Caravaggio e caravaggeschi a Firenze, the Galleria Palatina at the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi (Florence). Closing January 9th
Caravaggio’s power to captivate us today makes us wonder whether he was not four hundred years ahead of his time. This anniversary exhibition, perhaps more than others across Italy, shows that he was not. His genius was readily recognized and tirelessly sought even during his own day, and even by the Grand Dukes of Florence who had every reason to restrict their patronage to the their own well-established Tuscan tradition. So while artists in Florence remained aloof to the emerging naturalism and quotidian predilections of Caravaggio and the Caravaggeschi, their rulers worked assiduously to acquire the master’s Bacchus, Medusa, and Cavadenti within the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Evidently, the Medici even had it in mind to lure Caravaggio to Florence; something they might well have accomplished had not the painter been forced to flee Rome as a wanted murderer. In his stead, the Grand Dukes enjoyed the presence of protégés such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Battistello Caracciolo, and Theodor Rombouts.
Caravaggio’s most direct influence on his successors can be seen in the work of Gentileschi, whose stay in Florence from 1613 to 1620 gave rise to self-portraits in The Lute Player (1615-1618) and Mary Magdalene (1617-1620), in addition to her striking Judith and Holofernes (1614-1620), a painting which intensifies Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro but falls short of his unparalleled ability to infuse the scene with psychological drama as we see in his version of the same subject two decades earlier. This biblical episode was commonly invoked by artists as an allegory of the spirit’s victory over the powers of evil. Both Caravaggio and Gentileschi explore the physicality of this struggle through a juxtaposition of death and sensuality, bringing the figures to the front of the picture frame and stretching the scene across a horizontal plane. Gentileschi, however, seems less confident on both these fronts as she squeezes the frame tighter and downplays the background. The latter is indeed a key element in Caravaggio’s painting as the folds of the canopy draw the eye towards the focal point of the composition where sword slices through flesh, while the canopy’s ruby color provides a slight but essential contrast to the blood spurting from Holofernes’s neck. In Gentileschi’s version, the canopy is crumpled into a blanket which, together with the maidservant standing over Holofernes to restrain him, directs the energy of the painting downward and condenses the action along a vertical plane, creating an overall effect of counterbalancing forces and a powerful physical realism. Both are engrossing and dynamic, but the difference between them shows that Caravaggio was a deeply reflective painter whose extraordinary vision almost rivalled his technique.
Caracciolo drew inspiration from Caravaggio’s Neapolitan period but painted in less dramatic tones as we see in Flight from Egypt and Saint John the Baptist. Rombouts, (Cavadenti and Banchetto, both on loan from the Prado), along with Bartolomeo Manfredi and Gerrit Honthorst, helped to satisfy a court craving for “table scenes”. Rombouts’s Saint Francis Receives the Stigmata (1623-24) lends itself to an interesting comparison with Caravaggio’s earlier work of the same subject, in that the former depicts three angels instead of one supporting a kneeling rather than reclining friar.
Caravaggio’s mark upon on Florence would have been even more visible had Piero Guicciardini realized his plans for the family chapel in the church of Santa Felicita. Guicciardini boldly commissioned three pieces from Cecco del Caravaggio, Honthorst, and Spadarino. Dissatisfied with Cecco’s Resurrection, he subsequently sold it to Cardinal Scipio Borghese and commissioned a replacement from Tempesta. The original altarpiece is now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago and was unavailable for loan. Spadarino’s contribution was removed from Santa Felicità in 1667 and replaced with a work by Carletti. The last piece, Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds, was finally moved to the Uffizi in 1836 but irreparably damaged by a bombing in 1993. The remaining shreds are on display as a grim reminder of the cultural price tag attached to such a senseless act.
The Guicciardini chapel is virtually reconstructed for this show using a video installation that projects images of the commissioned pieces onto three adjacent walls. One easily gets the sense that Cecco’s Resurrection would have been particularly difficult for conservative Florentines to accept with its highly unconventional depiction of an angel heralding the resurrection of Jesus. This figure alone gives us an idea of how radically the Guicciardini Chapel might have altered the course of seventeenth painting in Florence and beyond. An even greater sense of its impact can be gained by considering the church’s location in the heart of Florence as it butts up against the Uffizi along the Vasarian Corridor, which in turn connects it to the Pitti Palace.
Publicly displayed for the first time after a sixty year hiatus is the Portrait of Maffeo Barberini (1596-1597), now attributed to Caravaggio based on a careful analysis carried out by Muriel Vervat during the painting’s restoration. Formally part of a private collection, the picture shows the future Pope Urban VIII wearing a plush protonotary apostolic robe, a red mantaletta, and finely embroidered cuffs. His right hand rests lightly on a book that absorbed his attention before being interrupted by the viewer. On the corner of the table covered in green velvet is a precious Venetian vase containing carnations, jasmine, and white roses. The young cleric welcomes us with an air of reserve as if still pondering the amorous verses he had just been reading.
Scratches detected by Vervat on the canvas in the area of the subject’s sleeve betrayed the hand of Caravaggio. As in other instances, the artist used a generous amount of white lead applied both by hand and with very fine brushstrokes to accentuate the garment’s folds. Studies also reveal that the figure was painted only after the background color had already been applied around the outline of the main figure to enhance its definition, occasionally leaving a space between the two in which the priming is still visible. Close inspection of the peripheral area around Maffeo’s eyes, for instance, reveals faint but unmistakable traces of Caravaggio’s red priming layer.
The only Caravaggio included in the Uffizi portion of the exhibit is the Medusa (1597) painted in oil on canvas stretched over poplar wood in the form of a shield. Significantly, this is the first Caravaggio painting recorded in the documentation of the Medici collection. Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the artist’s patron in Rome, gave the shield as a gift to the Grand Duke Ferdinand I in 1598. The unique piece was clearly a humanistic allusion to the shield of Minerva, which, according to mythology, was blazoned with the head of the Gorgon to evoke fear in the god’s enemies, and in this case was meant to pay tribute to Duke Ferdinand’s warrior-like virtues. It is one of the simplest and most direct examples of Caravaggio’s ever-present combination of aggressiveness and brute naturalism.
In addition to the Uffizi and the Pitti, this extensive exhibit also included a third portion at the Villa Bardini entitled Caravaggio e la modernità: I dipinti della Fondazione Roberto Longhi which closed in October and featured the Boy Bitten by a Lizard together with paintings by Orazio Borgianni, Carlo Saraceni, and Angelo Caroselli. Among the many Caravaggeschi represented in the Uffizi and Pitti portions are Rutilio Manetti, Jacopo Vignali, Giovanni Martinelli, Andrea Boscoli, Anastasio Fontebuoni, Andrea Commodi, Bartolomeo Manfredi (to whom three works – Saint Jerome, Judith, and The Maidservant – are here attributed for the first time), Orazio Rimindaldi, Simon Vouet, and the ever elusive and enchanting Josep de Ribera. Two works of the latter – Saint Paul the Hermit and Saint Mary the Egyptian – represent the apex of the spiritual possibilities spawned by Caravaggio’s realism.
It would be easy to think that Florentine pride had a lot to do with the Florentine focus of this show. Yet the claims it is designed to support – that Caravaggio was attracted to elements of the Florentine style, that Caravaggio was highly esteemed by the Medici, that Caravaggio’s influence made a subtle incursion into Florentine painting despite efforts to resist it, and, perhaps most audaciously, that this resistance was a sorely missed opportunity for Florentine painting to evolve along modern lines and perhaps to have thrived much longer than it did – all are surprisingly credible. In the end, however, as fascinating as they may be, the “what ifs” can easily distract us from what is most universal about Caravaggio’s message: namely, that any attempt to extract ourselves from the messiness of this world exclusively by our own power is in vain, and that any pretense to exempt ourselves from the consequences of the world’s messiness is sheer folly. As absurd as it is to put pictures into words, that is what I “see”, and I am willing to bet I am not the only one. I would also be willing to bet that this is precisely what Caravaggio wanted us to see.
Special thanks to Fathers Andrew Menke and Adam Hertzfeld for offering their insights into this exhibition.