Caravaggio: The Final Years
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London
23 February to 22 May, £7.50/£6.50
Caravaggio was a painter born at the wrong time who found fame in a city that was the death of him.
The Rome that Caravaggio — a young man in his early twenties — came to in 1592 was a city being recast by its ruler, the pope.
The papacy was breaking with its worldliness and corruption, the reaction to which had helped give rise to the Protestant Christian breakaway across much of Europe. Rome was being used to re-brand the Catholic church.
A new art style, the baroque, was being created. This style celebrated Catholicism in an ornate and sensual way. It was art you almost literally had to look up to.
Rome itself was being rebuilt as a fitting capital for the Catholic Church. This meant the church was the biggest art patron in Europe.
Caravaggio found fame in Rome. His commissions came mainly from church notables, and so had to be biblical scenes. But they featured real people — the prostitutes and lowlifes of Rome with whom the artist mixed, and his male and female lovers. His realism was accompanied by his wonderful use of light, usually coming down from an angle onto the central figure.
Caravaggio’s love of Rome’s tumultuous street life and his commiment to realism brought him into conflict with the papacy. The bulk of the city’s population lived by servicing the papacy, its associated nobility and the pilgrims and tourists who flocked there.
Rome was also riven by conflicts between aristocratic clans who fought each other for the papal succession, and between supporters of the two main Catholic monarchies — Spain and France.
After killing a man in a street brawl in 1606, Caravaggio had to flee the city for his life. He reached Naples then moved on to Malta and Sicily before dying while trying to return to Rome.
This exhibition covers the wonderful works of those years of exile. They show a less constrained artist, but also one aware of his own vulnerability. It starts with two versions of the The Meal at Emmaus, where the disciples recognise the reborn Christ.
In both paintings Jesus is an everyday man surrounded by the sort of followers the pope would not have shared a room with. But in the first Jesus is young, reborn and hopeful, and the painting is full of light. It was painted in 1601, before Caravaggio’s flight from Rome.
The second, painted five years later, immediately after he left the city, is much darker. Where previously Jesus blessed a roast chicken, here it is a solitary artichoke — one of the staples of the Roman poor. The painting seems to reflect Caravaggio’s fall from grace.
There is a strong sadomasochist element to the martyrdom of the various saints the artist painted. In David with the Head of Goliath the artist substituted his own head for that of the slain giant. His young male lover modelled for David.
There is always something going on with Caravaggio’s characters. In one painting Salome turns away from the head of John the Baptist which is being presented her. In disgust? Or perhaps she is flirting with the muscular executioner.
In The Raising of Lazarus one of the labourers lifting the body seems to be looking up at Jesus, who is bringing it to life as to ask, “Who the hell are you?”
In an Italy where art celebrated unreality, Caravaggio’s immediate legacy was limited. But his friend and admirer, the painter Rubens, carried his influence to the Netherlands and thus on to Rembrandt and Vermeer. His work also reached Spain, influencing the key artist of that country’s golden age, Velazquez.
See this exhibition and cherish an opportunity to see Caravaggio’s earlier works in his adopted home, Rome — the lover who scorned him.
Carravaggio exhibiton website: www.nationalgallery.org.uk/exhibitions/caravaggio