Although he was born on September 29, 1571, near Milan, Caravaggio’s most productive years, from 1600 to 1606, were spent in Rome, where most of his paintings from this period are on permanent display in various churches and museums. Last year, an extensive monographic exhibition of Caravaggio’s works (because of scholarly debate about their authenticity their total number seems to vary between 40 and 80) was hosted at the Scuderie in Rome (see my review “The Genius of Caravaggio: The Father of Modern Painting,” ITV, April 2010).
Since the general public never seems to tire of this unquestioned genius’s art, on until February 5 at the Palazzo Venezia in the center of Rome is another blockbuster, almost overwhelming, exhibit called Rome at the Time of Caravaggio 1600-1630, which took over two years to organize.
On display in chronological order are some 200 paintings on loan from all over the world. They are by Caravaggio and by Annibale Carracci, and their numerous, but still relatively unknown, contemporaries, who painted in Rome from 1595 to 1635. Some of these works, on loan from Russia, Spain, The Netherlands, Greece, Slovakia, Poland, France, Switzerland, Ireland, Lithuania, and Vatican City, have never been displayed in Italy before. For the first time ever, these many paintings attempt to reconstruct the cultural fabric of the Eternal City, including the rivalries during Caravaggio’s six years here and in the 20 years following his death in 1610.
According to Rossella Vodret, the curator of last year’s Caravaggio exhibit as well as this one, in her introduction to its catalog, during these exciting 30 years, thanks to the foresight of town-planner Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) and to the Holy Year of 1600 with its some 1.2 million pilgrims, the papacy celebrated its reacquired supremacy after the great Protestant scare of Lutheranism. From then on, Rome, with its rich cultural patrons, became the cultural capital of Europe, with an ever-increasing preeminence throughout the reigns of four important Popes: Clement VII Aldobrandini (1592-1605), Paul V Borghese (1605-21) — who, through the intervention of his art collector nephew Scipio, could have pardoned Caravaggio of his murder charges — Gregory XV Boncompagni (1621-1623), and Urban VIII Barberini (1623-1644), Bernini’s patron.
In those decades, thousands of artists thronged to the Eternal City not only from the rest of Italy, like Caravaggio and Carracci, but also from other European nations: Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Germany, and Spain. Rome thus became a breeding ground for the exchange of different artistic technical solutions, of stimuli, of experiences, and of stylistic and iconographic models. The result was that during these few years the old, sterile, tedious stereotypes of Mannerism were swept aside, making way for the Eternal City’s most breath-taking artistic rejuvenation, whose results were to be felt throughout Europe until the late 1600s.
The aim of Rome at the Time of Caravaggio is to tell and document this story, which is still largely unknown to the general public. It aims to set Caravaggio in his time and to do justice to these many artists who lived in Rome in the opening decades of the 1600s and to give them the visibility that they’ve been denied in modern times when they’ve literally been left out in the dark by Caravaggio’s incredible popularity.
The early years of the 1600s are marked by a confrontation and direct connection between the two above-mentioned giants of Italian painting: Caravaggio and Carracci, with Caravaggio overshadowing all the other artists of his age. The Bolognese Annibale Carracci was the undisputed leader of the current classicism, representing an idealized reality; Caravaggio from Lombardy was the creator of a revolutionary form of representation of reality.
The exhibit begins with two paintings similar in theme that share the same title: The Madonna of Loreto, but which have completely different styles and have never before been displayed side by side. The first is by Carracci, who was inspired by Raphael’s works. It dates to 1604-5, is usually housed in the Church of St. Onofrio on Rome’s Janiculum Hill, and shows Carracci’s classical composition. The second is by Caravaggio, usually hung over the high altar in Rome’s Church of St. Augustine near Piazza Navona, dates to 1605 and is an example of his naturalistic, realistic with no idealization, “chiaroscuro” Baroque style, using models from the lower classes complete with their rough edges, a characteristic often criticized even by his contemporaries.
Carracci’s Madonna, at the center of his canvas and dressed in similar colors to those frequently used by Raphael for his numerous Madonnas, is enthroned on a cloud above her tabernacle, which rests on the shoulders of an angel with two other angels holding its sides. Instead, Caravaggio’s Madonna is in the shadows of a doorway of an ancient monument on the left side of his canvas.
The model for Caravaggio’s Madonna here was his female companion, and the model for the Christ Child was her son, who is no longer a baby but a three- or four-year-old child, who was also depicted in some of his other paintings. Kneeling in the lower right hand side of the canvas are two paupers in adoration, complete with wrinkles and dirty bare feet.
Caravaggio’s painting of the Madonna di Loreto is his only certain work on exhibit here while Carracci has three others: Santa Margherita (1599) usually housed in Rome’s Church of St. Caterina dei Funari; The Portable Tabernacle Depicting the Pietà and the Martyrdoms of Santa Cecilia and Ermenegilda (c. 1603) now in Rome’s Barberini Gallery; and San Diego de Acala Presenting the Son of Juan Herrera to the Christ Child (1606) in Rome’s Spanish Church Santa Maria in Monserrato.
The two artists died just a year apart: Carracci on July 15, 1609, at age 49, and Caravaggio on July 18, 1610, at age 38. Thus I found the exhibition’s title to be misleading. First of all, the exhibition is not really about Caravaggio, but rather about his influence on other artists. Second, he was dead for 20 of the 30 years included in the exhibition’s title. Thus, most of the 11 sections of Rome at the Time of Caravaggio 1600-1630 cover the works, both publicly and privately commissioned, by painters who during the two decades after their deaths either followed the style of Caravaggio or those more numerous who continued in Carracci’s. In actual fact, Carracci had a large and efficient workshop in Rome, so it was easy for his helpers and apprentices, Classicists from Bologna, who’d followed him to Rome, to continue in his style, while Caravaggio never wanted students and worked alone.
The exhibition’s first sections concern works by Carracci’s workshop still during Carracci’s lifetime: Guido Reni, “Domenichino,” and Giovanni Lanfranco, who were immediately successful in attracting both public and private commissions along with their colleagues, the “former” Tuscans: “Passignano,” Fontebuoni, Bilivert, Albani, and Ciampelli, who were already firmly established at the papal court at the end of the 1500s, not to leave out the papal great favorites: Baglione and the Cavalier D’Arpino, who both tried all sorts of gambits to keep up-to-date so as not to lose their favored positions.
Another section is devoted to painters who fell under the influence of Caravaggio’s new style before the giant’s death starting with Rubens, whose Adoration of the Shepherds (1608), now in Fermo, demonstrates just how profoundly he’d already perceived the potential of Caravaggio’s light; Orazio Gentileschi, Orazio Borgianni, Carlo Saraceni, the Spaniards Luis Tristan and Juan Bautista Maino, and Giovanni Baglione.
The works in the rest of the exhibit are also divided chronologically by decade: 1610 to 1620 and then 1620 to 1630, when Caravaggio’s artistic influence declined. Between 1610 and 1620 we find a veritable explosion for the fashion of Caravaggio, largely driven by the still somewhat mysterious figure of Bartolomeo Manfredi, the most popular follower of Caravaggio’s style, who attracted into his orbit many young French painters flocking to Rome: Simon Vouet, Valentin De Boulogne, and Nicolasa Regnier in particular.
In addition to Manfredi, the Caravaggio scene in Rome was enriched by several young Italian talents: Orazio Gentileschi’s daughter Artemisia, the subject of a monographic exhibition still on in Milan, who painted her sensational Susanna and the Elders, on loan here from Germany, in 1610 when she was only 17; the Neapolitan Battistello Caracciolo, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi from Viterbo, Alessandro Turchi from Verona, Bernardo Strozzi from Genoa, Lionello Spada from Bologna, and Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri from The Marches, to name just a few.
In addition to the Italians, Rome hosted large colonies of foreign artists: French Claude Vignon and Tromphe Bigot; Spanish Jusepe de Ribera; Flemish Louis Finson, Giusto Fiammingo and Daniel Seghers; Dutch Dirck Van Baburen and David de Haan, under the leadership of the exceptionally talented Gerrit Van Honthorst, who was the first artist to put his paintings’ source of light — candles or torches — within his canvasses.
At the end of the second decade and at the beginning of the third, Bolognese Pope Gregory XV (1621-23), who openly favored the artists from his home region of Emilia, introduced a brusque change in Rome’s artistic climate. Within a few years, the protagonists of the 1600s’ first two decades packed their bags and left Rome or died. Once the “founding fathers,” who’d spread Caravaggio’s message for nearly two decades, had left the scene, their disciples, anxious to avoid being cut out of the market, hurried to adapt their models of “naturalism” to those of Bolognese classicism, which was soon joined by the overbearing strains of the new Baroque movement.
Strongly supported by Pope Gregory XV, this revival of classicism grew in strength thanks to the arrival in Rome in 1624 of the French painter Nicholas Poussin. So Carracci’s classical style of painting won its long drawn-out fight against naturalism.
Caravaggio’s influence, until then so important in Rome, went out of fashion. It was henceforth to survive only as a component of a new stylistic trend, energized by the latest new movement: the new language of Baroque, which was strongly supported by the new Pope, Urban VIII (1623-44), to celebrate the triumph of the Catholic Church over Lutheran heresy.
A splendid synthesis of all these styles is the enormous canvas, The Allegory of Italy, commissioned by the Barberini family and painted in 1629 by Caravaggio’s last surviving disciple in Rome, the Frenchman Valentin De Boulogne, which closes the exhibit.
In the hopes of clarifying this complicated three-decade international story, the whole exhibit is displayed in chronological order and within each of the 11 sections its protagonists have been organized by their country of origin and their works divided into public and private commissions.
The works of some artists appear in more than one section depending on how long the artist lived in Rome and the number of his commissions.
Each section also has bilingual, in Italian and English, wall posters as well as explanations underneath each painting.
Certainly the most special treat of Rome at the Time of Caravaggio is the first showing in modern Italy of a painting of St. Augustine (c. 1600) in his study that has recently been attributed to Caravaggio, but not without controversy.
We know from an inventory of 1638, drawn up by its first owner Marchese (Marquis) Vincenzo Giustiniani just before his death, that this painting, or at least a painting of St. Augustine with the same dimensions, originally belonged to the Giustiniani family.
The Marchese and his brother Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani were patrons of Caravaggio and, according to the 1638 inventory, originally owned 15 of his works, many of which are now missing. One of these is a portrait of Cardinal Benedetto.
Two others: The Agony in the Garden and a Portrait of a Courtesan are believed to have been destroyed in Berlin at the end of the Second World War, along with his rejected St. Matthew Writing the Gospel.
Now in a British private collection, St. Augustine hung in their splendid art collection in the family palazzo (on what was called then Via del Governo and is now Via della Dogana Vecchia) until their collection was dispersed soon after 1750.