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Last Years, 1606-10
Caravaggio Exhibit at Capodimonte


David
                  with Head of GoliathI think the reason I almost never go to art shows can be traced back many, many years to an episode that gave me an inferiority complex about such things. I had been dragged to some intellectual Russian film by a delightful young woman, an art student and painter. In the course of the film, I ventured an aesthetic opinion on a scene: "That's really pretty," I whispered. She glanced around in the darkened theater to see how I had managed to conceal my turnip truck and sniffed, "Look at those colors. They're all washed outbut you wouldn't understand that." (If you are reading these lines, dear Nike, I sincerely hope you have been well and happy all these years, but you sure knew how to hurt a guy.)

So, from this one very non-art person's perspective, the Caravaggio exhibit running through January at the Capodimonte museum is spectacular. On display are a great number of the works of Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610) (called "Caravaggio" after the town of his birth in Lombardy) done during the last four years of his life, some of which he spent in Naples. Also, there are some works only attributed to him by those qualified to make such judgments, and an interesting few examples of antique copies of his paintings, the originals of which have since been lost.

I have read that a contemporary criticism of Caravaggio was that he had "abandoned beauty for mere likeness." The assumption there, I suppose, is that the stylistic exaggerations of the Baroque—known as "mannerism"—were necessary to soften the cruelty of crucifixion,  flagellation, martyrdom and beheadings; thus, one might focus on the higher beauty or truth, the omnipresence of God.


There are certainly no veils of mannerism in the realism of Caravaggio; no one is smiling beatifically while being tormented and, amidst all the startling use of light, certainly no one is wearing a halo. I have read, too, that such photographic realism was in keeping with the aspirations of the Counter Reformation. If the Reformation brought God closer to the people by removing the intercession of Popes and saints, the Catholic Counter Reformation could at least get closer to the people by letting one such as Caravaggio paint historical episodes in the Christian faith as real and as vigorous as they must have been and thus show the common and earthy humanity of the apostles and saints.

BacchusThe only Caravaggio painting that I really like—in the sense that it gives me joy to look at it—is not on display. At the prodigious age of 16 he did a portrait of himself as a young Bacchus (photo, right). The face is unwrinkled and full of the future. Yet, 22 years later, Caravaggio's last self-portrait (photo at top)—on display at Capodimonte and the signature ad for the exhibit throughout Naples—is of himself as the severed head of Goliath, eyes dead yet half-open, staring into nothing. It is a figure of one very beat-up and defeated 38-year-old with nothing left to give. It is so revealing and so candid that you are embarrassed to look.

Psychohistories and details of Caravaggio's life are freely available. He was an orphan and started work as an apprentice to a stone-mason. He fled from Rome to Naples to avoid execution for murder. He went to Malta to seek patronage. There he was imprisoned for insulting a "gentleman". He escaped and fled back to Naples, where hired thugs tracked him down and disfigured his face. He was arrested many times for fighting and general disorderly conduct in public. He was clearly not at home in an age when great talent had no recourse but to beg patronage and protection from the wealthy. He left Naples for Rome in 1610 and died on the way, ill and alone. His contemporary, Giovanni Baglione, said that Caravaggio died "...badly, as badly as he had lived."

(2014 update--Also see "Kill Caravaggio!")


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