Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 27, 2013
Lorenzo Pericolo Caravaggio and Pictorial Narrative: Dislocating the Istoria in Early Modern Painting Studies in Baroque Art.. Turnhout, Belgium: Harvey Miller, 2011. 654 pp.; 336 color ills. Cloth $290.00 (9781905375486)

Lorenzo Pericolo’s Caravaggio and Pictorial Narrative: Dislocating the Istoria in Early Modern Painting is part of a recent trend in Caravaggio studies focusing on the artist’s narrative technique and the intentionally ambiguous meaning of his paintings. Prominent examples include Valeska von Rosen’s Caravaggio und die Grenze des Darstellbaren. Ambiguität, Ironie und Performativiät in der Malerei um 1600 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2009), and, to a certain degree, Michael Fried’s The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), along with Itay Sapir’s Ténèbres sans leçons: esthétique et épistémologie de la peinture ténébriste romaine 1595-1610 (Peter Lang: International Academic Publishers, 2012).

Pericolo’s study is a detailed response to and criticism of two earlier, essential conceptualizations of Caravaggio’s art: Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s statement that Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul (1601) lacks any action and Svetlana Alpers’s categorization of the painter’s art as descriptive rather than narrative (Giovanni Pietro Bellori, The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, trans. Alice Sedgwick Wohl, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 182; Svetlana Alpers, “Describe or Narrate? A Problem in Realistic Representation,” New Literary History 8, no. 1 (Autumn, 1976): 15). In fact, Pericolo paints a “bipolar” legacy of Caravaggio’s art in which painters understood and adapted his innovative narrative features, but art theorists’ appreciation often lacked the conceptual instrumentarium to appreciate the painter’s subversive changes of the category of istoria, often even unveiling their “critical myopia” (21). Pericolo’s voluminous book reestablishes Caravaggio as a narrator, albeit a skeptical one, and simultaneously sketches the seventeenth-century reception and reformation of Leon Battista Alberti’s concept of istoria, directives pictorial narrative should follow first put forward in his treatise De Pictura (1435).

Caravaggio and Pictorial Narrative is organized into six parts consisting of two to three chapters each. Each chapter takes a close look at one painting by Caravaggio or his successors, following Pericolo’s conviction that “every single painting by Caravaggio must be appreciated and examined in its uniqueness, because none re-proposes and reiterates the same questions” (10). One of the significant merits of Pericolo’s book, evident from its very first pages, is that it contextualizes Caravaggio’s oeuvre within art-theoretical sources that have hitherto rarely been drawn upon in discussions of this painter, such as the Bolognese Cesare Malvasia and the Lombard art theorist Francesco Scannelli. Pericolo’s attention to seventeenth-century art criticism is paired with an equal scrutiny of Caravaggio’s visual and artistic sources. He embeds Caravaggio’s paintings within a vast network of visual parallels mostly consisting of prints that he identifies as models for the paintings. Pericolo’s foreword makes clear that he intends the book to be a plaidoyer for art-historical methodologies that have to an extent fallen out of favor, such as formalism and iconography.

Part 1, “The Aporia of Pictorial Narrative,” introduces a series of fascinating contemporary reactions to Caravaggio’s art that thematize the perceived inability of his figures to communicate istoria’s narrative through movement and expression. Pericolo posits that such critiques of Caravaggio’s art are still deeply shaped by Alberti’s fifteenth-century conception of istoria. The impression of deadness in Caravaggio’s figures that surprises the modern beholder was also shared by contemporary critics such as Malvasia and Scannelli. Pericolo takes these sources as a point of departure for his analysis and concludes that “any rigorous dichotomy between realism and idealization is unfit to truly explain Caravaggio’s novelty” (58), since within one and the same painting Caravaggio combines “purified” figures, viable for narrative in Alberti’s sense, and figures of the most drastic realism. Perhaps Pericolo’s most conclusive postulate about Caravaggio’s realism is that it is based on its own rules of fictionality and “code,” which he identifies as those of comedy.

Amplifying this idea in part 2 of his book, Pericolo investigates the question of genre in Caravaggio’s art. Building on research by Helen Langdon and Elizabeth Cropper (Helen Langdon, “Cardsharps, Gypsies and Street Vendors,” The Genius of Rome, 1592–1623, ed., Beverly Luise Brown, exh. cat., London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2001, 42–65; Elizabeth Cropper, “The Petrifying Art: Marino’s Poetry and Caravaggio,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 26 (1991): 193–212), he suggests that some of Caravaggio’s most prominent genre scenes, such as The Fortuneteller (known in two versions from ca. 1594 and ca. 1595) and The Cardsharps (1594), are to be understood as comical, which the painter mingles with the lyrical genre in an inextricable manner. Thus, the exact meaning of these works remains undetermined, since they combine seriousness and comicality in infinite tension. Caravaggio’s paintings are deeply interactive as they not only represent but also perform deception. Caravaggio masks their comic character by dissimulating the visual puns of his narratives. For example, the comic character of The Fortuneteller is only uncovered if the beholder realizes that the gypsy girl is removing the dandy’s ring. An important basic tenet of Pericolo’s interpretations is that Caravaggio’s paintings are not based on texts but on the exegesis of visual sources. Therefore, he convincingly introduces the iconographic tradition of the “Equal and Unequal Lovers” as The Fortuneteller’s prototype. The Cardsharps are similarly a repository of images, adapting the aggression of a dagger-assault represented by Titian’s The Bravo (ca. 1520) into the realm of card play.

In part 3, Pericolo joins the debate as to whether or not Caravaggio’s art meets the requirements of the Counter-Reformation. Analyzing three paintings before a tight network of statements by art theorists (and churchmen) Gabriele Paleotti and Federico Borromeo, Pericolo demonstrates that Caravaggio’s art does not match their major requirement, which was art’s intelligibility. In fact, as has been frequently demonstrated, Caravaggio’s religious narratives are as ambiguous in their creation of meaning as his secular paintings. Pericolo posits that one of the most common themes in Caravaggio’s religious painting is Divine Grace, a theme that also prominently informs The Calling of St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome (1599–1600), which has been the subject of a heated debate between Herwarth Röttgen and Andreas Prater focusing on the identity of St. Matthew (Andreas Prater, “Wo ist Matthäus? Beobachtungen zu Caravaggios Anfängen als Monumentalmaler in der Contarelli-Kapelle,” Bruckmanns Pantheon 43 (1985): 70–74; Herwarth Röttgen, “Da ist Matthäus,” Bruckmanns Pantheon 49 (1991): 97–99). Pericolo suggests that this discussion could have been avoided had both scholars taken into consideration the painter’s deeply ambiguous narrative structure. Pericolo therefore rightly suggests that the protagonists’ identity in this painting is intentionally ambiguous. Narrative ambiguity also ties together two other paintings explored in this chapter: The Conversion of St. Paul in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome (1600–1601) and The Supper at Emmaus (ca. 1606). Particularly in connection with the Brera painting, Pericolo underscores the ambivalence and subjectivity employed in Caravaggio’s religious paintings. The viewer is deceived by the artist’s impressive exploitation of illusionistic and tactile effects, which pretend that Christ is physically present and accessible. However, spatial incongruities and temporal disjunctions create a situation of confusion for the beholder, who is “consequently enticed into a process of comprehension that instead triggers distance” (278). This dynamic naturally counteracts the empathy between painting and the beholder aimed at by Counter-Reformation artistic ideas. Although Pericolo does not negate Caravaggio’s religiosity, he complicates the relationship between the artist’s religious paintings and contemporary devotional culture.

This contrasts with Pamela M. Jones’s recent analysis of the Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto in Sant’Agostino, Rome (ca. 1604–1606), put forward in her fascinating book Altarpieces and Their Viewers in Churches of Rome (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008) (click here for review). Analyzing this altarpiece before the background of the popular cult of the House of Loreto, Jones’s reading of Caravaggio’s work suggests that the artist’s naturalism and simplicity of decorum enhance the religious message of his painting: the tall columnar figure of the Virgin Mary evokes the Lauretan Litany, which stands in close relation to the cult of Loreto; the pilgrims’ dirty feet and the decorum of poverty of the whole picture remind the beholder of the value of humility. The possibility of such divergent readings as presented by Pericolo and Jones of Caravaggio’s religious images suggests that the work of each needs to be studied carefully. Even if Caravaggio’s altarpiece is consistent with devotional and religious conventions surrounding the cult of Loreto, his rendition of this theme remains highly idiosyncratic and complex—represented with a twist.

In part 4, Pericolo explores the theme of self-representation and self-referentiality in Caravaggio’s art. Perhaps the author’s most provocative idea on this matter is presented in chapter 12, “The Impossible Banality of Representing Christ: Self-Parody and Tragicomedy in Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo” (375–401). In this chapter, Pericolo takes a close look at Genoese Ecce Homo (ca. 1605), whose attribution is still a matter of debate. Although it has been accepted by major scholars such as Mia Cinotti, others do not include it among the artist’s autograph works, such as the recent monographs by Sybille Ebert-Schifferer and Catherine Puglisi (Mia Cinotti, Michelangelo Merisi detto il Caravaggio. Tutte le opera, Bergamo: Bolis 1983; Sybille Ebert-Schifferer, Caravaggio: The Artist and His Work, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012 [click here for review]; Catherine Puglisi, Caravaggio, London: Phaidon, 1998). Pericolo follows Roberto Longhi’s identification of Caravaggio as Pilate. However, he complicates Longhi’s identification and suggests that not only did Caravaggio caricature his own features, but, following Fried’s reading of the painter’s art as a thematization of the act of painting, Pilate’s overemphatic gesture may also “parody the role and scope of artistic creation with regard to sacred images” (390). Pericolo interprets Pilate’s failure to recognize Christ’s identity as a “comedic deception” that would soon turn into tragedy and hence represents the characteristic mixture of different artistic genres. In line with this reading, Pericolo suggests that Caravaggio’s disguise—his white beard and his big black beret—is intended to evoke the Commedia dell’arte mask, il dottore. He also suggests that Caravaggio conflates his auto-portrait as Pilate-dottore with an adaptation of Niccolò della Casa’s engraved portrait of the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli, whose artistic hubris—according to Giorgio Vasari—surpassed his artistic capacities. Pericolo concludes that Caravaggio’s multi-layered auto-representation thematizes the impossibility for the Christian painter to represent the divine. Even in the case of a complex narrator such as Caravaggio, this superimposition of such multiple and discrepant layers of meaning in one portrait is not entirely convincing.

Part 6 underscores that Caravaggism is still in want of more profound analyses. Based on three case studies—Diego Velazquez’s Supper at Emmaus (1622–23), Cecco del Caravaggio’s Resurrection (1619–20), and Valentin de Boulogne’s Merry Company with Fortune Teller (1631)—Pericolo presents the fascinating idea that Caravaggism did not fall out of fashion because of changing collectors’ tastes, but because its experimentations with narrative did not fall onto fertile ground so that it “expired at the hands of his representatives” (490). The Caravaggisti, aware of the pitfalls of Caravaggio’s narrative of dislocation, attempted to pursue this tradition in several ways: some merged Caravaggio’s narrative schemes with those of canonical istoria, others explored the indeterminacy of the master’s narratives. Yet the result was a state of aporia that terminated Caravaggism.

Pericolo’s study is informed by an impressively encyclopedic command of early modern visual and art-theoretical sources. The vast network of relations into which Caravaggio’s works are woven is intended to restore the artworks’ original voice and cultural context with which the paintings engaged in an intertextual dialogue. This abundance of material, and in particular the long quotes from art-theoretical sources, also present a certain challenge to the reader, occasionally slowing down the narrative structure of the book. However, for a reader interested in seicento art and theory the text is a source of hidden gems, such as a discussion on the Roman art theorist Giulio Mancini’s perception of temporality (78–80).

Caravaggio and Pictorial Narrative introduces new terminology in order to better grasp the complexities of Caravaggio’s narrative concept, in particular the idea of “dislocation.” This term describes characteristics of Caravaggio’s narrative style, such as its fluidity of different genres, the artist’s challenge of spectators’ iconographic expectations, and the dissolution of the time-space unity expected by Alberti in his definition of istoria. However, Pericolo makes the surprising choice of only defining several key terms, such as dislocation, in later chapters of the book, well after they have already been used. It is also unfortunate that they are not included in the volume’s index.

Many people will likely share Philip Sohm’s belief, put forward in a recent article on Caravaggio: “Imprudent is one way to describe someone who wades into the deluge of Caravaggio studies” (Philip L. Sohm, “Caravaggio, Federico Zuccaro and the Economics of ‘Novità’,” in Novità, eds., Ulrich Pfisterer and Gabriele Wimböck, Zürich: Diaphanes, 2011, 375). However, Caravaggio and Pictorial Narrative proves that despite the vast secondary literature on Caravaggio, it is possible to re-think innovatively crucial problems associated with this artist’s work.

Eva Struhal
Assistant Professor of Renaissance and Baroque Art History, Département des sciences historiques, Université Laval

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