by Roderick Conway Morris

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Caravaggio and the Light of Truth

By Roderick Conway Morris
BERGAMO, Italy 25 November 2000
Vatican Museums, Rome
The Entombment of Christ
by Caravaggio, 1602-04



Caravaggio is currently the star of two exhibitions in Lombardy. In one of them, in Bergamo, he is the triumphant curtain-raiser of a dazzling display; in the other, in Milan, he is the final act of an oddly-skewed production where the more distinguished members of the cast are often eclipsed by a clumping chorus of mediocrities.

The superior lineup, of nearly 40 paintings and engravings, has been gathered together here in Bergamo's Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art for 'Caravaggio, La Tour, Rembrandt, Zurbaran: The Light of Truth' (which continues until Dec. 17).

These masterpieces are pretty well allowed to speak for themselves and bear witness to how the shock waves of Caravaggio's advent fanned out across Europe, only to be given further force in different ways by other artists of genius who were able to absorb the lessons of this earthquake.

Practically all the pictures are religious, and the organizers, the local Roman Catholic Jubilee year committee, draw attention to the spiritual interpretations of these artists' use of light. There is no question but that all four were deeply conscious of the metaphorical implications of light in scripture and the traditions of Christian art. But light for Caravaggio - and later La Tour, Zurbaran and Rembrandt - was also a tool, a device.

For, on the one hand, Caravaggio proposed a new form of realism, scandalizing the church authorities by using as models the genuinely poor and humble, street urchins, tavern loafers, girls of easy virtue, and destitute old men and women, with their grubby fingernails and toenails, thinning hair and wrinkled, careworn faces. On the other hand, it was his artificial, theatrical use of light that lent a heightened sense of drama to the scenes they played out, charging them with an almost unbearable pathos.

To take but one of many possible examples, in the Vatican's 'Entombment,' on show here, it is by means of an oblique light shining in from offstage beyond the edge of the canvas that he directs an invasive brightness into the thunderously portentous darkness, emphasizing the deathly pallor and weight of Christ's corpse, and picking up the detail of St. John's and St. Nicodemus's furrowed brows and straining muscles as they lower the lifeless body, and the traumatized despair on the faces of Jesus' mother and his other female mourners. And it is precisely through his control of this light, at once convincing and contrived, that he illuminates not only the tragedy of the crucifixion, but of the entire human condition.

Little illumination is to be found, by comparison, in 'The Lombard Sixteenth-Century: From Leonardo to Caravaggio' (which runs at the Palazzo Reale in Milan until Feb. 25). The usefulness of this survey of 'Lombard' painting is severely compromised by being structured around the tendentious thesis that a logical, linear progression, characterized by a distinct local tradition of realism and the treatment of light, led from Leonardo at the beginning of the century to Caravaggio at its close.

The exhibition, consisting of some 250 works, opens with pieces by Vincenzo Foppa (c.1428-1515), who was principally influenced by non-Lombard artists, notably Mantegna and the Bellinis, but never approached their level of achievement. This serves to draw attention to the central weakness in the show's overall argument. For there was a constant inflow of various inspirations from outside the region throughout the 16th century, making it a risky venture to exaggerate the purely homegrown nature of many of its artistic products.

Some of the most accomplished artists that appear here, such as Lorenzo Lotto, Giovan Girolamo Savoldo and Boccaccio Boccaccino, are appropriated as 'Lombard' on the grounds of birth in the region or because they spent time in it when, in reality, they were primarily products of the Venetian School.

The Florentine Leonardo spent a number of years in Milan. The only Leonardo painting in the show is a little-known version of 'The Virgin of the Rocks,' (executed with studio assistance) from a private Swiss collection. Hardly surprisingly, Leonardo's impact on the artistic scene in Milan was substantial. Yet none of his closest pupils or followers had enough talent (or perhaps were sufficiently allowed access to their master's secrets) to emulate his example -- as is illustrated by several works here. Correggio (1494-1534) of Parma learned a great deal from Leonardo, but also drew on Raphael and his school. This proved a winning formula, giving rise to some wonderful works, in none of which, however, was realism the slightest consideration, his pictures having more in common with later Baroque than anything Caravaggio painted.

Another first-class, native-Lombard artist was Sofonisba Anguissola. She outstripped her teachers in Cremona, invented her own form of realism in her intimate family portraiture and revealed a finer artistic intelligence and sensibility than the vast majority of her local male contemporaries. But she can hardly be seen as a direct stepping stone that led to Caravaggio's bold rethinking of some basic concepts in painting. The glaring omission from an exhibition purporting to explain the origins of Caravaggio's art is Titian - the most inconvenient Venetian of all - whose presence would have terminally undermined the show's proposition.

Generally regarded as the century's greatest painter at the time, Titian was still alive when Caravaggio was born, and in 1584 the young artist was apprenticed for four years to one of the grand old man's pupils, Simone Peterzano. Both this early teaching and Caravaggio's familiarity with Titian's work, so obvious in his own paintings, point to Titian as the most powerful single influence on Caravaggio.

In the final analysis, Caravaggio was no more a Lombard painter than William Shakespeare (who, curiously enough, was born only few years before him) was a Warwickshire or Stratford-on-Avon writer. Both great dramatists soon left the regions of their births behind them, showed an exceptional ability to absorb the most varied and vital elements of complex national cultures in ferment, achieved total mastery of their crafts with breathtaking speed, and by transcending provincialism permanently placed their mark on European culture at large.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024