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Polidoro da Caravaggio by David Franklin

29 March 2018

Nicholas Cranfield on a study of the work of Polidoro da Caravaggio

NOT a great deal is known of Polidoro da Caravaggio, who was one of Raphael’s teenage assistants in the Vatican Loggia. After the 1527 Sack of Rome, he fled to Naples. By October 1528, he was in Sicily, painting for the Viceroy and providing triumphal arches for the 1535 visit of Charles V.

The date of his birth in the northern Lombard village may have been 1490 or more plausibly 1498-1500. Even the manner of his death in Messina in 1543 is disputed; perhaps he was murdered by an assistant?

In 1988, Leone de Castris staged a ground-breaking exhibition (Capodimonte, Naples), and has since written extensively about the artist. He supplied the biographical entry for the Grove encyclopaedia (2000). Yale has turned to David Franklin, who wrote Painting in Renaissance Florence 1500-1550 and Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and the Renaissance in Florence for that publisher, to introduce this enigmatic artist to a wider English readership.

Franklin’s essay (it runs out at six chapters in fewer than 150 pages) explores an artist who has suffered greatly at the hands of Time. By assembling sketches and copies of his works, Franklin’s meticulous scholarship demonstrates just how significant Polidoro is.

In Rome, he was known as a painter of friezes, but weathering has left few traces of his frescoed decorations on the exterior of some 50 buildings. The partial survival of the façades of the Ricci and Milesi palaces suggests his capabilities.

Museo di Capodimonte, NaplesWay to Calvary by Polidoro da Caravaggio, in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples. From the book under review

In 1526, he was commissioned to decorate the Fetti chapel in San Silvestro al Quirinale, a Roman church that is now open a little more often than before. His are the first Renaissance landscapes that enliven the lives of saints (Mary Magdalene and Catherine of Siena), next to full-length portrayals of both.

Despite the 1908 earthquake that devastated Messina, destroying many pictures as well as records of them, some 30 paintings of unpretentious devotion have been identified. One of the first, presumably painted for the church of St Thomas built in 1530, is The Incredulity of St Thomas, a nervous and mysterious encounter of the two young men which readers may recognise from having visited the Courtauld Institute in London.

In 1534, he painted the Way to Calvary (Capodimonte) for the Catalan community there. Based on a composition by Raphael, the commission was commemorated by a 608-line hendecasyllabic poem by Cola Alibrando (1534), which apparently tells much about the work and its reception. There is a 1999 Italian scholarly edition, but a translation would have offered a fitting appendix to this otherwise absorbing volume.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

Polidoro da Caravaggio
David Franklin
Yale £50
Church Times Bookshop £45

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