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Is Caravaggio more popular than Michelangelo?


More news from the world of Caravaggio watchers. A Canadian art historian has argued that the 17th century master Caravaggio has become a more popular research topic than even Michelangelo.

Hard to believe, perhaps. But Philip Sohm, an art historian at the University of Toronto, bases his claims on studies of the number of writings (including books, catalogs and scholarly papers) produced on both great artists over the last 50 years, according to a recent story in the New York Times.

And Sohm has concluded that during that period, Caravaggio has gradually, if unevenly, overtaken Michelangelo.

(The photo above is Caravaggio's oil Judith Beheading Holofernes. c.1599. Palazzo Barberini, Rome)

To quote the New York Times piece: “The change, most obvious since the mid-1980s, doesn’t exactly mean Michelangelo has dropped down the memory hole. To judge from the throngs still jamming the Sistine Chapel and lining up outside the Accademia in Florence to check out “David,” his popularity hasn’t dwindled much.”

But, at least for scholars, the difference seems to come down to modern tastes.

Says the New York Times: “ Caravaggiomania, as (Sohm) calls it, implies not just that art history doctoral students may finally be struggling to think up anything fresh to say about Michelangelo. It suggests that the whole classical tradition in which Michelangelo was steeped is becoming ever more foreign and therefore seemingly less germane, even to many educated people.

“His otherworldly muscle men, casting the damned into hell or straining to emerge from thick blocks of veined marble, aspired to an abstract and bygone ideal of the sublime, grounded in Renaissance rhetoric, which, for postwar generations, now belongs with the poetry of Alexander Pope or plays by Corneille as admirable but culturally remote splendors.

“Caravaggio, on the other hand, exemplifies the modern antihero, a hyperrealist whose art is instantly accessible. His doe-eyed, tousle-haired boys with puffy lips and bubble buttocks look as if they’ve just tumbled out of bed, not descended from heaven. Coarse not godly, locked into dark, ambiguous spaces by a strict geometry then picked out of deep shadow by an oracular light, his models come straight off the street. Cupid is clearly a hired urchin on whom Caravaggio strapped a pair of fake wings. The angel in his “Annunciation” dangles like Chaplin’s tramp on the high wire in “The Circus,” from what must have been a rope contraption Caravaggio devised.”

Finally, notes the article: “The other afternoon, endless scrums of tourists (in Rome) jostled before the Caravaggios in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, feeding pocket change into the boxed light meters. It was probably just coincidental, but in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, nobody stopped to look at the Michelangelo.”

Comments (9)

re: the Michelangelo sculpture in Santa Maria sopra Minerva - maybe no one stopped because they know it wasn't wholly his work? Seems like a cheap shot by the author just to prove a point!
I'm a fan of Caravaggio's work, but when it comes to sheer genius in multiple disciplines, he can't touch Michelangelo.

p.s. check out http://www.artemisia-gentileschi.com to see paintings by a 16th c. artist who followed Caravaggio. My favorite Gentileschi painting is "Judith and her Maidservant." (Not for the squeamish!)


Interesting...I think I agree with him, even though I still prefer Michelangelo. I also wonder how much of this is due to Dan Brown.

Interesting article, Sandra.


Hi Colleen, I thought the same thing! A bit of a cheap hit, although a common enough journalistic device to make a point (compare and contrast!)And a small marble statue that isn't even well-identified just doesn't attract that much attention anyway.

Thanks for the link, very interesting. I've seen a few of Gentileschi's works in the Palazzo Pitti -- and of course, I really enjoyed Susan Vreeland's book The Passion of Artemisia. Well-researched, I thought.

Vicky, they have such different styles that I would argue it's hard to compare!

Thanks, Candi.


I'm very drawn to Carravaggio's work. It feels so alive and full of emotion. Michelangelo's paintings sometimes feel a bit sterile to me in spite of their technical brilliance. (Which I am certain says far more about my lack of art expertise and inability to understand it than it does about Michelangelo's ability to portray emotion!) His sculptures on the other hand evoke strong emotional responses in me. I cannot weary of gazing upon the wonder of the David, sheer perfection in every possible way. I so want to be in the Academia right now!!

As a sidebar since Colleen mentioned her...I find Gentileschi's story fascinating. I admire her strength and independence very much. In fact, my user name on a UCC forum is Artemisia!

Caravaggiomania! Ha ha. What a great term. It's an interesing article but I agree, they are so different that it seems a forced comparison.


Anne, have you read the Passion of Artemisia? The title sounds a bit trashy, but I found it really insightful! She's a very interesting person.

Annie, it is pretty forced, isn't it? Yet, it makes for a striking headline -- why is one artist more "popular" than another?

Caravaggiomania-love it! I also think much has recently been written because of the recent (1990's timeframe) find of the long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece "The Taking of Christ remained in (Jesuits) their possession for about sixty years, until the decision was made in the early 1990s to have it cleaned and restored. As layers of dirt and discolored varnish were removed, the supreme technical quality of the painting was revealed, and it was identified as Caravaggio’s lost painting." Other paintings do provide a similar yet different mystique about them.

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