Sunday, July 18, 2010

Anniversary: Caravaggio

Four hundred years ago today, or maybe tomorrow: the death of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, perhaps in or around Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany. He disappeared on his way back to Rome, hoping to be pardoned for a murder he had committed half a dozen years before. The circumstances are murky although he apparently was not (as one might readily have assumed) killed by an enemy (of whom he had many) or in an affair de passion (of which he also had many. Just lately investigators in Italy declared they had the problem nailed--it was the lead, from the paints--but explanation looks just a tad tendentious to me, and I think I'll wait for a more considered judgment.

Caravaggio is odd in so many ways. I think his best work is riveting, about a lot of the second-tier seems to me to be--well, just that. Considering what we see in the Northern European Baroque, he might be the most influential painter of his generation, perhaps even of all time. Yet until the 20th Century, nobody paid much attention to him. Rembrandt, for example: everything about the mature Rembrandt cries out "Caravaggio!" Yet there is no evidence that Rembrandt ever heard of him.

I read the Peter Robb biography a while back: it was informtive, but a bit showy for my taste. There's a new one that is getting a good press--though how anyone could write a dull book about so flamboyant a career is beyond my guessing. Google offers a gratifying menu of Caravaggios here. Meanwhile, if I had to name just one "greatest painting ever," I'd still go for Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthew.

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