Caravaggio’s novelty was a radical naturalism which combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of Tenebrism, the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value. He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked for commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success atrociously.
Famous, and notorious, while he lived, Caravaggio ( 1570-1609 ) was forgotten almost immediately after his death, and it was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. Despite this, his influence on the new Baroque style that eventually emerged from the ruins of Mannerism, was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the “Caravaggisti” or “Caravagesques”, as well as Tenebrists or “Tenebrosi” (“shadowists”). Andre Berne-Joffroy, Paul Valéry’s secretary, said of him: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”
When Caravaggio obtained, through the influence of Cardinal Del Monte, his first big religious commission: “The Vocation of Saint matthew” and ” The Martydom of Saint Matthew”, two paintings for the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi, he was not quite thirty. He wanted to rivet the attention of Rome with one commanding gesture, and he very nearly succeeded. “The martyrdom of Saint Matthew” is a titanic hodgepodge , confused, uneven , with a difficult to read narrative, but manifestly beyond the ambitions, let alone the capacity, of most of Caravaggio’s Roman contemporaries. Matthew lies prostrate on a step, an unconvincing angel writhing down on a cloud to hold his palm while an almost naked executioner prepares to skewer him.
This splendid figure of the martyr is the hub of the picture, and around him, limbs and bodies churn through the void like the spokes of a wheel. The four witnesses in their “modern” dress, the incomprehensible trio of giants looming from the bottom of the composition, the panicking boy and, in the background, a frowning self-portrait of Caravaggio himself. The last is one of a number of “unobserved watchers” who recur in Caravaggio’s mature paintings, suggesting that he had some acquaintance , however indirect, with Leonardo da Vinci’s work. Another suggestion of apparent contact is an image Caravaggio developed almost to obsession in contrating vitality and death. These are the paired heads of an old woman and a young woman, which sometimes appear, as in many of Leonardo’s images of the Virgin and Saint Anne, to be growing out of one common trunk.
And the commissions kept on coming: “The Conversion of Saint-Paul” and the “Crucifixion of Saint Peter” for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa maria del Popolo in 1600; ‘The Death of the Virgin” in 1605; a dozen more between them. “The Conversion of Saint Paul, one of Caravaggio’s most and perhaps most justly celebrated works, disciplines the flailing drama of “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” . Paul, stricken from his horse on the way to Damascus, lies on his back, arms outflung, pinned like a bug on a shaft of revelation whose physical form is a blast of light from the sky. Yet the event is relentlessly matter-of-fact, the light that changes Paul’s life also illuminating, in an ordinary, direct way, the barrel and fetlocks of his skewbald horse, while his companion, bending over the bridle, is quite indifferent to it. The furrowed skin and casually lifted hoof are uncompromisingly naturalistic, like the executioner’s horny soles in the “Crucifixion of Saint Peter”. Yet the painting is a piercing metaphor of the singularity, if not quite the subjectivity, of religious experience. It is a violent thing.
Which is only to be expected. Caravaggio was a connossieur of violence. Throughout his Roman prosperity he never extracted himself from trouble with the authorities. His landlady sued him for rent, and baglione sued him for libel; losing that case, he was calpped under house arrest for a time. He fought duels over women, for Caravaggio seems clearly bisexual, wounded a guard at Castel Sant’ Angelo, was arrested for possessing an unlicensed sword, and nearly killed a waiter at the Osteria del Moro one night in 1604. The minion brought Caravaggio a dozen artichokes, six cooled in oil, six in butter. Which, the painter demanded, were which? “Yaste them and you will see,” said the surly waiter; whereupon Caravaggio flung the metal dish at the man’s head, leapt up, and was about to skewer him with his rapier. One can respond to this incident with a bit of sympathy, but, whether the incidents themselves were comic or dangerous, he was clearly embarked on a switchback of violence.
“Caravaggio was the Jim Morrison of his time — Rimbaud with a paintbrush. There was little that was pious or holy about the man with a gift for holy and sacred art. Caravaggio’s world was the world of drunken singing, back-alley brawls,
titutes, thieves and ne’er-do-wells. Not for him the abstinence of the monk. Caravaggio desired the physical, the earthly. But perhaps if he hadn’t been such a drunken, violent, criminal, he may never have been human enough, disturbed enough or repentant of enough sin to produce the terrible realism for which he is justly famous.”
Much has been written about Caravaggio’s technical genius, his ability to use light and contrast to throw his subjects into stark relief. Artists owe much to his work, not just his arresting colours but also his skill at painting from life without repeated sketches. The direct-to-canvas approach gives his work an immediacy and an intimacy that drags us into the scene, grabs us, forces us to engage with what the artist makes us see.It is in this drama of the sudden, the explosive, that Caravaggio breaks down the wall between the viewer and the viewed. One cannot be disengaged from his work. Look, he says, look at the great and terrible acts happening, right here, right now! Look on and be amazed. Look on with awe and wonder.
But the genius and the impact of Caravaggio goes far beyond the technical. In his Young Sick Bacchus, we begin to see the early stirrings of his revolution. Bacchus is not a beautiful cherub, as we expect, but a green-tinged, unhealthy adolescent. A closer look shows the filthy fingernails, the rottenness of the grapes, the pallor of the skin. Instead of the divine becoming human, the all too human has been infused with the divine; Caravaggio has reversed the order of things. ( Luke Walladge )