Pinacoteca, where the paintings are.

The Fortune Teller is supposed to be about the gypsy woman stealing the ring off the unsuspecting gentleman's hand, but for the life of me, I didn't see any semblance of a ring in either hand, and I looked. Perhaps she is simply telling his fortune. This is another light hearted genre scene like the Cardsharps in the exhibition at the Scuderie Quirinale (from the Kimbell Museum in Ft. Worth). The obvious rip-off in that canvas does give credence to the theory that this fortune teller is in fact stealing the ring, but I didn't see it, try as I might. You try.

That completes Day 2 of my Caravaggio in Rome Tour. If you were able to complete it, I congratulate you because there are MANY distractions along the way which are delightful in themselves, but you have kept your focus and studied over half of Caravaggio's entire life's work in two days. Your feet must be killing you. Time to slip on those new Pope socks, have a glass of vino tinto and put those puppies up. Room Service?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

2 Day Itinerary for Caravaggio in Rome: Day 1

As promised, here is a suggested itinerary for a tour of the Caravaggio paintings currently on display in Rome. With the "Caravaggio" exhibition at the Scuderie Quirinale as a foundation, for the next month, it is possible to view half of the entire oeuvre of the great Master who, with Bernini is called the "Inventor of the Baroque." With his radical interpretation of biblical events, his use of light to define his subject and intensify the emotions evoked, his inclusion of the details of everyday life and characters who were neither glorified nor idealized, and his use of dramatic foreshortening to blur the line between the canvas and the viewers' space mark him as one of the most influential painters of the seventeenth century, if not in the history of art.

Here is an itinerary I designed for my personal trip to Rome to conduct my Caravaggio survey. This post contains Day 1 and Day 2 will follow in the next posting. It is possible to complete the entire itinerary in two days - I have done it. The traveler with more time may want to take the information from the itinerary and use it as needed in planning a longer trip to the Eternal City. Judging from its nickname, Rome be there as long as you need, but unfortunately, the wealth of Caravaggio there will not. The exibition at the Scuderie Quirinale closes June 13, 2010. But take heart, the rest of the paintings in the following itinerary are there as eternally as Rome itself.

In the following posts is my personal guide to the Caravaggios currently in Rome, but there is one which is there, but not available to be seen. Caravaggio's only fresco is in the Casino Boncompagni Ludovisi, but the casino is aprivate residence, belonging still to the Ludovisi family. If anyone can prcure an invitation for me to see that fresco, I would be most appreciative.

I will start the first day's tour from Termini Station, as this is where I began the day, and it's as convenient a starting point as any, at least for my purposes.

Day One

The "Caravaggio" Exhibition does not open until 10 am. Reserve your ticket for 10:00, but avoid the crowd a little by hanging back until about 10:10 or even 10:15, and the huge rush of people waiting to get in will already have their audioguides and be well ahead of you. Get up early, nonetheless, because the churches in Rome open by 7:45 or 8:00 am, so you can see one or two early, before the galleries open, and before most tourists have finished their Cappucino.

Stop 1 :Santa Maria Del Popolo

Exit Termini Station from the front exits, toward the bus stop zone. As you leave the station, head to the right, to the Metro entrance. Take the Metro to Flaminio-Piazza Del Popolo (4th stop/Red A Line, in the direction of Battistini). As you exit the station, follow the signs to Piazza Del Popolo. The Metro exit will leave you just outside a big arch. This is actually the Porta Flavinia, an important entry point into ancient Rome, which the reader may wish to research further. Step through the arch, into Piazza del Popolo and enjoy its scale and Baroque symmetry. No, those lovely twin churches acorss the Piazza are not your destination. Once you cross through the archway into the Piazza, (if it's raining, just try to avoid the vendors selling umbrellas) the Church of Santa Maria Del Popolo will be on your immediate left.

Inside you will find it hard to keep your focus on Caravaggio. There are so many other highlights. As one of Rome's titular churches , it is very richly decorated. If you are interested in Raphael, you find a treasure trove to study here: the dome is a Raphael mosaic of the creation of the world, and the Chigi chapel was designed by Raphael. A couple of wonderful Berninis, and some Pinturiccio frescos are also here, but we are here to see the Cerasi Chapel, where the Carracchi "Assumption" over the altar greets us as we approach the open chapel. It is when we get close that we see Caravaggio's magnificent side panels, The Conversion of Paul on the right and The Martyrdom of St Peter on the left. We can't get the best angle in the world for viewing, and that's exactly the way they were designed to be seen. The space is tight and the figures overwhelm their frames almost spilling out into the chapel itelf. The light is so dramatic in both canvases that you recognize Caravaggio immediately.

In The Conversion of Paul, young Saul is lying on his back, on the ground, eyes closed, blinded by the flash which threw him off his horse. Above Paul is a forest of horse and human legs and an attendant who seems completely unaware of the life-changing event occuring next to him, or is he coming to the rescie? Paul tumbles from the frame, nearly on top of you in this tiny space,
and you are easily swept into the drama.

The Martyrdom of St. Peter is another moment of intense drama and another inverted figure. Here we are almost confronted with the rear end of the man helping to lift the saint's cross to an upright position for his crucifiction. Peter was crucified upside down because he claimed he was not worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord.

Here we see in graphic detail how brutal the scene was. We see the Saint's faith, resolve and agony clearly, as we are struck by the details which make the scene so real: the filthy feet of the man pushing the cross up with his shoulder, and the rocks on the ground, which refer St. Peter being the "Rock" on which Christ would build His church. Meanhile, the divine light of the Holy Spirit beats down on St. Peter, letting the mystery of the shadows work their magic in this tiny space.

The church is open from 7 am to noon, then again from 4 pm to 7 pm, so if you visit about 730-800, the church is virtually empty and you have plenty of time to explore all its treasures and time to grab a breakfast before your 10:00 ticket for the show at the Scuderie Quirinale. Take your time in Sta. Maria del Popolo, and once you are finished, you can visit any number of little spots for a cappucino and a sweet to restore your blood sugar. After your coffee, go back through the Porta Flavinia (the arch you came through earlier) and go back on the Metro, Line A Red again, in the opposite direction. You are heading back toward Termini Station, but will exit at Pizza della Repubblica, one stop before Termini. Come out of the Metro and walk between the 2 curved, colonnaded buildings, up Via Nazionale, until you reach Via della Quattro Fontani, where you will turn Right. (St of the 4 Fountains--If you are in Rome for a few days, there are fascinating churches along this street which I promise to write about later, and which the reader may wish to research independently, but we are focused here on getting the the exhibition by about 10:10).

Walk up Via 4 Fontani for 3 blocks, where you will turn Left at the Via del Quirinale. Walk past the Palazzo Quirinale (the palace of the Popes!) on your right and notice what a very long building it is indeed. At the far end of the building, you approach Piazza Quirinale with its obelisk and tons of Carbinieres. Just past the Piazza on the right is the Scuderie del Quirinale, originally the Popes' stables, where you will find the exhibition.

Stop 2: The Caravaggio Exhibition at the Scuderie Quirinale. Book your tickets online in advance and see 26 Caravaggios in one stop. Show up a few minutes after your ticket time and avoid the big entry crush. See my previous post about the exhibition.

As you leave the exhibition, stop by the bookstore and the little coffee shop in the Scuderie for a boost of Capuccino, you still have a couple of more stops to go.

Exit the museum and go to your left, back the same way you came, up the Via Del Quirinale, back to the Via della 4 Fontani, where you will take a Left, and half a block up, on your right, you will see the Palazzo Barberini, your next stop.

Notice the Palazzo before you enter. Until this home was built, all Renaissance palaces had flat fronts. This was the first to have wings built on the front, enclosing the entrance courtyard, a model for palaces for centuries, resulting ulimately in the overkill called Versailles, where there are three progressively smaller entry courts. But again, I digress.

Enjoy the beautiful exterior of the Palazzo Barberini, the inside is even better. You may want to walk past the Palazzo before entering, to the Piazza Barberini, just beyond, where there are many options for lunch, and where you may notice on the extreme right of the Piazza a large yellow Bus Stop sign, which you will want to find later after your lunch and your visit to the Barberini.

While the catalogue of the Barberini Palace reads like the index of an Italian Renaissance textbook - all of your favorite masters are here and plentiful - it is the Caravaggios we are most interested in seeing. The Judith and Holofernes which belongs to the Palazzo Barberini has been loaned to the exhibition at the Scuderie Quirinale, and its Saint Francis to a different exhibition, but Caravaggio's Narcissus is there: another single youthful male figure.

Though very dark, and perhaps in need of a gentle cleaning and a review of its lighting, the viewer can still make out Narcissus gazing into his own reflection. What is extremely dynamic and interesting about this otherwise still and contemplative painting, is that Caravaggio has structured the compostion as a circle, the arc of Narcissus's body on the upper part of the canvas and its reflection in the lower section. In typical fashion, Caravaggio has to make a part of the canvas project toward us and blur our space with that of canvas. He does it with the knee, which is brightly illuminated and is the center of the circle. A beautiful composition.

As mentioned above, there are many treasures in the Barberini Palace, and perhaps I will soon write about its treasures (like the Hans Holbein of Henry XIII!), but for now there is one more stop on our itinerary for Day 1.

When you leave the Barberini Palace gates, walk to your right to the Piazza Barberini, where you may have had lunch, and you may notice Bernini's fountain with the Barberini family symbol, the Bee. Entering the Piazza, turn to your right and walk forward past the big hotel and you will find the large yellow bus stop sign, where you will hop on the #116 bus to the Palazzo Borghese, the last stop of the day, and one of the best of the entire tour. Be aware that the bus is quite a small one, and likely to be very crowded. Get a ticket at a Tobacconist (shops marked with a green "T" sign), and validate it on the bus by sticking it in the slot of the little yellow machine - if you can reach it through the crowd. The bus stop is just in front of rather plain looking brick church, The Church of the Immaculate Conception, the Church of the Capuchins. This is the church with the macabre displays of the skeletons of its former members, and you may find in researching online that there is a St Francis by Caravaggio in its Sacristy, however, the painting is currently on loan to an exhibition in Helsinki. While it is an interesting church, and many readers will find the display of skeletons worth a look, we are waiting for the bus to the Borghese Gallery.

Located in an immense park which was once its private garden, the Borghese Gallery is one of the glories of Rome. In order to enter, you absolutely must and I repeat MUST book your ticket in advance. They admit visitors every two hours for two hours only and they clear the place after each group. I suggest booking your ticket for 5 pm, and getting there about 430 to claim your ticket and check your bag. You MUST check all cameras, bags - anything that you carry, and absolutely no photography is allowed. Be ready for that, beacuse you have no option if you want to enter. As you go in, after the first 2 rooms of the audio tour, find the stairs and go up to the picture gallery, where you will find the Caravaggios (and the magnificent Titian). All of the rest of the visitors admitted with you will be occupied with the downstairs rooms, and you will have the painting galleries to yourself, then, by the time the others make it upstairs, you can go down and enjoy the incredible Bernini, Canova and ancient sculptures in peace. The history of the building is as fascinating as the collection, so do rent the audio guide to learn about Scipione Borghese, a wild man, and rich.

Of the six Caravaggios in the Borghese collection, three are included in the exhibition at the Scuderie Quirinale (Boy with Basket of Fruit, St. John the Baptist and David with the Head of Goliath). St. Jerome is in conservation, at the moment, so is not on display, but the very early work called Self Portrait as the Sick Bacchus and the Virgin of Palafrenieri are each worth the price of admission.

The appropriation of The Sick Bacchus is its own story with which the audio guide will entertain the interested, but just to look at the canvas, its greenish pallor, its study of the play of light and shadow over a human form, is to see the mature Caravaggio's Head of Goliath, already hinted at here in 1593, 17 years before the ghoulish masterpiece. He paints in a ghoulish palette and explores many of the themes we see constantly in his later work. Is this a satirical self portrait, as some opine, mocking the divine inspiration of artists? The reference to wine is here, and the forward projecting sash of his belt on the table is a precursor to the later use of objects projecting forward to blur the line between the painting and the viewers' space.
The light in The Madonna of Palafrenieri really marks this as one of Caravaggio's mature style, though its composition is less dramatic and interesting than most of that period. This canvas has it all. The nude Jesus, who is not the infant we are accustomed to, but a toddler or even somewhat older, stamping out the snake, overcoming evil, with St Anne, his grandmother standing by. The sweet expressions and serenity of the scene seems at odds with the snake writhing at the bottom of the canvas. The painting caused a stir because the Virgin's racy neckline seemed out of place to contemporary viewers.

You will have no problem filling your two hours at the Palazzo Borghese. Enjoy my personal favorite: Titian's Divine and Profane Love. I am sure I will write about it some day.

This concludes Day 1 of the Caravaggio Tour of Rome. As you leave the Borghese, walk straight from the palace through the gardens to the first intersection, where you will find signs directing you to Piazza Venezia and many other places where you can take a bus or taxi back to your hotel. By now, you could probably use a rest or a drink. As you can see, as I left the Borghese Day 1 of my tour, I did!
I will leave you with Daphne and Apollo, David, and The Rape of Persephone, all by Bernini and all at the Galleria Borghese. I will return to them in another post.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

All Caravaggio Tour of Rome

Friends have suggested for years that I share my interest in art with others through this medium, and after writing an itinerary for myself to tour Rome in what I call the All-Caravaggio Tour of Rome, perhaps it is time.

"Caravaggio," a blockbuster exhibition at the Scuderie Quirinale through June 13 commemorates the 400th anniversary of the master's death in 1610, and is a gigantic head start to a nearly comprehensive study of one of the most innovative and influential geniuses in the history of art. In this post, I will attempt to describe the exhibition. In subsequent posts, I will share my itinerary for seeing all the Caravaggios in Rome in 2 days. It's overload, but I loved it! Several from Roman collections have been lent to the Scuderie Quirinale exhibition, and one to the Sinebrychoffi Museum in Helsinki until May 9, but there are still over a dozen others in various galleries and churches through the city, the inclusion of which complete the Caravaggio tour.

If you've ever been to Rome, you know it is a complex city with layers of history literally stacked in glorious and decrepit piles everywhere. Among the chaos is amazing beauty. If Paris is Martha Graham, then Rome is Merce Cunningham. Paris is expressive, beautiful, languid, turbulent: Rome breathtaking, atonal, fractured, vulnerable. One can spend a lifetime studying Rome and never see it all, never understand its complexity, and I won't attempt to here. However, I do suggest, as many have before, that you choose your itinerary at least loosely before you arrive in the city, as it is so overwhelming once you are in it, that your trip is likely to be such a jumble of
memories that you can't remember what you actually saw if you don't.

Like the Bernini Elephant in Piazza Minerva, designed to support an ancient Egyptian obelisk, Rome is an amalgam of everything Ancient, Classical, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and Modern.

Many have suggested breaking Rome into historical eras for visits, i.e. going to see the glory of ancient Rome, or choosing the Baroque era as your main focus, and others suggest selecting an artist, such as Bernini or Raphael and touring the museums and churches which feature that artist's work. This post is an attempt at the latter, with the concentration of Caravaggio paintings at the Scuderie Quirinale as a starting point.

This post will cover the "Caravaggio" exhibition. My step by step itinerary to the rest of the Caravaggio paintings in Rome, as well as selected highlights and discoveries along the path of the itinerary will follow in a separate post. Feel free to scroll through to the section that interests you most. As for the turbulent life story of the artist, except where his life intruded upon his paintings, as sometimes it did, I will leave that for other sources and the reader's curiosity. The profound impact of this artist on every subsequent generation of painters, I leave to the experts to analyze and debate, though I reserve the right to add an observation or two. My aim here is to provide a guide to a wonderful trip to the Eternal City focusing on the work of one of its most passionate and influential artists: Michelangelo Merisi, known to us as Caravaggio.

I offer the insights of one who has learned about art by looking at it; an Everyman whose 30 year education in Art History has been entirely a self taught journey. I offer my comments not as serious Art Theory or Critique, but as assistance to those who understand less than I about the History of Art, and trust me to make the study interesting, fun and understandable, as I research and plan my own travels and studies of the art treasures of the world.

The Caravaggio Exhibition

With the overwhelming crowds this exhibition is attracting, I strongly suggest avoiding lines and delays by booking your tickets through the Scuderie's website. The audio guides and wall text through the galleries offer valuable insights and information about the art. I suggest you spend the time to read the walls and the Euros for the audio guide to understand the importance of this artistic giant. With that said, I will also add that the audio guide script was obviously written in Italian and translated to English rather academically, so sometimes it's a little awkward and linguistically convoluted.

The exhibition itself, however, is stunning. Gathered from museums and private collections throughout the world, the paintings selected are all by the hand of the Master and are arranged thematically, in as close to chronological order as is possible to ascertain. The research and scholarship behind the show are extraordinary and the results impressive. The layout permits a great number of visitors to gather around each of the large canvases and provides easy sight lines. The rooms feature appropriately dim lighting, considering Caravaggio was the "inventor of the spotlight," as I like to refer to him. His paintings, especially in his mature years, are especially dark and are flattered by the dim lighting this show provides. However, the focused spotlights on the paintings themselves, in some instances, create glare on the paintings' surfaces and might do well to be scrimmed slightly. I'm sure I will write about my philosophy of the lighting of paintings in museums in another post, as I do have strong opinions about that, but this post is a guide to Caravaggio in Rome.

The visitor enters the exhibition by going up a gently rising and curving grand Travertine marble staircase. Do stop and read the text as you enter. It describes the intent of the curators and gives important background information about the show, the artist and his patrons.

The walls are painted very dark shades of green, red or grey to mark what the curators define as the three artistic periods of Caravaggio's life. Works are arranged more or less chronologically within genres, you'll see. Trust the choices of the curators; they have done a fantastic job.

The Paintings

  • Boy with Basket of Fruit (Borghese Gallery, Rome) 1593-94 This painting is considered by some to be an allegory of Christ's love offered freely and ripe, or of the seasons, given all the types of fruit ripe at the same time, which naturally don't appear ripe in the same seasons, or of the senses, or even of a sexual nature: the boy offering his own fruits. Whatever it is, the way Caravaggio's undisclosed light source constructs shadows on the wall to define the space and lead the eye to the boy's nonchalantly tossed back head, heavy lidded (sleepy? sexy? melancholy?) eyes, slightly-parted voluptuous lips, bared shoulder, and ever ripening basket, it's magic.

  • Basket of Fruit (Milan, Vineranda Bibioteca Ambrosiana, Pinocoteca) c.1600 As Maurizio Calvesi writes in his essay in the exhibition catalogue, "Caravaggio," edited by Claudio Strinati, published by Skira Editore: But why is the Basket so extraordinarily beautiful? Clearly, not simply because it reproduces the fruit with a precision that could be described as photographic. However, this realism gives rise to a striking formal structure, that can be examined along two complimentary paths. To appreciate the work's fidelity to nature the eye is called to examine the tiniest details, in a labyrinthine approach, dwelling on how the individual fruits and the single leaves are rendered. But to perceive the sculptural quality of this image, our gaze has to embrace the whole, observing how the shade which deepens on the right side of the basket makes the parts in light stand out, translating its natural rotundity into a rotundity which is that of volume, of pure form, permeated by the secret life of a crystalline light, with the whisper of chiaroscuro transitions. So, it's quite realistic. Before Caravaggio, there was an emphasis on making everything in a painting as ideal as possible. If you painted an apple, it should be perfect, ripe and enticing. Here we see an apple with a worm hole, a pear that needs to be eaten soon and grapes with drying, withered leaves. One can see a reference here to the great Still Life paintings of the Low Countries at about the same time, the decaying fruit symbolizing the passage of time. Mortality. Vanitas. "We're all gonna die." "Get right with God." I would add that in this painting Caravaggio has given us a background of the perfect shade of Italian stucco, aged and aging still. That color abounds in the city and country architecture throughout Italy and occupies the majority of the canvas. I will suggest that in his choice to make the rather textured, but plain background such a dominating element of the composition, and to have that background so elegantly splashed through the tiny openings between the fruits and leaves, even through the holes in the leaves on the very top branch, he has invented what we would in modern parlance call Negative Space. Very cool, hip and rather contemporary for c.1600! Are the juxtapositions of the grapes (as symbols of Christ's blood) and the apple (as a symbol of original sin) an argument for the religious interpretation of these works? You decide.

  • Rest on the Flight to Egypt (Doria Pamphilij Gallery, Rome) Notice the remarkable landscape in the background of this painting, there are not many this detailed in the entire show. That's one way you can tell it's still his early period. I like the heart shaped composition with Mary and the infant Jesus and Joseph forming the heart, divided by the ivory white skin of the angel in the foreground who divides the picture space pretty much completely in half. On the right, the heavenly bliss, motherly love, tender nature, while on the left, the pursuits of man: music, wine, a beast of burden. The oak tree's leaves are turning brown - life is short, which do you pursue? You decide.

  • The Musicians (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) 1595-96 A dynamic and busy composition, the canvas is crammed like so many of the Mannerist canvases of the period. Caravaggio has created a swirl of diagonals to animate the composition. Follow the line of the angel or Cupid/Eros figure on the left as it joins with the diagonal of the red sash on the central figure, then continues to the lower right, where it joins the white robe of the seated figure in front and in the gentle swoop of the drape across his back, leads the eye back to the open space of his exposed shoulder and the faces of the boys. Look closely: the winged figure in the background is holding grapes... Blood of Christ? Wine (as in "wine, women and song")? Is it Cupid with the quiver? Some argue each. Is the figure in the background the same model as Bacchus? The Lute Player? Boy with Basket of Fruit? Lover? Model? Self portrait? You decide.

  • Lute Player (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) 1595-96 As the background is significantly darker and the effect of the light brighter by contrast, we can see Caravaggio developing toward his mature style. Again we have the lips, the sleepy/sexy eyes, the theme of music, the temporal nature of the fruits and flowers. Here we also have the deeply foreshortened lute and violin projecting out toward us, almost in 3-D. The table is set at an angle to the picture plane to emphasize this 3 dimensionality and draw the viewer into the picture space, to blur the line between our reality and the reality of the picture, to involve us. Caravaggio will become the master of this blurring of the viewer's space and the picture space as he develops his mature style. The photographic realism of the flowers and fruits invites comparison with those Dutch Still Lifes again. According to the catalogue essay "The Lute Player," by Kristina Herrmann Fiore, the words on the sheet music in the painting are those of the "third madrigal, which goes: 'You know that I love thee, I adore thee/ But do you not know that I die for thee,/ If you knew,/ Perhaps you would take pity on me./ But if you care/ about my fate/ You will see the torment of this burning fire/ Consume me little by little.' Beside the element of interior 'fire,' there is that of the 'air' emitted by the boy's song, while water sparkles in the vase and our gaze takes in the gifts of the earth, fruit and flowers." Allegory? Just a pretty picture? Religious? You decide.

  • The Card Sharps (Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth) Again here the background is quite neutral and the shadow on the wall defines the space as rather shallow. The angle of the table and the backgammon set hanging off the edge, again, invites a blurring of the picture space with the viewers', involving us in the action. The action, in the case, is interesting. We are witnessing the fleecing of a young man of some means. The strongly pyramidal composition recalls the composition of many Madonna and Child paintings of the Renaissance, but here is used to show two hucksters in somewhat theatrical clothing, and one of whose gloves have holes in them, the other of whom hides extra cards to help him cheat, in his waistband. The poor dupe, the character sweetly looking down at his cards with an innocence that suggests he has no idea what's happening, is dressed in the fancy lace collar and cuffs and dark satin and velvet clothing of a young gentleman. Caravaggio was the first to paint pictures of gambling cheats in action, and the subject became quite popular throughout Europe in the 17th Century.

  • Bacchus (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) 1597 Here we have Caravaggio breaking further away from the Mannerist style with his portrait of the Roman God of Wine. It has virtuoso handling of the glass carafe and wineglass, and the ripples and bubbles in the wine in both vessels suggests that the carafe has just been set down, and the glass is trembling in Bacchus's hand. In a further break from the idealized figures of the Renaissance and Mannerist periods, Caravaggio gives us a slightly pudgy faced god with a sunburned face and hands, a pure white shoulder, and as a final touch of reality, dirty fingernails. He gives us unabated the gritty reality of the street urchins he employed as models. The background is dark, closing in the picture plane and there are the apples, grapes, and wine, which could have religious overtones, especially in the Italy of the Counter reformation, but the figure is still the heavy lidded youth we've come to expect from Caravaggio, seeming to offer his sexuality as well as redemption. You decide.

  • St Catherine of Alexandria (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) She looks like a real woman posing in a studio, and that's basically what she is. With the broken wheel of her torment, the sword (her manner of execution), palm to represent that she's a Christian Martyr, and halo of her sainthood, she's got it all: strong diagonal lines, elegantly rich, beautifully rendered fabrics, and the look of the watchful intellect we associate with the character of this scholarly saint. Is that blood on the sword, or has Caravaggio portrayed the light so that we have the subtle reflection of the red cushion on which she kneels in the polished blade of the sword (which looks to one observer to be not of a type which would easily sever a head). You decide.

  • Conversion of Saul (Private Collection, Rome - WOW, I'd like to see THAT collection!) 1601 This painting is a wonderful telling of the story of the conversion of the Christian-hater, Saul, into the Christian Disciple Paul (Acts 22). He was riding along to Damascus, when his evil self was thrown off his horse by a blinding light. In that terrible flash, we have Saul/Paul on the ground, illuminated by a source from above. The guard in the far background covers his ears from the thunder, and the bearded figure standing to the left, pointing his spear at a perfect diagonal to the picture plane, sees nothing, but points directly to the source of the light: Christ, in the upper right corner, sustained by a beautiful angel, is Himself the source of the light. Appearing only to Paul, the others are left in a state of panic and fear. The guards react, and the horse throws his head up in panic, and kicks up his leg and swats his tail. The beautiful diagonals and motion in the arms of Jesus reaching down, the spear and the legs of the panicking guard all lead the eye to the main diagonal, lower left to upper right, between Saul/Paul's covered, blinded eyes and the outstretched arms and shadowed face of Christ. Saul/Paul appears nude, though he is in the leather armour of the Roman Empire, his vivid red robe and helmet having fallen off in the tumble. Notice the effect of the juxtaposition of the purple robes of Jesus (as the Prince of Heaven) with the yellow leggings of the guard, and the green shield with Saul/Paul's red robe: how those complimentary colors make each other come alive... (Van Gogh??) with an almost horizontal band of blue extending from the burnished armor and helmet on the guard, though the striped sky on the right. It is interesting to note that this painting was commissioned for the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, was installed, subsequently rejected, and a replacement masterpiece of the same subject is still in situ (in place) today. That's an interesting story in itself which the reader may wish to research more on his/her own. Check the next post on the Itinerary of all Caravaggios in Rome for more on the Cerasi Chapel versrion.

  • Crowning with Thorns (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna) c. 1602-04 Here the juxtaposition in clothing is really noticeable. The guard on the left is in 17th century armor, while Christ and his tormentors are in ancient attire. We are at once invited to be a participant, as the one in modern dress is, yet we are excluded by the railing on which he leans, and by the fact that his back is to us, effectively blocking us. Where the composition opens to us is though the half of the canvas where the head of Christ and his main tormentor are, on the right. Visually, we enter on the right directly into the red swirl of the claok, which leads our eye directly to the resigned, yet confident face of Christ. The light is more than a background element, it is a character (the Holy Spirit?), illuminating the exposed shoulder of Christ, the flexed muscles of the torturers and leaving glints on the polished armor of the guard (VERY Velazquez/Rubens, who painted only slightly later, and in different places - direct influence? Some say so). The brightly lit feathers on the top of his hat lead the eye to the nape of Christ's neck; the diagonals of the canes and the bodies all lead the eye to the focus of the painting, which is really quite dark: the actual crown and the face of Christ. The artist has used the suggestive power of the dark, the shadow, to draw the viewer in emotionally as a participant, so we are invited in both compositionally and emotionally. I believe that could be considered a hallmark of the Baroque: the invitation to interact with the artwork on an emotional level as well as spacially. The painting wants to project out of its frame; the sculpture tumbles out of its niche AND they arrest the viewer emotionally.
    From a more modern observer's perspective, the negative space is brilliant.

  • The Deposition (The Vatican, Rome) 1600-1604 I love Depositions, the characters are always the same and the interpretations are so varied. Here Caravaggio has taken a big step into the Baroque. He's fully there. The slab on which the characters stand juts out into our space. It is the slab on which they lay the body to cleanse it before burial and they seem to be in the act of taking the cleaned body of Christ to the tomb. Present are the regular cast: John the Evangelist (the "Beloved of Jesus") in his usual red and blue, the Virgin Mother in her blue, her face looking old, aggrieved, exhausted and spent, her hand outstretched beside John's head. Mary of Cleophas wailing in the background, Mary Magdeline, quiet and heartbroken, her hand pressed to her forehead, eyes downcast. It is Nicodemus who invites us to participate in the drama of the scene. Looking boldly out of the canvas directly at us, the man who helped take Jesus from the cross looks exhaused and numb from his exertion and filthy from his tragic chores. This is gritty realism which must have shocked the viewers who were used to Perugino's perfect Cruxifictions or a totally idealized young virgin holding her dead son, as Michaelangelo's Pieta of only a few years before. Though the pose of the Christ figures in both the Pieta and the Deposition is nearly identical, the intent is quite different: Mannerism vs. Baroque: the moment of intense drama, and you are invited directly in. And this is a tough drama. The Marys are at their physical ends; the men can barely lift the body. The greenish tint of the dead skin of Christ and the bold red of John's mantle: again, playing with the visual power of complimentary colors. The composition is also remarkable for its motion and power. The perfect yet seemingly natural arc of faces from Jesus on the left, up through Mary of Cleophas on the upper right, with dear Nicodemus inserted in front - the fulcrum of the arc of heads. Remember that this was originally an altarpiece, so looking up at it, you would have felt like you were really looking up at the scene. And the people looked like people you knew, in fact the wall text will tell you about the man whose portrait Nicodemus is, so it made the religious stories actually feel alive and current to the worshipper. Inviting you in, both spatially and emotionally. Baroque.

  • The Flagellation of Christ (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples) 1607-1610 With a very dark palatte and not much color at all, Caravaggio gives us this scene of Christ's passion. Christ yields to his captors as two bind Him to the column and a third binds sticks together with which to scourge Him. Again, a divine light from above illuminates Christ and little else, while his captors' faces fall off into shadow. This is an ugly, dirty scene and we are right in the midst of it, with the only foreground figure the kneeling man on the left and the light visually thrusting the body of Jesus out of the frame and into our space. And those forshortened sticks in the very foreground, actually coming out at us. This was shocking stuff to viewers with a Renaissance or Mannerist mindset, like when they started cussing on TV.

  • Adoration of the Shepherds (Museo Regionale, Messina) 1608-09 Somehow, with nearly transparent brown and black, Caravaggio has completely defined the entire picture surface into the simple characters and humble stable of the Adoration. The strong light we have come to depend on as a character in Caravaggio's painting comes from the left and brightly illuminates the Virgin, a bright diagonal of red and the baby, whose face is obscured from us. The arc of faces is comfortably similar to that in The Deposition. The halos are so discrete, like they are glass disks illuminated from the side. There is a wonderful still life in the foreground, a simple touch of realism which invites us into the scene. The blindingly white napkin with the loaf of bread and Joseph's carpenter's tool is the point of intersection of all the angles of the composition and such a humble representation of the life of the everyman. How much more humble can they be than lying on the ground? That, with the suntanned, grizzled faces and dirty hands of the shepherds and Joseph's open, welcoming gesture would pull the contemporary viewer right into the scene.

  • "Love Triumphant (Amor Vincit Omnia)" (Staatliche Museen, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin) 1602 Look out! Cupid is looking at YOU. Taunting, laughing relaxed, playful, naked. He's got you in his sights, but look out, he's so precariously posed, he's going to have to look away any second! Here Cupid (Love) is trampling, and seemingly about to fall on, the symbols of the pursuits of man: music, architecture, literature, warfare, the celestial arts, and with such glee! The pen and T Square in the foreground, as with paintings before, jut out into our space an blur the distinction between Cupid's space and ours. His almost confrontational nudity begs the question: What type of love is thus victorious? Sacred? Or profane? You decide.

  • Judith Beheading Holofernes (Palazzo Barberini, Rome) Well, my goodness, talk about being right the moment of the action! The blood is spurting, the fingers clutching the bed, Holofernes calls out as his eyes roll back in his head: the exact moment between life and death. Judith, though beautiful, is hardly the idealized Judith holding the sword in Mantegna's sweet little scene in Washington's National Gallery. She is a holy murderess, muscles tight and brow furrowed in the action. Her mouth is slightly open, praying? She seems to concentrate, but she also seems a little distant - steeled for the battle, I guess. The old maid whose bag awaits the trophy looks on with a steely strength of her own, and a face chiseled by years of hardship. The sweep of the fabric of Judith's skirt, the curve of Holofernes's arm, the fabric of the tent-flap weighing down on the scene from above, and the strong light from the left balance this strongly horizontal and vertical composition, and the negative space, especially between Judith and Holofernes is dense with energy. I love Judith and Holofernes. Besides Salome with the head of John the Baptist, Judith is the only woman beheading a man in Western art. She can be distinguished from Salome usually by the bag. Judith took Holofernes's head in a sack, with the help of a handmaid, while Salome preferred John's head on a plate. And there's no female attendant at John's decapitation, that deed was performed by the guards. Could there be a Counter reformation message here? The light of God inspiring the Catholic church (Judith) to slay the evil heathen (Lutheranism)? You decide.

  • St. John the Baptist (Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome)1602 Is this not the same model as Love Triumphant?? The boy liked to be naked, and apparently Caravaggio liked him to be as well. The S composition is rather beautiful and reminiscent of the poses of some of Michaelangelo's figures in the Sistine Chapel. But gone is the idealized formality there. Here John is unabashedly naked, his fur garment under him. He leans on a pure white linen, referring to the shroud of Christ? He embraces a ram... an interesting switch on the usual iconography. Usually John is shown with a lamb, as he who led the way for Jesus, the Lamb of God. But here, it is a Ram. Same species, but the adult male, a reference to sacrifice, in this case the sacrifice of Christ for all mankind. Gets a little deeper than it first appears. This was not an altarpiece, but commissioned for a private home. Could you imagine the reaction if it had been placed in a church?! Caravaggio had quite a relationship with John the Baptist and painted him several times. We will see several more John the Baptists as we go through the exhibition, and they are dramatically different from this sweet youthful one.

  • The Taking of Christ (National Gallery, Dublin) 1602 - The swoop of faces almost seems like the Nike Swoosh logo. John, the Beloved of Jesus, runs, horrified, off to the left. Jesus, sad, scared and resigned, hands clasped from interrupted prayer, leans back, but does not shrink from Judas's kiss. The strong horizontal of the arms clutching Christ and the swirls of John's robe above the heads completely encircle Christ in a red swirl, a claustrophobic clutch. The lantern is mostly hidden from the viewer by the soldier's helment, but lights the scene brilliantly. The dress of the soldiers is modern compared to the robes of Christ and the disciples. Rising from the darkness on the right side of the canvas is a figure, eyes transfixed on the kiss and brightly lit - a self portait. Is the angle of his head and the parallel angle of Judas's head some inference of the artist as irredeemable sinner? You decide.

  • Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery, London) 1601 Have we seen that basket of fruit before? Well, go back to the beginning, I think we have! Three days after Christ has arisen to heaven (Luke 24), Disciples Cleophas and another (some say St Philip, but think here we have St James, as he is the pilgrim saint whose attribute is the shell and the man on the right is clearly wearing a scallop shell on his cloak) are dining with a stranger. Here, as Christ breaks the bread, we see the moment when the Disciples recognize their risen Lord, come back to revisit them. The one on the left, reels back in his chair and James stretches out his arms in wonder. Jesus, serene and bathed in light, eyes downcast, blesses the scene while the seving man stands by impassively. A scene from everyday life, yet with deep religious meaning. And in the tradition of the Dutch Still Life, that basket hanging precariously off the table. Could it, as in those works, symbolize the transince of life? Certainly the decaying fruit does. Get right with God now; you could be as dead as that chicken tomorrow. The dramaticly forshortened arms on both Jesus and St James and the chair scooting back away from the table in the foreground jut almost into the viewer's space and bring us right into the scene. With strong shadows on the dark walls, there is a finite space behind the action. We are definitely in an enclosed room, but with the fruit hanging off the table and a space at the table open right in front of us it's as if we are invited to the table too.

  • John the Baptist (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri) 1602 A darker, older, wiser, cagier John. The reed cross is here and with spilintered edges, alludes to Jesus coming and the violence of his demise. The strong diagonals and bright downward light make the figure feel isolated in his sylvan surroundings. We interpret his gaze own way, as the shadow hides his eyes and we are free to use the shadow/darkness to our own imaginative purposes. Is that broken branch above his head a reference to his beheading? You decide.

  • Sacrifice of Isaac (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) 1603 An earlier painting, we have the full background landscape which would be obscured in darkness in a later work. The light makes a strong diagonal from the Angel's arm through the body of Isaac, whom God has commanded Abrahmam to sacrifice as an act of faith. The Angel intercedes and miraculously a Ram appears as a substitute sacrifice, but Caravaggio has captured the moment of the most drama; the knife almost slits Isaac's throat as the Angel intervenes. By the way, is Isaac the same model as Love Victorious? You decide.

  • Dinner at Emmaus (La Brera, Milan) 1606 Painted after Caravaggio was convicted of first degree murder, this canvas is far darker and more austere than the Dinner at Emmaus we saw earlier. With less clutter, less decoration and much more limited palette, Caravaggio focuses on the action. These are NOT the idealized people of Michelangelo. They are scruffy, dirty, poor. The reactions are not as dramatic as the earlier work, but the gentle light and Christ's less hopeful, dark and downturned eyes give this work a much less enthusiastic and upbeat feeling.

  • John the Baptist (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte di Palazzo Corsini) 1606 The third of four Johns in the exhibition, this one strong diagonals and light from above give this one a heavier countenance and more masculine strength than the previous two. Present is the water vessel, a reference to the baptism of Christ, and the reed cross, the symbol of Christ's coming and death. With a darker palette and diverted gaze, we are left with the eyes again in shadow, leaving us free to impart our own emotional state to this painting.

  • John the Baptist (Galleria Borghese, Rome) 1610 Emotionally distant, resigned to his role in the great unfolding events of his and Christ's life, this John seems older, wiser, more ready for his trials. The sacrificial ram and reed (but not a cross this time) as his attributes, and his dirty foot and broken log (allusion to his sudden end?) project into our space and bring us into his. The background of a wall with vines, closes us into the same space with John and it feels claustrophobic. This John has a more resigned, yet tragic feeling than the others.

  • Sleeping Cupid (Galleria Palatina, Florence) 1608 How could this not be one of your favorite images from the exhibition? Dating from his time in Malta, after running from his death sentence in Rome, and being inducted as a Knight of Malta, he had to embrace their code of ethecs and avoid brawls, gambling, drink and debauchery - something very foreign to the violent artist. In this very dark brown and ochre palette, Caravaggio has given us a sweet rendition of Cupid at rest. Once Love Victorious, Cupid is this time relaxed, inert, sweet, not challenging us. His wings are an exquisite hints of brushstrokes and the light bathes and warms his naked body. The arch of white feathers defining the upper wing is perfect. This is a real boy, to whom the artist has added the wings of an angel, but the realism of the figure makes one want to pick up the sleeping baby and place him in his cradle.

  • David with the Head of Goliath (Borghese Gallery, Rome) 1610 The crowning acheivement of Caravaggio's career, this composition contains everything Caravaggio worked for his entire life. Instead of the death of the giant by slingshot, or his decapitation by sword, Caravaggio shows us the moment when the victorious young David enters the tent of King Saul carrying the severed head of Goliath. David has the melancholy and tilted head of the early Bacchus, but he does not tempt us, tease us, or play with us. His eyes do not tempt us, they are eyes which have seen a great deal, not the eyes of the innocent Boy with Fruit Basket at the beginning of the exhibition. The light comes from within the tent and the tent flap in the upper left corner closes in the scene and casts shadows over David's shoulder. The angle of his head throws strong shadows over half of his face, the other showing the worry and burden of a man of more years than this young hero. Generally accepted among scholars as a self portait, the horrible head of the giant Goliath may represent Caravaggio's acceptance of his earlier death sentence and his seeking redemption. Is the young David also a self portait as a young man? Or one of his earlier models? If it's a dual self portait, we have the victim, the vanquished, the fallen and the redeemed all in one canvas. On the sword is inscribed "humilitas occidet superbiam" ("humility kills pride"). The palette is entirely mature Caravaggio, the blacks, browns, ochres, red and white. The satin skin of youth and real wrinkles and gaping maw of death, the compelling diagonal lines connecting the two heads. This is one of Caravaggio's darkest masterpieces, one that presages the dark scenes of Goya by many years. As Anna Coliva writes in her essay David with the Head of Goliath in the exhibition catalogue, "It is an expressivity of magnificent, unrepeatable power that holds within it the entire poetics of Caravaggio, according to which a contemplative mind, dolorous and full of infinite commiseration, weeps for humanity. A humanity guilty beyond redemption." Caravaggio. Me. You?
  • The Annunciation - (Musee des Beaux Arts, Nancy) 1608-1610 - I think I would have ended the show with Caravaggio's David & Goliath, but seems the curators could not bear to have the visitor leave the gallery with that shocking and horrible image as the last of the exhibiton, so they added The Annunciation. A large and very dark canvas, Mary is almost completely obscured in the shadows and the bed and chair in the bacground are almost lost in the muddy browns and blacks. The angel however, is the one bright spot in the composition. He appears, kneeling on a cloud, with his back almost completely to us, and the Lily signifying Mary's purity, in his hand, almost hidden in the shadows. Mary is in complete profile, and the angel projects forward out of the picture plane, and the intimacy of the scene also invitates us into it. Of the paintings in the exhibition, a rather weak one to end the show, because it was reputedly repainted by others so many times that the image we see is so dark and much of it not by Caravaggio, only the brushwork of the angel looks like that of the rest of the show.