I had heard that the world has gone crazy for Caravaggio, but I didn't quite realize how true this was until I watched a steady stream of visitors jostling for position in front of the three fantastic paintings by the 17th century Italian master on Saturday.
I mean, it really got a bit nutty -- literally hundreds of tourists crowding into the French national church in Rome, San Luigi dei Francesi, feeding coins into the light box to admire the St. Matthew cycle. Who knew Caravaggio was this popular? In contrast, the nearby and exquisite Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, with its lovely little Michelangelo, was very quiet.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Last year, a University of Toronto art historian, Philip Sohm, was quoted in the New York Times as suggesting that Caravaggio had become a more popular research topic than even Michelangelo.
I’m not entirely convinced. On Sunday, I continued a bit of a Caravaggio quest, viewing his paintings in both the Galleria Borghese and in the recently remodelled Palazzo Barberini. Other visitors seemed to take extra interest in the Caravaggios, but they certainly didn’t jostle and fight for position. In fact, almost no one was around to interfere with my enjoyment of his take on Judith beheading Holofernes -- a classic story of an ordinary person triumphing over evil. (I still prefer Artemisia Gentileschi’s version, possibly for feminist reasons!)
BTW, and not totally off topic, the photo above is of the steps to the back garden near the Borromini staircase, both of which are now open. Really, they did a great job with the restoration.
Back to Caravaggio versus Michelangelo. The art historian Sohm based his claims on studies of the number of writings (including books, catalogues and scholarly papers) produced on both great artists over the last 50 years, according to the New York Times. Sohm concluded that during that period, Caravaggio has gradually, if unevenly, overtaken Michelangelo.
The change as been attributed to modern tastes -- we really like the dark bad-boy artist Caravaggio, much more than Michelangelo and his interest in the classical forms and traditions.
“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 splendours.
“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.”
I think you could also argue that Michelangelo has probably been over studied and scrutinized by art students, but Caravaggio represents relatively fresh fodder.