Models and Props

Nicholas Penny

  • Caravaggio by Catherine Puglisi
    Phaidon, 448 pp, £24.95, May 2000, ISBN 0 7148 3966 3
  • Caravaggio’s Secrets by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit
    MIT, 118 pp, £18.50, September 1998, ISBN 0 262 02449 7
  • M by Peter Robb
    Bloomsbury, 567 pp, £25.00, January 2000, ISBN 0 7475 4599 5
  • Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History by Mieke Bal
    Chicago, 305 pp, £28.50, October 1999, ISBN 0 226 03556 5
  • Doubting Thomas: A Novel About Caravaggio by Atle Naess, translated by Anne Born
    Owen, 159 pp, £14.95, June 2000, ISBN 0 7206 1082 6
  • Caravaggio: A Life by Helen Langdon
    Pimlico, 447 pp, £15.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7126 6582 X

Even before Caravaggio’s premature death in violent and mysterious circumstances in 1610, pictures influenced by his work were to be found in many different parts of Europe. There were paintings of card parties inspired by his youthful canvases, typically featuring a gay pink plume against a buff wall. Even more of them imitated the grimmer scenes he adopted in the second half of his career, in which a scrawny arm and corrugated brow are sharply lit against deep shadow. His art was subjected to stern strictures by some of the most eloquent critics and theorists in Italy, yet it continued to be prized by collectors and valued by connoisseurs. By the end of the 17th century, however, Caravaggio’s work was increasingly being confused with that of inferior imitators, and he became the victim of his own influence. It is ironic that Catherine Puglisi’s monograph, which provides an admirable, up-to-date and very well illustrated account of Caravaggio’s work should be encumbered with plates of dubious works in which she doesn’t believe.

Although Caravaggio was not discovered, or rediscovered, in the 20th century in quite the way that Vermeer, El Greco, Botticelli and Piero della Francesca had been in the 19th, his work was reassessed and his status greatly enhanced rather as Velázquez’s had been in the century before. It is significant that the only new recruit made in the 20th century to the first rank of Old Masters was (as the late Francis Haskell pointed out) Georges de La Tour, whose brilliantly lit pickpocket and solemn, candlelit Magdalen both derive from Caravaggio’s inventions.

The reassessment of Caravaggio was in part due to the advent of loan exhibitions, to the cleaning and lighting of his paintings in Roman chapels, to the development of the Maltese tourist industry (the Oratory of Saint John in the Cathedral of Valletta contains his last and greatest masterpiece), but it owed most to Roberto Longhi, the most influential Italian art historian and critic of the 20th century. Longhi provided a convincing account of the artist’s Lombard antecedents and his development as a painter, but, more important, he also detected something distinctly modern in Caravaggio, something that ‘anticipated’ Manet. This enabled Italian critics to place Caravaggio in a relay of ‘anti-classical’ artists: in the second half of the last century, left-wing intellectuals (especially on the Continent) felt more comfortable admiring these painters than those who enjoyed the approval of the academies or thrived in the service of Court and Church. This, however, doesn’t really explain the extraordinary popularity of Caravaggio today, which has a great deal to do with his disreputable and desperate life, traced in part from police records.

Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, who turned to Caravaggio from studies of Beckett, Rothko and Resnais, assure us that ‘he truly was – even more, say, than one of the great social pariahs of our own time, Jean Genet – an outlaw.’ Peter Robb is well aware that it was Caravaggio’s detractors – and chiefly the great theorist and critic Bellori – who associated the dark, dirt and violence of his character and deeds with the subjects and style of his paintings, but Robb’s book provides a positive interpretation of the same theme, a study of the young rebel in art and life, whose paintings and street brawls are described in the same vivid style. He was the ‘first modern painter’, Robb tells us, and the ‘peculiar personal honesty’ of his art ‘has more to do with Cézanne than with the painters who preceded him’.

Caravaggio is probably the most attractive of the Old Masters to the young artists who find themselves being invited to pick a partner from among the illustrious dead in order to demonstrate that museums aren’t merely cemeteries. Mieke Bal introduces us to some contemporary artists who have made use of Caravaggio or have claimed a relation with him. Jeanette Christensen, for example, in a work of 1995 placed a laser copy of a detail from Caravaggio’s Thomas showing the saint probing with his finger the wound in Christ’s side above a wooden frame full of red Jell-O, and in a work of 1988, Dotty Attie made little copies of bits of Caravaggio’s painting of Judith and Holofernes – thus cutting up a picture of someone cutting someone else up.

A good deal of contemporary art appears to be designed to attract the sort of exegesis found in Bal’s book, and in Bersani and Dutoit, but Caravaggio’s paintings deserve to be protected from them. Take his Fortune Teller (the best version, of about 1598, is in the Louvre), in which a smiling gypsy girl looks into the face of a young fop as she fingers his palm, detaining his eye and stopping his heart, or at least exciting his vanity, so that he doesn’t notice she is also removing his ring. It’s a tense, silent moment in a comedy, made even more tense by the sharp contrasts between crisp white linen and black velvet, and by a dramatic diagonal of light on the plain wall behind them, which parallels the line of eye contact. Even the unsententious may be inclined to feel that some smart adage about blind youth is neatly embodied here, but Bersani and Dutoit argue that Caravaggio’s paintings provide ‘a visual speculation on the meaning and condition of knowledge’ and that this clever robber is ‘perhaps beginning to realise that there is nothing to read there’ – that is, on the boy’s face – ‘that his secrets are all visible, and that she herself contributes to their visibility, to what Merleau-Ponty would call the fragment of being radiating from him within the universal flesh of the world’. Their book escorts us to a world where the interesting observation and the absurdity are inextricable.

More ambitious than the Fortune Teller in some ways, but less subtle and probably a little earlier in date, is Caravaggio’s Cardsharps, in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. This depicts two youths at play and an older man staring eagerly at the cards of the one further away from us, signalling, as he does so, to the nearer of the boys – evidently a novice in crime – who extracts a card from the back of his breeches. Bal urges us to ‘resist the temptation to read the prefabricated narrative of card-playing and cheating into the visual image’ and proposes instead that the older man is staring not at the boy’s cards but at his pretty face. To do this we have to ‘read the image as a surface, foregrounding its visuality at the expense of the realism of perspective’. She is also sure that the cheating boy is poorer because he has a ‘torn’ sleeve (it is, in fact, fashionably ‘slashed’ and loose linen emerges through it in regular puffs).

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