by Catherine Puglisi.
Phaidon, 448 pp., £24.95, May 2000, 0 7148 3966 3
Show More
Caravaggio’s Secrets 
by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit.
MIT, 118 pp., £18.50, September 1998, 0 262 02449 7
Show More

by Peter Robb.
Bloomsbury, 567 pp., £25, January 2000, 0 7475 4599 5
Show More
Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History 
by Mieke Bal.
Chicago, 305 pp., £28.50, October 1999, 0 226 03556 5
Show More
Doubting Thomas: A Novel About Caravaggio 
by Atle Naess, translated by Anne Born.
Owen, 159 pp., £14.95, June 2000, 0 7206 1082 6
Show More
Caravaggio: A Life 
by Helen Langdon.
Pimlico, 447 pp., £15, November 1999, 9780712665827
Show More
Show More

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).

There is one artist in Mieke Bal’s book who may have been genuinely influenced by Caravaggio – whose work, at any rate, has a striking affinity with some of Caravaggio’s early paintings. Carrie Mae Weems’s untitled photographs from the Kitchen Table series show pairs of figures relating to each other, or refusing to do so, in scenes which are rendered compelling by the concentrated artifice of her compositions, in which a stark setting serves as a foil for eloquent but unobtrusive gestures and beautifully lit but banal props (liquor bottle, mirror, peanuts, lipstick). Much modern installation art and video art invites us into a theatre in which the artist and her or his friends are actors, or toy with acting, or into a personal still life, usually with hints of the sordid or violent. Still life is important in Caravaggio’s early paintings, and we are aware of the models he employed in them – more so than we are of those used by any earlier painter. Peter Robb’s book illustrates this in a manner which may have been influenced by the work of some of the artists in Bal’s book – it includes a series of details, resembling close-ups of the same actor in different films, captioned ‘Mario drunk. From Bacchus, 1596’; ‘Mario the tough. From Matthew Called, 1599’; ‘Cecco adolescent. From John in the Wild II, 1602’; ‘Cecco under the knife. From Isaac II, 1603’ and so on.

Although our awareness of Caravaggio’s models and props has been increased by the monographic loan exhibition and the illustrated art book (both things unknown to the artist), groups of his paintings could be seen, in his own lifetime, in two or three Roman collections, and the atmosphere of the studio must always have been obvious. This is usually regarded as a limitation, as in the modern paintings in the town house of Sir Leicester Dedlock, which could be ‘catalogued like the miscellaneous articles in a sale. As, “Three high-backed chairs, a table and cover, long-necked bottle (containing wine), one flask, one Spanish female’s costume, three-quarter face portrait of Miss Jogg the model, and a suit of armour containing Don Quixote” ’. It is a limitation in Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt of about 1595 (in the Doria Pamphilj collection in Rome), which breaks up, as we look at it, into beautiful parts: a pair of pigeon wings (enlarged), a nude boy studied from the rear wearing the same, a violin, a bearded male model holding sheet music, a sleeping housemaid (sitting in for the Virgin), a flask, assorted pebbles, a donkey’s head.

Neither the Fortune Teller nor the Cardsharps reminds us of the studio, but there are later examples which do so. The great painting of Saint Catherine of about 1599, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Madrid, is a portrait of – or at least was modelled by – the notorious Roman courtesan Fillide Melandroni. She immediately strikes us as a contemporary of Caravaggio posing with props. Robb rightly observes that her ‘direct gaze’ is more ‘virile’ than any given by Caravaggio to a boy: that is not how a pious princess would have looked. He gets into a muddle by projecting topical Roman events onto the canvas – specifically, the execution of Beatrice Cenci. He supposes that Caravaggio wished to show Catherine as a ‘noble girl crushed by an earlier regime’. But if that were the case he wouldn’t have chosen Fillide as a model, since she wasn’t noble and looks as if nothing could crush her. As for the ‘instruments of an imminent ugly death’ at which Robb would have us shudder, Caravaggio’s Catherine seems quite unperturbed by the wheel (already broken) and by the prospect of decapitation – in fact she handles the sword as if she would like to use it herself. The painting is not a narrative; nor, surely, does it qualify as a stimulant to pious reflection; and it is certainly not a piece of pro-Cenci propaganda. But it really does resemble some of Manet’s costume pictures. How did contemporaries respond to it?

Atle Naess’s novel is made up of the imaginary recollections of a handful of people who knew Caravaggio. The varied voices contrast with the relentless paramilitary staccato of Peter Robb’s much larger volume. One of Naess’s witnesses recalls a visit that Cardinal Federico Borromeo made to warn Cardinal del Monte, another intellectual prelate who was Caravaggio’s chief protector, of the dangers of relying excessively on ‘observation’: ‘In short – without going so far as to say that the same rules held good for the artist as for the natural scientist – he, the cardinal, would be so bold as to suggest to his honoured colleague, del Monte, the dangers of depending too slavishly on the earthly and imperfect in one’s efforts to create beauty.’ Del Monte then shows Borromeo the picture of Saint Catherine that he had commissioned. Luckily Borromeo crosses himself, bows his head, clears his throat and concedes its excellence – he does not recognise the model. Elsewhere, Naess, like Robb, wants to find evidence of the impact of Cenci’s execution in Caravaggio’s work (her horror ‘shines in the faces and bodies of the people around the Blessed Matthew’ in the painting of the martyrdom of that saint in S. Luigi dei Francesi), but in the passage just mentioned he is equating the values of Caravaggio with those of the new science, and particularly those of Galileo. Both men were connected with del Monte but the attempt at some ideological link (made also by Robb) is reminiscent of the way art historians used to like to hint at some mysterious connection between Cubism and the Theory of Relativity.

We know a great deal about Caravaggio’s Rome. Helen Langdon’s biography is especially rich in new research and she is as informative on the intellectual and cultural interests of Cardinal del Monte as on the notions of ‘honour’ that provoked thuggish street brawls; she explains how the households of cardinals worked and itemises the contents of the wardrobes of prostitutes (amazingly, an inventory of Melandroni’s dresses survives). She writes excellently about the music and the poetry of the time as well as about the painting. For Robb, Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller is an ‘instantly recognisable scene of the kind of thing the Pope was trying to stamp out’. Gypsies and prostitution were certainly under attack but, if this painting does not remind us of the studio, neither does it take us onto the street or into the tavern. Langdon rightly points out that gypsies were well established as a subject in theatre and song (Vasari indeed mentions an earlier painting – a perfumer’s shop-sign – of a gypsy fortune teller) and that this gypsy is carefully dressed in stagey costume.

Ironically, Robb’s point of view is dependent on that of Bellori, who claimed that when Caravaggio was shown the famous statues by Phidias and Glykon he pointed towards a crowd of people and, summoning a gypsy girl, made a painting of her. This story was obviously invented for polemical purposes. It is hard to think of a Roman sculpture collection from which a crowd of common people would have been visible, and in the early years of the 17th century gypsies were not seen as the antithesis of classical beauty. Indeed, an antique statue in the Villa Borghese was fitted with a bronze gypsy head – probably by Nicolas Cordier who, like Caravaggio, had lodgings in del Monte’s palace.

Robb in his tough journalistic manner tells us that ‘M’ – his tiresome way of referring to ‘Michelangelo Merisi from Caravaggio’ – ‘lived in a time of bureaucratic power, thought police and fearful conformism, in which arselickers and timeservers flourished.’ But his career also coincided with the establishment of the picture collection as a prestigious accessory almost equivalent, for the powerful prelate or banker in Rome (as in many other great courts and cities), to liveried servants and gold plate. This affected attitudes to subject-matter. Paintings by Old Masters were valued as Titians or Raphaels rather than, or more than, revered as portraits of this or that sitter, or images of this or that saint. Living artists were even sometimes free to select their own subjects and were certainly able to treat them more freely, and these subjects could now be low, unedifying or merely ostensibly edifying – or even non-subjects.

This is the period in which the still life came into its own – a fact of the utmost importance for understanding Caravaggio. Not only did he paint the famous basket of fruit in the Ambrosiana in Milan, one of the earliest surviving paintings of this genre, but many of his early pictures could be described as still lifes with models – basket of fruit held by a boy; boy attacked by a lizard concealed in fruit; boy musician with flowers in a vase. His celebrated Bacchus has not only a basket of grapes in front of him but almost as many grapes on top of his head. He also holds a glass of wine which, like the carafe beside him, is painted with breathtaking truth and implicit drama (tiny bubbles in the carafe show that the wine was recently poured; the tilting of the glass increases the translucency of the wine).

No drawings by Caravaggio have been identified and the absence of orthodox planning procedures is one reason for the freshness of his early paintings and for the innovative compositions he devised, in his later work, to represent confused action (light shattering his figures into jagged fragments, shadows combining forms surprisingly). This becomes more understandable if we think of him as having started out as a still-life painter: it cannot have been unusual for such artists to compose a subject and then to paint it with no other preparation. By contrast, the figure painter was trained to begin with a preliminary compositional sketch, making separate studies of life models, body parts and drapery, then assembling them in a more finished drawing squared for enlargement and so on. Caravaggio’s artistic outlook may have been determined by his success at still life, which perhaps gave him the courage to apply himself to other genres without the training normally deemed essential.

At the very moment when the control of official art, certainly in a religious setting, was tighter than ever – and the painters of altarpieces in the diocese of Milan where Caravaggio was born were instructed and their works inspected with special rigour – a new freedom began to be possible in art intended for the collector’s gallery, where originality was not ‘ferociously punished or condemned to silence’, as Robb would have us believe was everywhere the case, but was positively welcomed. Collectors also offered a safety net to artists who offended their patrons, and several of Caravaggio’s altarpieces, rejected by churches as indecorous, were snapped up for palace galleries – the most famous example is the Death of the Virgin, now in the Louvre, which was acquired for the Duke of Mantua on the recommendation of Rubens (and from Mantua passed to King Charles I).

The question of private and public is also of obvious importance for the vexed question of Caravaggio’s homosexuality. His early paintings of boys suggestively half-dressed or undressed, with melting expressions, preparing to play musical instruments or offering fruit or drink, look like homosexual equivalents to the earlier courtesan paintings of Palma Vecchio and Titian, but the more disturbing pictures are of slightly later date, when the shadows have darkened – notably, the Victorious Cupid of 1601-2, destroyed in the Second World War, and the Young Baptist (Robb’s John in the Wild II) in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. In these works Caravaggio painted a nude male model in the sort of complex attitude that Michelangelo had first made popular on the Sistine ceiling. Cupid is an especially disturbing parody of this exalted mode. He looks aggressively common – a real urchin, but wearing real eagle’s wings (the feathers suggestively caught on his raised thigh), presiding over the last and greatest piece of still life Caravaggio painted, consisting of pieces of armour and instruments of learning and music, objects and their shadows crossing and concealing each other at startling angles and with enticing effect.

Richard Symonds, a couple of decades after Caravaggio’s death, wrote of the Cupid that ‘’twas the body & face of his owne boy or servant that laid with him’ and that his name was ‘Checco’ (that is, Cecco). Robb commends the boy for supplying his hero with ‘support and freedom’ and ‘two years of good sex’ during a period when the artist had ‘not a single run in with the police’. Where Robb rushes in, Langdon holds back. She concedes that Cecco is an abbreviation for Francesco and that someone called Francesco was living with Caravaggio at this period, but describes Symonds’s ‘garbled’ jottings as having ‘the feel of a colourful anecdote enjoyed by tourists, especially English tourists, so convinced that sodomy was a favourite Italian practice’. She may have been over-impressed by Creighton Gilbert, whose recent book proving with indefatigable pedantry that one cannot prove that Caravaggio was not heterosexual she cites with approval. What Symonds wrote is hardly colourful and is not really an anecdote; it is presented as a plain fact. Furthermore, he wasn’t a tourist but a connoisseur who had close contacts with Roman studios (interestingly, real English tourists don’t seem to have known anything about Cecco).

When she looks at the painting, Langdon finds it erotically provocative, partly on account of what was, in the jargon of the 1980s, known as the ‘significantly absent’ – the boy’s behind. ‘With one hand behind his back, he points suggestively to his buttocks, while displaying the softness of his thighs and the v between his legs to the spectator.’ But she won’t countenance the idea that Vincenzo Giustiniani, for whom the painting was made, could have had a sexual interest in boys – after all, he was, she says, ‘a pious and married man’ (surely most pederasts in Italy over the last five hundred years have belonged to one or both of these categories). She is right that Giustiniani would not have displayed in his palace a painting which flaunted a sexual preference officially regarded as criminal. The picture must have seemed to most viewers who drew aside the green silk curtain that concealed it to represent a mischievous, probably sexually mischievous, boy, and only the initiated would have recognised the more specific appeal.

Although Robb’s pronouncements on the ‘fearful conformism’ of Caravaggio’s Rome are crass, he does encourage us to think about whether Caravaggio’s patrons really knew what they were getting. Perhaps Ciriaco Maffei, for whom John in the Wild II was painted, was so pleased to ‘score’ another canvas by such a fashionable artist that he missed the ‘whole picture’. It has always been the case that collectors of novel and exciting modern paintings have often not fully comprehended – let alone approved of – their acquisitions. Despite Rubens’s eagerness to acquire The Death of the Virgin for the Duke of Mantua, the latter’s satisfaction with it, and the King of England’s keenness to possess it, there is no reason to suppose that Rubens, the Duke or the King approved of the Virgin Mary’s being represented, in an altarpiece, as a realistic corpse, not even decently arranged on the bier but with feet sticking out and a bloated face. Decorum – so important in a work of devotion – was of less importance than narrative power and startling realism when a painting was in a gallery.

Despite the frequency with which Caravaggio’s altarpieces were rejected, there is every reason to suppose that he was keen to receive such commissions. Robb has no time for the way that Caravaggio’s contemporary, Annibale Carracci, painted the Virgin ‘breast-stroking her way upward through the air ... bell-cheeked cherubs peeping out from beneath her armpits’ in his Assunta in S. Maria del Popolo. Robb denounces this with habitual demotic redundancy as ‘deeply, truly inane’, but he cannot deny that Caravaggio, even if he avoided flying figures and cherubim, was interested in the rhetoric and monumentality of the Carracci.

The Madonna of the Rosary, an altarpiece painted by Caravaggio in Naples in 1606-7, but never used there (it might have been rejected), and today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is especially distressing for Robb. Below a huge swag of scarlet drapery looped around a fluted column sits the Virgin, holding her child. Below her are Dominican saints, and lower still the people, who are kneeling – or, as Robb puts it, ‘grovelling’. It is a ‘hieratic counter reformation pyramid of power’ and he is unsure whether to commend as brave or to deplore as cynical his hero’s attempt to ‘kick life into it’. The people are ‘faking it’, but at least they are real and have dirty feet. Helen Langdon goes further: ‘where heaven and earth meet, there kneels a group of Neapolitan lazzaroni ... whose fevered and urgent gestures had a disturbing quality. These poor are not devotionally idealised ... they perhaps seemed threatening in a brutal and despairing city where the mob was feared.’ She proceeds to note that the members of the congregation of S. Domenico were from a privileged and educated social group and later objected to the introduction of a ‘popular form of reciting the rosary’.

There are several problems with Langdon’s hypothesis. There is no significant difference between the features and dress of these Neapolitan lazzaroni and those of the people in the artist’s earlier Roman works. Moreover, although they are plain and simple, disturbing features are scrupulously avoided: there are no sores or deformities, there is no evidence of malnutrition, the clothes have no tears or patches, and the heavy cloak worn by the most prominent man has the broad folds favoured by Raphael for the dress of the Apostles. These people are fervently devout but conduct themselves in conventional attitudes and with perfect decorum, not touching Saint Dominic (although the gentleman beside them clutches his habit) and not presuming to address the Virgin directly. If the painting was rejected, which seems probable, it is more likely to have been rejected by the clergy than by the congregation, but if the evidence of the controversy over the rosary is of relevance it surely indicates that the official Dominican line was to give priority to the homely and illiterate, as this picture does. Langdon here (exceptionally) does exactly what Robb does with the Fortune Teller – she detects a subversive realism that simply isn’t there.

If there was an offensive aspect to Caravaggio’s painting it would have probably been the character of the Virgin and Child – the former, despite her prominence, and her compassionate expression, is no Queen of Heaven, while the latter is not very divine (Robb notes with approval that he is ‘clearly bored’, and, indeed, he does seem inappropriately inattentive). As Caravaggio became more interested in depicting action, he borrowed from other artists the heroic gestures of outflung arms and pointing hands. As he abandoned the subjects of the comic stage so he adopted drapery as distinct from dress. But he could not entirely leave the studio – or, rather, perhaps he knew that his creative strength depended on the model. His infants are always stubbornly heavy, his faces are rarely transfigured by elevated thoughts or by sweet or tender sentiments. He distrusted special effects such as clustered, cherub-laden clouds and golden radiance, although he did make use of the harsh lighting he could create himself in the studio, lighting which could suit a tragedy but not the miraculous or magical scenes of pantomime or epic.

Too many of Caravaggio’s late paintings are in poor condition and some show signs of hasty execution and seem to be compiled from recollections of earlier works. The finest of them, The Beheading of the Baptist, painted for the Knights of Malta by the artist after he had been received into their fraternity and probably in lieu of the usual military service, shows the executioner drawing a dagger to sever the prophet’s head from his neck and place it on the charger extended by the bending Salome. The space is relatively shallow and the light dim, but the intervals between the figures have a clarity that is new in Caravaggio’s art and, as a result, the contrasting actions have greater eloquence. The elementary forms of the masonry contribute to the composition as architecture had never done in his earlier work. Daringly, the chief figures are concentrated into little more than a quarter of the picture. Empty space (filled conventionally with curtain in some earlier compositions) is now essential to the drama. Having invented at the start of his career a new type of silent, close-up comic narrative, Caravaggio now introduced an austere staging that was later adopted by Jacques-Louis David – and one from which the cinema had something to learn. This painter who often appears to be a painter of modern life was always a painter of the studio and the theatre.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 22 No. 17 · 7 September 2000

The Caravaggio painting that Nicholas Penny finds ‘especially disturbing’ in reproduction wasn’t ‘destroyed in the Second World War’, as he puts it (LRB, 10 August). Love the Winner, or Victorious Cupid, is still hanging in Berlin, intact and insolent, ‘aggressively common’ and still a winner. When Penny’s feeling a little stronger he might like to have a look at it.

Peter Robb

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences