by Roderick Conway Morris

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Painters of the Dark Side of Rome

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 18 December 2014
Collezione Koelliker, Milan
'Gypsy with a Baby' by Simon Vouet c.1625



Caravaggio's revolutionary realist style of painting rapidly found followers and imitators among Rome's community of painters, who flocked there from all over Europe to immerse themselves in Greco-Roman art, study the Italian Renaissance masters and seek commissions from the city's wealthy ecclesiastical elite, local and foreign residents and visitors.

Most of Caravaggio's works were religious in theme and only a few, such as 'The Fortune Teller' and 'The Card Sharps,' were genre paintings, but the eagerness with which his patrons acquired such canvases (Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte bought both these works) encouraged his contemporaries in Rome — and not only those painting in the new Caravaggesque manner — to depict the dark side of the Eternal City.

Caravaggio had a notoriously rackety lifestyle, which ultimately led in May 1606 to his fatal wounding of an opponent in a brawl, his flight from justice and his tragically early death in exile two years later. This kind of disorderly existence was by no means uncommon among Rome's artists at the time and their experience of the city's seamy side fueled a new artistic interest in poor and lowlife scenes and characters — as is vividly illustrated in 'The Baroque Underworld: Vice and Destitution in Rome,' at the Villa Medici in Rome.

This exhibition of over 50 paintings, drawings and engravings, the first of its kind to examine the subject, is curated by Francesca Cappelletti and Annick Lemoine, and continues in Rome until Jan. 18, before traveling on to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris in February.

Rome's artists' guild, the Accademia di San Luca (of which Cardinal Del Monte became patron in 1596), dates to the late 15th century, but the diverse, cosmopolitan nature of Rome's artistic population gave rise to other more informal groups. Most prominent of these was the Bentvueghels (Birds of a Feather), whose Flemish name reflected the fact that it was dominated by Flemish and Dutch artists, but there were also members and associates of other nationalities, such as Valentin de Boulogne and Nicolas Régnier, as well as local Italian artists who contributed to the group's often unruly activities.

Indeed, the so-called Bent became a bohemian epicenter of drunkenness and debauchery. Their presiding deity was Bacchus, inventor of wine and god of both liquid and artistic inspiration. The exhibition opens with several celebratory images of Bacchus, including the Caravaggesque 'Bacchus and a Drinker' by Bartolomeo Manfredi and Dirck van Baburen's 'Pan,' almost certainly a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of this Greek deity famed for both his music and sexual prowess.

Further paintings and engravings by Matthys Pool depict the elaborate, wine-sodden initiation rites of the Bent, which ended in a solemn procession at dawn to the 'Tomb of Bacchus,' an ancient porphyry sarcophagus in Santa Costanza, where further imbibing and libations took place, along with the carving of the name of the new member on the walls of the church (some of these names being still legible today).

These works are accompanied by lively sketches of contemporary Bent artists, attributed to Leonaert Bramer and another — anonymous — Dutchman. Their subjects included Claude Lorrain, capacious wine glass in hand, and the Italian Caravaggesque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, dressed as a male and sporting a false mustache.

There is a comically unflattering oil self-portrait of the Dutch painter Pieter Boddingh van Laer, a prominent member of the Bent, who moonlighted as a barman and was known for spending everything he earned on prostitutes. Van Laer's exotically hideous visage earned him the nickname 'il Bamboccio' (the ugly doll or baby). He was a notable painter of lowlife Roman subjects in the 1620s, his followers in due course being dubbed the 'Bamboccianti' (though this appellation did not appear in inventories until the end of the 17th century).

A riotous nocturnal scene, 'Bentvueghels in a Roman Tavern' by Pieter van Laer's brother Roeland, which appears to represent a debauch on the occasion of an initiation, includes a prostitute stretched out on the floor in parody of a pose in which Mary Magdalen was often depicted in religious images. This irreverence was typical of the group. On one occasion a party of them infiltrated a religious procession, carrying an image of their pagan deity Bacchus. Indeed, it is surprising the extent to which these pranks were tolerated by the Vatican, their sacrilegious dawn parade to the 'Tomb of Bacchus' at Santa Costanza not banned until 1720.

Drawing inspiration from Caravaggio's 'Card Sharps' and 'The Fortune Teller,' a number of paintings in subsequent sections of the show, including Pietro Paolini's 'Card Sharps' and Simon Vouet's 'Fortune Teller' — in which a pretty young gypsy woman distracts a young man by reading his palm while an old hag picks his pocket — could be interpreted as warnings to the inexperienced and naive.

But other tavern scenes — Bartolomeo's 'Gathering of Drinkers' and de Boulogne's 'Concert With Bas-Relief,' with ancient decorated blocks of masonry featuring as improvised tables in both — are more ambiguous evocations of lowlife culture.

Suffused with a melancholy of more universal significance, such scenes are suggestive of the transience of all forms of human existence. The central focus of Valentin's vibrantly atmospheric painting is a pale, tousle-haired child, resting his weary head on his hand, who stares vacantly into space in a suspended moment of silence as two musicians prepare to strike up.

Life was precarious for even the most talented of these painters and many were chronically in debt. A rich source of information on their lives, contemporary court records bear witness to their frequent appearances before magistrates on various charges. When the sculptor David de Lariche died of his wounds after a violent incident, his roommate de Boulogne had to sell his friend's few remaining clothes to pay for his burial.

Despite being rewarded with substantial sums for their work, both Guido Reni, who was addicted to gambling, and de Boulogne ended up in paupers' graves. Giovanni Baglione, Lorrain and Manfredi all fathered illegitimate children, and Giovanni Lanfranco, Nicolas Poussin and van Laer were to die of syphilis. These artists spent their everyday lives in close proximity to the poor, the marginalized and the criminal, rubbing shoulders with them in cheap lodging-houses, taverns, dark drinking dives, gambling dens and prisons. This not only gave them an intimate knowledge of Rome's underworld but, evidently, fostered in them a sense of fellow feeling, even respect, for its inhabitants.

As a result, some began to paint portraits of the poor with a depth of observation and sympathy that was unprecedented. A series of such striking images here include Jusepe de Ribera's 'Beggar,' the full-length 'Beggar With a Cittern' by an anonymous follower of Ribera, Michael Sweerts's 'Old Man and a Boy' and 'Pilgrim Resting,' and Vouet's tour de force, 'Gypsy With a Baby' — a moving and thought-provoking study of a Romany Madonna and Child that would not look out of place above an altar in a church.

The Baroque Underworld: Vice and Destitution in Rome. Villa Medici, Rome. Through Jan. 18. Museé des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. Feb. 24 through May 24.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023