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Art review: The Last Caravaggio at the National Gallery, London

24 May 2024

Nicholas Cranfield sees ‘The Last Caravaggio’ at the National Gallery

© Archivio Patrimonio Artistico Intesa Sanpaolo/foto Luciano Pedicini, Napoli

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610), oil on canvas, on loan from the Intesa Sanpaolo Collection Gallerie d’Italia, Naples

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610), oil on canvas, on loan from the Intesa Sanpaolo Collection Gallerie d’Italia,...

IN 1610, Livia Grimaldi, the stepdaughter of a Genoese nobleman, entered the Neapolitan Convent of the Most Holy Trinity, taking the name of Sister Ursula, possibly after the foundress of the female Theatines, Sister Orsola Benincasa (1547-1618).

To commemorate this event in his wife’s family, the Duke of Eboli, the Prince Marcantonio Doria of Salerno (1572-1651), commissioned his contemporary and friend Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (1571-1610), who was by then in exile in Naples.

Caravaggio had come to know the Doria prince when earlier taking refuge in Genoa from Rome in the summer of 1605, after an altercation in which he had attacked a citizen; but he had refused the prince’s request to paint a loggia in his villa. Clearly, the friendship held despite this difference of opinion.

The work remained in the family until 1832, and was then returned to Naples. It was bought by a bank in 1972 and is now the stellar attraction of the Intesa Sanpaolo collection, which has some 35,000 works of art; the total artistic and historical assets managed by the bank are worth €850 million. The painting is usually displayed in the Naples branch of the Gallerie d’Italia.

The Martyrdom of St Ursula (Arts, 2 March 2018) was completed in record time in the early summer of 1610, such that there was some damage in the process of drying it too fast in the sun, and this had to be remedied by the artist before it was dispatched by sea from Naples to Genoa on 27 May. It is the artist’s last securely dated painting and arrived safely in Genoa on 18 June. Caravaggio died on 18 July on his journey back to Rome with the promise of a papal pardon for the capital offence of manslaughter.

Naples, in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, lay beyond papal jurisdiction and offered relative safety to Caravaggio. Among works that he completed on his first visit (1606 to 1607), he undertook The Seven Acts of Mercy for the congregation of the Pio Monte della Misericordia and The Flagellation of Christ for a private chapel in the cloister of the city-centre Dominican church.

Until the 1980 discovery of a letter confirming the 1610 shipment, the St Ursula had been thought to be the work of another painter, the Calabrian Mattia Preti (1613-99), who, like Caravaggio before him, was a knight of the Order of St John of Malta, and who worked extensively in Naples.

The letter of 11 May 1610 from Doria’s agent Lanfranco Massa (Archivio di Stato di Napoli) is exhibited here alongside another painting that Caravaggio had painted during his first sojourn in Naples, the National Gallery’s own Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist, acquired in 1970.

© The National Gallery, LondonMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist (c.1609-10), oil on canvas

The exhibition is both a tale of two cities (Genoa and Naples) and of two stepdaughters, though Prince Doria celebrated his rather differently from Herod Antipas. His rash oath to appease his wife, Herodias, is a pathetic account to rival the fate overtaking Jepthah’s daughter (Judges 11.29-40).

When I first saw The Martyrdom some forty years ago, it was in an upstairs back bedroom in a grand Baroque palace in the heart of Naples which served as a bank manager’s office. No longer in the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano (1637-39, arch. Cosimo Fanzago), it was transferred in 2022, along with other holdings of the bank, to the new purpose-built museum in another former bank building further up the Via Toledo, the 1935 Banco de Napoli. In contrast to the Baroque, this is Fascist architecture at its best, the outstanding work of the architect Marcello Piacentini (1881-1960).

The Caravaggio hangs between Louis Finson’s 1607 version of Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Samson and Delilah, in which the Philistine seductress wields a pair of scissors, too delicate to cut more than a sentimental lock from her Israelite lover’s tousled hair. The menacing close focus of both would have been unthinkable without the daring innovation of Caravaggio.

When, in 1974, Tom Stoppard explored Zeno’s paradox, in Jumpers, he had George conclude that St Sebastian “died of fright”, since an arrow fired could never reach its target if it first had to clear half the distance and then half the distance again, etc., before arriving at its destination. We know that Sebastian survived the fusillade, nursed by Irene and her companions, whereas Ursula was given no such reprieve.

The fatal quarrel is already embedded in her chest, which spurts blood like a ripe pomegranate. Her pallor may be the result of a loss of pigment, but the onset of her death throes is inevitable. Her shock is palpable. Her killer has not yet relaxed his grip on the bowstring and bears in on her, as if to abuse her further.

Ursula, attended by her 11,000 companions (or probably a single attendant, Ximilia, mistranscribed as “XI Milia”, giving her more than Xenophon’s cohorts), had been seized by the Huns in Cologne on returning from a pilgrimage to Rome.

Initially spared by the king, who wanted to marry her himself, Ursula refused marriage much as a novice relinquishes vows of matrimony to enjoy a religious life as the bride of Christ.

Caravaggio, who portrayed himself looking eagerly over her shoulder at her killer, makes us question the conventional trope of virginal martyrs. The sheer violence captured in the instant questions our pious acceptance of what makes for sanctity. This is brutal butchery. Where is the saving grace? Wherein lies redemption?

The popular legend of Ursula’s martyrdom (21 October 383) finds possibly its finest pictorial representation in the panels that Hans Memling painted for her reliquary (1489), now secularised in the Memling museum in Bruges. At much the same time, Vittore Carpaccio painted nine large panels of the narrative for the Scuola di Sant’Orsola in Venice (Accademia, Venice, now in restoration).

Beyond art, Ursula’s popularity crossed the globe and informed the religious landscape; the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus named the jewel-like archipelago in the West Indies “Sant’Orsola e le undicimila vergini”, the Virgin Islands, in 1493. At Brescia, in 1535, St Angela Merici (1474-1540) established an order of nuns that still flourishes: the Ursulines.

© Archivio di Stato di Napoli Letter from Lanfranco Massa to Marco Antonio Doria (ASNa, Archivio Dora D’Angri, II, 290, 9-10 (1))  

Caravaggio had already treated of the death of John the Baptist, perhaps most famously in the refectory at Valletta for the Knights of Malta when he joined the order after he had first left Naples. The daughter of Herodias appears in yet another sombre canvas of his from Naples, now in the Royal Palace in Madrid. In London we are complicit with the beheading of the Forerunner (Mark 6.17-29).

Would we have stood up to Herod? Throughout the biblical narrative, the stepdaughter is given no name. Here she is given no voice. Is she turning aside from shame, disgust, or fear, at what her mother has made her do? The executioner has silenced the prophet, the Voice that had so alarmed her stepfather.

The two paintings were first brought together as works by Caravaggio in exhibitions some forty years ago, first at the Royal Academy (1982) and then, in the spring of 1985, in New York: “The Age of Caravaggio” prompted me to make the transatlantic flight simply to see an exhibition. If I had read the veteran Sydneysider Robert Hughes (1938-2012) in Time, I might have been prejudiced against both works, despite enjoying them in Piccadilly.

Hughes, nothing if not critical, had savaged the Met’s hang, and the later works “with which its closing rooms are padded”. He enjoined his readers “to ignore blatant copies, pastiches and restored works such as the Magdalen in Ecstasy, The Tooth Puller and The Martyrdom of St Ursula . . .”, advice I ignored.

Four decades on, we can now appreciate that both works exhibit a rapid brushwork that becomes a characteristic of Caravaggio’s later works, contrasting light and shade with a minimal palette. Initially, this suggests a certain unevenness, but there is no doubting the storytelling in either as the distinctive qualities of the Lombard master.

The composition of the Salome was widely influential at the time, and a version of it was painted by the Sicilian born Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino (1572-1645) and was in the collection of Marcantonio Doria by the 1620s. Doria was Azzolino’s principal patron and clearly did not want his collection to be disadvantaged by Caravaggio’s premature death.

Orthodox Christians to this day refrain from eating off platters or enjoying round-shaped foodstuffs on the August feast of the Decollation of St John. Prince Marcantonio Doria might have appreciated this reticence, since his outstanding collection in Genoa was said also to house a vial of the blood of St John the Baptist, a relic beyond price in a city that, since 1326, had been under the patronage of the Forerunner, whose ashes have been revered in the cathedral since the First Crusade.

“The Last Caravaggio” is in Room 46, The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 21 July. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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