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In what may be the most prestigious event in the art calendar this year, six paintings by the 16th-century Italian painter Caravaggio are accompanied at the MASP by a set of works by his followers, the caravaggisti, in the exhibition ‘Caravaggio e seus Seguidores’ (Caravaggio and his Followers).
Alongside works by the Old Master Caravaggio himself, the exhibition features paintings by the Spanish Baroque artist Ribera, the painter Artemisia Gentileschi – the most important, and indeed one of the only female painters working at the time – and her father Orazio, also a painter, and a close friend of Caravaggio.
Creating living, breathing and often deeply sensual oil paintings, Caravaggio was particularly notable for his powerful use of chiaroscuro – the intense effects of light paint against dark paint, which were in marked contrast to the bright, colourful works of other artists working in Rome at the time. And with his supremely realist style of painting, Caravaggio came to play a compelling role in the city’s cultural and religious life.
‘Maddalena svenuta’ by Artemisia Gentileschi
He was born near Milan in 1571, at a turning point for Christianity. Just 54 years earlier in Germany, Martin Luther had forged the split between the Catholics and the new ‘protestants’, initiating the Reformation. Caravaggio found himself in Rome in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, which sought to shore up the Catholic Church’s power and influence in the face of the Protestant threat.
With their viscerally human saints and Virgins, his paintings scandalised the Catholic establishment, while at the same time electrifying the Vatican’s more visionary members, who suspected that the painter’s intensely realist style might help pull the population closer to the heart of the Church. Saints previously depicted in classical robes, untouchable, became the humble fisherman they truly were, with dirty feet and torn clothes.
The Madonna herself, more commonly clothed in the ethereal blues and silvers of the stars, was shown with bare feet, dirty fingernails, a double chin and rugged peasant clothes. Caravaggio even dared to model her face on a Roman prostitute named Lena.
All went well for the much-favoured artist, aside from the odd minor scrape – he was caught throwing stones at his landlady’s window, and artichokes at a waiter’s head – until 1606, when he murdered Ranuccio Tommosoni, a Roman pimp and a sworn enemy of the artist. To escape hanging, he went on the run, but from Naples to Malta to Sicily, and back to Naples again, fear hunted him from place to place.
He took to keeping a dagger under his pillow at night, and as the years passed, became more and more obsessed with his own death and the relationship between the executioner and victim. Witness this in his traumatic David and Goliath in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, where the mournful David is bound forever to evil through his decapitation of the Philistine giant Goliath. Or the Death of St Ursula in Naples: drawn close to the archer, staring down at the arrow that penetrates her breast, Ursula is captured in the same dark and threatening space as her executioner.
In 1610, Caravaggio was given permission to return to the Eternal City, but in a final twist in the painter’s violent, traumatic life, he met an unexpected and untimely death by malaria, just a few miles from his destination and two months shy of reaching the age of forty.
|'Medusa Mertola', by Caravaggio|
Amounting to roughly a tenth of Caravaggio’s output, the paintings in this show include the Medusa Mertola and San Girolamo (Saint Jerome)– both excellent illustrations of the dark, dramatic style that made him so influential that decades of artists were prompted to turn to the style, hoping to emulate the brushstrokes and rawness of their master.
The chance to see their works alongside those of Caravaggio himself give a fascinating insight into his genius.
Rose Balston is an art historian and runs art history tours of London. Find out more at arthistoryuk.com