There aren’t that many Caravaggio paintings in the United States, so it takes some travel to see these, especially the more famous paintings. My interest in Caravaggio was sparked by seeing The Taking of Christ, 1602, in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. I asked at the information desk what was the must-see and I was directed to the Caravaggio which had a cluster of people surrounding it. It’s a good size, 133.5 × 169.5 cm, with wonderments emerging from black. I was particularly taken with the realism of the armor in the foreground figure.
Viewing an actual painting is significantly better that seeing a reproduction of it. The size and the quality of the surface usually can’t be appreciated in reproduction, and this diminishes the experience. So, reading Francine Prose’s book, even with the support of on-line galleries, is just an introduction to the art itself, but a good one. I found her discussion of the paintings to be succinct and insightful. The book is an even better exploration of the artist’s life, despite the meager biographical information that has come down to us.
One issue that comes up for me from reading this book is the tension, or disparity, between the artist and the art. Caravaggio was, by all accounts, a problematic person, and—God forbid any of us should be defined by our worst moment—a murderer. As we have discussed before on Constant Reader, great artists (and I include writers) are not necessarily exemplary individuals. This does not diminish their achievement, and if the artist is a scoundrel like Caravaggio, this perhaps makes it all the more astounding. I wonder if Caravaggio sought to atone for various shortcomings through the power of his work, in order to give to the world in ways he was unable to otherwise.
Hey Robert. sounds good.
Did you see the Power of Art series with Simon
Schama? I have the hard cover book that accompanies the
series...and some of them on dvd. The chapter on Carravagio
is wonderful. I haven't seen the episode yet...but it was
incredible to read he was a murderer and Schama writes with
a fair bit of passion and excitement,
No, I'm not familiar with the series. I'll have to check it out.
The opening of the book format begins...
Great art has dreadful manners. The hushed reverence
of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are
polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but
actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest
paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your
composure and then procede in short order to rearrange
your sense of reality.
The beginning of the chapter on Carravagio...
From the start, there are only two things you need to
know about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: that he
made the most powerfully physical Christian art that has
ever been painted, and that he he killed someone. Do
these two facts have the slightest connection? I should
hope not, the art historians will tell you, horrified by the
crassness of the question. The fact of the painter's crime
they will tell you, is merely a sensationalist footnote to his
career as a maker of pictures. Beware romantically reading
the art from the life, or for that matter vice versa; the one
has nothing to do with the other.
But then you look at Caravaggio's shocking painting of
himself as the severed head of the Philistine giant Goliath.
and you see something that had never been painted
before and would never be painted again: a portrait of the
artist as ogre, his face a grotesque mask of sin. It's an
image of unsparing self-incrimination and it certainly
makes you wonder.
Robert, I've seen the book available in america, even
though it is a BBC production. It contains wonderful
chapters on Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David,
Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso, Rothko.
I believe everyone who wants to know about art, knows
about art on any level or amount of experience will enrich
their lives with this book.
The dvds I have were sent to me by a freind who followed
the program and knew I would love the BBC production...I
hope they make it to PBS, or some tv station this year...or
at least on dvd.
It's a very invigorating program...and makes you excited
and happy to be an artist or someone who is curious
Thanks for the heads up. I'm itching to get this although if I so much as sneeze in my home I'll be buried under my current TBR pile and never be found again. Still....
All very interesting -- I'm nearing the end of this one and find the contrasts in his work mode and his private actions fascinating and disturbing in equal amounts, I think. I'll say more later.
I'm having trouble getting through this one. Keep putting it down and forgetting about it. Stay tuned.
Voices and Reflections
oil on canvas 1988
I found it interesting that a number of Caravaggio's paintings were rejected because they were too "earthly". I think Prose said that the people in the paintings looked too real, and they had dirt on their feet.
There was another section that talked about some murals in a church in Italy being painted over because those painters were no longer considered good. That just made me realize what a wealth of talent there was in Italy in those years. They could afford to paint over older paintings.
I used to teach Caravaggio in my art history classes. I always pointed out that his use of models off the street was not generally approved. They looked too real. People were used to the Renaissance artists, most of whom were heavily influenced by the Greeks' idea of ideal beauty.
Voices and Reflections
oil on canvas 1988
There's a book called The Lost Painting by Johathan Harr, which is about the quest for the Caravaggio that is in Dublin. It makes a nice companion book for this one by Prose.
My own first Caravaggio moment was 12 years ago, when at the suggestion of Fodor's, we stepped into the humble Church of San Luigi di Francesi in Rome, dropped our coins into the slots, and beheld the amazing paintings of St. Matthew.
The fact that all of Caravaggio's paintings are marked by the dirty feet and shabby attire that are Caravaggio's trademarks, is something that one notices immediately, especially if you've been looking at other religious art.
It doesn't take much, then, to imagine that Caravaggio irked many. Add an angry disposition to this mix, and the outcome can't be good.
There is very little known about Caravaggio's life. So Prose works with what little she has to draw this portrait. Her book is not written like a classic biography, and in my opinion, that is both due to the sparse information and Prose's style.
I've heard of The Lost Painting. It's something I'd like to read.
I have seen some of Caravaggio's works, but I'm just beginning to learn enough about pre-18th century art to appreciate it. I loved learning all the little details about the dirty fingernails, etc. The information about how artists survived in that period of time fascinates me. And, the sexuality of the boys in those early painting paired with the idea that sex with a boy was more acceptable with sex with another man gives me pause.
I'm currently listening to The Last Painting on tape. It's available from Books on Tape and has an interview from the author at the end which I'm looking forward to.
Candy, I loved that intro to the Caravaggio section of your book series. I'm interested to hear what you all think. Does the passion that led C to do many of the things Prose talks about, including the murder, relate to his art?
I'm only 3/4's of the way through this book, so I can't comment thoroughly, but I'm really enjoying it. I read The Lost Painting recently, and it works as a very good companion book. The Lost Painting is also non-fiction, and it delves deeply into the scant surviving records of Caravaggio's life, but that book reads like a fictional, page-turning mystery. I recommend it to anyone interested in art and/or mysteries. It's not the best book you'll ever read, but you'll learn a lot and be entertained.
Barb writes: "Does the passion that led C to do many of the things Prose talks about, including the murder, relate to his art?"
My personal opinion is "yes." I've seen some Caravaggios, and they're extraordinarily powerful and also very modern (even today). When presented in a gallery with his contemporaries, Caravaggio's work jumps out. His style is so raw and realistic and also powerful and violent that I don't think he'd be the same artist without his violent history. I just can't see Raphael ever being able to capture what Caravaggio can. On the downside, I'm not sure Caravaggio is capable of painting divine or pure beauty.
Well, back to reading...
I am kicking myself for not going to The National Gallery in Dublin when I was there to see The Taking of Christ. I am on the last tape of The Lost Painting and the process of its discovery is fascinating. I have always been struck by the Caravaggios that I have seen, often can't tear my eyes away, but I wouldn't have described myself as a fan. Now, that I know more about him, I wonder if I "like" his work more and wonder if that is fair. Is it that I understand him better or that I'm just attracted by his story which is almost like a novel.
I've been trying to figure out which paintings of his that I've seen. I know I saw Sick Bacchus, David With the Head of Goliath (both of which repelled me a bit) and Boy With a Basket of Fruit at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. I've also seen Boy Bitten by a Lizard and The Fortune Teller in the Louvre. And, I must have seen Martha and Mary Magdalene at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I'm a member and go there frequently but I can't remember it which seems incredible. On my next trip, I will search it out. Isn't it amazing that one of them (Portrait of Maffeo Barberini) is in a private collection in Florence? I also think I saw David at the Prado and Supper at Emmaus at the National Gallery in London but I don't have clear memories which makes me want to kick myself again (I'm getting bruised up here).
Photographs of many paintings have become so familiar to me, that I'm ashamed to admit I can't remember if I've seen the actual paintings or only the reproductions.
I'm sure I remember seeing the boy with the lute, on red museum walls. Hermitage? LACMA? Louvre?
Voices and Reflections
oil on canvas 1988
The Web Gallery says that Lute Player is in the Hermitage. You may be ashamed to admit it, Ruth, but you just made me feel a whole lot better.
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