The End of Caravaggio
Caravaggio: L'ultimo tempo 1606-1610 Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, October 23, 2004-January 23, 2005
Caravaggio: The Final Years, National Gallery, London, February 23-May 22, 2005
Nicola Spinosa, ed., with essays by Ferdinando Bologna, Antonio Ernesto Denunzio, Keith Sciberras and David M. Stone, Gioacchino Barbera and Donatella Spagnolo, and Vincenzo Abbate, Caravaggio: The Final Years, exh. cat. Naples: Electa, 2005. 192 pp., 41 color ills., 80 b/w. $59.95
Exhibitions devoted to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's works, as well as thematic exhibitions in which his art plays a starring role, have been occurring with greater and greater frequency. The trend looks to increase in the near future. Caravaggio may be now the most reliable draw in the museum business, overtaking the appeal of the perennial favorites Claude Monet and Rembrandt. The round of Caravaggio-related venues in 2006 includes the Rijksmuseum's Caravaggio-Rembrandt show--two artists who have no direct historical connection but who will make a striking visual juxtaposition and draw huge crowds. In the past few years, Caravaggio's works have been the highlight of shows thematizing "evil in art" as well as floral symbolism. Now we await only a themed show linking Caravaggio with Monet ("Night and Day"?) to cater fully to public taste. It is not clear that this busy exhibition schedule is cause for celebration, since Caravaggio studies now seem to be at a crossroads where public appreciation of the artist and a scholarly understanding of his work are in danger of going their separate ways.
The Caravaggio exhibition with the highest aims in scholarly terms was undoubtedly the recent show organized jointly by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, the National Gallery, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It focused on Caravaggio's mysterious final years, about which we know so little, and it gathered together paintings that are difficult or impossible to see in their respective sites and have never all been displayed as a group. Did we as art historians gain from it in the end? The short answer: it depends on what you wanted to know.
It was clear from the differences between the Naples and London versions of the show that what people wanted to know in Italy differed from what was demanded in Britain. (New York never got the show, as it proved impossible to stretch the loans over three venues, and despite spearheading the organization, the Metropolitan's Keith Christiansen generously allowed London to take it.) The catalog was almost the same in Naples and London, with only some additional footnotes and small emendations in the English version. In both Italian and English it makes clear that fundamental questions of attribution and dating remain to be answered, and that many interpretative questions about the paintings are not yet being asked. In the aftermath of both the Naples and London versions of the exhibition one has the slightly depressing sense that not much progress was made on either front. That said, one learned an immense amount from the chance to study these works together. Yet mixed messages, sometimes conflicting ones, emerged from the two venues. The organization of the two shows, their inclusions and exclusions, all said much more than the catalog alone.
The relatively large number of doubtful attributions and mystery paintings on view in Naples points to the great industry in Caravaggio rediscoveries among Italian scholars. They were pruned away in London. The space for temporary exhibitions in the National Gallery dictates a smaller show (only sixteen paintings were shown here). The British public also has less patience with such curiosities of connoisseurship. This kind of variation is common now when shows travel to or from Italy. However, in this case it also reveals the heart of the problems arising from our present understanding of Caravaggio's end. In the absence of a clear sense of how his art developed during these years of flight, Naples put on a show that celebrated the southern context of his late works, while London put on a show that dramatized the tumultuous biography of the artist.
The Naples version may have been tainted by a few paintings that should not have been included. But it opened up our sense of Caravaggio's range and possibilities and expanded the reach of a monographic show. The London version was for purists: only two less familiar attributions remained, the Saint Francis in Meditation from Cremona and the Madrid Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist. Both attributions go back to Roberto Longhi and have had wider acceptance in the Italian literature than in Anglo-American texts. Overall, the National Gallery's was a splendid exhibition of choice paintings, thoughtfully hung by the cocurator of the show, Dawson Carr, and thoroughly appreciated by the public. Here, the arrangement of works and the overly dramatic lighting of the exhibition put the emphasis on Caravaggio's canvases as autobiographical, portraying them as the painterly confessions of a guilt-ridden murderer. It was telling that the director of the National Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, in an interview published in the Guardian, described the show as "Sensation 1606," a reference to the notorious Royal Academy of Arts exhibition of 1997. (1) This slant to the show seemed a troubling gesture backward, reflecting a view of the artist that is increasingly hard to sustain: Caravaggio as the prototype of the modern painter, populist, heretical, at odds with authority, the proponent of erotic and violent rebellion--in other words, Caravaggio as the artist who transcends all of the social and religious orthodoxy that the modern public doesn't really like about seicento culture.
The exhibition in Naples was a quieter, more didactic event. It worked to stunning visual effect in the surroundings of Capodimonte. One entered the elegant, well-lit enfilade of rooms through the galleries devoted to the early history of Neapolitan art, and then exited the show into the rooms displaying Carracciolo, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Ribera. It was a majestic trajectory devoted to Naples, and it allowed one to experience the full impact of a Neapolitan Caravaggio on the city's artistic production. Not just a plea for Naples as cultural center, this placement of the show made a claim for the impact of Naples on Caravaggio. Unlike the exhibition in London, here Caravaggio was framed by a distinctively seicento context.
I don't know how anyone could see this show and repeat the old criticism that Caravaggio's art after he left Rome fell in quality, pushed toward hasty, thin execution by the speed of his flight from justice for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni. Above all, what one could glean from both versions of the exhibition was the simple truth that Caravaggio between 1606 and 1610 was an ambitious middle-aged man at the height of his powers, not someone inevitably marked for death and thus consciously in the final phase of his art. In the first room at Capodimonte, viewers could appreciate fully how Caravaggio responded to Naples by stepping up the effects he reached for in the later Roman altarpieces. Whether or not they were painted in 1606-7, during the first period of Caravaggio's stay in Naples, or in 1609-10, his second visit, it was in Naples that he developed even further the monumental size of altarpieces such as The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew and The Flagellation, and he extended the relation of empty space to solid forms. Above all, he developed the extraordinary firmness, the architectural solidity of his human bodies. In Naples, pictorial space became even more the dark residue left over from the fixed abode of the body. Nowhere is this clearer than in The Seven Acts of Mercy, where there is so little spatial coherence and so much iconographic complexity given to each human figure (Fig. 1). The exhibition greatly benefited from the extraordinary permission granted to bring this work up the hill from its original site in Naples's Pio Monte della Misericordia; this was a case where the loss of an in-situ context was more than amply justified by the gain of a rich and equally significant context among the other late paintings. It is a pity that London could not obtain this work, along with several other key paintings from Malta and Sicily.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
By contrast, the London show opened with one single comparison: the National Gallery's own Supper at Emmaus juxtaposed with the Pinacoteca di Brera's version of the same subject (Figs. 2, 3). This choice--a dramatic one--no doubt was meant to open the many questions surrounding the dating of the Milan work as well as the visible transformation of Caravaggio's later painting technique. Yet it had the effect of encouraging the visitor to perceive a drastic change in his art occurring immediately on his departure from Rome. If we accept the Milan Emmaus as the version Giovan Pietro Bellori said was made in 1606 in the Roman Campagna just after Caravaggio fled (and the catalog entry and wall label...