Never at risk of becoming respectable

02 November 2006


THE MARQUIS DE SADE took a liking to the works of Caravaggio. In 1776, he sloughed off all the way down to Naples to see his famed Madonna della Misericordia. It depicts the seven acts of mercy (Matthew 25), with a couple of added charitable acts thrown in.

Caravaggio had painted it for a confraternity of conscience-struck nobility almost as soon as he arrived as a fugitive in Naples. He remained on the run from a murder charge in Rome for four years, going to Malta and Sicily before returning to die unknown off the Italian coast. A final brawl had left his face scarred unrecognisably, but his death in the summer of 1610 remains unexplained.

De Sade was not impressed by what he saw: the canvas was dirty, poorly lit, and not worth the jaunt. Others since have acclaimed it the most important painting of the 17th century: in a hectic street scene, beneath the beneficent gaze of the Mother of God, Caravaggio painted each and every figure with staggering athleticism.

We are not privileged to see it in this scaled-down exhibition that has transferred from Naples and was originally due to go on to New York. Without it, and without the new attributions and old copies that completed the Capodimonte exhibition, it is sadly difficult to understand much that is in this dazzling show.

The National Gallery, however, with a little help from friends in Naples and elsewhere, has pulled off a coup in bringing together some 15 of the uncontested two dozen final works by the artist, who transformed not only the way in which artists painted after him, but the ways in which art is described.

Those who know the National Gallery will be familiar with the Supper at Emmaus that is usually dated to 1601; here it is hung in the first room next to Caravaggio’s later attempt at the same subject, from the Brera in Milan, painted some five years later. The comparison is instructive. Caravaggio never painted a Last Supper. (We have enough documentary evidence for his oeuvre to make it unlikely that he ever undertook such a painting.) The Brera painting best explains why.

In it, the bread is already broken, and the disciples appear to be more intimately drawn into the eucharistic mystery. The youthful Christ in the London painting derives from the Leonardo Last Supper, from near Caravaggio’s own birthplace in Lombardy; and the gestures of the earlier picture derive from the Christ in Judgement in the Sistine Chapel which the artist would have known from happier times in the Eternal City.

But Caravaggio is not just paying a debt to tradition. The psychological encounter in the second study is too intense and too individual to have made it possible to imagine its being set in an Upper Room at a crowded table.

In both paintings, Jesus presides at a table that is furnished much as any altar in Western Christendom at the time, with a rare carpet covered with a fair linen. Unlike the London bowl of fruit prefiguring the fruits of our redemption, the dish of lettuce leaves in front of the Lord has never been given much explanation; but these are the bitter herbs at a Jewish seder. The old waiting woman brings in a rack of lamb that is not part of the story in Luke, but by then the Lord of Easter will have vacated the room.

Not that Michelangelo Merisi  da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was ever content to be a conventional artist. In The Flagellation, painted 1607, he has one of the torturers pause for a second as he ties up a bundle of rods as a flail. His shoulders slacken as he disregards the task in hand. He has realised that the man gazing down above him is the Messiah, and he sinks to one knee in recognition.

In The Annunciation from Nancy (1608-09), curiously introduced on the audio guide with the Salve Regina, the bed linen is still pulled back, but there will be no lying-in for the Mother of God. Even the 1606 St Francis in Meditation, which may be a self-portrait of the artist as a remorseful murderer, places the crucifix on an open copy of the Bible, since in both we can find our way to salvation.

After an unsurprisingly dull upbringing in Lombardy, painting all those fruit and flower pictures, Caravaggio had moved to Rome, aged 21, to paint the flower of the nobility, their lovers, and the castaways of a violent city. What he observed he painted, whether it was a notorious prostitute washed up out of the Tiber (her picture as the dead Virgin Mary caused something of a scandal among the Discalced Carmelites of Trastevere), or the dissolute serial lover of cardinals and soldiers who put out as St John the Baptist perhaps once too often in the wilderness. All of them had become his models, and he integrated a world in which he whored and drank with the worst in a society that still believed in God and divine retribution.

Self-imposed exile under sentence of death did not much change him, as this extraordinary show testifies. Whether he consciously realised that his never-ending flight over four years took him to the places so well known to St Paul in his last journey, he never let his patrons have an arid Pauline view of the world.

The portrait of the knight of Malta, usually identified as Fra Antonio Martelli, who, as Admiral of the Fleet, had just been appointed, aged 74, to be Prior of Messina, could so easily have been an inert portrait. Instead, it is a convincing study of a man of war who believed himself to be a tireless soldier of Christ. In one hand he holds his rosary, while in the other he grasps his sword hilt.

The portrait normally hangs in a dark corner of one of the last rooms in the Pitti Palace in Florence, where it is often missed. In London, it is worth waiting for the crowd to clear from in front of it and then seeking out your own audience: Caravaggio’s knack is to invite all of us into such proximity with his sitters. Next to the Prior is The Sleeping Cupid that was painted for one of his confrères in the Order of St John of Malta, the Florentine knight dell’Antella.

It is no surprise that Caravaggio, who was not noted for keeping vows of chastity or of obedience, nor able to keep out of trouble, should single-handedly challenge convention and judgement in all things artistic, and outdo his namesake’s sculpted Cupid as a parting gift to a fellow knight in an order from which he was soon expelled to die, unloved, far from his home.
“Caravaggio: The Final Years” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 22 May. Phone 020 7747 2885.

Correction: the dancers Lalitaraja and Claire Henderson Davis were pictured in A Walk Through Town on the back page last week, and not as was stated in the caption. The photograph was by Larisa Dizdar.

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