Boys wearing wings

Nicholas Penny

  • Caravaggio by Howard Hibbard
    Thames and Hudson, 404 pp, £22.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 500 09161 7
  • Circa 1600: A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting by S.J. Freedberg
    Harvard, 125 pp, £21.25, January 1983, ISBN 0 674 13156 8
  • Domenichino by Richard Spear
    Yale, 382 pp, £75.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 300 02359 6

There is also one Michael Agnolo from Caravaggio who is doing marvellous things in Rome ... He thinks little of the works of other masters ... All works of art he believes to be ‘Bagatelli’, child’s play, whoever by, and whatever of, unless they are made from life, and that there is no better course than to follow Nature. And so he will not make a single brushstroke without taking it straight from life.

From this account by the Flemish artist Carel van Mander in 1603, the earliest account of Caravaggio’s art that is known to us, we may deduce that Caravaggio was the first European artist who ostentatiously disdained invention and the ideal. He adhered instead to an artistic purpose that can only be called realist with a defiance which anticipated the attitudes of those 19th-century painters who are still claimed as founders of ‘modern art’: Courbet, who refused to paint angels because he couldn’t see them, and Monet, who set up his easel in the Louvre to paint the modern city from its windows rather than the old masters on its walls. But of course Caravaggio was a different sort of painter. He did not paint views from windows. He did paint angels, or at least boys wearing wings.

Painting from Nature (as opposed to the standard practice of drawing from the model) was the method employed for what was, in the late 16th century, an increasingly popular if minor type of cabinet picture: the still-life of fruit or flowers. There is good reason to suppose that Caravaggio first attracted notice as a painter of such works and although only one survives that is certainly by him, a number of his early pictures (the so-called Bacchus, the Fruit-seller, the Lute-Player) may be regarded as still-lives with human beings (and homosexual interest) added.

The attitude of the still-life painter may also be discerned in Caravaggio’s early paintings of saints, especially his Repentant Magdalene, which looks as if it started off (as Bellori alleged) as a painting of an impassive model to which appropriate attributes were added as an afterthought. His more ambitious Rest on the Flight into Egypt was also surely painted from elements assembled in the studio: the stones on the ground from separate mineralogical samples, the oak tree from a branch, and the wings of the angel from those of a real bird (possibly a wood pigeon).

His secular narrative pictures, probably of a slightly later date than the Rest on the Flight, were simple enough to be more effectively posed in the studio. The subjects are deceit and seduction: one (known only from copies) shows a young cavalier being taught how to cheat at cards; in another a young cavalier has his palm read, and ring removed, by a pretty gypsy girl. These pictures were enormously influential, creating a whole new class of cabinet picture all over Europe, but they may not have been as original as is now assumed.

In Caravaggio’s early paintings clearly-defined areas of flesh colour, buff and sandy brown are contrasted with neat patterns of black and white and golden-brown clothing, and with the red of wine or cherries and the fresh green of vine leaves – all contained originally (as early inventories invariably indicate) by black frames. But when commissioned to paint larger and more complex narratives he abandoned this luminous clarity, darkening his pictures so that the space and the grouping of the figures no longer needed to be lucidly articulated, and the individual figures were perceived, at least at first, only as brightly-lit fragments.

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