Art: Master of the Gesture

At the Metropolitan, Caravaggio's turbulent genius

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 4)

The late 20th century loves "hot" romantics and geniuses with a curse on them. Caravaggio's short life and shorter temper fit this bill. He died of a fever in 1610 at 39 in Porto Ercole, then a malarial Spanish enclave on the coast north of Rome. The last four years of his life were one long paranoiac flight from police and assassins; on the run, working under pressure, he left magnificently realized, death-haunted altarpieces in Mediterranean seaports from Naples to Valletta to Palermo. He killed one man with a dagger in the groin during a ball game in Rome in 1606, and wounded several others, including a guard at Castel Sant'Angelo and a waiter whose face he cut open in a squabble about artichokes. He was sued for libel in Rome and mutilated in a tavern brawl in Naples. He was saturnine, coarse and queer. He thrashed about in the etiquette of early seicento cultivation like a shark in a net. So where is the mini-series? When will some art-collecting shlockmeister of Beverly Hills produce The Shadows and the Sodomy, the 1980s' answer to The Agony and the Ecstasy?

Popular in our time, unpopular in his. So runs the stereotype of rejected genius, which identifies Caravaggio as the first avant-garde artist. Our time, with its craving for rapid and unnerving change in the look of art, was bound to love Caravaggio. He was called an evil genius, an anti-Michelangelo; his work was compared to an overpeppered stew, and it became a favorite pretext for centrist finger wagging in the 17th century.

But if critics said one thing, the collectors said another, and this time the collectors were right. Caravaggio found influential patrons almost as soon as he arrived in Rome in 1592-93; they included Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who owned eight of his paintings, and Vincenzo Giustiniani, who had 13. The Caravaggian cave of darkness was not invented yet. His early work tends to be bathed in a crisp, even, impartial light, recalling Lorenzo Lotto and (more distantly) Giorgione. Typical of this manner were The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which is not in the show, and the Metropolitan's Musicians and the Uffizi Bacchus, which are. The Bacchus is detached, down to the last dirty fingernail on his pudgy hand: not a god, but a pouting, weary-eyed model in costume, his crown of vine leaves rendered with sparkling exuberance, his flesh slack and tallowy, and half the fruit bruised or rotten.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4