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Even during the midst of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s meteoric Roman career, questions were raised concerning the singularity and originality of his manner and its impact upon young artists of his own generation. In fact, it was Caravaggio himself, Carlo Cesare Malvasia reports, who was the first to ask why artists adopted his manner, pressing to know to what end Guido Reni had transformed himself into the Lombard painter after seeking out Caravaggio’s paintings for purchase (would that we knew which ones). The flagrant theft of his manner and his coloring, Caravaggio made abundantly clear, could cost the Bolognese painter his life. Of course, Reni passed quickly out of his experimental engagement with Caravaggio’s art, but Caravaggio’s concerns pointed to a seeming paradox that cannot be easily explained away: his manner was at one and the same time highly original while lending itself to immediate and broad imitation.
When European museums marked the four hundredth anniversary of Caravaggio’s death with exhibitions of all stripes, and continue to do so (as with the exhibition at Palazzo Venezia, Roma al Tempo di Caravaggio, 1600–1630 [November 16, 2011–February 5, 2012]), it is only fitting that North American audiences, which ordinarily have access to few of his paintings, should have the opportunity to reconsider the artist’s work and his impact. As exhibitions and publications on Caravaggio have multiplied in recent years, bringing with them the ever-receding chance that any scholar will alight upon compelling new interpretations of the artist’s works or find new documents, attention has increasingly fallen upon the Caravaggisti, as if it was the last remaining avenue by which to appreciate Caravaggio’s painting anew. The promise that we will come to know Caravaggio precisely through a positioning of his works side by side with those of his followers is held forth in the exhibition (and accompanying catalogue) to Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, curated by David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze. In each room of the exhibition one or two paintings by Caravaggio were grouped with those by disparate followers to offer “the exciting opportunity to visualize those critical dialogues in all their complexity” (Sebastian Schütze, “Caravaggism in Europe: A Planetary System and its Gravitational Laws,” Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, 44). More polemically, the curators, though acknowledging that major questions concerning Caravaggism persist, resisted precise answers, preferring instead to “advocate a pictorial view of Caravaggio, which seems . . . more tangible than the partial and highly instrumental readings his early biographers, Mancini, Baglione and Bellori, or certain postmodern interpreters have to offer” (44–45). The questions of how and when each of the Caravaggisti encountered his art, whether directly or indirectly, pestered throughout the exhibition and after; but the strictly pictorial frame for Caravaggio seems to acknowledge, I think, that try as generations of art historians might to articulate what it is that lends his paintings their force, this essence powerfully transcends verbal definition. His followers were undoubtedly challenged and stimulated by this very quality.
Set against the travertine walls of Louis Kahn’s classical building, the paintings in the Kimbell version of the exhibition—Caravaggio’s sullen and erotic St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (ca. 1604–5) occupies the place of honor in the main gallery—truly came to life. Those primarily coming to see the few paintings by Caravaggio will not be sorry. A triumph of the exhibition was the reuniting of Cardsharps (ca. 1594–5) and Fortune-Teller (ca. 1594–5), the pictures that launched the artist’s career, bringing him to the attention of his first major patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. But what comes through as the exhibition’s most important legacy is the introduction to the general public of a group of pictures by stunningly talented artists from among Caravaggio’s followers: the ponderous and arresting paintings of Valentin de Boulogne, including his fierce and confrontational David with the Head of Goliath (1620–22); the pulse and vibrancy of Simon Vouet, as in his David and Goliath (ca. 1621); the poetic Carlo Saraceni and Bartolomeo Cavarozzi; and the materiality and dizzying repetition of pattern in Cecco del Caravaggio’s Musician or Maker of Musical Instruments (ca. 1610–15). Many of these artists, as Caravaggio scholars have recognized, are still understudied and opportunities to see their works together infrequent. When set next to the works of Caravaggio featured in Fort Worth, these paintings by the Caravaggisti, as a whole, did not disappoint.
One of the objectives of the exhibition was to demonstrate the sheer diversity of responses to Caravaggio. This resounded clearly in the selection of works. The visitor grasped not merely the disparate strands of Caravaggism so poignantly illustrated in the grouping of full-length male figures around the St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, but was able to recognize the many dialogues between them that successfully transcended the thematic clusterings. Both Orazio Borgianni’s St. Christopher Carrying the Infant Christ (ca. 1615) and Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of St. Francis (ca. 1595), in the next room, depict a divine presence in the light breaking through nocturnal clouds. Or again, Jusepe de Ribera’s St. Jerome (ca. 1613) hung within a room of pictures of scholar-saints speaks to the same artist’s Sts. Peter and Paul (ca. 1616) around the corner.
It was not always clear, however, who constituted the intended audience, as the art historian and knowledgeable museum-goer could for the most part perceive the critical dialogues that the curators hoped create, and recognize the impact of paintings by Caravaggio excluded from the exhibition. Though art historians should have been able to supply the missing works from memory, at times these same paintings would have supplied the unifying thread of a core group of works on display. This was intensely felt in the first room devoted to the theme, “Early Youths and Musicians,” where, rather than Caravaggio’s Concert (ca. 1595), one of his Lute-Players would have served better. And while competition for loans is acute for a superstar like Caravaggio, surely some of these gaps might have been filled. An example of direct filiation between Caravaggio and Vouet’s half-length paintings of Mary and Martha is a highlight. But Caravaggio’s Penitent Magdalene (ca. 1593–94) or his St. Catherine (ca. 1599) would have linked him to two works on display by his less well-studied followers: Cecco’s San Lorenzo (ca. 1615–20) and Spadarino’s Mary Magdalene (ca. 1625–35). But the most keenly felt absences were two: firstly, none of Caravaggio’s major public religious commissions, which constituted one of the most likely sources of study on the part of his followers (clearly evidenced by Peter Paul Rubens’s copy after Caravaggio’s Entombment [ca. 1612–14]); and, secondly, the Amor vincit omnia (ca. 1601–2), which is one of Caravaggio’s most radically innovative pictures, as it illustrates his startling realism and his brilliance in the painting of still life. It would have linked any number of works, well beyond the thematic groupings, from Cecco’s Musician to Orazio Riminaldi’s Triumph of Earthly Love (ca. 1624–5) and Carlo Saraceni’s Martyrdom of St. Cecilia (ca. 1610).
At the same time, a couple of the works of the Caravaggisti might have been replaced by others demonstrating clearer ties to Caravaggio. Claude Vignon, represented by his Judith with the Head of Holofernes (ca. 1620), did not live up to the definition of a truly Caravaggesque painter advanced in the catalogue, constituted by “intensity” and “duration” of engagement. Vignon remained on the periphery, it is noted, only flirting with Caravaggio’s manner during a brief Roman sojourn. Additionally, the Apollo and Marsyas (ca. 1616–20), though striking as a recently discovered work by the important Caravaggesque painter Bartolomeo Manfredi, nevertheless illustrates, in this instance, as the catalogue acknowledges, his potential for distance from Caravaggio, who infrequently represented mythological subjects and who probably never painted this theme (moreover, it scarcely fit in the room filled with pictures of saints). In an exhibition examining the broad context of Caravaggio and Caravaggism this would have been a fine inclusion, but in Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, it stands alone. The exhibition as a whole would have benefitted from an additional example of Manfredi’s painting, perhaps his Fortune-Teller (ca. 1616–17) might have been added to the themed room of fortune-tellers, tavern scenes, and revelers instead of a weaker picture by Nicolas Tournier.
One of the most powerfully striking effects of viewing these pictures together was the degree to which the Caravaggisti explicitly registered their reliance on the model, at the very moment that this technique, inherited from Caravaggio, was increasingly falling prey to criticism. What was not acknowledged in the exhibition (or the catalogue) is the degree to which many of these artists, including Valentin, Baglione, Trophime Bigot, Ribera, Nicolas Tournier, and others, decisively materialize this technique by staging a figure in a degree of partial undress, shoulders or torsos exposed as drapery slides down one shoulder or further, even when a state of undress seems inappropriate to the theme, not to mention potentially problematic for Counter-Reformatory audiences, suspicious of nudity. This is most potently illustrated in paintings such as Valentin’s Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice (ca. 1618–20). The phenomenon might be better understood as a mechanism by which, in the terms of Michael Fried, the artist communicated a figure’s absorptive state, wherein, so absorbed in what she or he is doing, she or he (as in the Penitent Magdalene [ca. 1593–4]) becomes seemingly unaware of herself or himself. It is a feature of the paintings of the Caravaggisti that poses important questions concerning their engagement with the work of Caravaggio and their response to the artistic climate (criticism, theory included) of early seventeenth-century Rome.
Examining the diversity of responses to Caravaggio compels the viewer to recognize that Caravaggism resists ready or rapid summary. It also prompts questions concerning the contours of Caravaggio’s originality, his relationship to his predecessors and his contemporaries (such as Annibale Carracci), his response to thematic and stylistic sources, and the degree to which the Caravaggisti may have turned to these same sources while engaging with his work. As to be expected, the complexity of these issues is more openly considered in the catalogue, where Caravaggio is less seemingly a product of spontaneous generation than an innovative artist transforming Roman painting in light of his engagement with the art of his native Lombardy. Yet the majority of the catalogue essays pull back from tackling scholarly debates or new discoveries (Rossella Vodret discusses new documents of Mario Minniti, Paolo Guidotti, Juan Bautista Maíno, and Valentin among others, though not all of these are represented in the exhibition) to concentrate on adumbrating a broad picture of central players and moments in this culture, as, for example, the contributions of Caravaggio’s abovementioned followers, the connoisseurs of his work (such as del Monte and the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani), and his collectors and critics (such as Giulio Mancini). Many contested issues concerning Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti, not least of which concern attribution, remain; but the recent surge of interest in his followers and the chance to see the breadth of responses to the Lombard artist will guarantee much future debate.
Assistant Professor, Fine Arts Department, Buffalo State College, SUNY
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