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Caravaggio and his debtors

02 December 2016

Nicholas Cranfield is impressed by the National Gallery show

© photo Jamison Miller © the nelson-atkins museum of art, Kansas city, missouri

Not here for long: St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, c.1603-04, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, on loan to London from

Not here for long: St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, c.1603-04, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, on loan to London from

LETIZIA TREVES, who is the curator of Italian and Spanish paintings 1600-1800 at the National Gallery in London, has drawn together an exhibition of some four dozen paintings, all bar six of which will be seen across the coming year in the three kingdoms. This achievement relies on the courteous generosity of many lenders, from stately homes and private collections as well as public galleries.

For instance, the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull is allowing a splendid picture, St Sebastian Tended by the Holy Irene, by the French artist Nicolas Régnier, to be included in the show, even though Kingston-upon-Hull next year is UK City of Culture. It is a theatrical show-stopper, as heads turn to look at the sensual naked youth languishing in his near-death experience.

Aided and abetted by the Director, Gabriele Finaldi, Treves has assembled a rich collection of paintings which explores the brutal naturalism of Caravaggio’s use of light and his stylistic legacy across Europe after his early death in 1610.

It includes artists who later worked in London for Charles I, such as Gerrit van Honthorst and Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), whose Rest on the Flight into Egypt from Birmingham has come into town (donkey-lovers please note), as well as works that found homes across Britain in previous centuries.

The exhibition comes hot on the heels of that of “Caravaggio and the Painters of the North”, which has taken Madrid by storm this summer. Whereas at the Thyssen Bornemisza there were ten of Caravaggio’s own undoubted autograph works, concluding with the late and mysterious Martyrdom of St Ursula, the show in London brings in three of his canvases to complement those in the collection.

There are significant works by Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), who was 20 years Caravaggio’s junior; a monographic exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum opened two days before the London show. “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio” runs in New York until 16 January, and then transfers to the Louvre (20 February to 22 May).

Up to the First World War, Valentin’s Concert with Three Figures (Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth) was given to Michelangelo da Merisi, a flower-painter originally from Lombardy (Caravaggio, from which he took his name, is a hamlet some 50 km east of Milan in the province of Bergamo), who moved to Rome in the 1590s. It was engraved as such in the ducal collection in March 1764. Now that it has been cleaned, one can see why that ascription was not out of place.

A recently identified portrait in the civic collections of Montepulciano amply shows how justified Caravaggio’s legacy is. For years, since the 1860s, when it was donated to the city by Francesco Crociani, it had hung as one of many similar portrait heads. Catalogued simply as “pittore Romano, Seicento, Ritratto di gentiluomo”, it has been convincingly shown to be a portrait painted by Caravaggio for one of his patrons, Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), before he became a cardinal (18 July 1605).

Cleaning of the surface of the canvas, and especially of the background where intense lighting casts a tell-tale shadow on the wall, makes it possible to identify the sitter with reference both to a portrait sketch by Bernini and also to a later bust by his pupil, Giuliano Finelli. To see it now in its hilltop fastness, one wonders how it was ever not thought to be by Caravaggio.

The Taking of Christ of 1602 (on loan from Dublin) tells much the same story (Arts, 24 February 1995). Generations of trainee Jesuit seminarians dined in the Leeson Street refectory for sixty years and failed to spot the powerful rhetoric that Caravaggio had brought to the Garden of Gethsemane above their heads, as it was claimed to be by Honthorst, no mean artist in a Caravaggesque mould.

Although much debated since it was first firmly identified in the 1990s, the Dublin picture seems securely the work of the master’s hand; but it is one of the pleasures of this exhibition that those visiting can form their own opinion.

The Dublin picture was commissioned by one of Rome’s leading noblemen, Ciriaco Mattei, a year after Caravaggio had painted the Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery, London) for him.

The style evidently appealed to Mattei, who a decade later employed Antiveduto Grammatica, who was born in the same year as Caravaggio (1571-1626), to paint Christ Disputing with the Doctors, which has come into the ownership of St Bride’s, Cowdenbeath.

Years later, in January 1625, Asdrubale Mattei, Ciricao’s brother, invited a 25-year-old painter from Ascona (Ticino), Giovanni Serodine, who had worked with Grammatica, to depict the Tribute Money and The Parting of Sts Peter and Paul Led to Martyrdom (Palazzo Barberini, Rome) as pendants. In the narrative of Matthew 22.21 shown here, Serodine has Jesus dramatise the distinction between Caesar and God as he hurls his hands upwards and outwards.

The picture has been owned by the National Gallery of Scotland since 1921, but its poor condition is the result of the water damage it suffered in transit to an exhibition in Ascona in 1950. This means that it is usually kept in storage; so it is a revelation to view it.

Collections in the United States have also contributed significant paintings to the exhibition, led by the national collection in Washington, DC, which has despatched Ribera’s 1634 Martyrdom of St Bartholomew.

Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) returned to the subject several times, but, whereas other depictions offer large-scale narrative renderings (such as those now in the Pitti Palace and in Madrid), this is a confrontational work, reduced to its bared necessities. Although the callous executioner is present, the artist emphasises the saint’s vulnerability with his gaping mouth and piercing eyes.

Dublin also provides another work by Ribera of St Onuphrius, who surrendered an earthly princedom to live in the wilderness. Both paintings give the artist, who worked for much of his life in Naples, where there were two confraternities dedicated in honour of the saint, the opportunity to show off his command of painting the sagging flesh of old age. His use of thick paint brings its own shadows to the gnarled and wrinkled.

Caravaggio had briefly worked there when he had fled from Rome in 1606, and the likes of Ribera and later Mattia Preti (1613-99) took up his mantle. In his Draughts Players (c.1635), Preti found there was still a market for stagey genre scenes in the then outdated style of early Caravaggio, but it is the Birmingham Crucifixion of St Peter (1656) that more nearly explores the brutally theatrical and the reality of a hard world. Both artists are among those properly surveyed by Christopher Marshall in his ground-breaking study of the industry of painting in Baroque Naples (Yale, 2016).

The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, had already arranged a reciprocal loan of the Georges de la Tour The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs (1630/34), a genre tavern scene of low life, which is also in the show, and this is joined by Caravaggio’s own St John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Kansas City). This work stood out as possibly the most outstanding loan to the summer’s Madrid show. Catch it in London if you can, as it will not tour.

For many years, it had hung at Burton Constable Hall, in East Yorkshire, but it was sold in 1951. It shows Caravaggio at the height of his powers in 1602-03. The oddly angular (and anatomically inept) body shapes of his earlier figurative paintings have gone. Where figures had once appeared only to be draped (a deliberately classicising motive), they are now clothed, cloth folded around tensed muscles.

In 1633, the Spanish artist Vicente Carducho used culinary metaphors to explore Caravaggio’s appeal, writing of his use of a “new plate, in such a way with a sauce cooked with so much flavour, appetite and the like . . . that I am afraid in them of some apoplexy [occurring] in the real doctrine [of painting]”.

That there was to be no turning back is best seen, perhaps, in the most shocking picture on display. Christ Displaying his Wounds (Perth Museum and Art Gallery) has been restored (2012-13), since John Gash first identified it in 2009 as a work by Lo Spadarino (1585-post 1651), and was shown in London by the art historian and dealer Clovis Whitfield in his ground-breaking 2010 exhibition “Caravaggio’s Friends and Foes”.

The dramatically “in your face” painting was given to the city of Perth in 1862 by a Colonel of the Black Watch, a Trinity, Cambridge, man (“who did not reside”), and the local magistrate William Macdonald, who was a friend of John Ruskin.

Lo Spadarino, which roughly means little sword, and may be a term of affectionate abuse, was the sobriquet given to Giacomo Antonio Galli, the son of a Florentine cutler or swordsmith working in the heart of Rome in the parish of San Lorenzo in Damaso. Like Caravaggio, he had found a noble patron, and from 1603 lived a few city blocks away from him in the Palazzo San Marco, the official Roman residence of Cardinal Giovanni Dolfin, at least until the latter’s death in 1622.

The immediacy of the Perth painting (1625-35) suggests a private commission, whereas perhaps his most important Roman commission was The Martyrdom of Saints Valeria and Martial (by 1633) for the altar that is reputedly built immediately over the site of the Apostle Peter’s execution.

We are forced into the position of Doubting Thomas as we kneel in front of the Risen Lord, whose fingers and thumb pinch the flesh either side of his gaping wound, willing us to penetrate his torso and to thrust our hand into his side (John XX, 27).

Even without Freud to hand, the inescapable gaze of the Lord shocks us into an invasive act. Christ’s vulnerability even as the Risen Lord is emphasised further by the added touch of cinnabar around the wound, the same colour as used on Christ’s full lips. Its forceful presence somewhat outclasses his own earlier painting The Incredulity of St Thomas (Wrotham Park).

With the likes of Manfredi, Saraceni, Ribera, and Cecco del Caravaggio, Lo Spadarino was listed as early as 1619 as being Caravaggio’s “school” artists, which shows how early contemporaries realised that there were artists working in a new style. The market has certainly noticed Lo Spadarino’s importance.

In July 2009, Christie’s raised nearly £200,000 for his depiction of an Ecce Homo and a recently attributed work of his, Ptolemy II Discussing the Translation of the Old Testament, went under the hammer for more than $US500,000 at Sotheby’s in January 2014.

Matthias Stom (or Stomer, about 1600-after 1652) is another artist whose indebtedness to Caravaggio has earned him his meal ticket. Christie’s realised £365,000 for Brian Sewell’s estate for a 1652 St Jerome.

Whether Caravaggio himself essayed a series of the four Latin Doctors of the Church is a moot point, although a credible St Augustine from a private collection has been attributed to him in North American exhibitions in 2011-12. The subject of the four stout defenders of the Catholic Truth against heresy took on a new lease of life as part of the Counter-Reformation, and appealed to patrons as an unassailable way of emphasising their own orthodoxy.

This exhibition brings together the Gallery’s Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist (1632) that came to the nation from Sir Denis Mahon and the Birmingham An Old Woman and a Boy by Candlelight of even earlier.

More in the style of Georges de la Tour than any direct genre scene of Caravaggio’s, and deriving its composition from an Antwerp painting by Rubens, it is a beautifully observed work, radiant with light that delineates the lined face of the elderly woman and the blushing soft flabbiness of youth.

Fingernails, eyelashes and the puckered lip of the nervous woman invite us into a familial intimacy. Such details offer a clue to why Caravaggio’s intense style has such a dramatic appeal, inviting us into a painted world of fictions.

“Beyond Caravaggio” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 15 January. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

It will be at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, from 11 February to 14 May; and then the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, from 17 June to 24 September 2017.



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