Late Caravaggio at the National Gallery

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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. …