Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 10, 2016
Lorenzo Pericolo and David M. Stone, eds. Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 392 pp.; 15 color ills.; 109 b/w ills. Cloth $129.95 (9781409406846)

“By at least one amusing new metric, Michelangelo’s unofficial five hundred-year run at the top of the Italian art charts has ended. Caravaggio . . . has bumped him from his perch.” Thus wrote Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times in 2010, referring to Philip Sohm’s analysis of “Caravaggiomania” (Michael Kimmelman, “Caravaggio in Ascendance: An Italian Antihero’s Time to Shine,” New York Times [March 10, 2010]). Five years later, Caravaggio remains among the best-known early modern artists, and along with this popular appeal there has come a flood of literature on the artist—so much, in fact, that scholars are likely to greet news of another publication on Caravaggio with eye-rolling rather than enthusiasm.

David M. Stone and Lorenzo Pericolo, editors of Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions, are keenly aware that just such a “Caravaggio malaise” has set in. As they argue in their introduction, “The Caravaggio Conundrum,” the flood of new material on the Lombard master shows “a blatant disproportion between quantity and quality” (1). They argue, moreover, that Caravaggio scholarship seems to be stuck in a “tautological loop,” perpetually reiterating the sometimes contradictory notions of Caravaggio inherited from nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars, namely Caravaggio as: a brooding Romantic genius, a practitioner of Counter Reformation ideals, a harbinger of nineteenth-century realism, a investigator of nature in the stamp of Galileo, or a radical along the lines of Giordano Bruno (2). While this volume does not fully escape the shadow of some of these ideas, it does stand out from the mass of other recent publications both in the distinction of its contributors and the nuanced and scholarly grounding of its arguments within historical and artistic content.

In the opening essay, “Caravaggio Betrayals: The Lost Painter and the ‘Great Swindle,’” Stone addresses several notorious cases in which sloppy attributions, conflicting commercial and scholarly interests, opaque curatorial practices, and the ongoing problem of distinguishing autograph copies from high-quality copies by other artists have diminished and distorted Caravaggio’s oeuvre. Stone sees a potentially dim future for Caravaggio studies, worrying that, “as fewer and fewer scholars devote themselves to connoisseurship, the stage is being set for generations of students to take these exhibition catalogues off the shelves and write term papers—even dissertations—about pictures Caravaggio almost certainly did not paint” (26).

As if taking up Stone’s call, the next two essays demonstrate the potential of a connoisseurial approach. In “Caravaggio’s Painting Technique: A Brief Survey Based on Paintings in the National Gallery, London,” conservator Larry Keith examines the technical aspects of Caravaggio’s oeuvre, taking three representative paintings in the National Gallery as a point of departure. Examining the works in conjunction with primary sources, Keith questions the conventional wisdom that there is “a simple linear development toward ever looser and expressive brushwork” (40–41) in Caravaggio’s art. Instead, he argues, the artist adapted his brushwork to the needs of a particular work. Keith Christiansen’s “Caravaggio’s Portrait of Maffeo Barberini in the Palazzo Corsini, Florence” makes a persuasive case that the Florentine portrait long ago rejected from the artist’s oeuvre by the great Roberto Longhi is indeed an important autograph work by Caravaggio. Through an adept reading of the picture, its historiography, and provenance, Christiansen argues convincingly that this is indeed the portrait referred to by Giovan Pietro Bellori in his biography of Caravaggio. He dates the painting to 1596–97 given conceptual and stylistic analogies with artist’s Bacchus of the same years.

The next essays consider the challenge of interpreting Caravaggio’s religious works. In “Touching Is Believing: Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas in Counter-Reformatory Rome,” Erin E. Benay turns to one of the classic questions of Caravaggio studies: the relationship of Caravaggio’s religious painting to the ideals of the Counter Reformation. Benay demonstrates that the cult of St. Thomas was of significant interest in post-Tridentine Europe, and particularly to an early owner of Caravaggio’s painting, Vincenzo Giustiniani, whose family celebrated in the Oratorian church of San Tommaso in Parione. Although these facts do cast new light on the context in which the work was acquired or commissioned, they reveal little about Caravaggio’s treatment of the theme, which was of course groundbreaking not for its subject matter, but the manner in which it was painted. Frances Gage’s thought-provoking “Caravaggio’s Death of The Virgin, Giulio Mancini, and the Madonna Blasphemed” examines the notorious claim of seventeenth-century physician and art critic Giulio Mancini that the Virgin Mary in the rejected altarpiece was modeled on “a dirty whore” (83). In a reading closely rooted in the social norms and material culture of Caravaggio’s Rome, she argues that this statement should not be taken literally but instead as a rhetorical device, contrasting the secular and vulgar nature of Caravaggio’s treatment of the subject with the decorous and otherworldly treatment Mancini and others felt it deserved. Though, as the volume editors observe (6), it is difficult to reconcile Gage’s Caravaggio with Benay’s; indeed, this difficulty touches on one of the fundamental paradoxes of Caravaggio scholarship.

Addressing broader thematic issues in “Talking Pictures: Sound in Caravaggio’s Art,” Catherine Puglisi explores the aural components of Caravaggio’s painting, specifically his efforts to represent sound, proposing that Caravaggio’s art “challenges the ancient maxim that painting is mute poetry” (105). Puglisi traces the roots of these phenomena in the art of Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, and other Northern Italian masters and canvases by Caravaggio that represent song or speech. Yet the essay seems to inadvertently affirm Caravaggio as the heir to, rather than the antagonist of, the Renaissance tradition of poetic representation. Given that early modern poetry was usually sung or recited, these pictures show Caravaggio’s art as deeply rooted in the traditions of lyric poetry. In “Caravaggio’s Angels,” Steven F. Ostrow addresses another enigma in Caravaggio’s art, namely how an artist who claimed to represent only visible truth could represent the divine—in this case, angels—so that they “appear, at once . . . credible and miraculous” (142; emphasis in original). Ostrow muses on the connections between Caravaggio and Gustave Courbet (connections that seem at odds with Pericolo’s observations in the conclusion), on previous scholars’ takes on Caravaggio’s angels, and on contemporary theology of angels, which underwent a revival in the post-Tridentine period. Taking Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida as a methodological starting point, Jonathan Unglaub’s “Caravaggio and the ‘Truth in Pointing’” explores the significance of the representation of pointing figures in Caravaggio’s work—notably the infamously ambiguous figure of St. Mathew in the Contarelli Chapel—as well as the rhetorical value of pointing in Bellori’s biography of the artist. Perhaps due to limitations in length, Unglaub’s argument moves at a rapid clip, often giving the impression of eliding the literal act of pointing, pointing as a rhetorical figure, and the concept of pointure that originates in Derrida’s discussion of Vincent van Gogh’s Old Shoes with Laces (1886).

The final chapters of the book turn to the reception and influence of Caravaggio. In “Caravaggio The Barbarian,” Sohm examines the language of the artist’s early biographies. He focuses here on the trope of “Caravaggio the anti-Michelangelo,” that is, Caravaggio as a barbaric antithesis to the refinement of High Renaissance and Classical antique values. For subsequent writers, many of whom did not know Caravaggio or his work, he became a metaphor for decay, rebellion, and the rejection of tradition. Turning to Caravaggio’s artistic influence in “The Bottom Line of Painting Caravaggesque,” Richard E. Spear continues his ongoing investigations into the economic lives of seventeenth-century painters. In this case, he weighs the economic benefits (or drawbacks) of artists imitating the manner of Caravaggio. Spear points to a complex web of factors, including reputation, supply, changing tastes, and so on, suggesting that by the 1620s Caravaggism had ceased to be profitable. Previously published only in Italian, Elizabeth Cropper’s “Galileo Galilei and Artemisia Gentileschi: Between the History of Ideas and Microhistory” provides a fascinating case study of the exchange between artists and intellectuals in early modern Italy. Revisiting the relationship between Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1614–20) and Galileo’s ideas, Cropper demonstrates that the link between Caravaggist naturalism and Galilean experimentation is more complex than scholars such as Ferdinando Bologna proposed.

Building on Cropper’s earlier explorations of Caravaggio and the poet Giambattista Marino, Gail Feigenbaum’s “Perfectly True, Perfectly False: Cardsharps and Fortune Tellers by Caravaggio and La Tour” investigates the ways in which mysterious Lorrainese master Georges de La Tour builds on the themes of truth and falsehood already present in Caravaggio’s painting. La Tour’s works, Feigenbaum argues, not only represent acts of deception, but also comment in sophisticated and multilayered ways on naturalism as a form of deception. H. Perry Chapman’s “Rembrandt and Caravaggio: Emulation Without Imitation” reflects on the 2006 exhibition Rembrandt/Caravaggio, the historiographical legacy that had linked the artists as “baroque naturalists,” and on the notion of emulatio in early modern Europe. While Chapman recognizes that direct stylistic affinities between Caravaggio and Rembrandt cannot be maintained, as was once believed, she argues that Caravaggio served as an artistic rival for the Dutch master who also sought to imitate nature—equally paradoxically—entirely on his own terms.

Finally, Pericolo’s “Interpreting Caravaggio in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century: Between Galileo and Heidegger, Giordano Bruno and Laplanche” analyzes the scholarly construction of Caravaggio’s artistic identity through the work of four scholars active in the second half of the twentieth century: Giulio Carlo Argan, Ferdinando Bologna, Françoise Bardon, and Leo Bersani. Pericolo focuses on the questions “how does Caravaggio’s painting reflect the history of his time?” and conversely, “to what extent do his works remain contemporary?” (302) Pericolo effectively cuts through the sometimes opaque philosophical or psychoanalytical jargon, pointing out—sometimes to devastating effect—the flaws in their reasoning while articulately demonstrating why history and theory must work in synchrony.

This volume provides a welcome variety of potential approaches to the study of Caravaggio and seventeenth-century art in general, and will be of particular value in introducing students to the methodological possibilities that the artist stimulates. But inasmuch as it points to new directions in scholarship, it also leaves the distinct feeling that many age-old questions remain unanswered—or perhaps unanswerable. Indeed, Caravaggio persists as a mosaic of contradictory qualities: a rebel, a forerunner of Rembrandt and Courbet, a Tridentine Reformer, and a heretic. More broadly, it asks: Where does one proceed from here? How do we teach, research, or exhibit Caravaggio in light of all this? One issue thrown into high relief—perhaps unintentionally—is the urgent need to revisit the issue of Caravaggism. Spear’s masterful Caravaggio and His Followers (exh. cat., Cleveland: Cleveland Art Museum, 1971) was published over forty years ago, and there remains surprisingly little written, particularly in English, on major Caravaggisti such as Antiveduto Grammatica, Orazio Borgianni, Carlo Saraceni, and Bartolomeo Manfredi—a situation that will be remedied only in part by the major exhibition on Valentin de Boulogne coming to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this fall.

Nevertheless, we can agree with the editors’ assertion that “much—too much—remains to be studied in the field of seventeenth-century art” (3; emphasis in original), and this book provides a valuable impetus for those investigations.

Jesse Locker
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Portland State University