Academic journal article Theory in Action

Caravaggio and the Enfranchisement of Women. New Discoveries

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Caravaggio and the Enfranchisement of Women. New Discoveries

Article excerpt

The sexist backlash prompted by women's presence on the job market and in positions of influence - that is, by their enfranchisement - is not new to the western world. From the witches of the Middle Ages to the late-nineteenth-century figure of the femme fatale, even a general overview of Occidental history highlights the frequent overlap between women's increasing power and their rhetorical demonization (Hanson and O'Rawe). In the development of this imagery, women "beheaders" had a significant part to play (Janes 97-138). The study of paintings and other visual artefacts can reveal much about this dynamic, since works of art act both as synthetic texts of a given period and as screens of collective fears and unconscious drives. It is therefore through an analysis of Caravaggio's art that I will examine the epochal shift in the representation of femininity that occurred between two phases of human history, generally defined in art history as the Renaissance and the Baroque

In this study, I focus in particular on the first ten years of the seventeenth century, and I use Caravaggio's Neapolitan period as a hermeneutic key to this world. This is the period discussed by Foucault as the interval between two epistemes; that is, between the era of a subject of cognition at the center of his limited world, a subject generally male and European (Jones 17-62) - what Foucault calls the pre-classical period or the Renaissance - and the critical position determined by an ever-expanding and progressively diversified world, one that the subject of cognition thus explored, categorized, and ordered - the so-called classical period (Foucault, Order of Things 3-85). Needless to say, this is the moment when European travels of conquest or discovery, as well as the reshuffling of social structures and hierarchies, brought women and other social outcasts of the time from the margins of the cultural discourse to its very center. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, or simply Caravaggio, is a supreme interpreter - if not an agent - of this epochal transformation. By the early seventeenth century, in fact, Caravaggio had himself become a disenfranchised artist, as a consequence of his implication in the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni and the disintegration of his network of protectors in Rome. It is therefore possible that his life and vicissitudes heightened the artist's sensitivity and generated a particular receptiveness towards his cultural Zeitgeist. As a criminal and a fugitive, Caravaggio fled to Naples in 1606, thus beginning a new stage of his life and career (Langdon 31). In Rome, Caravaggio had already incorporated images and details deriving from the underworld he frequented into his religious painting - the noblest genre of the painting at the time. Starting from his sojourn in Naples, however, not only did his identification with marginal groups intensify, but also he assigned to Naples' poorest citizens the role of protagonists of his pictorial narration.

Early seventeenth-century Naples was an overpopulated city, partly due to an urban structure dependent on the original plan laid out by Greek colonizers in the ninth century B.C. The city was also fraught with plagues and endemic diseases, so that the state of poverty created by the Spanish rule and its baronial aristocracy only worsened over time (Porter XXVII-LI; Whitfield and Martineau 19-28). The economic deterioration that was initiated when Naples became the Vice-Kingdom at the service of Spain in 1503 affected all layers of the Neapolitan population. Yet, women faced particularly dramatic hardships, and turned to prostitution or nunnery in record numbers (Hills 3-18). Naples certainly struck Caravaggio as a place where poverty and prostitution had reached startling proportions, and his Neapolitan paintings were not immune to this impression of the city. Indeed, Caravaggio's palette grew darker once he began working in Naples. In part, this absence of light was characteristic of the center of the city, where access to light had been hindered by recent directives of urban planning (Graham-Dixon 338). …

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