Laura Rorato. Caravaggio in Film and Literature. Popular Culture's Appropriation of a Baroque Genius.
In Caravaggio in Film and Literature, Laura Rorato investigates fictional responses to the life and works of Caravaggio published between the 1980s and 2000s. Dedicating each chapter to a specific subgenre (fictional biography, detective fiction, homoerotic fiction, and postcolonial literature), the scholar explores possible reasons for the significant increase in Caravaggio's popularity outside the realm of art history, such as the influence of the gay liberation movements of the 1970s, the rise of a "neo-Baroque aesthetics" (3), and recent attempts in the art and museum industries to attract wider audiences through diversified programs, events, and merchandise.
Chapter 1, "Caravaggio in Context," offers an overview of Caravaggio's life within the context of Counter-Reformation culture and traces the reception of his works from his fall from popularity in the eighteenth century to his re-evaluation in the twentieth century.
In Chapter 2, positing the topos of the pittore maledetto as one expia nation for the creative "obsession" with Caravaggio, Rorato focuses on fictional biographies: Atle Naess's Doubting Thomas: A Novel about Caravaggio (1997), Rita Guidi's Il gigante perduto (2004), Andrea Camilleri's U colore del sole (2007), Dominique Fernandez's La Course a l'abime (2003), as well as Antonella Ossorio's illustrated children's book, L'angelo della luce: Ilgiovane Caravaggio sogna il suo destino (2004), and Angelo Longoni's two-part RAI Fiction docudrama, Caravaggio (2006). What often emerges in these works is the persistent appeal of the mysteries surrounding Caravaggio's life and death, which allow contemporary authors to "impose his/her image onto that of the painter" in a kind of "oblique autobiography" or "psychobiography."
Chapter 3 turns away from Caravaggio's life to instead focus on the representation of his works, specifically within art-crime novels published between the late 1990s and early 2000s, which often center around the theft of a Caravaggio: Margaret Truman's Murder at the National Gallery, Neil Griffith's Saving Caravaggio, Fabio Baldassari's Il mistero del Caravaggio, Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting, Noah Charney's The Art Thief, and Gilda Piersanti's jaune Caravage.
In Chapter 4, "Caravaggio and Homoerotic Concerns," Rorato tackles the question of the artist's sexuality from an aesthetic rather than a biographical perspective, focusing on early paintings that appeal to "homoerotic" fiction because of their anti-bourgeois features and depiction of a "liminal state between sexuality and death" (9). Using Dominique Fernandez's Dans la main de l'ange (1982), Thorn Gunn's poem "In Santa Maria del Popolo," Derek Jarman's film, Caravaggio (1986), and Samuel M. Steward's novel, The Caravaggio Shawl, Rorato draws parallels between Caravaggio's complicated relationships with the Church and his patrons and "the pressures faced by gay artists in the 1980s" (147), and argues rightfully that the "homoerotic appropriation of Caravaggio transcends the debates on the painter's sexuality" and that it is "the open-ended nature of many of his paintings that makes Caravaggio particularly attractive to queer discourses" (166). Yet, while claiming not to be concerned with Caravaggio's "actual sexual inclination," Rorato underlines biographical points of intersection between Caravaggio and the authors and filmmakers she analyzes and dwells extensively on the allure of his "violent and eccentric lifestyle," noting the association of the artist with "the Romantic myth of the link between madness and genius," "the development of the theory of the disturbed and gender-confused personality," and "other mental disorders" (6). Moreover, the selection of texts in this chapter (limited to works by white male authors), feels restrictive in the current broader landscape of Queer Studies and in comparison to other recent studies that offer a more fluid interpretation of sex and sexuality (such as Hammill's Sexuality and Form: Caravaggio, Marlowe, and Bacon, upon which Rorato draws in her own analysis).
Chapter 5 offers an analysis of Michael Ondaatje's novels, In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and The English Patient (1992), and Anthony Minghella's cinematic adaptation of the latter, from a postcolonial perspective. Rorato focuses on the character of David Caravaggio in all three works, identifying parallels with the artist (such as their "outbursts of temper" and outsider status) that she believes articulate "postcolonial concerns" (10) and interpreting the merging of David and Caravaggio into a single character as an endorsement of the "double portrait theory" according to which Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath presents two self-portraits of the artist, at once victim and perpetrator. Arguing that Ondaatje and Minghella "perform" rather than simply quote from Caravaggio, Rorato traces intertextual relationships between Ondaatje's novels, Minghella's film, and Caravaggio's paintings, suggesting that the prevalence of bodily wounds in the novels and film are references to Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas, and that David's bandaged hands and reliance on morphine are symbolic of the postcolonial tension between master and "alternative" narratives.
In her conclusion, Rorato emphasizes commonalities between Baroque and postmodern culture, such as performativity, self-reflexivity, and a "virtuosity of exuberance" that inspires viewers "to revel in the artistry and skill of the artist" (204). Here, and throughout the volume, Rorato argues that one of the main reasons for Caravaggio's popularity is the transdisciplinary allure of the violence, ambivalence, and self-referentiality present in his works and that his "chiaroscuro technique" becomes "a metaphor for the tension between life and death, or civilization and desire" (166). Rorato's selection, while ostensibly limited to works "entirely devoted" to Caravaggio or containing major references to his works, and to authors whose entire production was influenced by the artist, at times becomes, in my opinion, so wide-ranging that some of her claims seem to lose their weight to the centrifugal force of their breadth. Moreover, Rorato is critical of the literary value of some of the works she analyzes, which seem to have been included in the study merely "as evidence of how Caravaggio has been appropriated by popular culture" (160). Ultimately, I believe that readers might have benefitted from a more tightly focused analysis of a smaller selection of texts supported by an index of works containing more oblique references and stylistic affinities. Nonetheless, Caravaggio in Film and Literature will certainly appeal to those interested in adaptation studies and, more generally, in repositioning the Italian canon within a more globalized framework of cultural studies.
ARIA ZAN CAIIOT
Southern Methodist University
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|Author:||Cabot, Aria Zan|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2018|
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