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July 23 2012

Poor Polidoro – the other Caravaggio

If you talked about Caravaggio in the early 16th century, you meant Polidoro da Caravaggio. Then the other guy came along – and a good painter was forgotten

You have to feel sorry for Polidoro da Caravaggio. No – not that Caravaggio. Exactly.

Poor Polidoro came from Caravaggio in northern Italy and was admired in his day for his frescoes on the facades of palaces. He was nicknamed after his hometown; if you talked in the early 16th century about an artist nicknamed Caravaggio, people knew who you meant. Unfortunately, a few decades after his death, another artist, one Michelangelo Merisi, showed up in Rome who also came from Caravaggio. By 1600, if you raved about Caravaggio, it meant the man we still revere.

I started to worry about the comparative oblivion of Polidoro da Caravaggio when I happened to look him up on the National Gallery website the other day. Even this sombre and reliable source feels the need to point visitors in the right direction. "Like his more famous compatriot, Caravaggio", it begins, giving a link immediately for those misled by their shared place of origin.

If you do stay with Polidoro for a moment, the National Gallery has two paintings by him. One has only been recently attributed. It is a haunting portrait of A Knight of St John – yet this only adds to the confusion, for the "real" Caravaggio powerfully portraited a Knight of Malta. In fact, Caravaggio (the famous one) was himself briefly a Knight of Malta sworn to protect the island against the Turks. Unfortunately he got into a fight and … Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is so distracting.

Is there anything that can make Polidoro comparably interesting? Let's turn to Giorgio Vasari's Life of Polidoro da Caravaggio, in the 1568 edition of his book The Lives of the Artists. He says Polidoro lived with his colleague Maturino. Their "love" was so great that they "determined like brothers and true companions to live and die together".

While Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is notorious for killing a man, Vasari claims Polidoro da Caravaggio was a victim of murder. He employed an assistant who coveted his money. The greedy assistant planned to kill his master with the help of a gang of accomplices. First he strangled Polidoro in his sleep. Then he and his gang stabbed the dead body again and again, to make sure. They divided up the money and the wicked assistant raised the alarm, sobbing that someone had killed his master. People were suspicious, the assistant was tortured (this was 1543, they didn't mess about) and he confessed. But as Vasari writes: "Life was not restored to Polidoro."

As I said – poor Polidoro.


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February 28 2012

Caravaggio: Renaissance rock star

The alluring paintings of Caravaggio, Leonardo and Lorenzo Costa hint at the passion of Renaissance secular music

In Caravaggio's picture The Lute Player, which the fiery Lombard artist painted in Rome in the mid-1590s, a beautiful man plays a round bodied instrument that was the electric guitar of the Renaissance. But a lot quieter. People learned the lute for the same reason that teenagers since the 1960s have learned rock guitar, because they thought it made them look sexy. In Caravaggio's painting it works – the lutenist sings seductively among sensual fruits and flowers. But what is he singing?

I've been listening to modern recordings that attempt to capture the sound of Renaissance music, and I am more baffled than ever about what it really sounded like. Looking at Caravaggio's lutenist, we imagine a romantic, alluring song. Yet in many recordings Renaissance madrigals sound like church music, they are so harmonious and pristine.

Maybe musicians who play early music should look harder at Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Works such as Leonardo's portrait of a musician, or Lorenzo Costa's picture of a woman and two men singing together, give intimate glimpses of the world of Renaissance secular music. And again and again, what they stress is the frisson of excitement and desire at the moment of performance.

There was no way to record music in that age; it was always live. That meant it was always a drama between performers and audiences. What Caravaggio's painting shows is that it could be a dangerous, daring drama, with deep issues of love and longing electrifying the chamber where those tender lute notes sounded.

So perhaps when consorts and choirs today recreate early court music, they should have a bit more fun and think less of the harmonies of Pythagoras, and more of a rock concert's drama compressed into a room that happens to be hung with gorgeous tapestries and paintings.

There is one abundantly alive genre that links us directly to the emotional power of music in the age of Caravaggio: opera. Few would deny that opera tends to be passionate and extravagant. It was invented in late 16th-century Italy, drawing together the sounds and sights of the age in a spectacle that delighted the senses.

You can still feel a tension and mythic impulse in a very early opera like Monteverdi's 1607 masterpiece Orfeo. The story Monteverdi tells in his opera is disturbing: Orpheus pursues his lost love into the underworld, and almost succeeds in bringing her back to the realm of the living, but fails at the last moment. It is a story of sex and death that perfectly matches the provocative beauty of Caravaggio's lutenist. This is what music meant 400 years ago: longing and deep emotions. Renaissance music is reborn every time an opera house thrills to grand passions.


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February 14 2012

Cupid's wicked weapon: why you should duck the love god's arrows

It's Valentine's Day but get ready to run – Cupid's arrows have caused mischief and mayhem in art, driving Daphne away from Apollo and making Saint Teresa swoon inappropriately

Stupid Cupid often gets it wrong, or worse, is malicious. His arrows are weapons and he uses them cruelly. The very first time Cupid appears in the ancient Roman epic of mythology, Ovid's Metamorphoses, he does mischief. The god Apollo insults him, calling a him a silly boy with no business to be shooting arrows. Cupid gets his revenge by shooting one gold arrow at Apollo to make him fall in love, and another (lead-tipped this time) at the beautiful Daphne to make her fear and hate love. So Apollo chases Daphne until she turns into a laurel tree to get away – all because of those cruel arrows.

In Antonio del Pollaiuolo's painting of Apollo and Daphne, her arms are already leafy branches – all through the cruelty of Cupid! What terrible god is this? In Parmigianino's Cupid Carving His Bow, the love god turns to look at us as he hews his wicked weapon. In Caravaggio's Love Conquers All, he has dark wings, his penis is showing, and he bestrides a world of learning and culture that yields to his attack.

Cupid's arrows go so wrong in art that he sometimes seems to have changed his job – he might be working for the Christian God. Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa features an angel with a spear, piercing the heart of a Catholic mystic. But wait. A beautiful adolescent boy with wings? Piercing someone with a pointed shaft? This is surely Cupid in disguise. And he has truly created some confusion here: Saint Teresa, right there in a church in Rome, swoons with what looks like carnal passion.

This same confusion afflicts paintings of Saint Sebastian. Technically, this Roman soldier was shot by a firing squad with arrows for being a Christian. But in many paintings, including a powerful one by Guido Reni, it seems more like he has been pierced by Cupid's darts. Oscar Wilde loved Guido Reni's Saint Sebastian as a homoerotic image. Under the guise of religious art, Cupid has shot his arrows where they were forbidden to go.

In Titian's painting The Death of Actaeon it is the goddess Diana who aims her bow at the hunter Actaeon. Her magic has already turned Actaeon into a stag, and he is about to be torn apart by his own hounds. This all happened because Cupid caused confusion, yet again, when Actaeon, out with his dogs, gazed on the goddess naked. Big mistake.

Happy hunting.


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December 12 2011

Seeing the light on Caravaggio

Authors have struggled to translate Caravaggio's art into prose. But Andrew Graham-Dixon's biography looks at his subject with the same compelling intensity of the artist

I've waited a long time for a decent book on Caravaggio to come along. For some paradoxical reason, this most compelling artist has inspired a lot of dreary analyses. Unable to translate the shock of his images into prose, authors either sensationalise his life story in ways so crass as to be irrelevant, or retreat into reconstructions of his networks of patronage that are so dull they make you wonder why you ever felt seduced by his art in the first place – until, once again, you see a Caravaggio in a gallery or a church that knocks you sideways and scars your soul.

Recently I wrote about how his Sleeping Cupid had this effect on me at the Pitti Palace in Florence. In his biography Caravaggio, the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon has a very clever explanation for the unique effect of Caravaggio's paintings. The reason they obliterate other paintings in a gallery, even great paintings, is, he argues, to do with Caravaggio's special intensity of looking, which he believes was formed during the artist's youth in the religious visual culture of Counter-Reformation Milan. Under the influence of sensationally realistic popular Catholic art and spiritual advice to hold images of the holy scriptures in your mind, Caravaggio developed his ecstatic painterly stare.

It is a brilliant argument, so deeply thought out and so convincing that it might even strike some readers as unexceptional. But this book is exceptional. I am reading it slightly late, in paperback, but at least the timing is good for me to recommend it as an art read this Christmas. Forget the expensive coffee table books. A true art lover would much rather have this feast of insightful writing as a present.

It is a very unusual book, because it is both truly accessible – the author assumes no prior knowledge of history, although he does assume you are probably interested in Caravaggio – and ruthlessly intellectual. Right from the get-go, Andrew Graham-Dixon offers acute interpretations, in crisp, lucid prose, of such subjects as the nature of the Renaissance, and why Caravaggio is so different from High Renaissance artists (they sought to idealise the world, he refuses to do so in any way). For me, this ability to express a subtle and often profound argument in a disarmingly direct, unpretentious way has always been Graham-Dixon's characteristic skill and it makes him brilliantly suited to television. In this book, it allows him to illuminate his dark narrative with flashes of dazzling perception.

It is an achievement worthy of its subject.


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June 20 2011

Letter: Caravaggio and light

Dalya Alberge gives us the story that Caravaggio changed the course of western art with a completely new approach to light and form, but makes no mention of how this might have happened (Report, 20 June). I am not the only one to say optical projections were involved – there was recently a show in Rome of the possible methods. A lot is known about his studio: it was painted black and holes were cut in ceilings to let in a source of light, practically describing a camera. No known drawings exist. Recently even the British Museum had a wall plaque describing Brunelleschi as the "inventor" of perspective. Western perspective is a law of optics, hence cameras make perspective pictures. He discovered it, most likely through optics. There is an exciting new story from Caravaggio if one begins to take this into account, and possibly a newer history of photography. Yes, life was more violent in his day, but it's a lot less interesting than looking into his methods.

David Hockney

Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire


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June 19 2011

Unknown Caravaggio painting unearthed in Britain

The painting, an intimate depiction of Saint Augustine dated to 1600, was found by a dealer in a private collection

He altered the course of Western art with a completely new approach to light and form, yet barely 50 works created by Caravaggio during his 38 years have survived. Now scholars claim that one more, a previously unknown painting, has been discovered in a private collection in Britain.

The oil on canvas depiction of Saint Augustine, an expressive, mature work dated to around 1600 – when he was 28 – is to appear in print for the first time in a book on Caravaggio produced by Yale University Press.

A leading scholar, Sebastian Schütze, professor of art history at the University of Vienna and one of the book's co-authors, called the work a significant discovery.

He said: "It has never been published. What looked like an anonymous 17th-century painting revealed its artistic qualities after restoration."

The painting fits in to Caravaggio's oeuvre around 1600, when his style was sculptural and monumental, with powerful movement and emotional expression.

Overlooked in a private collection, where it was considered the work of an anonymous hand, documentary evidence has now been unearthed to support the attribution.

Although covered in old varnishes and repaints, its potential was spotted by Clovis Whitfield, a British art historian and dealer with a track record in discovery.

The painting can be traced to one of Caravaggio's most powerful patrons in Rome, Vincenzo Giustiniani. A Saint Augustine of similar dimensions – 120cm by 99 cm – is recorded in his 1638 inventory.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a revolutionary among artists, revered by masters through the centuries for his radical use of light and dark – chiaroscuro – and the theatrical biblical narratives he painted directly from posed models.

One of the west's most innovative artists, his use of light was as innovative as the Renaissance development of perspective.

But his was a tempestuous life blighted by violence, brawls and trouble with the authorities. He killed a man, either over a woman or a tennis match, and died in mysterious circumstances, although scientists last year used carbon dating and DNA checks on his likely remains, excavated in Tuscany, and found extreme levels of lead poisoning, possibly from the lead in his paints.

Another leading Renaissance scholar, David Franklin, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and co-author of the book, said the Saint Augustine discovery was important because it is totally new.

He said: "Even the composition had not been recorded in other copies. Often a [lost original] composition is known from copies but not this one."

He added: "What's interesting is that it's a rather conservative image. Maybe that's why it hadn't been known.

"It shows a side of Caravaggio perhaps that is not as drastic and antagonistic as usual but where he was working very closely with Giustiniani to try to create a much more quiet image of a saint."

He described the Giustiniani provenance as "compelling". The painting remained in the Giustiniani collection until sold in the mid 19th century.

It will appear in Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, to be published next month by Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Canada.


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September 10 2010

Bend sinister

Pathless landscapes and gloomy hollows, fiendish witches and brutal bandits – Salvator Rosa's paintings influenced Goya and delighted the Romantics. James Hall on a long overdue exhibition of the work of a brilliant rebel

The exhibition of Salvator Rosa (1615-73) at Dulwich Picture Gallery more or less coincides with the Turner prize, and what wouldn't we give for an artist cut from similar scintillating cloth in these dreary artistic days? The Naples-born painter, poet, musician, actor, satirist and wit was the first major visual artist to be an outspoken social critic and diehard alienated outsider. In this respect he makes Caravaggio, the shooting star of the previous generation, look inarticulate.

Not only did Rosa specialise in edgy new subject matter – portraits of disgusted philosophers and disdainful hermits; lurid twilit scenes of fiendish witches and brutal bandits in apocalyptic wildernesses – he was also a daring self-publicist. Rosa showcased his most ambitious and sensational paintings in some of the first ever temporary exhibitions, at the Pantheon in Rome, all the while ridiculing the patron classes and modern mores in scathing satirical poetry and theatrical comedies: "Whenever he moves or speaks," marvelled a friend, "he dislocates the audience's jaws." Rosa's proto-romantic credo is tersely expressed in one of several self-portraits, smuggled into the side of a tumultuous battle scene painted for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The elegantly moustachioed, pale-skinned Rosa crouches behind a dying horse. He dispassionately observes a Christian soldier sliding his sword blade into the blood-soaked throat of a fallen Turk whose right forearm has just been hacked off. The artist insouciantly holds up a silver shield inscribed with the first two letters of his first name and surname: SARO. This is Italian for "I will be".

Salvator Rosa was born into a family of Neapolitan painters and builders in 1615, but his surveyor father died after a long illness in 1621, leaving the family in poverty. The Spanish-ruled port city was the second largest in Europe after Paris, with a population of between 300,000 and 400,000, many of whom were homeless and only intermittently employed. The population was swelled by migrants from the countryside, where the taxes imposed by the Spanish colonial masters and the local aristocracy were even more onerous than in the city. Spanish involvement in the thirty years' war, starting in 1618, was financed by further taxation of the poor, leading to uprisings in Naples in 1620-22 and 1647-8 (the latter prompted by a new tax on fruit). Rosa's anti-establishment tendencies, and loathing of the Spanish, were fostered in this exploitative environment: in his satires, he bewailed the condition of "my country, slave of slaves"; railed against hypocrites who bought pictures of beggars while ignoring real beggars in the street; and praised Masaniello, leader of the 1647 uprising, "the low-born fisherman, barefoot, a worm".

Rosa and his elder brother Giuseppe were fortunate to be educated in a new free school for the children of the poor run by the enlightened Piarist order, who welcomed the ideas of Galileo and the "new science". Both were outstanding students, especially of painting and literature, and for the rest of his life Rosa was most at home with the cultural and intellectual elite. Painting in Naples operated in the long lugubrious shadow of Caravaggio, who had worked in Naples and Sicily in the four years before his death in 1610. Rosa was probably trained by the Spanish follower of Caravaggio, Jusepe de Ribera, brilliant exponent of a delirious form of dirty religious realism, and by Aniello Falcone, a specialist in a new kind of densely crowded, frieze-like battle picture without an obvious hero.

Falcone also did still lifes and landscapes. He and Rosa drew and painted in the countryside around Naples and along the coast, populating their pictures with low-life. "Painting from nature" was a major innovation of the time, pioneered by Dutch and Flemish artists. Rosa struggled to make a living, however, and in 1635 he moved to more promising pastures in Rome, undisputed centre of the art world. But in 1640, having publicly lampooned a theatre company run by the dominant artistic figure, Gianlorenzo Bernini, he moved to Florence where he embarked on a passionate, lifelong affair with a beautiful married woman, Lucrezia Paolina, whose husband had permanently left the city. He stayed for 10 years until, incensed by the corruption of court life that he attacked in his first satires, he returned to Rome.

As a landscape painter, Rosa came to be seen as the sublime antithesis to the beautiful pastoral idylls of the Rome-based French painter Claude Lorrain (1600-82). In the 18th century, he was virtually treated as an honorary Englishman and the proto-romantic painter. English milordi bought up nearly all his work. In 1717, Horace Walpole famously saw the Swiss Alps through Rosa-tinted spectacles: "Precipices, mountains, wolves, torrents, rumblings – Salvator Rosa". Yet there is nothing solidly or crisply alpine about Rosa's world. Rather, he is the poet of precariousness, revelling in the fragility of giant rock formations, trees, buildings and ships. At any moment you feel his tiny figures could be swept away or snapped in half like flotsam and jetsam. His great trees always have several branches that are inexplicably broken. The splintered stumps render them far more forlorn than unrestored antique sculptures, and they can even seem like a premonition of Paul Nash's bomb-blasted trees from the first world war. The famed fertility of Naples' hinterland is conspicuous by its absence.

Rosa's largely tragic feeling for landscape must have been informed by geological as well as by historical realities. The greatest eruption of Mount Vesuvius since antiquity, and the first since 1500, took place in 1631, accompanied by earthquakes. Vesuvius's cone collapsed, with molten lava pouring into the sea and ash reaching Constantinople. Three thousand people died amid general devastation. There's a strong sense of what one could call "seismic shiftiness" in Rosa's landscapes. There are few clearly demarcated ground lines, horizon lines, or perspectival vanishing points. We (metaphorically) stumble and grope our way across his essentially pathless landscapes; the ground regularly falls away into gaping gloomy hollows and swampy expanses that have a hypnotic gravitational pull. Sometimes, this feeling of porous, uncharted territory is liberating, akin to that famous Situationist slogan: "Beneath the paving stones – the beach!"; but mostly, it's chastening, like seeing the skull beneath the skin.

The 1631 eruption certainly stimulated interest in volcanoes. The Jesuit scientist, Athanasius Kircher, visited the seismic zones of southern Italy in 1637-8, seeing Etna from afar and peering into the smoking crater of Vesuvius. In the 1660s, by which time Rosa was exploring highly esoteric subject matter, he painted the spectacular death of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, who had fallen into the mouth of Etna. In antiquity, various explanations were offered. Empedocles had jumped in to prove he had become a god; or to gain fame; or, more bathetically, he had slipped. But during the 17th century, he was treated as a martyr for the cause of scientific research. Empedocles taught that the world was composed of four elements, earth, air, fire and water, and his heroic death came about from his fearless determination to study volcanoes at close hand.

Rosa's picture is one of the great evocations of the reckless pursuit of knowledge and power. Empedocles sky-dives through the air, already engulfed by jagged agglomerations of dark tufa rock and plumes of smoke. His red, blue and yellow robes are spread-eagled epically; his massive arms and hands are at full stretch. Yet he is going down to his death. Rosa has shown his bronze slipper perching on a rock ledge: in antiquity, this was said to have been thrown up by the volcano, thus proving he had perished and was not immortal. Empedocles is very much a fallen angel – and his exact catholic antithesis can be seen in the permanent collection at Dulwich, in Poussin's Translation of Saint Rita of Cascia (1630s), where the good lady levitates up to heaven on a sparkling sunlit cloudbank, arms spread aloft.

Rosa's Empedocles makes one think of the passage about the fall of Satan at the start of Milton's exactly contemporaneous "Paradise Lost" (1667):

Him the Almighty Power

Hurled headlong flaming from th'Ethereal Sky

With hideous ruin and combustion down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In Adamantine chains and penal fire

Yet Rosa marvels more than he mocks: he has made Empedocles a splendid dead ringer for the creating God on Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling.

Rosa's attitude to his human subject matter, whether they be bandits, witches, hermits or fishermen, is rarely clear. The description of Masaniello – "the low-born fisherman, barefoot, a worm" – is a case in point. The sympathy of the words "low-born" and "barefoot" is not carried through into "worm", which puts a satirical sting in the tail. The primary meaning of the "worm" reference is that this is how the Spanish overlords designate the average Neapolitan (King Lear's "forked animal"). But the secondary meaning is that Rosa also finds them and their destitute state contemptible – he despises the fact that he and his fellow countrymen have allowed themselves to become a "slave of slaves". These evaluative changes of gear are typical. The shiftiness that pervades his work is psychological and moral as well as geological – and therein derives its nervous energy.

Bandits were a perennial problem in the countryside, terrorising rich travellers and poor peasants alike, but they still became a popular subject for art in the 17th century. Some were regarded as noble savages or Robin Hoods, romanticised for their libertarian lives, sense of natural justice, and their aesthetic sensibilities: the legendary bandit Marco Sciarra had reputedly fallen to his knees when he met the writer Torquato Tasso on the road, and had let him pass unharmed. Rosa's bandits range from being thuggish assassins to the dreamy swains found in Venetian pastoral paintings. They are invariably glamorously dressed. In the 18th century, a myth arose that Rosa had been in a mythical band of soldier artists who had taken part in Masaniello's revolt. They were no doubt influenced by Rosa's darkly swaggering self-portrait in the guise of his stage character Pascariello, a supremely sexy sword thrusting from his hip.

Rosa's witchcraft scenes are only rivalled by Goya, whom he influenced. In around the 1630s the witch-hunts reached a climax, but they went into rapid decline with the end of the wars of religion that had first been set in motion by the reformation. The rational scepticism made fashionable by the scientific revolution also played a part. Ostensibly, collectors would meditate on a scene of witchcraft in the same way they would meditate on a scene of hell, or on a memento mori (a self-portrait from 1647 shows a tearful Rosa writing on a skull). But Rosa's aristocratic patrons were also fascinated by magic, astrology and alchemy, and gathered "marvels" together into cabinets of curiosities. The distinctions between superstition, religion and science were very blurred.

Helen Langdon, author of much of the hugely informative catalogue, believes that Rosa's largest witchcraft scene, painted at the same time as the skull self-portrait, is a satire of witchcraft and of all those who believed in it. The way in which the hideous naked witches and their creepy accomplices are arranged in a foreground frieze certainly is theatrical. But it's far from being mere pantomime. There is a hallucinatory intensity to the individual scenes – the "fumigation" of the hanged man; the presentation of the sacrificial baby; the skewering of the heart; the skeleton being helped to write with a quill pen; the placing of the voodoo doll before the mirror. These are highly trained professionals, a hag's army going about their magical business. We can't help but be mesmerised by their meticulousness and artistry. Rosa implicates himself and his own "diabolical" artistry by inscribing his signature with a calligraphic flourish on a rock sat on by the fleshy arse of the witch holding the voodoo doll. This isn't such an indignity as she's by far the youngest witch, with a lovely body – possibly modelled on that of Lucrezia. Make no mistake: this is Parnassus as well as Golgotha.

Some modern critics find all this sinister stuff preposterous – as did Rosa himself in later life when he renounced genre scenes depicting rogues in favour of "learned" philosophical art. In Landscape into Art (1949), Kenneth Clark drily dismissed the English Rosa cult of the 18th and early 19th centuries: "As Charles II said of a popular preacher, 'His nonsense suited their nonsense.'" John Ruskin was surely a better judge. In Modern Painters, the first history of European landscape painting, he made an astonishing claim: "I see in him, notwithstanding all his baseness, the last traces of spiritual life in the art of Europe . . . All succeeding [painters], however powerful, would have mocked at the idea of a spirit. They were men of the world; they are never in earnest, and they are never appalled. But Salvator was capable of pensiveness, of faith, and of fear." This long overdue exhibition (the first for nearly 40 years) will bring all that thought, faith, fear – and fearlessness – back into view.

Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness and Magic is at Dulwich Picture Gallery from 15 September to 28 November. For details, go to dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk


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July 27 2010

Caravaggio doubts

Scholars doubt recently-cleaned canvas is work of Italian master as Vatican newspaper changes its mind about initial attribution

Art officials today unveiled the painting at the centre of the latest Caravaggio mystery, after the Vatican newspaper suggested and then denied that the canvas was the work of the Italian master.

The Martyrdom of St Lawrence will now be subjected to X-rays and other analyses to evaluate its attribution. But art officials and scholars attending the unveiling felt the painting looked less like a Caravaggio than the work of one or more of his followers.

"It's a very interesting painting but I believe we can rule out – at least for now – that it's a Caravaggio," said art superintendent Rossella Vodret. "The quality of the painting doesn't hold up."

Vodret theatrically opened the curtain on the painting in a Jesuit church in Rome, revealing a canvas dominated by the figure of St Lawrence being grilled to death, his three executioners in the backdrop.

The 183 cm by 130.5 cm (72in x 51in) painting was recently cleaned and features the dramatic chiaroscuro typical of Caravaggio and his school.

The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, set the art world aflutter last week with a front page article headlined "A New Caravaggio".

The article made clear that the attribution was uncertain and that further tests were required. But the definitive-sounding headline, and the fact that the claim was made on the day marking the 400th anniversary of the master's death, raised expectations. The Vatican has in the past announced such art-world news in L'Osservatore, sometimes coinciding with an anniversary.

But on Monday the newspaper reversed its position and published an article by the Vatican's top art historian shooting down the claim. Under the front page headline "A New Caravaggio? Not really", Vatican museums chief Antonio Paolucci wrote that the work was not of Caravaggio's quality and described it as "modest" at best.

The painting, which belongs to the Jesuit order, had been kept for years in a private room in the Chiesa del Gesu in Rome, said the church's rector, the Rev Daniele Libanori. When the cleaning process revealed an interesting work, art officials were called in.

But Libanori said the original claim in L'Osservatore came as a surprise to the Jesuits, too.

Mystery still surrounds the history of the canvas. Libanori was secretive about its origin, declining to say what city or Jesuit venue the painting had come from.

Vodret argued that the most interesting element is the position and perspective of the saint, who is shown on the grill, one arm extended, his figure illuminated. Such unique iconography might have suggested the hand of Caravaggio, known for depicting scenes from unusual angles.

Vodret also pointed out that the hand of one of the executioners, holding a stick to keep the saint down, is of good quality. But she and the other experts noted that certain elements were poor, such as the bodies of the executioners, the cloth covering Lawrence, and one of the saint's legs, which appears to be awkwardly attached to the torso.

"The leg looks like a frog's leg. Caravaggio would never have made such a mistake," said Marco Bona Castellotti, an art historian. Even as he saw the painting for the first time at today's unveiling, he had no doubt it was not by Caravaggio.

Experts believe the work may have been done by a follower, perhaps in Naples, Sicily or Malta, all places where the painter spent time during his tumultuous life.

Caravaggio died in mysterious circumstances in a Tuscan coastal town in 1610, and a group of Italian researchers said recently that they had identified his remains.

Tests on The Martyrdom of St Lawrence will begin in September, accompanied by research of archives and documents in order to trace the history of the painting and learn who commissioned it. The research will take several months.


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July 24 2010

Caravaggio and me

From Martin Scorsese to Peter Doig, film-makers, photographers and artists explain how Caravaggio's prophetically cinematic paintings inspired them

David LaChapelle – Photographer and film director

Caravaggio is often called the most modern of the old masters – there's a newness, a contemporary feel to his work that painting prior to him just didn't have. It's like when [fashion designer Alexander] McQueen came on the scene, everything else [in the fashion world] suddenly looked old. Caravaggio used light like a photographer and his pictures are cropped like photographs. One that sticks in my mind is Boy Bitten By a Lizard. That's a beautiful example of the one-source light that we identify Caravaggio with, that he pioneered, but it's also a wonderful captured moment, this boy's sort of feminine reaction to the lizard's bite. It's a photograph before photography.

The flower in the boy's hair and the blouse coming off his shoulders I think signify that the boy is a male prostitute. But in no sense does Caravaggio judge the boy. He didn't strive to paint the court and the aristocracy – he was painting the courtesans and the street people, the hookers and the hustlers. That's who he felt comfortable with, empathised with. Back then that was considered blasphemous but actually that's where Jesus pulled his disciples from – the street people and the marginalised. That's why in [my photography series] Jesus Is My Homeboy I had people from the street dressed in modern clothing, in modern settings, with Christ, because that's who Jesus would be with if there was a second coming.

It's through one of my contemporary art heroes, Derek Jarman, that I got really turned on to the artist. I'm really good friends with John Maybury whose mentor was Jarman and when Jarman's film Caravaggio came out in the 80s I was living in London. It had a really big impact on me, I wanted to learn more about Caravaggio, I just loved his aesthetic. While Michelangelo was aspirational, using bodies at the height of perfection, Caravaggio was much more of a realist. The kind of beauty he depicts isn't in any sense what we see traditionally in painting of that time. He always found beauty in the unexpected, the ordinary – in the street urchin's face, the broken nose, and the heavy brow. That's why Caravaggio is a very sympathetic figure to me. I too try to find the beauty in everyone that I photograph, whether it's the kids in South Central LA who invented the new dance form I documented in Rize, or the transsexual Amanda Lepore who I've photographed a lot. People think she is freakish but I don't – I love her.

Today, if you took a photograph with the type of bodies Michelangelo used it would look like a [Calvin Klein] Obsession advert, whereas Caravaggio depicted the elderly, the imperfect, even death. You never turn your head away from a Caravaggio piece no matter how brutal it is because there's such a balance of horror, of unsightly bodies and violent scenes, with such great beauty.

Martin Scorsese – Film-maker

I was instantly taken by the power of [Caravaggio's] pictures. Initially I related to them because of the moment that he chose to illuminate in the story. The Conversion of St Paul, Judith Beheading Holofernes: he was choosing a moment that was not the absolute moment of the beginning of the action. You come upon the scene midway and you're immersed in it. It was different from the composition of the paintings that preceded it. It was like modern staging in film: it was so powerful and direct. He would have been a great film-maker, there's no doubt about it. I thought, I can use this too...

So then he was there. He sort of pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences in Mean Streets. He was there in the way I wanted the camera movement, the choice of how to stage a scene. It's basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up. The Calling of St Matthew, but in New York! Making films with street people was what it was really about, like he made paintings with them. Then that extended into a much later film, The Last Temptation of Christ. The idea was to do Jesus like Caravaggio.

Taken from Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Allen Lane). Read our review of this book

Peter Doig – Painter

It's always a challenge for a contemporary artist to be of their time but when you look at Caravaggio's paintings you can really imagine the context, because he used ordinary people and everyday clothes. The paintings feel very real. Edward Hopper, for instance, did the same. He was very aware of what people looked like in his time, what people were wearing. Equally Caravaggio's paintings were obviously very brave when they were made and they continue to be viewed with that spirit, and that's what's so exciting. The paintings are quite sinister – they have an air of menace, and they're obviously very sexual.

I first saw his work at the Royal Academy's Painting in Naples exhibition in the early 80s. I was in my early 20s then and I'd been aware of his work before but I'd not really paid it much attention. I found them immediately accessible, and quite different from other Renaissance paintings.

Sometimes the paintings actually don't seem quite right. I'm not talking about the straight portraits, but works like The Seven Acts of Mercy, where it looks as though he's looked at seven different incidents and then pieced together a picture out of these incidents. So there's no kind of logic to it in a realist way – it's not pretending to be a scene that you would actually see. In it two grown-up cherubs seem to be flying sideways. Initially you wonder what they're doing there because they seem very awkward. But when you twist your head you see they're obviously having sex. It's quite an extraordinary piece of painting in its own right within the full painting. I was quite excited and very surprised when I first saw that. It seemed very radical. I remember thinking that he must've enjoyed himself when he was making his work.

Polly Morgan – Taxidermist and artist

What I can see in a Caravaggio painting is as important as what is hidden. I might painstakingly spend months making something, only to light it in such a way that large parts of it are in shadow. Shadows need light to exist and what I love about Caravaggio's paintings are that the less he reveals, the more tactile and sculptural his figures become. I could compare it to pornography; show everything and it doesn't work, allude to something and it's compelling.

In Sleeping Cupid, there is a weight to Cupid's body that is absent in most depictions of him mid-flight. Here he looks spent. When I made my work To Every Seed his own Body, a blue tit collapsed on a miniature prayer book, I wanted to convey a sense of heaviness and fatigue through it's posture.

Caravaggio's elevation of the mundane and degenerate is what makes him unique for his time. He succeeds in bringing beauty to subjects that are commonly dismissed. This is something I've attempted in works where I've taken creatures that are typically considered vermin and shaped them in appealing ways. To have your take on beauty challenged is reinvigorating.

Polly Morgan's latest show, Psychopomps, is at Haunch of Venison, London W1, until 25 September.

Isaac Julien – Artist and film-maker

When I first saw Caravaggio's paintings in Rome I remember having what people call an art sickness. I was so in awe of the work, its aura and mastery – it was like a rapture. Bacon's works have this same kind of aura but it seems to be something that's missing a bit from contemporary art, which has other aims, other questions to pose.

I've always been interested in the use of lighting in Caravaggio's work. In the 80s I assistant-directed a film called Dreaming Rivers which we lit entirely by candlelight, a specific reference to Caravaggio's lighting. I even went with the cinematographer to look at some Caravaggios. I'm struck by the way his paintings use the architecture of light, its plasticity, how it forms the body, and I've borrowed that in several of my works. These things have been so astutely articulated in Caravaggio's works that they're almost, in a prophetic sense, cinematic. Making my documentary about Derek Jarman with Tilda Swinton I also saw this deliberate relationship [to Caravaggio's work] being made in Jarman's films, where basically there's an abandoning of sets as such. Instead he works with light and dark.

One work I find striking is The Denial of St Peter. It's a very troubling scene with such accusatory positioning. It's really about how things are communicated through the intensity of the gazes. But it's also the portions, the framing, the lighting, the colour, all of those aspects of communicating this particular moment. It's so cinematic.

Tom Hunter – Photographer and artist

For me, Caravaggio set the stage for what every contemporary artist seems to be striving for – to live an authentic life and then to talk about, to depict, that experience. Take Tracey Emin, sewing the names of everyone she slept with in a tent, or photographers like Nan Goldin and Sally Mann – their work is all about their own lives. You initially think all of Caravaggio's paintings are about God and religion but they're not, they're actually about his life and the times around him. They are living histories – that's why his work is so powerful for me.

There's a Caravaggio painting at the National Gallery called The Beheading of St John the Baptist, which I've returned to again and again. In it John the Baptist is on the floor; he has just been killed and Caravaggio gets the atmosphere totally right. Caravaggio was involved in a sword fight, and he actually killed someone: that's what seems to be recreated here, and that's why the morbid gravitas of that situation really comes out of the painting.

Caravaggio is like the opposite of the rich and famous fashion photographer of today, who would only be photographing Kate Moss. He was one of the first people to look at the ordinary people and tell their stories and that was really inspiring for me. In my series Living in Hell and Other Stories [shown at the National Gallery, 2005-2006] I wanted to talk about the everyday life around Hackney. I found a headline in the local paper about a woman being attacked in front of her children outside her council flat, which I depicted in Halloween Horror, a translation of Caravaggio's The Beheading of St John the Baptist. I wanted to record that horrific scene so it wasn't just a disposable headline, so that people would look at it and think, "My god, this isn't ordinary – a woman being mugged on her doorstep, in one of the richest cities in the world, in this day and age."

Of course the way he used light has also been an influence on me. The whole thing about photography is the painting of light – when I was taught photography I was told, "You shouldn't leave that bit too black because there's no detail there, you shouldn't have that bit too bright...", that sort of thing. But in Caravaggio's work there are amazing light contrasts and your imagination is left to explore the dark areas. His lighting has clearly been used in film too. Take Blade Runner, with its amazingly lit scenes, dark areas and beams of light through long corridors – that all seems to come from Caravaggio.


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July 23 2010

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon | Book review

A life of Caravaggio is lost between the personal and the scholarly, says Neil Bartlett

One of the primary weapons in 16th-century Catholicism's war against sin was the practice of visualisation, in which the faithful were exhorted to imagine themselves as literal, here-and-now witnesses to the sufferings of Christ. The more flesh-and-blood the imaginings, the better. At the start of his new biography of Caravaggio, the most skilfully carnal artist of the Counter-Reformation, Andrew Graham-Dixon carefully shows how the lurid elaborations of this theory in the plague-stricken Milan of the late 1500s sowed the visual and psychological seeds of a career spent making the dramatis personae of Catholicism seem real – gloriously, horribly, movingly real.

What he doesn't mention are the curious parallels between this particular brand of salvation-through-imagination and his own work as a popular art historian. If you can't make it to Rome, Naples, Valletta or Messina to see the incomparable originals in situ – runs the unspoken subtext — then this book is here to help you visualise them. Just as on television, your friendly expert will not only tell you what the paintings mean, but his impassioned commentary will also make you feel as though you are there, in the presence of the original.

Done well, this is no mean feat. The problem is that in print, Graham-Dixon clearly feels the need to foreground his expertise. He reassesses (and often reprints verbatim) much of the key source material relating to Caravaggio's notoriously turbulent life, and this necessarily makes for a hefty read. Sometimes it feels like he gets it right – the doggedly back-to-sources account of the painter's early death is impressively unsentimental – but just as often, the history seems under-edited, or even just plain unconvincing. When the evidence gets thin – for the peculiar theory that Caravaggio worked as a heterosexual pimp, for instance – the fatal words "probably", "maybe" and "perhaps" begin to litter the text.

Some of the key evasions in the narrative are disappointing. No one will ever now solve the mystery of Caravaggio's escape from his Maltese incarceration in 1608; but surely the far greater mystery of his apparent, almost complete, lack of conventional training for his chosen career deserves more explanation than merely asserting that this was proof of his innate genius.

At the heart of this account there is a confusion: is the description of the paintings to be a personal, emotive evocation, or is it to be something more solidly scholarly? For instance, when Caravaggio arrives in Rome to launch his career in 1592, and the only historical evidence that really matters is the paintings themselves, the biographical narrative runs smack into serious trouble. Having declared categorically that there is no "proof" that Caravaggio was homosexual in the modern sense of the word, Graham-Dixon then fails entirely in his biographer's duty to provide any 16th-century context for the distinctive sexual gaze that the painter brings to his early young male subjects. This leaves him stranded high and dry when it comes to evoking the true force of these sometimes camp and clumsy, but always unforgettable, pictures.

His prose gets notably breathless over Caravaggio's depictions of female prostitutes posing as biblical heroines, but when it comes to the boys, it comes over all art historical. He talks a lot about ambiguity, but he doesn't seem to feel it or make the reader feel it. Sometimes this fundamental lack of erotic sympathy with his subject makes him come unstuck completely. To describe the radiantly salacious St John the Baptist (1602), for instance, as being a high-minded theological variation on a nude from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling is surely not to explain the painting, but to try to explain it away.

Only in the second half of the book does the writing about the paintings begin to rise to the occasion. The short, simple account of The Seven Acts of Mercy is masterly; the responses to the two last Neapolitan paintings – revealed when on loan to the National Gallery to be perhaps the most harrowingly personal of all Caravaggio's works – are similarly effective (though marred by the odd insistence that they are primarily of interest because they show that Caravaggio must have been suffering the shakes following the violent assault that precipitated his death). When it comes to Adoration of the Shepherds (1609), created just months before the painter's death, Graham-Dixon finally lets rip, and talks about this humbling masterpiece exactly as if he was standing in front of it. The tone is personal, even confessional. He reads the painting as an expression of long-harboured grief over the male relatives that Caravaggio lost to the plagues of his childhood.

This is an eccentric, over-egged reading of a great picture, but it is probably the most convincing piece of writing in the book. If Graham-Dixon had published his scholarly research as a weighty tome for fellow historians, and then made his revisionist case for an un-gay Caravaggio straight to camera, revealing his personal investment in these marvellously dark and moving paintings in a TV travelogue, then we might have had something very special indeed. As it is, the confusion of the two genres left this reader unsure whether he was being invited to be a witness, or simply to be preached at.

Neil Bartlett's Skin Lane is published by Serpent's Tail.


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June 18 2010

Letters: Art from the sublime to the ridiculed

A lot is being made of the 400-years-since-he-died stuff on Caravaggio's bones (Report, 17 June). Artist on the run from a murder etc. As though Rome wasn't a violent city in 1600. I suppose you could walk anywhere late at night etc.

The critics say he invented chiaroscuro, or dramatic shading never seen before. A lot is known about Caravaggio's studios, more than most of his contemporaries. They describe the dark walls and a hole in the ceiling (known because he was sued). A few people have made serious suggestions that optical projections were used, and as there are no known drawings, and no record he ever made one, the evidence is very strong indeed.

No conventional historian has bothered to ask how these paintings were made. They think it is of little interest. It is of major interest to us now. The similarity to today's Photoshop techniques is fascinating. This seems to me to make him a more interesting artist, not less. It accounts for the new kind of space he opened (like TV close-ups), it accounts for the dark walls and the hole in the ceiling. His bones are neither here nor there because of this – a minor event compared with the implications for our time of his new techniques.

Sometimes I'm not sure what "art history" really is. It ignores picture-making techniques, has never known how to deal with photography, and cannot connect the past with today very well. Look at it a little differently and there is a much bigger and more important story for us today than a bag of old bones.

David Hockney

London

• I agree with Mark Brown (Report, 9 June) that the figure wearing a lion's head in the restored Tintoretto must represent Hercules. But Hercules frequently symbolises Fortitude (see, for example, the campanile of the Duomo in Florence) and fortitude is closely associated with magnanimity, so closely according to Aquinas that magnanimity is simply one of its subordinate parts. Seneca describes magnanimity as the most resplendent of the virtues, to which Latini adds that one leading characteristic of the magnanimous is that they are careless about small expenses. Lorenzetti, in his fresco cycle in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, offers a celebrated illustration of these ideas, showing the figure of Magnanimity crowned, with shining garments, ready to dispense gold coins. I wonder if this may tell us something about Tintoretto's crowned and shining figure to the right of Hercules, who is allowing gold coins to spill from the goblet at his feet?

Quentin Skinner

Department of history, Queen Mary, University of London

• Lucy Worsley is spot-on (Comment, 18 June). Just what we need – less intellectualism in history and more sexing up of flaky evidence (cue arched eyebrow and hanging question mark). I was particularly impressed by her hard-science pig-squashing experiment to prove that Henry VIII was a complete proverbial because of a bad joust day. I intend to drop my heaviest tome on my cat this afternoon in an attempt to confirm her findings. While wearing roller-skates.

Jim McDermott

Woodford Halse, Northamptonshire

• I have enjoyed the political caricatures created by Steve Bell and Martin Rowson for more years than I care to recall. Their cameo appearance on BBC4's excellent Rude Britannia (Last night's TV, G2, 17 June), where they discussed the history of 18th- and 19th-century English cartoon/satire, was fascinating. Why is there so little biting satire directed at the royal family today, unlike those times?

Dr Paul Clements

Goldsmiths College

• The statue of Eadgyth (Remains confirmed as those of a Saxon princess, 17 June) is surely one of the earliest examples of Rude Britannia. She is shown lightly caressing her bosom with her right hand while her left is daintily pulling up her skirt to reveal her right leg.

N Bailey

Saffron Walden, Essex

• Did anyone else notice the similarity between the photograph of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (G2, 15 June) and some of Monet's "water lily" paintings? Oil or watercolour? Or both?

Greg Hetherton

Hove, East Sussex


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June 16 2010

Caravaggio: The perfect ending to one of art's blackest tales

I can think of no other painter who imagined death so acutely from the inside, as a physical reality

Death sharpens the art of Caravaggio. An executioner reaches for his knife to cut the final tendons holding a head together to its body. A female saint cherishes a dark-bladed rapier. St Peter watches in helpless horror as his own crucified body is turned upside down. I can think of no other painter who imagined death so acutely from the inside, as a physical reality, something happening to a real person - which makes the claim to have discovered his corpse and the cause of his death all the more compulsive news. Caravaggio dealt in death, metaphorically and very literally. A life of violence led inexorably to his killing a man in a swordfight in the heart of Rome and fleeing south. But on his Mediterranean odyssey as a fugitive from justice he found more violence, more death. He joined the Knights of Saint John, a military order sworn to fight Islam, whose fortress on Malta had recently withstood a siege of macabre cruelty (heads fired from cannons, that sort of thing). On Malta he painted his greatest and most deathly work, a depiction of the murder of Saint John the Baptist in prison that anticipates every modern scene of torture and disappearance.

Caravaggio's own death became his theme: he gave his own features to the decapitated Goliath in one of his very last pictures. His palette became darker, his paintings emptier and more sepulchral - The Burial of St Lucy that he painted in Syracuse is set inside a crypt that arches up in a brown void of abandonment. By the time he died on the Tuscan shore, wandering madly, it's said, through malarial coastal wastes, his art makes you feel he was all used up, a burnt out case from some fiction concocted by an impossible collaboration between Grahame Greene and Christopher Marlowe. The idea of his body being identified is gripping, and if true, curiously moving. Here was a man alone, who fell out of his society - an outsider centuries before Romanticism existed to make sense of his case. The outsider found? The rebel redeemed, to be reburied in some dignified Roman church? It sounds like the perfect ending to one of art's blackest tales.


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The mystery of Caravaggio's death solved at last – painting killed him

Remains found in Tuscany are likely to be the artist's, proving that lead poisoning was one cause of his death 400 years ago

He killed a man, brawled constantly, rowed with patrons and fled justice while revolutionising painting with his chiaroscuro style. Now, as if to underline how dramatic Caravaggio's short life was, researchers say he may have quite literally died for his art.

Scientists seeking to shed light on the mysterious death of the Italian artist in 1610 said they are "85% sure" they have found his bones thanks to carbon dating and DNA checks on remains excavated in Tuscany.

Caravaggio's suspected bones come complete with levels of lead high enough to have driven the painter mad and helped finish him off.

"The lead likely came from his paints – he was known to be extremely messy with them," said Silvano Vinceti, the researcher who announced the findings today .

"Lead poisoning won't kill you on its own – we believe he had infected wounds and sunstroke too – but it was one of the causes."

Art historians already suspect that Goya and Van Gogh may have suffered from the ill effects of the lead in their paints, which can cause depression, pain and personality changes.

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio after the Lombardy town where he grew up, was a young man at the height of his career in Rome when he killed a man in a brawl in 1606, fleeing to find new patrons in Naples and then Malta, only to be thrown off the island two years later for more brawling.

"After a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ballcourt to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument," wrote one observer.

In between fights he found time to astound his contemporaries with his shocking realism and use of light and shade – chiaroscuro – although he won no favours with religious authorities in Rome when he reportedly used a famous prostitute as a model for the madonna.

From Malta, Caravaggio moved to Sicily, where his paintings became as dark and shadowy as his worsening moods which prompted him to sleep armed and tear up paintings after any criticism.

Returning to Naples, Caravaggio was the victim of a possible attempt on his life, leaving him with the wounds Vinceti believes became infected and spurring him on to Tuscany were he hoped to obtain a pardon for the Rome murder.

How Caravaggio died there, at 38, has been shrouded in mystery ever since – a blank page that Vinceti and a team of archaeologists and forensic scientists have set out to fill 400 years after his death.

To test existing theories that he died of malaria on a Tuscan beach, was devoured by syphilis, or was murdered by one of his many enemies, the team needed to start by locating Caravaggio's remains, which had never been found.

Vinceti went into action when a document was unearthed suggesting the painter was buried in the tiny San Sebastiano cemetery in Porto Ercole.

Discovering that the site had been built over in 1956, the team headed for the town's municipal cemetery to where the bones had been shifted, turning up nine potential sets.

"Set number five turned out to be from a tall man – Caravaggio was described as such – while tests showed he was between 38 and 40 and died around 1610," said Vinceti.

The team's next stop was the town of Caravaggio to compare DNA from the bones with local people. No descendents were found but families with the same surname were traced, giving samples which were 50 to 60% compatible with the bones.

Add in the toxic level of lead in the remains and Vinceti is convinced he has his man, adding to his reputation as Italy's foremost cold case historian, which he won when he dug up the remains of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a philosopher at the court of the Medicis, to prove he had been poisoned.

Now Vinceti is aiming for Leonardo da Vinci, hoping the custodians of his tomb will let him in to create a facial reconstruction of the Renaissance polymath.

Vinceti's press conference today at which a purported fragment of Caravaggio's skull was displayed on a silk red cushion could not have been better timed.

Shunned after his death before coming to be recognised as one of the fathers of modern painting, an exhibition of Caravaggio's work at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome this year celebrating the 400th anniversary of his death attracted 580,000 visitors.


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April 09 2010

Prince of darkness

Four hundred years after the artist's lonely death, James Hall returns to the city where Caravaggio made his name

The Vatican has just lent its greatest counter-reformation altarpiece, Caravaggio's Entombment, to the artist's anniversary exhibition in Rome, but it would be surprising if Pope Benedict XVI made the short journey to the Quirinal Palace to enjoy the show. It's not so much that the artist was a homicidal genius denounced by near-contemporaries as an anti-Christ who had come to destroy painting – Caravaggio received a papal pardon for his capital crime, and most art crimes are a matter of aesthetics, which are debateable. It is more that he first made his name in Rome by creating the sexiest boy pictures ever made. Several were commissioned by a cardinal who, like the artist, may have been a pederast, while others were acquired by another cardinal (the pope's nephew) who was probably homosexual.

It is 400 years since the squalid, lonely death of Caravaggio, and the one-time fugitive from justice and serial malefactor is now revered as a supreme cultural hero. As with Van Gogh, Pollock and Bacon, Caravaggio's fame is fuelled by the seeming symmetry between his tempestuous life and his raw, revolutionary art. He is routinely called the first modern artist. Fifty years ago an art historian said anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Caravaggio's contribution to civilisation lay somewhere between Aristotle and Lenin; now we could throw in Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born into a prosperous family in the small town of Caravaggio, near Milan. His father Fermo worked as a builder and architect. Caravaggio was apprenticed to a former pupil of Titian in Milan, but left for Rome in 1592. A pilgrimage to the Eternal City to study modern and ancient masters was de rigueur for an aspiring artist, but Caravaggio may have left after a brush with the law. In Rome he was a dogsbody, moving between studios, barely eking out a living, with some of his pictures sold on the street by hawkers. He specialised in portraiture and a novel north European genre: still life.

The prevailing period style is now known as mannerism – busy, diffuse compositions featuring idealised figures in complex pseudo-Michelangelesque poses; saccharine colour schemes; plunging perspectives. But by the end of the century Roman art was becoming marginally more naturalistic, with a greater emphasis on clarity, cogency, human drama and emotion. Caravaggio both created and exploited this taste for naturalism. His breakthrough came with freshly coloured and luridly lit genre paintings with one or more half-length figures of imposing scale. They were modelled from life using friends, lovers, street-people, gypsies, prostitutes – and his own swarthy self. These low-lifers co-existed with dazzling still lives. Caravaggio's iconoclastic credo was that it is as difficult to paint a good picture of flowers as it is to paint figures. He caught the eye of the supremely cultured Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte – a lover of music and alchemy, and friend of Galileo – who made him a salaried retainer.

A stunning sequence of single, seated good-time boys interacting with prominent still-life elements are a double-edged homage to his great namesake Michelangelo Buonarrotti. These sybarites could almost be Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling ignudi brought down to earth, fashioned from high-blush flesh and blessed with dirty fingernails. Whereas the ignudi hold or marshal bunches of acorns (papal symbols) and make movements that are sublimely indeterminate, Caravaggio's own semi-clad figures knowingly proffer or pose with fruit and drink, implicating the viewer. Two represent Bacchus, the wine god.

Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1593-94) is gently moralising, mildly titillating. A curly-haired, plump-lipped boy with a white rose in his hair reaches forward to grab some cherries and gets nipped by a lurking lizard on the middle finger of his right hand: the would-be biter of (forbidden?) fruit gets bitten. His white, toga-style shirt peels off from his right shoulder, which has jerked upwards into his cheek, seemingly dislocated by the shock. Raking light from the upper left slaps his shoulder and face. What sweet sadism! The lizard bite (neither poisonous nor dangerous) serves to intensify rather than jeopardise the boy's beauty, by opening up his face and torso and by exposing a charming vulnerability that elicits amused and erotic compassion rather than revulsion. His flailing fingers pluck the air like those of the sultry boy musician in The Lute-Player (1595-96) painted for Del Monte. Both seductive and scary, these haunting creatures are ancestors of what the gay writer and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini called ragazzi di vita – boys of life.

Caravaggio's transformation from a stylish genre painter whose works were prized by cultivated connoisseurs to a great and popular religious dramatist is as sudden as it is unexpected (at a much lower artistic level, it's as if Jeff Koons morphed into Francis Bacon). Caravaggio's first church contract, for three pictures on the life of St Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel, was signed in July 1599, thanks to Del Monte's string-pulling. It was unveiled a year later to huge acclaim, and Caravaggio never again lacked for prestigious church commissions, even after his flight from Rome in 1606 having killed a man in a sword-fight. He painted only two more genre pictures. Wherever he went, local artists aped his style.

In The Calling of St Matthew, the main action, as in all Caravaggio's pictures, is uncomfortably close. It takes place at the front of a shallow stage blocked off behind by a dark featureless expanse (in this case a wall). Caravaggio still uses fashionably dressed figures who could have stepped out of one of his genre scenes, yet their pretensions are stripped bare by men with a different dress code, and armed only with light.

Matthew the foppish tax-collector sits at a table counting his money or gambling with rakish male friends and colleagues. At stage left, Christ and Peter have shuffled in, shoeless and dressed in drab togas. They're an odd couple. Peter stands weak-kneed right in front of Christ, practically pushing him to the wall. Of Christ, we glimpse only the noble head, a bare foot and raised right hand, which points in the direction of the fashionistas. This hand is strangely floppy (the limpest of the three pointing hands in the picture), and is an allusion to the languid hand of Michelangelo's Adam. It is surely meant to be like the hand of a spear thrower relaxed after release, for a blade of light passes diagonally overhead, angling towards its target of Matthew's face. The ambushed victim points quizzically to himself, as if to say: "Who, me? Why me?"

Caravaggio is justly regarded as the master of chiaroscuro, creating mood, emphasis and relief by contrasts of light and dark. This was part of his Milanese heritage, for Leonardo da Vinci had lived and worked there a century earlier: Caravaggio would have studied his Madonna of the Rocks altarpiece, now in the National Gallery. But whereas Leonardo tried to soften the transitions, Caravaggio's contrasts of colour and light are aggressively hard-edged, almost heraldic in their geometrical clarity and frontality, and played out over dark, skyless backgrounds. Rubens, Rembrandt and Velázquez were all profoundly influenced, just as, more recently, were countless photographers and film-directors.

The bold immediacy of Caravaggio's Roman pictures owes as much to his method of painting directly from the live model at speed without making preparatory drawings. He incised the main outlines into his darkly painted grounds. For his multi-figure compositions he may have created tableaux vivants in a blacked-out studio, using lamplight (as re-enacted in Derek Jarman's film Caravaggio and Simon Schama's Power of Art). The National Gallery website informs us that Caravaggio's technique "was as spontaneous as his temper". Yet little is left to chance or rushes of blood. These are not snapshots. Most gestures and poses are slow and ritualistic rather than instinctive or off-the-cuff.

Unlike the Venetians, who had pioneered painting from the live model, Caravaggio rarely selected perfect specimens. This perceived lack of idealisation was the most controversial aspect of his altarpieces: for some, it exemplified the counter-reformation insistence that art should give the unvarnished truth in as forceful a manner as possible; but for artists such as Poussin, Caravaggio had gone too far and tried to destroy art by flouting decorum. Several altarpieces were rejected or criticised by the authorities, but the rejects were instantly snapped up by private collectors. Rubens persuaded his employer, the Duke of Mantua, to buy The Death of the Virgin (1601-03), rejected because the Virgin looked too dead and was reputed to have been modelled on a drowned prostitute. Yet Rome's poor seem to have appreciated seeing themselves centre stage. When the Madonna of Loreto (c1603-06) was unveiled, with its bedraggled pilgrims (one with filthy feet) praying before the Virgin and child, it was noisily applauded.

Some of Caravaggio's proletarian imagery, and especially the flaunted dirty feet and furrowed brows, do come close to caricature. The rejected altarpiece in the Contarelli Chapel of St Matthew and the Angel (destroyed in Berlin in 1945) is a brilliantly silly example. Matthew is a balding, burly, illiterate peasant with Artexed brow and dirty feet, one of which dangled over the altar; the casual intimacy of his relationship with the angel who guides his writing hand doesn't help matters. It was immediately bought by a wealthy friend of Cardinal Del Monte's, who paid for Caravaggio to paint a more decorous replacement that resembled the suave and educated tax-collector in the Calling.

The "proletarianism" and sardonic humour of so much of Caravaggio's Roman work must owe something to the Accademia della Val di Blenio, founded in Milan in 1560. This was an anti-establishment wining and dining club dedicated to promoting a fabricated dialect that was claimed to be the ancient language of Swiss wine porters working in Lombardy. Members wrote burlesque literature in the rough-and-ready dialect, and in 1568 Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, a painter friend of Caravaggio's first teacher, was appointed "Abbot" of the society. In St Matthew and the Angel, and in many other religious works, Caravaggio has resurrected, as it were, the ancient dialect of biblical wine porters.

During the 18th and 19th centuries Caravaggio was everyone's whipping boy – not just an iconoclast, but a heretic and even an atheist. John Ruskin saw nothing but "horror and ugliness, and filthiness of sin". Of course, these vices have come to seem like exciting virtues to modern audiences, with one scholar praising Caravaggio's "derisive irony" as though he were the father of Duchamp, Dada and the spaghetti western.

When confronted by the vast tarpaulins of darkness that envelop Caravaggio's late works, painted as he scurried around Naples, Malta and Sicily, one does wonder how far he believed in personal salvation. The spotlighting of his great New Testament figures is forensic: it freezes and targets rather than transfigures (he would have loved laser sighting mechanisms). The professionalism of the executioners – and the lack of ministering angels – is spine-chilling. David with the Head of Goliath was painted soon after Caravaggio had been disfigured by assassins in Naples, and not long before his death from malaria during his desperate rush to Rome for a papal pardon. The great shepherd boy holds up the bleeding head as nonchalantly as Caravaggio's own Bacchus held out a glass of red wine (Goliath's head may be a self-portrait). This David is not in the least bit perturbed or moved, as some critics have claimed: his decidedly phallic sword blade presses against his own groin.

Caravaggio's art can be best understood as representing a "Machiavellian moment". He lived in an age when the term Machiavellian had become common currency, often as a term of abuse. But it was still granted huge explanatory force: the St Bartholomew's day massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572 was attributed more to Machiavellian political manoeuvrings than to religious ideology. The metronomic intensity – and, to some extent, monotony – of Caravaggio's work stems from that fact that he is as interested in the natural and political history of religion as the spiritual history. His David is a narcissist, opportunist and realist before he is a prophet and author of the penitential Psalms.


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December 20 2009

Birth of the baroque

Four hundred years ago, Caravaggio stopped off in Naples and an art movement took off. Jonathan Jones on how painterly excess and sentiment live on in the modern Christmas

Mary sits in a ruined building, showing her new baby to shepherds and kings. Next door, ignoring the fuss over the newborn, a woman has come out on to her narrow balcony to collect her washing. In the crowded alley below her, men carrying merchandise walk past a butcher's stall, ignoring a one-legged beggar.

The figures in this tiny world, meticulously crafted out of wood, are just two inches tall. But what is most wonderful about this glorious piece of folk art is that it stands in the street, outside a shop in the sprawling southern Italian city of Naples. In fact, all along this street, similar scenes – known as presepi, or cribs – are being admired by Italians. They're pondering which one to buy, or which scene to add a figure to. The nativity is always in these cribs somewhere, but detail after detail is added, resulting in a crowded humanity; the effect is rich as cake. One shop in these dense, narrow streets sells nothing but carved baby Jesuses.

Naples has its own share of the kind of Christmas decorations we're all familiar with: fairy lights on dark walls, santas on the steps of a church. But it's the cribs, which have been made here since the 17th century, that are the most striking. These days, craftsmen sometimes add contemporary, satirical elements: this year, mini Obamas and Berlusconis feature in the multitudes.

At heart, the presepi belong to the baroque art movement, born in Italy in about 1600, and the dominant style in European culture for around 150 years. Naples is one of the baroque's great centres and a new exhibition here, Return to the Baroque, is celebrating that achievement in museums and churches across the city.

But let's stay on the street for a moment. A stone's throw from all the Christmas stalls, there's a forbidding doorway marking the entrance to a chapel where Caravaggio's astonishing painting The Seven Acts of Mercy has, for 400 years, served as altarpiece. Like the cribs outside, this is an image of Naples itself – a crowded, human place with (again echoing the cribs) touches of the divine on its mean streets.

In the chapel, candles glow distractingly and a crucifix obstructs the view; even so, this painting's strangeness holds you. It seems to be a street scene with a building, a prison, looming up; a woman offers an elderly man behind bars a breast and he drinks. This is a depiction of two of the merciful acts advocated in St Matthew's Gospel: give drink to the thirsty, help prisoners. Meanwhile, a man in clerical vestments holds up a torch to reveal the grey feet of a corpse – the final merciful act is a decent burial. Everyone is engaged in an act of mercy (a cavalier is giving his cloak away), while Mary, Jesus and two winged angels watch from above.

When Caravaggio briefly visited Naples, a killer on the run, he left behind him a handful of paintings: the Seven Acts was the greatest, and sowed the seeds of a new art. Baroque was just beginning. In Caravaggio's hands, it became an art of harsh reality: a shock for the senses and the conscience. In the streets near this altarpiece, you can see how the baroque evolved into an art of spectacle and excess. Marble spires festooned with stone garlands rise up from piazzas. Looking like marble Christmas trees, these guglie are as unique to Naples as its cribs. They are pure decoration, something to lift the spirits while negotiating the mad alleyways – making them Naples's answer to Rome's fountains.

By the time these structures were raised, half a century after Caravaggio painted his vision of mercy, the baroque had evolved from an intense, disturbing art into, well, Christmas decorations, if you're feeling harsh. Once the movement left Caravaggio's peculiar anxiety behind, the art became complacent and second-rate. Or so I used to think; but in Naples this winter, I saw how it all joined up.

Here, the baroque makes sense. Those cribs are a kind of lesson in what the splendour of the movement was for – to celebrate, to bring people together. What started as religious introspection became a joyous art with its roots in Italy's many festivals (guglie are stone versions of wooden spires carried about at festival time). Even today, Italy is awash with festivals and collective rituals. Britain doesn't come close – but what we do have is Christmas; those trees, lights and baubles turn our towns, briefly, into something like baroque cities.

The best thing about the baroque celebrations are that they require a trip to Certosa di San Martino, a monastery looking across the bay to Vesuvius. Its interior – much of it by Cosimo Fanzago, the brilliant local artist who created the first guglie – is dazzling. With its marble inlays, mesmerically carved (real) skulls, frescoes and paintings by everyone from Domenichino to the Cavalier d'Arpino, this place exemplifies the baroque as a vast Christmas decoration. The ornateness, a defiant response to the harshness of life, is a moving assertion of beauty. Paintings of 17th-century Naples, on show elsewhere in the city, show the corpses of plague victims piled in the streets.

An assassin at the table

Neapolitans needed art – to give them glimpses of heaven. Guido Reni's altarpiece at San Martino, depicting the adoration of the shepherds, provides exactly that. Caravaggio's altarpiece is uneasy; Reni's, with its luminous faith, sweeps you up. His tall, bright painting has no gloom, no doubt. It has the same poised grace as a Raphael, but more sentiment; it's more revealing of personal passion: Reni is a believer, sharing his vision of the nativity.

Reni was an outsider, a visitor to Naples. It was not his style that shaped its art. Local painters were more loyal to the harshness in Caravaggio, and the paintings in galleries and churches here are smoky, tenebrous, often violent. Mattia Preti's Convito di Assalone is a sumptous banquet whose rich human details, from the dishes on the table to the child hiding behind a chair in terror, are worthy of the crib carvers. But it's shocking, too: assassins raise their daggers to kill a man at the table. Preti combined the power of Caravaggio with a refined painterly subtlety.

Back in the streets, the nativity scenes proliferate just like baroque paintings: endless elaborations on the same idea. Naples doesn't seem to have changed much in 400 years: a boy with short black hair straight out of a Caravaggio painting is begging on the street. The 18th-century Naples philosopher Giambattista Vico argued that history is cyclical, so nothing ever really changes. Perhaps this is what the exhibition title, Return to the Baroque, means. Naples is caught in an eternal loop. After a day immersed in its art and architecture, you wonder, uneasily, if someone in one of those workshops is carving a little figure of you – to place among the cribs that line the streets of this timeless baroque city.


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December 10 2009

Mourning Caravaggio's Nativity

I used to hope that Caravaggio's Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence would turn up in Sicily, but now it seems it has been lost forever

It's horrible when a pessimistic hunch is confirmed. A year ago I wrote in the Guardian about Caravaggio's Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, stolen from an oratory – the baroque catholic equivalent of a Quaker meeting house, where people gathered to pour out their hearts and souls – in Palermo in 1969.

The theft has always been attributed to the mafia, and for four decades, art lovers have hoped the painting might some day resurface from an underworld private museum. But going back to the records of a trial of a pentito – a mafia insider who becomes a state witness – I was sadly convinced by his account of how the gangsters who stole Caravaggio's work brutally mistreated it to destruction.

Now another pentito has given a slightly differing, but not incompatible, version of the same story. Yes, the mafia took the painting. But no, it was never hung in a godfather's private museum. It was violently used by violent men. The new account says the remains – mere scraps – were burned.

It has gone. We only have reproductions. As it happens, a compelling image of this work has just been published by Taschen, in an oversized Caravaggio volume that is like wandering though a darkened church, so large are the shadows. You look at the touching, simple scene Caravaggio created for Sicilians, and long to see the real painting.

But we probably never will.


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November 09 2009

Caravaggio: master photographer?

Caravaggio experimented with lighting effects in his paintings and used models from the street - two centuries before the great photographic pioneers

Caravaggio is one of my favourite artists. But, strangely enough, I've never given much thought to his relationship with photography – until now. Writing captions for the Guardian's series of supplements about 100 years of great photojournalism, I've been amazed by how closely some of these photographs resemble paintings by the baroque master Michelangelo Merisi, more commonly called Caravaggio, whose life straddles the late 16th century and the start of the 17th. Again and again, whether it's in Cartier-Bresson's immediacy or Bill Brandt's sepulchral shadows, you catch hints of Caravaggio's intensely lit and passionately sensual world in the work of the most brilliant photographers.

Of course this is no coincidence. Caravaggio was rediscovered because of the camera. It was the spontaneity and directness of the photographed image, both in still prints and movies, that made people recognise the greatness of his art again. From the 18th to the early 20th centuries, Caravaggio had been neglected and forgotten. He simply was not on the radar. But in the 1930s, 40s and 50s - the decades when photography came into its own - he was championed by critics such as Roberto Longhi as a true great of European art.

Did Caravaggio, perhaps, use some kind of camera obscura to find and map his images? David Hockney thinks so. But perhaps how he fixed his images is less important than how he lit them. Surely we can agree the lighting in a painting such as The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio is "real" - that he actually did create these lighting conditions in his work room. He experimented, in other words, with lighting effects.

The other reason he is so immediate is that he used humble models who look like what they are – faces from the streets. I haven't got the answer as to exactly how it was that Caravaggio so strangely anticipated the great photographers, or how much he influenced them. But the parallels are there in front of our eyes, in light and shadow.


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