There is a permanent queue outside the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome for this exhibition of Caravaggio’s work, held to mark the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death. Since being “rediscovered” in the early 20th century, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio has come to be regarded as one of the greatest and most popular painters of all time.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Italian art historian Roberto Longhi triggered a massive revival of interest in the Milan-born painter, placing Caravaggio’s work in the European tradition and bringing to light the extent of his influence on other great masters. For many, he was the father of modernist painting: his radical naturalism and his use of light and shade immediately setting him apart from his contemporaries.
Caravaggio was not a prolific painter however. His famously chaotic life got in the way of his art. Nevertheless, a large number of works have been attributed to him over the years, despite his limited output. This exhibition at the Scuderie offers a selection of only unquestionably authentic works illustrating three defining periods in Caravaggio’s career: his youth (1592-1599); the years of fame in Rome (1600-1606); and exile (1607-1610).
There are twenty-four absolute masterpieces on show selected by curator Claudio Strinati. They are spread over two floors of the Scuderie, in an itinerary that aims to highlight new comparisons between works and subjects. The Boy with a Basket of Fruit from the Borghese Gallery, among the artist’s most important early works, is displayed alongside the Uffizi Gallery’s Bacchus, offering two examples of Caravaggio’s mastery of the still-life genre.
Other works on show include: the two versions of the Supper at Emmaus respectively from the National Gallery in London and the Pinacoteca di Brera, The Musicians from the Metropolitan Museum of New York, The Lute Player from the Hermitage and Amor Vincit Omnia from the Gemaldgalerie in Berlin. There are also the three versions of St John the Baptist – respectively from the Capitoline Museums (just restored), the Galleria Corsini in Rome and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Kansas City, which being the furthest for a European public is likely to be the least familiar. Among the works more rarely sent on loan there are the Entombment of Christ from the Vatican Museum, the Crown of Thorns from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, The Cardsharps from the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth and the extraordinary Annunciation from the Museum of Nancy, restored for the occasion in Rome at the ISCR (Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione e il Restauro) laboratories in a joint Franco-Italian project.
The city of Rome itself is the ideal setting for an exhibition devoted to Caravaggio, affording the public the chance to appreciate both the works loaned from across the world at the Scuderie and those still in situ in the various churches in Rome, for which they were originally commissioned (including San Luigi dei Francesi just a short walk from the Pantheon, Chiesa di S. Agostino near Piazza Navona and Santa Maria del Popolo in Piazza del Popolo).
Caravaggio’s reputation at times got the better of his art, his short and wild life offering a fascination all its own, even to his contemporaries:
There is also a Michelangelo da Caravaggio who is doing extraordinary things in Rome. [But] alongside the good grain there are weeds too: in fact, he does not devote himself continually to study, but after a fortnight’s work will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him. … Despite this, his painting is beyond dispute.
(Karel van Mander, Het Schilderboek, 1603–04)
Michelangelo Merisi was born in Milan on 29 September 1571. His initial training was in Lombardy and some say Venice too. He later moved to Rome in about 1591. He eventually found work with the cultured and powerful Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte after initially finding life hard in Rome. He painted his first masterpieces for the cardinal. Roman citizens received their first taste of his work when his canvases were unveiled in the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, in 1600. His (for the time) shocking naturalism and his skill in using an interplay of light and shadow were already his trademarks.
While in Rome, Caravaggio continued working, creating altarpieces and paintings for wealthy Roman families, the clergy and bankers. His life was turned upside down in 1606, when he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, brother of the district chief of Campo Marzio. It is still unclear exactly what happened between the two of them, or why Caravaggio killed him, but his life took a dramatic turn as a result. He was sentenced to death by Pope Paul V, so he fled to Naples, then Malta and Sicily, eventually returning to Naples after many years. He hoped for a pardon and in an attempt to return to Rome with his troubles behind him, he found himself travelling through Tuscany. However he fell ill during the journey and died on 18 July 1610 at Porto Ercole, aged just 39.
Strangely, Caravaggio was almost instantly forgotten as a painter and he remained in obscurity until the beginning of the 20th century, when he was rediscovered by a celebrated Italian critic, Roberto Longhi, who brought Caravaggio back into the mainstream of art history.
Since that time, there has been an explosion of interest in Caravaggio’s work partly due to the dramatic events of his turbulent life. Caravaggio conformed to the myth of the untamed genius who produced unparalleled works of art while spending his evenings carousing and fighting. His life was as fascinating as his art. The French critic, André Berne-Joffroy, summed up the painter’s success most succinctly : ‘What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting’.
Venue: Roma, Scuderie del Quirinale, via XXIV Maggio, 16
Dates: February 20 2010 – June 13 2010
Monday to Thursday 9.30-20.00
Entrance is allowed up until one hour before closing.
Websites: www.scuderiequirinale.it and www.mondomostre.it
Information and booking: individual and groups tel. +39 06 39967500
School groups +39 06 39967200
Admission: € 10 – Reduced: € 7.50
Curators: Claudio Strinati, Rossella Vodret, Francesco Buranelli.