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.

Obviously Caravaggio was attracted by the dramatic potential of this device, but it must also have recommended itself to him as a way of dodging the ‘rules’ of perspective and the difficulties of anatomy. The transparency and contrast in the brown shadows and the effect of his reds and yellows (blue he avoided whenever he could, even when painting the Madonna) remained remarkable, but his interest in local colour, and in pleasing the eye, gradually diminished. The lighting which he now favoured is unlike any which can easily be observed, indeed its source cannot usually be identified and was not of interest to him (as it would be for many of his followers): but he might perhaps have continued to claim that he painted people whom he could see or had seen. The expressions are no longer such as could be held by a model or studied in a mirror, but they remain on a less elevated level than was expected of high art. He avoided ideal beauty.

Commissioned to paint St Matthew composing his Gospel, Caravaggio depicted him as an illiterate, stupefied by the Hebrew letters which his clumsy hand, held by the angel, traces. For another altarpiece he painted a handsome but not a divinely beautiful young woman standing in a doorway with crossed legs, holding a child, who, unlike almost all earlier representations of the infant Christ, appears to have a weight appropriate to his volume. The backside of a peasant at prayer in front of them and the dirty soles of his bare feet are very prominent (far more so when you stand beneath the painting than when you look at a reproduction). The St Matthew was rejected by the parish authorities and the Madonna was said to have caused great offence – although according to one very hostile biographer the common people were ‘wild about’ the dirty peasants. Caravaggio was accused of travestying devotional themes. Classical mythology he certainly did travesty, painting, for instance, an urchin wearing eagle’s wings and playing with Cupid’s arrows.

It is easy to see from these works why critics have proposed that Caravaggio was in some sense an artist of the people. His paintings, Roger Fry argued, were intended to appeal ‘direct to the uninstructed public’, and Fried-lander tried to demonstrate that they were connected with new Catholic sects especially concerned with the poor. However, apart from the dubious allegation about the popular admiration for the kneeling peasants, there is no evidence to support this view. What is certain is that Caravaggio was consistently appreciated by the most powerful princely art collectors and patrons. Indeed it was because he had established his reputation with the paintings he had privately painted for them, and because he could depend on their protection, that he dared produce work which was considered too indecorous for exhibition.

Hibbard and Freedberg do not exaggerate the modernity of Caravaggio’s realism nor the popular character of his art. Nevertheless Caravaggio, as they represent him, seems to be a typical artist of the 1970s: compulsively autobiographical, obsessed with violence and with his own homosexuality, but also a sophisticated, ironic and self-consciously art-historical artist. Can we accept this?

According to Van Mander’s account, ‘after a fortnight’s work’ Caravaggio would ‘sally forth for a couple of months at a time with his rapier at his side and his page behind him going from one tennis court to another picking quarrels and looking for a fight’. This tallies with what we know of Caravaggio from Roman police records between the autumn of 1600 and the spring of 1606 (when he fled the city after killing a man in a brawl) – even the tennis courts and the ostentatious exhibition of page and sword are documented there. It is also undeniable that special attention is given in Caravaggio’s paintings to pageboys and to swords. Early biographers imply connections of a more general kind between the character of his art and the disorders of his life. It is remarkable how attracted he seems to have been by violent subject-matter, and although we do not know to what extent he chose these subjects, he did, following the example of some earlier artists, make the severed head of Goliath into a self-portrait, and he did allow the stream of blood from the beheaded Baptist to meander into his signature. The homosexual themes in Caravaggio’s paintings now seem self-evident, but it is hard (although not impossible) to explain why even those writers who were most anxious to discredit Caravaggio’s art never considered his sexual inclinations significant, and why that travesty of Cupid, which seems to us blatantly devised to inspire untender pederastic desire, does not seem to have cast a shadow over the high moral character of the plutocrat for whom it was painted – the green silk curtain which eventually covered it can only have given it prominence in his much-visited gallery.

The Cupid’s posture, like that of Caravaggio’s very unsaintly child Baptist, may have been suggested by those of the famous nudes painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Caravaggio’s namesake, Michelangelo. Art historians today tend to assume that such sources were not only intended to be recognised (which in this case seems unlikely) but were part of the intended ironic meaning of the picture. Both Freedberg and Hibbard consider that Caravaggio even aimed to expose the homosexuality which was sublimated in his noble prototype – and Freedberg detects ‘aggression towards the great deities of 16th-century painting’. Hibbard, however, supposes that Caravaggio could also be quite respectful. Noting that he seems to have borrowed the gesture of Michelangelo’s God about to awaken Adam to life for Christ summoning Matthew from a life of sin, Hibbard seems to suppose not only that contemporaries would have recognised the source but would have found it theologically meaningful. This seems to me quite implausible. If Caravaggio’s art was full of quotations, either ironic or solemn, why has it taken everyone so long to notice it? Despite this, Hibbard’s monograph provides a cautious, sympathetic and comprehensive account of the life and art.

Freedberg in his book, the text of three lectures, on Annibale and Ludovico Carracci and on Caravaggio, displays little inclination to consider the original circumstances and purposes of the pictures, or to assess the importance of the patrons about whom Hibbard has collected so much useful information. What concerns him are ‘diagonal impulses’, ‘rhythmic patterns’, ‘measured intervals’, ‘spatial schemes’. Although we may feel that his language is often more appropriate for explicating the mysteries of the radar screen, he is unusually interested in the complexity and intensity of our response to pictures.

Caravaggio’s light does not provide a heavenly or even a sensuous radiance. It never caresses his nude figures, but cuts across flesh, isolating the frowning brow of an executioner, the scrawny neck of a hermit, the swollen belly of a child. His angels do not emanate from the light or glow with it, and he never painted cherubim, which in the sacred paintings of Raphael, Titian or Correggio are as inseparable from light as bubbles from water. Other Italian artists, including the Carracci, greatly valued the divine glow which Caravaggio rejected. They tried, for instance, to imitate the way Correggio had given flesh a texture and luminosity which makes it seem ideal (but which also stimulates intense recollections of real tactile gratifications).

Annibale Carracci imparted to his pupils and assistants, above all to Domenichino, his veneration for the antique and for the old masters, his cultivation of ideal beauty, of elevated expression, of narrative and compositional clarity, and his practice of disciplined, systematic preparation prior to the act of painting. Annibale’s values were transmitted to Sacchi and Poussin by Domenichino, and on to Carlo Maratta and to the French Academy, hardening into dogma defined in self-righteous opposition to the practice of Caravaggio and his imitators.

It might be argued, and is now quite frequently assumed, that the elevated style of the Carracci was ‘élitist’, standing in relation to common nature as poetic diction does to common speech, but their artistic ambitions were determined by the patronage, and perhaps directly influenced by the precepts, of Church authorities who wanted devotional pictures which would stir the whole congregation and be clearly understood even by the illiterate. In fact, their ‘grand manner’ has a better claim to be considered popular than Caravaggio’s realism. Annibale, of course, painted subjects from Latin poetry for the nobility, but he did not change his style when he painted altarpieces, nor when he painted, with particular care, a picture of the Madonna for his postman. He was reported to have admired the powerful impact that Domenichino’s Flagellation of St Andrew made on a ‘little old woman’ and the ease with which she could expound the narrative to a child. Those who preferred a fresco by another of Annibale’s assistants, Guido Reni, in the same chapel reported that they, too, had witnessed the strong if different effect which it had had on the less educated – that is, the feminine and the infant – sections of the underprivileged classes. The decline of any real interest in the popular audience perhaps played a part in the failure of the 18th-century academies to foster painting of this sort, although I know of only one contemporary commentator who even hinted that the prospects of high art might be in any way connected with the priorities of evangelism. This was Horace Walpole, who whimsically hoped that the Methodists might ‘adopt the artifices of the Catholics’and ‘borrow the paraphernalia of enthusiasm now waning in Italy’. He was not thinking of waxwork horrors and saccharine sacré coeurs but of Raphael and the Carracci and their followers.

It was Caravaggio’s distaste for the ‘artifices’ and ‘paraphernalia’ – that is, for the inspiring fictions – of devotional art that seems to have disturbed his contemporaries. He defied decorum, but in part at least, as his admirers today do not admit, because he lacked a certain type of imagination. He makes the circumstances of the Martyrdom of Matthew or Peter startlingly immediate, but does not help us to share their faith – or even to sympathise with their suffering. Christ, as he reveals himself in Caravaggio’s first version of the Supper at Emmaus, has a commonplace face and expression. In his later Roman works Caravaggio achieved a genuine monumentality of composition and a grandeur of gesture which, as Freedberg remarks, matches the achievements of the Carracci, and in his final years he also produced paintings of great pathos, but even in the Beheading of St John Caravaggio does not deepen our conviction, or raise our conception, of divine rapture or inspiration or virtue. Nor does he ever exhibit any beauty that is not mundane. The painting which perhaps best exemplifies the qualities Caravaggio lacked is The Last Communion of St Jerome, which Domenichino began about a year after Caravaggio’s death and completed three years later, in 1614. For over two centuries it was one of the most admired and loved paintings in the world: today it attracts only the very sophisticated and perhaps the very simple. A surfeit of Caravaggio may provide the best condition for a revaluation of Domenichino. In any case, it is impossible to study Spear’s superbly illustrated monograph without admiration for Spear’s – and Domenichino’s – consistently judicious discrimination and scholarly dedication to the highest traditional ideals.