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Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals

The closely argued chapters that open this erudite book focus on identifying the subject of Caravaggio's Capitoline picture of a youth with a ram, painted about 1602 and purchased by Ciriaco Mattei, in whose Roman house the artist then lived. Gilbert calls the picture a "Pastor friso," citing Gaspare Celio's similar identification of the work before 1620. But Gilbert does not repeat Leonard Slatkes's belief (1972) that this picture represents the shepherd Phryxus (Friso) - a view that has received little support. Gilbert instead emphasizes the lower case "f" of "friso" in Celio's description and hypothesizes that this adjective in North Italian dialect may be identified with "fregio" and mean "Phrygian"; hence the reference must be to the most famous Phrygian shepherd, Paris.

Clever verbal games such as these fail to inspire confidence in Gilbert's interpretations; equally problematic is this author's corollary that Paris embraces a ram - an action unknown in any text or image. The lack of attributes for Paris in this picture is matched by the same lack for St. John, with one exception that Gilbert overlooks: the boy sits on a hair coat, appropriate for the saint. But this single attribute is not enough to clinch the matter, nor is the fact that later, around 1609-10, Caravaggio actually did paint a St. John the Baptist with a ram (Rome, Galleria Borghese). If it is argued against Gilbert that the Capitoline picture also represents St. John, then the ram in both paintings could refer to Christ, after Pierio Valeriano (Hieroglyphica, 1556) and St. Augustine, who both interpret Isaac's ram as a symbol of Christ's sacrifice.

In his will of 1624, Giovanni Battista Mattei, the son of Ciriaco, calls the Capitoline picture "il quadro di S. Giovanni Battista del Caravaggio." But Gilbert rejects the argument that the painting was considered to be a St. John the Baptist by the family who had owned it from the beginning, preferring instead the testimony of Celio. Gilbert dismisses the veracity of the will, believing that Ciriaco's son, indifferent to art, perpetuated the misidentification of this picture as a St. John from an inventory of 1616 that already had miscataloged the painting. In spite of Gilbert's painstaking efforts to demonstrate the superiority of Celio's authority in naming the picture, there is no reason to prefer the one title over the other. Unfortunately, Denis Mahon's vague appellation for this picture, Nude Youth with Ram, still remains the only certain one.

Gilbert is more successful in his attempt to demonstrate the importance for Caravaggio of Marquis Ciriaco and Cardinal Girolamo Mattei, brothers whose patronage has been underrated and little discussed (but see the exhibition catalogue Caravaggio e la Collezione Mattei, Milan, 1995). The author makes the point that two Mattei commissions, an anonymous Calling of St. Matthew in the Palazzo Caetani and Muziano's Martyrdom of St. Matthew in the church of the Aracoeli, were important precedents for Caravaggio's versions. However, Gilbert gives strained readings of several other works by Caravaggio, including the London Supper at Emmaus (a Mattei picture, along with the Dublin Betrayal of Christ and the Capitoline one). Gilbert's proposal to reject the indecorum that Bellori saw in Caravaggio's first Inspiration of St. Matthew has merit, as does his argument that the artist himself may have decided to do a second version that would better fit the space. In two entertaining and instructive chapters on homosexuality, Gilbert argues effectively that Caravaggio probably was not gay and that his early pictures for Cardinal Del Monte were not homoerotic. The author further demonstrates how many of Caravaggio's early pictures of youths were based on classical sources. Gilbert's book thus begins with a narrow focus but later broadens to consider other paintings and the relevance to them of patronage, Latin poetry, sexual mores, and Counter-Reformation theology. One is well advised to read this engaging, sometimes charming book with a critical eye, for there are many questionable arguments spread among some truly innovative and useful ones.

TROY THOMAS Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg
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Author:Thomas, Troy
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Words:664
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