New York Review of Books
May 11, 2017
Two museums, London’s National Gallery and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, mounted exhibitions in the fall of 2016 with the title “Beyond Caravaggio,” proof that the foul-tempered, short-lived Milanese painter (1571–1610) still has us in his thrall. The New York show, “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” concentrated its attention on the French immigrant to Rome who became one of Caravaggio’s most important artistic successors. The National Gallery, for its part, ventured “beyond Caravaggio” with a choice display of Baroque paintings from the National Galleries of London, Dublin, and Edinburgh as well as other collections, many of them taken to be works by Caravaggio when they were first imported from Italy.
In Stratford-upon-Avon, meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a new play about the artist, Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts of Mercy, focused on the monumental painting of the same name in Naples that also provides the focus for Terence Ward’s moving nonfiction book The Guardian of Mercy. In November 2016, Caravaggio’s radiant Basket of Fruit moved to Rome from Milan to provide the focus and the poster image for yet another exhibition, “The Origin of Still Life in Italy” at the Borghese Gallery (which boasts its own incomparable collection of Caravaggio’s work). And yet, in the face of so much exposure, Michelangeo Merisi da Caravaggio remains a painter of infinite suggestion and infinite mystery.
Letizia Treves, the National Gallery’s new curator of Baroque painting and the creator of the delightful “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition, reminds us how few people in the mid-nineteenth century had ever seen a real painting by the artist. Many of those who did were unimpressed. John Ruskin called him “the ruffian Caravaggio,” “a worshipper of the depraved.” In general, Victorian Britons preferred the orderly sunlit world of the Italian Renaissance to the dark, chaotic Baroque, with its suffering saints and grimy beggars. It is not so surprising, then, that British collectors bought canvases by Antiveduto Gramatica, Giovanni Baglione, and Bartolomeo Manfredi in the belief that they were Caravaggio originals: dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, overt religious imagery, and gritty, louche scenes from everyday life seemed to authenticate them as much as an autograph (in fact, Caravaggio signed only one of his paintings, The Beheading of John the Baptist in Malta).