Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 29, 2013
Sybille Ebert-Schifferer Caravaggio: The Artist and His Work Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012. 320 pp.; 187 color ills. Cloth $59.95 (978606060957)
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The abundance of literature on Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio published in the last four decades has shown not only an incredible divergence of attitudes toward the painter but also an increased number of interpretations that in some cases make it seem as if a new Caravaggio has emerged with no clear reference to the real one. It is these assessments of the painter that brought Sybille Ebert-Schifferer to take a step back and reexamine Caravaggio’s entire oeuvre in light of the sources and the documents known to us today. In that, Ebert-Schifferer’s purpose seems to be ambitious on the one hand but crucial on the other. A critical summing up of the state of research on Caravaggio is welcome, and with Caravaggio: The Artist and His Work, Ebert-Schifferer achieves this by means of careful scrutiny and with great astuteness.

Ebert-Schifferer’s main argument in her book (first published in German as Caravaggio: Sehen—Staunen—Glauben. Der Maler und sein Werk, Munich: C.H.Beck, 2009) is that Caravaggio was a man of his time, in that his art is connected to and influenced by painters that preceded him both in Lombardy and in Rome. For any other painter working at the same time in Rome this would seem to be stating the obvious. But the case of Caravaggio is different. In the case of this artist, who, in modern scholarship has almost always been looked upon as a revolutionist, groundbreaking, nonconformist painter—even a bohemian—connecting his art to the past is not obvious. Caravaggio is still best known today for preparing the way for a new and unexplored artistic path and as one whose novel approach spread throughout Western Europe.

In recent scholarship there have been attempts to connect Caravaggio to his immediate past; in that, Ebert-Schifferer’s book is not unique. But to the best of my knowledge there has never been a book-length study that stressed this point in a context that covers his entire oeuvre. Claudio Strinati’s and Rossella Vodret’s exhibition Caravaggio: la luce nella pittura lombarda (Milan: Electa, 2000) emphasized the significance of Caravaggio’s Lombard forerunners for his stylistic evolution. Mina Gregory (“Caravaggio and Lombardy: A Critical Account of the Artist’s Formation,” in Andrea Bayer, ed., Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004, 36–42) moved the topic forward and mentioned such painters as Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, the Campi brothers, Ambrogio Figino, and Simone Peterzano as having an important role in the formation of Caravaggio’s style. Ebert-Schifferer addresses the issue of his sources of influence throughout the entire book, and the importance of this issue is addressed in relation to almost all of what she accepts as authentic paintings.

In addition, Ebert-Schifferer focuses on three other modern perceptions that need to be reexamined even though they have received much attention in modern scholarship: the response toward Caravaggio’s art in his time and immediately afterwards; the painter’s violence; and the eroticism that may be found in his art. In all three Ebert-Schifferer brings to light new insights that derive from her broad inquiry. For her, Caravaggio is a painter who acted, behaved, and produced in accordance with what was commonly accepted in his time. He may have revolutionized painting, but it was without a preconceived awareness that this was what he was going to do, and it was not without an eye to his predecessors.

For Ebert-Schifferer, Caravaggio is a sophisticated painter deeply embedded in the art that preceded him. His stylistic choices are connected to his Lombard predecessors and to his classical pretensions. She shows how rooted Caravaggio was in Milan and Lombardy—he was not only trained by Peterzano, who regarded himself as a student of Titian, but was also influenced by Figino, especially with respect to heads and still lifes, and even by Leonardo da Vinci. Ebert-Schifferer writes, “Caravaggio transposes his Lombard models into the context of the Roman art world” (121). This argument sheds important light on what has been perceived in modern scholarship as the painter’s rebellious character and his role in what has been regarded as a reform of painting. Caravaggio, for Ebert-Schifferer, is a painter whose main strength lies in the stylistic development in terms of light and composition that he brought to Rome from his home town. He could have obtained inspiration from works of art by such painters as Antonio Campi and Savoldo (35).

When it comes to the response to Caravaggio’s art in his time, Ebert-Schifferer addresses both the early biographies and the rejected paintings. In both cases she is quite critical. She demands that art historians be more careful in what they take from the literature of the seventeenth century. The first chapter is dedicated to a critical reassessment of the facts about Caravaggio, especially in terms of biographies of the painter. She rightly claims that one should be quite suspicious of the contrast between the written accounts that rejected Caravaggio and his art, on the one hand, and his known popularity and success with both the lower and the upper classes of Roman society, on the other. With regard to Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s Le vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni, published sixty-two years after Caravaggio’s death in 1610, Ebert-Schifferer asserts that it should be examined in terms of Bellori’s own period. In a way, her remark is consistent with how art historians today relate to Carlo Cesare Malvasia, a Bolognese contemporary of Bellori, whose reliability has received much attention in modern scholarship. Bellori, as noted by Janis Bell (“Introduction,” in Janis Bell and Thomas Willette, eds., Art History in the Age of Bellori, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 29–30), is still perceived as an authority despite his inaccuracies and political agendas.

Ebert-Schifferer makes a very persuasive argument in favor of using the term “removal” instead of “rejection” with regard to the first St. Matthew and the Angel (1602), the Death of the Virgin (1605/6), and the Madonna dei Palafrenieri (1606). While early biographers, followed by the majority of modern scholars, claimed that the paintings were rejected, the evidence presented here shows that in each case the painting was removed for a particular reason. In the case of the St. Matthew and the Angel, Ebert-Schifferer notes that from the beginning it was intended as a provisional altarpiece (119). It was meant to be removed once a sculptural group by Jacob Cobaert was installed. Caravaggio was asked to make a different version only after Cobaert’s work was rejected. The new version had to be larger than the first one, once it became clear that there would be no sculpture in the chapel. Death of the Virgin was not rejected by the patron Laerzio Cherubini; it was placed in the church and only later removed by the Carmelites of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. Rumors circulated by visitors about the identity of the model paved the way for its removal (184). Madonna dei Palafrenieri was designed after a Madonna del serpe by Figino completed more than twenty years earlier in Milan. Caravaggio’s painting was removed from its original place only to be installed on the altar of another church. Ultimately it found its place in Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s collection after he made the confraternity a generous financial offer. In other words, the true stories about the so-called rejected paintings are not dramatic and do not correspond to modern perceptions of Caravaggio as a rebellious painter. They certainly do not correspond with the stories advanced by the envious Giovanni Baglione and by Bellori, who belonged to a different generation with different artistic values.

With the same terms of reference, Ebert-Schifferer outlines her next fundamental point, which relates to Caravaggio’s violence. Caravaggio became known as an ill-tempered, violent painter, someone who wandered the streets of Rome with a dagger, dressed as a dandy and looking for trouble. She suggests that we look at Caravaggio from the point of view of his context. For Ebert-Schifferer, Caravaggio’s behavior was no different from what was customary in his time; people were more violent than is accepted today. This seems to me going a bit far, even if there were one or two other cases of violent painters, mainly because of information available from police interrogations. Nevertheless, Caravaggio did actually kill a man, and in that he was unique for his generation. As a rule, for other painters who worked during his time scholars do not generally draw upon sources of information that involve criminal activity.

In terms of what modern scholars such as Donald Posner (“Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works,” The Art Quarterly 34 (1971), 305) and David Franklin (“‘You Know That I Love You’: Music and Youth in Caravaggio,” in David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze, eds., Caravaggio: His Followers in Rome, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, 136) identify as homoerotic tendencies in Caravaggio’s renditions of young boys, Ebert-Schifferer points to that period’s cultural acceptances, making a case against identification of the boys in sexual-erotic terms. She also denies the possibility that the early young men are self-portraits. These idealized figures, according to Ebert-Schifferer, were based on actual models and then refined and stylized to their present form. They were meant to evoke a classical past. To this notion one should add that Caravaggio’s attempt to stylize his figures also characterizes other early modern painters such as Masaccio and Leonardo, to name only two. An exception to the rule in Caravaggio’s series of boys is Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594). Here Ebert-Schifferer acknowledges the boy as a self-portrait, one whose eroticism and sensual aspects have the intent of delivering a message against the tempting pleasures of the senses (80).

Ebert-Schifferer’s Caravaggio: The Artist and His Work is without doubt a most important study of the famous painter. However, it does more than present the current state of research and deal with fundamental issues in Caravaggio studies. It also suggests a new approach—one that first and foremost takes Caravaggio’s paintings into consideration in a wide context that relates to the painter’s time and place without the romantic, rebellious, bohemian, and nonconformist screens that formerly overshadowed and obscured modern perceptions of the painter. For the art historian it will cast light on new ways to address debated issues regarding Caravaggio. For the general reader it will position an important painter squarely within his historical context.

Daniel M. Unger
Senior Lecturer, Department of the Arts, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

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