Although the Bolognese painters were willing to imitate nature directly as possible, they believed that the Renaissance and Antique masters already had captured much of nature's essence and that the earlier masters would prepare them for the study of nature. Caravaggio (1573-1610) after the northern Italian town from which he came, thought very much otherwise. His outspoken disdain for the Classical masters (probably more vocal than real) drew bitter criticism from many painters, one of whom denounced him as the "anti-Christ of painting." Giovanni Pietro Bellori, the most influential critic of the age and an admirer of the Carracci, felt that Caravaggio's refusal to emulate the models of his distinguished predecessors threatened the whole Classical tradition of Italian painting that had reached its climax in Raphael and that was the philosophical basis of the Bolognese academy. Yet many paid Caravaggio the genuine compliment of borrowing from his innovations, and his influence on later artists, as mu outside Italy as within, was immense.
The unconventional life of this great painter was consisted with the defiant individualism of his art. We know alnost as much about Caravaggio from police records as from other documents. Violent offenses and assaults reaching to murder trace his tragic, antisocial career through restless, tormented wanderings, which, nevertheless, did not prevent him from producing a large number of astonishing works. His very association with lowlifes and outcasts may help to account for his unglorified and unfashionable view of the great themes of religion, as well as his indifference to the Renaissance ideals of beauty and decorum. In his art, he secularizes both religion and the classics, reducing them to human dramas that might be played out in the harsh and dingy settings of his time and place. He employs a cast of unflattering characters selected from the fields and the streets; these, he was proud to declare, were his only teachers to paint from them gave him sufficient knowledge of nature.
We easily can appreciate how startling Caravaggio's methods must have been for his contemporaries when we look at the Conversion of St. Paul (picture above), which he painted for the Roman church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The scene illustrates the conversion of the Pharisee Saul by a light and a voice from Heaven (Acts 9:3-9). The saint-to-be is represented flat on his back, his arms thrown up, while an old ostler appears to maneuver the horse away from its fall- en master. At first inspection, little here suggests the awful grandeur of the spiritual event that is taking place. We seem to be witnessing a mere stable accident, not a man over- come by a great miracle. The protagonist is not specifically identified; he could be an The ostler is a swarthy, bearded old man, who looks well acquainted with stables.
The horse fills the picture as if it were the hero, and its explicitness and the angle from which it is viewed might betray some irreverence on the part of the artist for this subject. Although Caravaggio found numerous sympathet- ic patrons in both church and state, a number of his works were refused on the ground that they lacked propriety (that is to say, decorum). He sometimes appears to pay no attention to the usual dignity appointed to scenes from scripture and to go too far in dismissing the formal graces of Renaissance figure composition and color.
The fact is that, above all, Caravaggio seeks to create a convincing copy of the optical world as a vehicle of spiritu. al meanings; his intention in this respect is like Bernini's in the St. Theresa (picture below). To this end, he uses a perspective and a chiaroscuro designed to bring viewers as close as possible to the space and action of the scene, almost as if they were participating in it. The Conversion of St. Paul is placed on the chapel wall and is composed with an extremely low horizon or eye level; the painting is intended to be on the viewers' line of sight as they stand at the entrance of the chapel. The sharply lighted figures are meant to be seen as emerging from the dark of the background. The actual light from windows outside the chapel functions as a kind of stage lighting for the production of a vision, analogous to the rays in Bernini's St. Theresa. Thus, Caravaggio, like Bernini, makes use of the world of optical experience to stage the visionary one. In the Conversion of St. Paul, what we see first as merely commonplace is in fact the elevation of the commonplace to the miraculous. The stark contrast of light and dark was the feature of Caravaggio's style that first shocked and then fascinated his contemporaries.
The sharp and sudden relief it gives to the norms and the details of form emphasizes their reality in a way than an even or subtly modulated light never could. next to light is naturally dramatic; we do not need a director of stage lighting to tell us this. Caravaggio's device, a profound influence on European art, has been called lene the Italian word tenebroso, or "dark manner brism, from Although is in Baroque art, it will its t consequences and the greatest in Spain material Netherlands This technique goes quite well with that is realistic and is another mode of Baroque illusionism by which the eye is almost forced to acknowledge the visu reality of what it sees. In the hands of Caravaggio, tene brism also contributes mightily to the essential meaning of his pictures. In the Conversion of St. Paul, the dramatic spot- light shining down upon the fallen Pharisee is the light of divine revelation that brings about Paul's conversion to Christianity.
A piercing ray of light illuminating a world of darkness and bearing a spiritual message is also a central feature of one of the early masterpieces of Caravaggio, the Calling of St. Matthew (picture below) , one of two large canvases honor ing the saint that Caravaggio painted for the side walls of the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome The setting is typical of Caravaggio: a dingy tavern of the sort that the artist frequented himself. Into this mundane environment, cloaked in mysterious shadow and almost unseen, Christ, identifiable initially only by his indistinct halo, enters from the right. With a commanding gesture that recalls that of the Lord in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, hesummons Matthew to a higher calling. The astonished tax collector, whose face is highlighted for the viewer by the beam of light emanating from an unspecified source above the head of Christ and outside the picture, points to himself in disbelief: "Can it be I that you call?" he seems to say. Never before had this New Testament theme been rendered in such a fashion, and its worldly, genre quality, regarded as irreverent by many, caused the church to refuse the work at first. Caravaggio's unorthodox realism finds full orchestration in his Death of the Virgin, which was also refused by the clergy but on the recommendation of the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, was purchased by the duke of Mantua for his own collection. The painting, which depicts the disciples and friends of Christ mourning over the dead Virgin Mary, was meant to serve as an altarpiece for Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. In Caravaggio's unique realization of the theme, the Virgin is unceremoniously laid out in the awkward stiffness of death, her body swollen limbs uncomposed, and feet uncovered (the last feature considered indecent at the time). Contemporaries com lained that Caravaggio had used as his model for the mother of Christ the corpse of a young woman who had drowned. Around the dead woman, in attitudes of genuine if uncouth grief, without rhetoric or declamation Caravaggio portrays the customary plebeian types that he usually casts in his pictorial dramas of reality. The drawn curtain emphasizes the stagelike setting, into which the grouping of figures invites the viewer as participant. The harsh light plunges into the space from a single source shattering the darks into broken areas of illumination that reveal the coarse materialities of the scene. But, again (as in the Conversion of St. Paul and the Calling of St. Matthew although in a different way), we can read the artist's interpretation not as diminishing the spiritual import of the theme but rather as informing it with a simple, honest, unadorned piety that is entirely sincere very piety that moves the humble watchers of the dead to tears.
Source: Gardner ART THROUGH THE AGES, Tenth Edition, RICHARD G. TANSEY, FRED S. KLEENEX (pages 843- 838)
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