Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 12, 2007
John Varriano Caravaggio: The Art of Realism University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 288 pp.; 104 color ills. Paper $40.95 (0271027185)

The sight of John Varriano’s Caravaggio: Art of Realism on the list of new literary offerings inevitably raises the question whether the art world really needs another treatise on Caravaggio. The provocative image of Victorious Love (1601–2) chosen for the book jacket, moreover, awakens the fear that Varriano’s contribution may be yet another wearisome exploration of the sexuality of the seventeenth-century artist.

The recent literature on Caravaggio can be overwhelming. In the realm of biographies, readers can select anything from Helen Langdon’s brilliant Caravaggio: A Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) to Peter Robb’s lamentable flight of fancy, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio (New York: Picador, 1998). Furthermore, numerous worldwide exhibitions have brought in their wake a cascade of catalogue articles, some quite innovative in approach, such as Caravaggio: The Last Years, 1606–1610, edited by Nicola Spinosa and published by Electa Napoli (2004).

Of course, coming from Varriano—Idella Plimpton Kendall Professor of Art History at Mount Holyoke College and specialist in the Baroque era—one expects a dramatic twist or two. Varriano’s lectures and writing have occasionally resembled the more theatrical forays of Bernini and Caravaggio, featuring images of actual beheadings or shocking deformities. So one has good reason to wonder what is in store under the glossy cover.

The experience does not disappoint. Like the work of the great Lombard painter himself, Varriano’s book has clarity and vision, strengths and weaknesses, and a fresh eye for old problems. Caravaggio offers both students and professors of art history the equipment to navigate the oceans of ink poured over this enigmatic artist from the first biographies to the most recent articles and controversies. Varriano fruitfully reexamines the seventeenth-century accusations of Giovanni Baglione as well as the technical evaluations of David Hockney in his much discussed 2001 book, Secret Knowledge (New York: Viking Studio).

The book assembles several of Varriano’s recent articles into eight essays, each tackling a disputed facet of Caravaggio’s work through the lens of artistic realism. Varriano’s research began as a study of Caravaggio’s so-called excessive empiricism—a realism seen as so untempered by good judgment and decorum that art critic Giovan Pietro Bellori derisively noted in 1672 that “taking away the model, the art went with it.”

This approach proves enlightening in several of the chapters, particularly early on. The speculations surrounding the actual working method of Caravaggio in studio, including a reinterpretation of a landlady’s lawsuit over a broken ceiling, are intriguing for teachers and invaluable for students. Varriano also illuminates the question of imitation in Caravaggio’s work. Situating the debate in the literary context of its time, Varriano recalls the contemporary precepts of copying, selective imitation, and the ideal: emulation. Caravaggio, Varriano argues, drew from the collections of ancient sculptures in the possession of his patrons, incorporating quotations that would have been particularly pleasing to the owners. The Uffizi Bacchus (1595) painted for Cardinal del Monte, and the Capitoline Museum John the Baptist (1602) commissioned by Ciriaco Mattei, based on works in their respective personal collections, approach Pygmalion’s goal of bringing cold stone statuary to life. Caravaggio’s alla prima technique tempered by his uncompromising realism allowed him to do with his brushes what the greatest Greek sculptors could not do with their chisels. At the same time, Caravaggio’s “appropriations from respectable works of art subverted the pictures’ naturalism” (23).

Varriano presents a Caravaggio battling with the academic ideal of art on two fronts. While reinterpreting and revitalizing the art of antiquity, he was also grappling with challenges from the more recent era of the Renaissance. As a native of Milan, the shadow of Leonardo da Vinci loomed heavily over him as the greatest painter from nature of all time. Varriano links the Medusa (1597–98) in the Uffizi to the two other Medici-owned Gorgon images, the Hellenistic-era Tazza Farnese and Leonardo’s now lost Medusa. In one work, the artist challenged Antiquity as well as the Florentine Renaissance. The picture Varriano offers of the proud painter skillfully dueling with past and present is both convincing and engaging.

Few painters in Rome earned Caravaggio’s overt approval, but Varriano exposes the artist’s cleverly disguised appropriations from Girolamo Muziano and Cavaliere D’Arpino, and reminds readers how engravings after works by Titian and Dürer played a part in Caravaggio’s solutions to various compositional problems. Some of the associations stretch the imagination, however. Noting the striking and unusual positioning of the Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (1606–7, private collection) and the Louvre Death of the Virgin (1605–6), Varriano proposes Annibale Carracci’s Pietà with Saints (1585) in Parma as a model—though fifteen years had elapsed between the creation of the works and Caravaggio’s journey through Parma on his way to Rome in 1590. While both figures emulate the dramatic pose pioneered by Annibale, it is just as likely that the inspiration was the Sleeping Ariadne (130–140 AD) in the collection at Villa Medici (owned by the patron of Cardinal del Monte), or Annibale’s own oil-on-copper Pietà with Two Angels (1601–2) in Vienna, probably owned by Giulio Mancini, the physician who treated both Annibale and Caravaggio.

A special virtue of the book is that it provides the reader with the point of view of Caravaggio’s contemporaries. Varriano reminds us that this was the age where punishments were public and required the presence of an audience; street fighting was rife, and the examples of the martyrs and their gruesome deaths were being depicted in every church and preached from every pulpit. Nearly all aspects of seventeenth-century Roman life bore an element of the theatrical—sometimes mirroring tragedy, sometimes farce. In such a world, Caravaggio’s life-size figures pressed close to the foreground, his vivid beheadings, and his dramatic viewpoints served to stimulate a populace that had a relatively high threshold for being shocked. Varriano refreshingly dismisses the post-Freudian analyses of Caravaggio’s depictions of violence, warning that in this way, “pictures become ‘over-determined’ while external factors and pictorial conventions tend to be forgotten” (74).

Chapter 4, entitled “Physical Presences, Erotic Appetites and Wit,” is perhaps the book’s weakest essay, containing a somewhat overzealous recount of the more vivid homoerotic interpretations of Caravaggio’s work. Here, Varriano seems to lose his critical edge, advertising certain far-fetched theories while completely overlooking the more moderate analyses of scholars like Helen Langdon and Catherine Puglisi who view the Berlin Victorious Love and the Lute Player (1597–98) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a type of vanitàs, a popular form of imagery alluding to the passage of time. While psychological studies of sexuality based on the evidence of a work of art may be appealing to a culture of crime-scene investigation programs, they are not especially helpful to the discipline of art history. Significantly, Varriano points out that these concerns are unique to Anglo-Saxon and U.S. historians, “a revealing circumstance in itself.” The chapter closes unconvincingly as Varriano selects Still Life on a Stone Ledge (1603, private collection), considered by many scholars as not a work by Caravaggio, for his analysis of the erotic symbolism of fruit. Varriano’s method of inquiry, however, offers a tantalizing new facet to understanding these works: a heightened expression of the paragone between art and nature. If art could mimic nature so effectively as to fool the senses, would it not be even more praiseworthy for painting to deceive the emotions?

Varriano’s omission of the vanitàs metaphor in his study of both Caravaggio’s still life and his paintings of musical boys highlights the main problem with the book. Varriano’s explanations for lighting, composition, sources, and inspiration all come from a fixed attention to the technical. He favors technique to the near exclusion of content and meaning. Thus, Varriano offers fascinating information regarding instances of physical deformities, botanical drawings, and the effects of beheading; but at the end of every discussion, something seems missing. The studies neglect the function of the altarpiece or devotional work. The light emanating from the altar in the Calling of St. Matthew (1599) in San Luigi dei Francesi and the low position of the Vatican Deposition (1602) have more to do with their liturgical significance than empirical observation, yet Varriano fails to explore this important dimension of the works.

The cusp of the seventeenth century was a time of stark contrasts in Caravaggio’s environment: saints walked through the streets of Rome and murders took place in back alleyways. The harsh reality of daily life was tempered by a lively sense of the supernatural side-by-side with the natural. Caravaggio’s dramatic chiaroscuro and his pictorial paradoxes preview the hidden element of the Divine that will soon burst forth in the art of the Baroque. Varriano weighs in heavily on the side of the tangible and physical as if he, like Saul on the road to Damascus, were blind to the alternate aspect of this era. In doing so, he fails to grasp the most riveting element of the artist’s work.

On the whole, Varriano has made a useful contribution to the wealth of Caravaggio scholarship, offering a method of analysis that provides insight and heightened appreciation of the art of this master. Half the book is text, while the other half is composed of helpful notes, a rich bibliography, and an eclectic collection of images. The work furnishes a fine opportunity for art historians to review the scholarship on the liveliest Caravaggio debates and for students to learn to approach this painter with the respect due to a master of his art and its history.

Elizabeth Lev
Adjunct Professor, Duquense University