15 Nov CARAVAGGIO’S ROMAN PERIOD Friends and enemies
Dazzling successes, imprisonment, glory and daring escapes, sex trade of various kinds, brawls, murders, associating with the nobility and cardinals by day, but frequenting taverns and cutthroats by night.What are we talking about? Of the latest Netflix series in the style of Dan Brown? Of the upcoming TV drama “The atheist Pope?” No! Nothing of this kind! We are talking about the true life of a certain Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. In fact, Caravaggio’s Monsieur Rocambole-like adventures, seem to be taken from a story-line that is quite the fashion at the present time and which combines the three most attractive ingredients of today’s entertainment world: sex, blood and money. The (never changing) ingredients of such stories are the intrigues of the Church and a caricature view of the Vatican characterized by financial scandals, wild parties, power games … In short, nothing new, the impression that non-Romans frequently have when they visit the Eternal City, the Caput Mundi.
And since there is nothing that attracts our contemporary folks more than artistic genius combined with a dissipated life-style, it is not surprising that Caravaggio has become an absolute icon in the world of art, beyond his artistic genius. As can be seen from this exhibition, staged at the Jacquemart-André Museum, the style of this artist changes completely according to subject, client, and also, if not especially, according to his state of mind. But what was Caravaggio’s soul really like? The soul almost consumed in introspection that we perceive in the Saint Francis in meditation? Outwardly light as in the Flute player? Or ‘more splatter than a film by Quentin Tarantino’ as in the very famous Judith and Holofernes?
Indeed these opposite extremes are often frequented by our painter. We all acknowledge that Caravaggio did not anticipate the Baroque style in painting, he invented it. But this style still bears a bad reputation due to the negative prejudice that began with the eighteenth-century rationalists and neoclassic supporters, and continued until the first half of the twentieth century with two most prominent art critiques: Bernard Berenson (BB to his friends …) and Roberto Longhi. Simplifying their judgment, in their opinion true Italian art comprised the primitives, the Renaissance, and the Venetian sixteenth century. Anything else was, in their opinion, second rate production, including the Baroque. To give an idea of the extent of the phenomenon, still today in the French language the adjective “baroque” has a negative connotation and is used to refer to eccentric redundancy. It is interesting to list the synonyms of the term baroque found on the synonymes.com website. : bizarre, excentrique, abracadabrant, choquant, bizarroïde, fantasmagorique, inénarrable, and finally the understandable kitch and the far-fetched zinzin. Indeed, this thesis, which we could define as an ancestor of fake news, can be easily dismantled by observing the two paintings by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi that are on display side by side; the first is a splendid, very bright still life, while the other presents a dreamy, almost romantic scene called “La douleur d’Aminte” (the sorrows of Aminta). I must say that in general I did not like the exhibition, it did not stir my emotions. First of all, despite the excellent organization and staggered admission of visitors, the halls of the museum were over-crowded, and it was impossible to look at a work serenely. Furthermore, as regards the general level of the exhibition I shall relay the words of Vincent Noce, an esteemed journalist an expert in art and a defender of heritage: ‘The show winks at the general public and overlooks research.’
Naturally he is referring to the rumors about the controversial (to say the least) attribution of certain works to Caravaggio. In addition, many paintings came from my home town and I knew them. Having already seen a painting does not really mean much. A beautiful painting is like a beautiful piece of music, you can listen to it dozens of times, but the emotions it evokes never dwindle. To be sincere, I am always very sorry to see so many masterpieces being removed from their natural places and repositioned in other locations. And as regards location, I cannot fail to recall Federico Zeri who tells us that over the years the Jacquemart-André museum has been totally revolutionized with various transformations and repositioning of many of the works of art that furnished it.
The problem is that these changes were made disregarding entirely the last wishes of the couple, who had expressly requested that nothing be changed in their splendid hôtel particulier on the boulevard Haussman in Paris. We know from Zeri’s writings how much he fought to make sure that the collections and the historic houses, be kept, as far as possible, as the collector had conceived and presented them. Who knows what he would think now about the state of his Mentana villa, about what has become of it, and, in spite of his will, what will become of it.