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Late Caravaggio at the National Gallery.

THE London National Gallery has shown admirable enterprise in launching its latest exhibition, Caravaggio: the Final Years, a modest but stalwart sequel to the Royal Academy's monumental achievement of 2001, The Genius of Rome. Among the sixteen pictures shown, all startling, are two from Sicily, neither of which has been seen outside Italy before. Unusual persuasive power must have been deployed upon the authorities of the Museo Nacionale at Messina before The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Raising of Lazarus were hazarded abroad. Although there are not many pictures on show, each one, because of its strangeness and complexity (though they are rarely captivating and never delightful), compels one's interest so much that it is hard to take the exhibition in on a single visit.

One's slow progress through the six rooms is partly due to the exhibition's circumambient darkness, lit by spotlights, which reminds one of Balzac's haughty remark that Caravaggio must have spent his life in caves and gambling dens. The enforced gloom, a stagey attempt to copy the drama of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro, lessens the impact of the pictures themselves when seen in clear light. It also makes it hard to discern the detail of the dark areas of the pictures. Caravaggio was painting in haste on the run from the papal police, and later from the Maltese Knights of St John, and must at times have added the top colours to the basic priming, or undercolour, of his pictures before it had set, so that his top colours 'sank', or were rendered indistinct because they were absorbed by the undercolour. One example of this is the nearly vanished lopped tree in the Sacrifice of Isaac at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Others are the back of the crowd in The Raising of Lazarus and the ox and the donkey in The Adoration of the Shepherds.

Like the papal police, we know well what Caravaggio looked like. As with Rembrandt, the artist's face pervades his pictures; notably in his versions of David and Goliath in the Prado and the Borghese Gallery, where Caravaggio's head, transposed to Goliath's, is held up as a trophy by his latest minion. To judge by his appearance, Caravaggio came from the wrong half of Italy. His heavy, swarthy, beetle-browed, levantine features were apter for the polyglot Kingdom of Naples than for the northern Duchy of Milan, where he was born in 1571 (the year of the Battle of Lepanto). Indeed, he spiralled to the south, as far as Sicily and by ferry to Malta, on his whirligig flight from a stack of charges: street-fighting, several murderous attacks and one actual homicide. Among the esteemed scholars who have earnestly and patiently elucidated Caravaggio and his works--art-historians such as Friedlander, Longhi and Mahon--how many would have liked to meet him? One thinks of Yeats's poem on another delinquent genius, Catullus. Yeats imagines the alarm of Catullus's august editors and annotators confronted by Catullus himself:
 Lord, what would they say
 Did their Catullus walk that way?

Not only Carravagio's late paintings but also the events of his life emerge from an entrenched darkness. None of his pictures is dated and only one is signed; signed, to conform with his taste for the macabre, in the pigment he had used for the blood of the decapitated St John the Baptist, and alongside a puddle of the saint's blood (Altarpiece in the Cathedral of St John in Valetta). In the stronghold of the Knights of St John, one would expect to see St John preaching or baptising, not thrust on the ground to facilitate the cutting of his throat, like some poor victim of a Levitical butcher, whilst Herod's warder points sternly to the platter which Salome holds in businesslike readiness. Of the two pictures of Salome with the Head of St John, the Escorial version certainly has the marks of Caravaggio's brooding late works. The sallow-faced Salome averts her scheming eyes from what she has brought about. Only her ancient maidservant, brown and wrinkled as a long-windfallen apple, shows regret as she pores on the saint's head as if exploring her own mortality. In the London National Gallery version, probably by a Neapolitan imitator of Caravaggio, Salome looks away with furtive pleasure.

The dates of the paintings are not always verifiable by external evidence, and even the external evidence is vitiated by muddled early biographers, and further garbled by tendentious later biographers and critics. What are deduced to be his paintings after the crucial year of 1606, when he stabbed Rannuccio Tommasino to death in a dispute over a ballgame, differ from his earliest works in their gloomier colours, their increased use of dramatic shadow, and their sparseness of detail. In spite of that, they remain infused with the special skills, in depicting both the tissue and volume of his subjects, which he brought with him to Rome in about 1590.

The powerful Colonna family, whose antecedents included Pope Martin V, had become titular rulers of Caravaggio's native Duchy of Milan, and showed a solicitous concern for his welfare on several occasions. They apprenticed him to a local painter, Simone Peterzano. Did that obscure painter teach him the textural dexterity which is evident in Caravaggio's work, early and late, or did Caravaggio learn it as he went along? Using the presdigitation of highlight and shadow, he is expert in tracing the substance and grain of the aged human body, as Rembrandt is in tracing the inscape of the elderly human face, neither painter shunning conventional ugliness, but transfiguring it by a deeply pondered veracity in exploring the play of bone, muscle, flesh and skin. Caravaggio leaves pity to others as, with untempered objectivity, he represents the livid surface of a skeletal cling, stretched and withered in straw-coloured emaciation; or skinny pectorals drooping, hair-smudged, into a flattened protrusion of flesh, as in his Martyrdoms of pathetic aged saints, such as The Crucifixion of St Andrew (Cleveland Museum). Caravaggio had become savagely truthful. His Sleeping Cupid, though tricked out with studio wings and arrows, is an obese infant snoring in a pursily mottled spill of flesh. Cupid is no longer the grape-plucking ephebe of The Concert or the lively guttersnipe of his Amor Vincit Omnia.

The late pictures are without artistic flaw, but not without moral fault, since six of the sixteen depict slaughter and atrocity with at best an addiction to strong effects and at worst a fascination with cruelty. In the Italian part of his Travels through France and Italy (1766), Tobias Smollett humanely protested:
 What a pity it is that the labours of painting should have been so
 much employed on the shocking subjects of the martyrology. Besides
 numerous pictures of the flagellation, crucifixion and descent from
 the cross, we have ... Herodias with the head of St John the
 Baptist, Peter writhing on the cross ... and a hundred pictures
 equally frightful, which can only serve to fill the mind with
 gloomy ideas and encourage a spirit of religious fanaticism.

Horace's warning in his Ars Poetica is pertinent here. He points out to tragic dramatists that what is seen on the stage makes a deeper impression than what is only narrated. To shock and alarm with enacted savagery is contemptibly easy. (Dr Johnson could not bear to see King Lear because of the mutilation of Gloucester. I would myself eagerly avoid a realistic performance of Titus Andronicus or The White Devil.) Horace instances Medea's murder of her sons and Atreus's cannibal feast: such spectacles, if ineptly presented, cause incredulity, and if plausibly contrived, prompt aversion and disgust. The kinship with pictures is close. Fra Angelico's Decapitation of Saints Cosmos and Damian (Louvre) with their heads bouncing off, still haloed, in mid-air, defies belief. From Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac one averts one's eyes, as Abraham presses his thumb into his son's wailing face and steadies his finely honed knife whilst gazing at the intercessionary angel.

Probably at the recommendation of the Colonna family, Caravaggio first stayed in Rome with Monsignor Pandulfo, brother of Cardinal Pucci; presumably at the Cardinal's residence, if the story is true that Caravaggio quitted his lodging out of resentment at being served so much green-stuff. The Cardinal was so widely rumoured to serve his guests frugal salads that he was given the nickname of Cardinale Insalata. Caravaggio preferred the life of the disreputable Roman streets around the Piazza Navona, where he wounded a notary in a fight over a 'lewd love' and was suspected of mortally wounding a senior policeman in a tavern brawl. That was before he drew his sword on Tommasino. He associated with tramps and beggars, whores and ruffians. Later he freely used sketches of his ready-made roughneck circus troupe (worthy of a film by Fellini) even in his devotional paintings. The young cheat with the pointed nose in his Cardsharpers (Fort Worth, c. 1595) reappears as a tax-clerk in The Calling of St Matthew (San Luigi, Rome, c. 1596) and perhaps both as Isaac and the intercessionary angel in The Sacrifice of Isaac. The long-thighed urchin, in one of his several versions of The Young St John the Baptist (Rome Capitoline Museum, c. 1600), is replicated with his round belly and his brattish grin in Amor Vincit Omnia (Berlin Gallery, c. 1602).

Caravaggio had further affinities with the late-Renaissance princes of the Church, 'for sins make all equal whom they find together', as George Herbert wrote in his Priest to the Temple. Caravaggio's Amor Vincit Omnia, in which a naked rapscallion Eros tramples on the emblems of the arts, knighthood and monarchy, was commissioned by the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, brother of a Cardinal. Caravaggio had already painted The Concert (Metropolitan, c. 1595), a group-portrait of Eros with three half-clad youths, for Cardinal Francesco del Monte, a close friend and neighbour of the Marchese. He also painted two versions of a portrait of Cardinal del Monte's resident castrato, androgynous and singing an amorous lute-song: one for Giustiniani, with fruit and flowers because Caravaggio was adept at painting them; the other for Cardinal del Monte, with old musical instruments, because music was del Monte's second passion (Hermitage, c. 1596, and Metropolitan, c. 1597). Another Cardinal, Scipione Borghese, seized A Boy with a Basket of Fruit (Borghese Gallery, c. 1594) from Guiseppe Cesari, Cavaliere d'Arpino, on a slight pretext in 1607. Cesari, principal painter to Pope Clement VIII, who invested him as a papal Knight, had employed Caravaggio as an assistant early in Caravaggio's stay in Rome, and evidently admired his assistant's independent work so much that he bought the picture of the fruit-bearing boy for himself.

Caravaggio had now been allocated quarters in del Monte's Palazzo Madama. Directly opposite the Palazzo Giustiniani and near the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, it was called the Palazzo Madama because it was once occupied by the Habsburg exile, Madama Margaret Farnese, Duchess of Parma, illegitimate daughter of the Emperor Charles V, after she had been ousted from the Regency of the Netherlands by the murderous Duke of Alva. It was so grand that it has now been reconstructed as the Senate House of the Italian legislature. In that august milieu Caravaggio found champions on the peripheries of the papal court. They were fellow-infatuates of dubious ripeness and peach-ruddy faces unctuous with a meretricious complaisance. In return for portraying his patrons' adolescent favourites he was rewarded with commissions in the Churches of San Luigi dei Francesi and the semi-papal Church of Santa Maria dei Popolo. The lawless reprobate was condoned by the vices of the lawgivers: condoned, that is, for misdeeds short of murder. Even after the slaughter of Tommasino, a few dignitaries did what they could for him. The Colonna family sought his release from the prison of the Knights of St John in Malta, but Caravaggio forestalled their efforts by escaping from it.

In his church paintings of c. 1600-1610 he came to love darkness flickering and turbulent with flaring light. He gradually abandoned the lucid colours of his decorative paintings and scenes from low life. After his flight from Rome the pictures, like the artist, withdrew further into the shadows. In that murk he envisaged The Scourging of Christ (Naples Museo di Capodimonte, 1607). The stout barrel-torsoed Christ streams with sweat as he staggers under the fist of His tormenter, who snarls with direct personal animosity as he presses down the crown of thorns; but is that thug much worse than his assistants, who, without question and indifferently, tether Christ to he column and plait additional birchtwigs? In the words of Richard Crashaw, in his Divine Epigrams of 1648: 'Unmoved to see one wretched, is to make him so'.

Caravaggio's Raising of Lazarus (Messina Museo Regionale, 1609) is more an exhumation than a joyous resurrection, as if Lazarus, shrivelled to his bones (so that his dangling arm looks like one of Leonardo's anatomical drawings) reluctantly strains to return to this world, of which Caravaggio himself must have been weary, only at the enforcing command of Christ. Christ beckons him with the same signal that He uses to call the apostle to His side in the fresco of The Vocation of St Matthew (c. 1596) at San Luigi's Church. Lazarus weakly salutes Him with one raised arm, its hand lit by a preternatural radiance proceeding from Christ's forefinger, as if Christ was working magic rather than a miracle. Movingly, in the spreading night, the sister of Lazarus stoops to kiss his wasted lips, now restored to her. The gesture may have been copied from a Pieta by Botticelli now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich but remains, in its new context, intensely pathetic.

Intermittently Caravaggio revisited his past. He transported his models from the back-streets of Rome into The Adoration of the Shepherds (Messina). The wastrels old and young gather in a ramp, as if in a tiny theatre, to admire the child. As Mary (adorned with a halo uncommon in Caravaggio) caresses Him, herself propped on her elbow on the straw-littered mud of the stable lit only by the open door, a red-faced wiseacre with expansive hands offers her advice which she would probably be unwise to follow. In The Denial of St Peter (Metropolitan, 1610), the saint, with eyes suspiciously unfocussed, and fists pressed against his pudgy chest in a meridional gesture of innocence, rejects and simultaneously regrets his rejection of the lippy blabbings of a serving maid as she accuses him to a soldier.

A similarly lubberly Archangel Gabriel raises his brawny arm over the plump-cheeked Mary, who has dropped on her knees from a homely wooden chair in front of her unmade bed in The Annunciation (Nancy Musee des Beaux Arts, c. 1608). Gabriel's face is naturistically hidden behind his shoulder, so that only a rufous mop of hair is discernible. Caravaggio failed to paint Gabriel's lilies with the meticulousness for which he was once renowned, either because he had become disdainful of such studies of still life or because it would have taken up too much of his limited time: he once remarked that painting a flower took as much trouble as depicting a human figure. Caravaggio's own face is usually only partly seen when, like Rembrandt, he introduces his self-portrait into religious scenes, as in his Raising of Lazarus, his Martyrdom of St Matthew (San Luigi) and his Betrayal of Christ (Dublin National Gallery). Another aspect of Caravaggio's past persists in The Young St John (c. 1610) in the Borghese Gallery: a petulant urchin, speckled with sun-rash, and with an effeminate moue on his face as a ram curves and stretches against his pliant body.

Caravaggio's two versions of The Supper at Emmaus (London National Gallery, 1601; Milan Pinacoteca di Brera, 1606), hung side by side at the beginning of the exhibition, mark a radical change of style (although a change incipient in two paintings of 1601: The Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St Peter, both in the Church of Santa Maria dei Popolo in Rome). In the London version, Christ has the oval smooth face of his Bacchus (Florence Uffizi, c. 1596), although with lowered eyes. That well-fed face has not known much suffering; is not that of 'a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief'. His flaunting gesture is more like a salute and a welcome to good food than a blessing on the fowl and fruit set before Him (perhaps the last of Caravaggio's virtuoso studies of still-life). The prosaic inn-keeper is puzzled by the flying arms and exuberant reactions of his customers. The inn-keeper in the Milan version is vexed and disconcerted with the frugality of the meal of leafage and bread, which has been contemptuously served on a tin plate. Christ cheerfully and quietly blesses the meal, half-smiling as he recollects the rubric familiar from a past human life. The gestures of His companions are restrained and inward-moving. The ancient waiting-woman bows her head in awe, and a flicker of unfamiliar happiness crosses the deeply wizened depths of her face.

Caravaggio: the Final Years is at the National Gallery until 22 May, daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (extended to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays). During its last week (16-22 May) the Exhibition is open every night until 9 p.m. (extended to midnight on Saturday). The last admission on all nights is 45 minutes before closing time. Admission cost [pounds sterling]7.50, with concessions. The Gallery advises advance booking. For further information please consult or telephone 020 7747 2885.

Author's Note: Some allusion is made, usually for the sake of comparison, to paintings not in the present exhibition. The author is greatly indebted to John Chalker, Professor Emeritus in the University of London, for expert information on the topography of seventeenth-century Rome.
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Title Annotation:Caravaggio: the Final Years, London National Gallery
Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2005
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