Published  26/01/2001

Caravaggio: The Genius of Rome

Caravaggio: The Genius of Rome

through April l6th.

It might seem churlish to criticise an exhibition which has been dedicated to the late Francis Haskell, on grounds of scholarship, but ‘The Genius of Rome’, in the urgent and populist surge to inform us of Caravaggio in all his works, drops a number of ‘clangers’, in the detail of which Haskell would have been less than impressed, given his own great scholarship in the period, which the exhibition seeks to portray. While of undoubted elegance and taste appropriate to these galleries, this intended tour-de-force, is somewhat catholic in it’s own criteria for selection, attribution, and credible provenance

The broad bias towards Northern European works which the exhibition offers and easel paintings, and more generally for delicate works of the period on copper, seems unaccountably mostly to deny to abroad degree the real importance, even pre-eminence at this time in and around Rome, of the great set-pieces for altars, and for publicly accessible fresco art, in situ.

At the same time, to bolster up an apparent urge, to mythologise Carravagio attributions are liberally taken on board. Some thirty-five percent of the Caravaggios selected appear to be of doubtful provenance. A journalistic mise-en-scene of a perilously corrupt city is thus deliberately propagated here. As John Berger (Studio International Jan/Feb l983) has rightly postulated, well beforehand in a seminal article,

‘He was the first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio, the people of the back streets, les sans-culottes, the lumpenproletariat, the lower orders… following Caravaggio up to the present day, other painters – Brower, Ostade, Hogarth, Goya, Gericault, Guttuso- have painted pictures of the same social milieu. But all of them, however great- were genre pictures, painted in order to show others how the less fortunate or more dangerous lived. For Caravaggio, however, it was not a question of presenting scenes but of seeing itself. He does not depict the underworld for others; his vision is one that he shares with it.’

John Berger’s interpretation is profound, and far from today's sensational journalism. The works do not have the semblance of photo-calls, but of deeply felt life experience at a personal level as Berger claimed,

"The faces he painted are illuminated by that knowledge, deep as a wound."

This was also the period of Brueghel the Elder and so it could not reasonably here be claimed that Caravaggio was a prior pioneer of still life painting. Similarly, the contemporary research then into proportional harmony engendered a growing linkage of music and art theory. In Gallery 2, "Painted Music", Caravaggio was aware of all that Carraci’s academy in Bologna encouraged and engendered. This situation is clearly at odds with the Catalogue’s avowal that it was the music paintings of Caravaggio that inspired Bologna.

To consider the broader sourcing of works on copper, among the fifteen exhibited, those by Gentileschi and Elsheimer reveal a special luminosity, but little is done to explain how copper as a base facilitated all this. But the ingenuity of Caravaggio in manipulating light cannot be allowed, as here, to obscure the contributions of chiaroscuro –created works, as by the Bassanos, Raphael, and indeed Ludovico Carracci.

Clovis Whitfield's scholarship in addressing the less contentious, but equally perilous world of portraiture comes as a relief in the exhibition sequence, in his selection of a range of brilliantly varied representations. The inclusion of Vouet's self-assertive self-portrait provides an amusing contrast to the Annibale equivalent.

The difficult context

One of the persistent problems of forming such an exhibition seems impossible to circumvent. The important pre-eminence, in the Rome of 1592-1623, of religious dedication in art- of frescoes, of great altarpieces, of a close integration of these elements with the architectural whole under the economically decisive sway of architecturally –driven patronage system, (whereby some fifty churches had been either built anew or else reconstructed significantly to accommodate frescoes and altarpieces) is clearly evident.

The dedication of the last gallery to altarpieces is commendable, but by this stage the prior preponderance of Caravaggio’s work in various modes proves hard to redress. The final flourish here seems now simply an endorsement of what went before, rather than the capitalisation of one single and abiding theme. The ‘Madonna di Loreto’ and the 'Entombment', both by Caravaggio, still look less than definitive of this genre, when set alongside the works of Guercino, Annibale, and Lanfranco. So the primary role of a public art proves less than fully assertive in such an exhibition, as given to establishing the true order of such priorities prevailing in the early seventeenth century Eternal City.

Read the full text of John Berger's article, from Studio International Vol 196 No 998 (January/February 1983), together with the illustrations selected by the author at that time.



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