Caravaggio bumps Michelangelo from his perch

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    Mar 10, 2010 1:33 PM GMT

    Brawling murderer exemplifies the modern antihero, is instantly accessible

    By Michael Kimmelman


    ROME - By at least one amusing new metric, Michelangelo’s unofficial 500-year run at the top of the Italian art charts has ended. Caravaggio, who somehow found time to paint when he wasn’t brawling, scandalizing pooh-bahs, chasing women (and men), murdering a tennis opponent with a dagger to the groin, fleeing police assassins or getting his face mutilated by one of his many enemies, has bumped him from his perch.

    That’s according to an art historian at the University of Toronto, Philip Sohm. He has studied the number of writings (books, catalogs and scholarly papers) on both of them during the last 50 years. Mr. Sohm has found that Caravaggio has gradually, if unevenly, overtaken Michelangelo.

    He has charts to prove it.

    The change, most obvious since the mid-1980s, doesn’t exactly mean Michelangelo has dropped down the memory hole. To judge from the throngs still jamming the Sistine Chapel and lining up outside the Accademia in Florence to check out “David,” his popularity hasn’t dwindled much.

    But, charts or no charts, Mr. Sohm has touched on something. Caravaggiomania, as he calls it, implies not just that art history doctoral students may finally be struggling to think up anything fresh to say about Michelangelo. It suggests that the whole classical tradition in which Michelangelo was steeped is becoming ever more foreign and therefore seemingly less germane, even to many educated people. His otherworldly muscle men, casting the damned into hell or straining to emerge from thick blocks of veined marble, aspired to an abstract and bygone ideal of the sublime, grounded in Renaissance rhetoric, which, for postwar generations, now belongs with the poetry of Alexander Pope or plays by Corneille as admirable but culturally remote splendors.

    The modern antihero
    Caravaggio, on the other hand, exemplifies the modern antihero, a hyperrealist whose art is instantly accessible. His doe-eyed, tousle-haired boys with puffy lips and bubble buttocks look as if they’ve just tumbled out of bed, not descended from heaven. Coarse not godly, locked into dark, ambiguous spaces by a strict geometry then picked out of deep shadow by an oracular light, his models come straight off the street. Cupid is clearly a hired urchin on whom Caravaggio strapped a pair of fake wings. The angel in his “Annunciation” dangles like Chaplin’s tramp on the high wire in “The Circus,” from what must have been a rope contraption Caravaggio devised.

    Rome’s art establishment at the turn of the 17th century, immersed in the mandarin froufrou of Late Mannerism, despised Caravaggio for the filthy, barefoot pilgrims he painted at Mary’s doorstep. Out to “destroy painting,” as Nicolas Poussin, the most high-minded of all French artists, saw it, Caravaggio connected with ordinary people, the ones who themselves arrived barefoot and filthy as pilgrims in Rome. And fortunately for Caravaggio, he also appealed to a string of rich and powerful patrons.

    But almost immediately after he died from a fever at 38, in 1610, on the beach at Porto Ercole, north of Rome, his art was written off by critics as a passing fad and neglected for hundreds of years, setting the stage for his modern resurrection. Connoisseurs like Bernard Berenson were still dismissing his work a century ago when Lionello Venturi, Roger Fry and Roberto Longhi, among others, finally revived his reputation as a protomodernist.

    Mr. Sohm, who announced his findings during a talk at the College Art Association conference in Chicago last month, focused on publications, not tourist revenues or exhibition attendance figures, and his study says nothing about how Michelangelo and Caravaggio stack up against box-office greats like Rembrandt and van Gogh.

    But his research does corroborate evidence plain to anybody in or out of art academe or who has browsed for scarves in Italian airports where motifs of Caravaggio’s “Bacchus” and head of Goliath have become as ubiquitous as coasters bearing bits of David’s anatomy and mugs with the figure of Adam from the Sistine ceiling. Caravaggios are now used to decorate the cover of “Emerging Infectious Diseases,” a medical journal, and to advertise a sex shop in London.

    Police and court records; outed as gay
    “The only way to understand old art is to make it participate in our own artistic life” is how Venturi phrased it in 1925. That Caravaggio left behind no drawings, no letters, no will or estate record, only police and court records, makes him a perfect Rorschach for our obsessions. He was outed in the 1970s by gender studies scholars, notwithstanding the absence of documents to indicate he was gay. Pop novelists and moviemakers have naturally had a field day with his life. Exhibition organizers cook up any excuse (“Caravaggio-Bacon,” “Caravaggio-Rembrandt”) to capitalize on his bankability. Newly discovered “Caravaggios” test the market every year.

    Not long ago, two Caravaggios turned up in the French village of Loches in the Loire Valley, under the organ loft of a local church. Never mind that various Caravaggio experts have since doubted the pictures are by him: Loches is advertising itself as a Caravaggio town. And officials in Porto Ercole lately said his lost remains had been found in an underground ossuary, pending DNA tests with descendants of his brother, who still live near Milan. The iconoclast is even being turned into a religious icon, it seems: Caravaggio’s “bones” may soon become holy relics for art pilgrims.

    Another Caravaggio retrospective has also opened, here at the Quirinale: two dozen paintings, on view through June 13, a blue-chip survey, installed ridiculously in darkened rooms with spotlights, as if his art needed more melodrama. But the pictures are glorious anyway. The exhibition is mobbed.

    It happens that a show of Michelangelo’s drawings is at the Courtauld Gallery in London, through May 16. Gifts for a beautiful young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, on whom Michelangelo had developed a crush, the drawings were ostensibly supposed to help Cavalieri learn to draw. Imagine Roger Federer handing you a DVD of himself at Wimbledon, saying “Just do this.” These are drawings of the most arcane refinement, unearthly beautiful.

    By contrast, Caravaggio, wrestling art back to the ground, distilled scenes into a theatrical instant at which time seems suddenly stopped. That’s why his pictures can bring to mind movie stills. The art historian Michael Fried, who has just written a book about Caravaggio, notes the quality of the figures’ absorption. Life-size images, they share our space and we theirs, face to face, as another art historian, Catherine Puglisi, has pointed out (something that doesn’t happen with Michelangelo’s enormous sculptures or his frescoed ceiling that we only see from far away). The immediacy somehow dovetails with the tabloid tawdriness of his biography, with the whole modern celebrity drama.

    The other afternoon endless scrums of tourists here jostled before the Caravaggios in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, feeding pocket change into the boxed light meters. It was probably just coincidental, but in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, nobody stopped to look at the Michelangelo.

  • rnch

    Posts: 11524

    Mar 10, 2010 2:27 PM GMT
    SOMEONE needs to get out of the house more often.. icon_lol.gif
  • Laurence

    Posts: 942

    Mar 10, 2010 2:31 PM GMT
    Carravagio is alright I suppose, but he's not done enough surely to outshine Michelangelo?

    Lozx
  • Menergy_1

    Posts: 737

    Mar 10, 2010 2:32 PM GMT
    Fascinating article -- thanks for the post! I wonder if my long-time passion for Caravaggio's works has been an unwitting part of this recognition and perhaps connection to his life and subjects. And I don't cast Michelangelo aside at all - there's plenty of room in the pantheon!
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    Mar 10, 2010 2:37 PM GMT
    Ubercat saidBut almost immediately after he died from a fever at 38, in 1610, on the beach at Porto Ercole, north of Rome, his art was written off by critics as a passing fad and neglected for hundreds of years.


    I suppose that is why we he was one of the most copied artist for a century.
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    Mar 10, 2010 4:21 PM GMT
    Right, both men were named Michaelangelo (a fact that has always amused me).

    Thanks for posting that. I read that article in the NYTimes today as well. While the metrics may well be correct the analysis strikes me as a lot of wishful thinking and poor scholarship.

    For example, this depiction of the god Bacchus (Eros) doesn't really strike me as "instantly accessible". Just thinking about the gender-wars that have been going on around RJ for the last century I wonder just how ubiquitous the appreciation of the ephebe Bacchus actually is - even amongst art lovers.

    bacchus.jpg

    Neither is it strictly correct to say that Caravaggio tore down "la Maniera". While he certainly tweaked the convention with great glee, he equally delighted in demonstrating that he was better at it than anyone else.

    It is just buffoonery to claim that scholarship around Caravaggio's sexuality is presumptive (and typical of the gender wars that rage on in our culture). If he wasn't Gay who cares, he certainly painted as Gayly as anyone ever has or likely ever will.

    I suppose the false competition sells museum tickets and monographs (there is an exceptional, extraordinary, titanic monograph on Caravaggio just released in conjunction with the exhibition at the Quirinale Stables - it costs a total fortune but anyone who loves MdC should try to lay hands on it, even just to browse).

    Finally, how ridiculous to depict Michaelangelo Buonarroti as inaccessible, painting from the heavens. This image from the Ignudi accesses me directly, far more so than Caravaggio's provocative Bacchus (however magnificent it is - it probably appeals more directly to Catholic priests, then and now).

    Michelangelo-Ignudi.JPG

    That said, I love them both and hope this kind of sensationalist writing and scholarship gets people into museums and bookstores.

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    Mar 10, 2010 4:35 PM GMT
    UrsaMajor said
    That said, I love them both and hope this kind of sensationalist writing and scholarship gets people into museums and bookstores.


    It's likely that this is just like a lot of recent scholarship in the humanities. Academics have more or less run out of things to say about most canonical artists and writers. The only method left to get noticed is to say something outrageous and irresponsible.
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    Mar 10, 2010 4:52 PM GMT
    AbFab1 saidFascinating article -- thanks for the post! I wonder if my long-time passion for Caravaggio's works has been an unwitting part of this recognition and perhaps connection to his life and subjects. And I don't cast Michelangelo aside at all - there's plenty of room in the pantheon!

    Well that's it -- why this modern insistence for rankings and "firsts"?

    I love art from many periods, from many artists. And in the examples shown in the posts above, there are technical problems.

    The Caravaggio has a drinking glass with a crooked base, and the Michelangelo has the subject sitting on a marble base that is out of square, as well as a wall element on the left that doesn't follow the line below the marble base. But I dismiss that as the poor work of an assistant, since Michelangelo's habit was to just do the principal figure, and have assistants fill in the details of his frescoes.

    So these artists are not gods in a pantheon, they are humans, with flaws as well as brilliant abilities. Michelangelo was first & foremost a sculptor anyway, only a reluctant painter, so to compare his paintings with Caravaggio, or with his contemporary Raphael, among others, isn't valid in my view.

    Each was a genius, for their own reasons, in their own ways. How moderns evaluate them is entirely unpredictable, and perhaps largely worthless, unless you happen to own one of these works today. Having these kinds of "Top 10" contests is so David Letterman, and perhaps will be laughed at in 100 years.