Culling Caravaggio and Carcioffi
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
Seeking the Muse with the baroque master in Italy
An essay by Brian Keeler
Caravaggio, the spectacular Italian figurative artist of the 16th and early 17th century was a primary motivating force to entice my first trip to Italy in 1992. His visage was noticed not long after arrival on the front of one of the Italian paper money notes, when the lira was still in use, before the Euros came in to use. Along with the many statues to artists in public places in Italy, like the row of full size statues of Machiavelli and Lorenzo De’ Medici and dozens of others outside of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, these public commemorations show a country honoring its history in a special way. It occurred to me that this is how history could be recorded, instead of an endless record of war- one after another. His full name, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is an homage to the more famous renaissance painter, Michelangelo Buonarroti, whose name almost everyone knows- and as is the case with many Italian painters of this era, Caravaggio's last name is taken from his town of birth, a small village near Milan. As with Leonardo- the Da Vinci is a nod to the town of Vinci just outside of Florence.
But what does Caravaggio have to do with Carcioffi you may ask, which is the Italian word for artichokes. Well as it turns out this vegetable, in a round about way was important in a rather pivotal moment in his life. By happenstance we serendipitiously came up the location of this hapless occurrence one evening in Rome while searching for a restaurant. We were referred down an alley by friendly gentleman, after inquiring about a place to eat. It is nearly impossible to go wrong on the culinary experiences in Rome and this one was no exception. The restaurant, Il Duello had an oval sign above the door that had a hand-painted reproduction of one of Caravaggio’s still life paintings of fruit in a basket, which I recognized. But it was not until we were inside the rather small dinning room that the cameriera gave us the skinny on the significance of the name. This was the sight of the restaurant in which the famous painter lost his cool with the waiter as he was served a plate of carcioffi that were improperly prepared or not identified exactly as requested. Reportedly Caravaggio had split his order of eight artichokes so that four were fried in olive oil the others in butter. When they arrived the waiter could not say which were which and told the artist to smell them to make a determination- where upon the tray was knocked in the air and a sword drawn. Caravaggio’s rap sheet was long and full of incidents similar to this, like getting a fight with his tennis partner and killing him in sword fight. The result was that he mortally wounded the fellow with his sword and had to flee for the island of Malta. As Linda my partner says, the wait staff was all verypolite on the nights we were there at Il Duello. The dinning was excellent of course and just down the Via Del Ripetta near Piazza del Poppolo on another night we had our first taste of Carcioffi Guilliani, a specially prepared deep fried artichoke with the leaves rather crispy on top. No trays were overturned that night.
But back to his paintings, as they have long enthralled me and I always visit the grouping in San Luigi dei Francesi by myself or with students. Not far is the church of San Agostino, just north of the Pantheon with the large painting of the bare-footed peasants at the feet of the Virgin and Child. The painting of Caravaggio’s, The Calling of Saint Mathew in San Luigi is perhaps my all time Favorite Caravaggio. Such a consummate composition with that everyday quality and lighting along with the quote from Michelangelo’s Sistine Adam and God with hands stretched out. Caravaggio culled the wrist and hand from Adam and used it for Christ as he points to St Mathew. There is however an ambiguity that is often noted as it is not clear just which man is the saint- either the old man with a beard or the youth with head bent counting his money.
The gritty kind of realism that he invented and popularized has appealed to me as it is a similar aesthetic to the Ashcan school members who likewise turned to the real world, the streets and tenements of American Cities for their inspirations. On a flight back from Rome a priest sitting next me, confided that this was the precise reason he loathed Caravaggio. Instead of exalting Biblical scenes Caravaggio instead made the characters of these visual narratives seem more like one of us- or too much like the hoi poloi attending the churches of 17th century Rome- who the paintings were ostensibly created for as visual virtue to elevate the illiterate.
The way my enthrallment with Caravaggio’s work has grown to include many other painter’s is part of how learning about one painter’s work can expand. For example just a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a major exhibit of a painter cut from the same cloth as Caravaggio was featured. This artist, Valentin de Bolougne was unknown to me heretofore but with this show, it became clear that he was on a par with Caravaggio. He worked roughly at the same time in Rome and his themes of musicians in taverns along with Biblical scenes also utilized models of the same social milieu. His palette and compositions, along with dramatic lighting are all inspired by Caravaggio too. The group of other Caravaggio followers, which includes Georges de la Tour have been even called Caravagisiti or Tenenbrists for the their moody and dark timbre. Who does not love Georges de la Tour’s vanitas and his painting in the NGA of a woman with a candle behind her hand? The light and contrast are simply superb and even with an altruistic message which is at odds or at least a dichotomy of the supposed tenebrism.
Among Caravaggio’s most accomplished exponents was Gerrit Von Honthorst, also referred to in Italian as Geraldo della Notte or as one friend interpreted his name, Jerry of the Night. His name references the fact that his scenes are often nocturnes of tavern scenes- candle lit interiors. This is part of the marvel of his work- which is to say the lighting is simply astounding. And how did they accomplish this in the 17thcentury? It is a challenge enough with all of today’s sophisticated cameras and computers to effect this type of lighting. But to consider the accomplishment of complex arrangements with multiple figures interacting is nothing short of miraculous. His work was first seen individually at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and then at a spectacular one many show at the same gallery a few years later. It was my good fortune to have seen this show when my students were touring the city with me on a subsequent tour of Italy. Von Honthorst’s work is definitely inspired by Caravaggio but his palette is more luminous and even golden. He does not push the darks to black and leaves them as a golden hue by allowing under painted layers or the tone of the ground to bleed through and with nuanced tones- so the shadow areas can still be read and viewed. His work also figurative like Caravaggio also utilizes models in genre scenes, such as diners and musicians. They are often portrayed in ribald acts of gustatutory indulgence or with the studied visual harmony of concerts.
Then of course there is the most famous follower of all the baroque masters and tenebrist painters, Mr, VanRijn – our Rembrandt of Amsterdam. Rembrandt’s work with his own dramatic lighting and penchant for extremes of light and shade can be traced to Caravaggio as well. Rembrandt’s brushier approach and more spontaneous painterly delivery certainly takes the tenbrism to new directions as do DeLatour and Van Honhorst as well.
There have been several other fortuitous encounters with Caravaggio’s major paintings. One was in Florence in the mid-1990’s when his huge canvas of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist was on display at the famous church of Santa Maria Del Carmine- which also has the famous fresco cycle of Massaccio and Masolino. This painting of Caravaggio's is a masterpiece if there ever was one- simply conceived with just five main figures situated in an arc in the corner surrounded by typical baroque black and mysterious vague background. The artist’s signature we see written in red is supposedly painted with his own blood but appears in the painting as if it were the saint's blood that has just poured from his neck. We can see how Rembrandt’s Night Watch and other works owe a debt to this work. I recall thinking how the woman holding the platter for the decapitated head appeared to have been drawn with too meaty width to her arms.
Another chance encounter was at the Irish National Gallery in Dublin just last year where they had a recently discovered Caravaggio on display of Christ being abducted after St Peter's betrayal. This work had been in a Jesuit home nearby for centuries before it’s author was revealed.
Part of the benefit as artists when visiting the many works of art in museums in Italy is to then take that inspiration out into the painting of the city and landscape. When my students are there for workshops we get to practice and implement those inspirations when working from the nude in our classes or when doing landscapes too.
The upshot for me as an artist, beyond the exhilaration of standing in front of these paintings and traversing the narrative conveyed and appreciating the masterful articulation of light on the human forms, is to do as other artists have done- incorporate the influence into some of my own canvases. So I’ve hired models or had friends pose in similar fashion to some of those paintings such as the cardsharps or fortuneteller to name two. This exercise is rewarding in many ways and great way to learn from a master by applying oneself to a similar task to a master. We understand in the process why many other artists have trod these grounds in a path to growth. One of these homages is shown here where I took a segement of Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Mathew and included a self-portrait in profile as I painted. The implication here is to suggest that baroque master is calling me or perhaps even a religious calling.
The pursuit and enjoyment of art in the great museums of Italy and elsewhere can offer many rewards and avenues to study and further one’s own growth along the journey of life.