Late Caravaggio at the National Gallery

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Late Caravaggio at the National Gallery


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


THE London National Gallery has shown admirable enterprise in launching its latest exhibition, Caravaggio: the Final Years, a modest but stalwart sequel to the Royal Academy's monumental achievement of 2001, The Genius of Rome. Among the sixteen pictures shown, all startling, are two from Sicily, neither of which has been seen outside Italy before. Unusual persuasive power must have been deployed upon the authorities of the Museo Nacionale at Messina before The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Raising of Lazarus were hazarded abroad. Although there are not many pictures on show, each one, because of its strangeness and complexity (though they are rarely captivating and never delightful), compels one's interest so much that it is hard to take the exhibition in on a single visit.

One's slow progress through the six rooms is partly due to the exhibition's circumambient darkness, lit by spotlights, which reminds one of Balzac's haughty remark that Caravaggio must have spent his life in caves and gambling dens. The enforced gloom, a stagey attempt to copy the drama of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro, lessens the impact of the pictures themselves when seen in clear light. It also makes it hard to discern the detail of the dark areas of the pictures. Caravaggio was painting in haste on the run from the papal police, and later from the Maltese Knights of St John, and must at times have added the top colours to the basic priming, or undercolour, of his pictures before it had set, so that his top colours 'sank', or were rendered indistinct because they were absorbed by the undercolour. One example of this is the nearly vanished lopped tree in the Sacrifice of Isaac at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Others are the back of the crowd in The Raising of Lazarus and the ox and the donkey in The Adoration of the Shepherds.

Like the papal police, we know well what Caravaggio looked like. As with Rembrandt, the artist's face pervades his pictures; notably in his versions of David and Goliath in the Prado and the Borghese Gallery, where Caravaggio's head, transposed to Goliath's, is held up as a trophy by his latest minion. To judge by his appearance, Caravaggio came from the wrong half of Italy. His heavy, swarthy, beetle-browed, levantine features were apter for the polyglot Kingdom of Naples than for the northern Duchy of Milan, where he was born in 1571 (the year of the Battle of Lepanto). Indeed, he spiralled to the south, as far as Sicily and by ferry to Malta, on his whirligig flight from a stack of charges: street-fighting, several murderous attacks and one actual homicide. Among the esteemed scholars who have earnestly and patiently elucidated Caravaggio and his works--art-historians such as Friedlander, Longhi and Mahon--how many would have liked to meet him? One thinks of Yeats's poem on another delinquent genius, Catullus. Yeats imagines the alarm of Catullus's august editors and annotators confronted by Catullus himself:

                Lord, what would they say
                Did their Catullus walk that way?

Not only Carravagio's late paintings but also the events of his life emerge from an entrenched darkness. None of his pictures is dated and only one is signed; signed, to conform with his taste for the macabre, in the pigment he had used for the blood of the decapitated St John the Baptist, and alongside a puddle of the saint's blood (Altarpiece in the Cathedral of St John in Valetta). In the stronghold of the Knights of St John, one would expect to see St John preaching or baptising, not thrust on the ground to facilitate the cutting of his throat, like some poor victim of a Levitical butcher, whilst Herod's warder points sternly to the platter which Salome holds in businesslike readiness. Of the two pictures of Salome with the Head of St John, the Escorial version certainly has the marks of Caravaggio's brooding late works. The sallow-faced Salome averts her scheming eyes from what she has brought about. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Late Caravaggio at the National Gallery
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.