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I would like to begin this article about Caravaggio with two quotations found on the internet (wikipedia of course), which in my opinion, open an important time segment usefull for reflect on some artistic aspects of Michelangelo Merisi.
The First is by Nicolas Poussin, a 17th century painter of a classical setting, whose work is characterized by clarity, logic and order. Poussin, fourteen years after Caravaggio’s death, which occurred on 07/18/1610, arrives in Rome and criticizes the painter’s work as follows:
“He had come to destroy painting”
After 335 years, in 1959, André Berne-Joffroy, after having attended the Longhiana exhibition in 1951 on Caravaggio and the Caravaggeschi, wrote Le Dossier Caravage, where he reports:
“What begins with Caravaggio’s work is very simply modern painting”.
Re timing art history
The temporal space defined between these two statements, represents the detachment from an artistic era towards a new conception of painting.
Modern art has been defined by historians the art proper to the period between the mid-nineteenth century and the twentieth century (1850-1900) and the words of André Berne-Joffroy anticipate the conventional historical dating by at least two centuries. Anyway, putting a side the timeline that the academy needs to make order, Caravaggio appears as a modern artist, avant-garde compared to his time, with a defined thought and a identity that stands out from the noble context and features.
He was a simple man, a brawler, gambler, fugitive, due to the murder of Tommasoni on May 28, 1606.
With a strong character and not conditioned by the mannerism of the ‘500, he expresses his uniqueness and his instinctive drive towards life, through an essential and dramatic, concentrated and direct painting style, which opens the borders of art and influence with new stylistic possibilities, the future modern artists.
Perhaps it is also for this reason that, in 2007, the Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, inspired by the life and works of Caravaggio, published the novel “Il Colore del Sole”. The work is none other than the alleged diary of Caravaggio’s stay between Naples, Malta and Sicily between 1606 and 1608. On the run and haunted by a thousand obsessions (like the recurring dream of a dog trying to attack him), he is told as suffering from a sort of photophobia, which forces him to see the “black sun” and to live his days as in a permanent solar eclipse. It is not clear whether it is due to the potion given to him by a woman / witch or rather due to an effect of a psychosomatic nature; however Camilleri has certainly taken one of Caravaggio’s most characteristic details and transformed it into a pure metaphor.
The Black Sun
The Black Sun, one of the most poetic descriptions that can be made about the use of light in Caravaggio’s works; so exact as to really suggest that the painter had some optical dysfunction.
The light choice is full of meanings and Caravaggio’s will to bring out some aspects of the human over others, to highlight and shadow details and elements of the scene.
Black light is the device to generate an absolute contrast between what we see and what is hidden from us, like a personal censorship or revelation by the painter about reality. Caravaggio illuminates what is important and essential for the purposes of the story and leaves no distractions that can divert our gaze. The background is almost non-existent and takes a back seat to the subjects. His need is to detach himself from the stately splendor of the environments to give importance to the bodies at the center of the scene, to emotions, to life.
Of religious events, Caravaggio recounts the most human moments, departing from the sacred, and bringing all those saints back to the material level of reality. He chooses to represent a pregnant Madonna, the most human doubt of St. Thomas and is inspired by characters from everyday life to represent Christ or St. Matthew, who looks more like a peasant than a saint.
The poses of his subjects come from the inns and from the common gestures, as often the clothes of the characters are those of his time, and much of what he represents recalls the lowest vices of man: Narcisus, Bacchus, I bari (the cheaters), Il Bacchino Malato (ill Bacchus), the various violent beheadings, projections of the obsession with the death sentence by beheading that he had received after the Tommasini murder.
Between lights and shadows
Caravaggio drags us into the power of human duality, into the strength of the light / shadow identity binomial that is part of existence: a skull is present on the table of San Girolamo, intent on translating the Old Testament and the Gospels. In this scene, the few elements charge the gesture of the two protagonists with responsibility and intensity: St. Jerome seeks the right word while the skull, the second protagonist, observes him and acts as a warning and memorandum of the human, of the death, of the shadow, of the mystery that inevitably and insistently belongs to life and to the divine word. Only the halo refers to holiness and to the religious theme, otherwise that Girolamo would seem more like a hermit committed to discovering the alchemical formula of life. In general, the haloes, which emerge subtle and discreet from the darkness, mark the difference between a biblical story and a photograph. They look like props out of the scene, as if only we could see them, while the protagonists are still living in the indecision between the life of the spirit and that of the flesh.
Caravaggio is very good at telling events that happened while they are happening, filling them with souspance and narrative, making us want a second episode, although we already know how the story ends. This is because it always allows a glimpse of the human being behind the icon, a much more modern and atheist capacity compared to the era in which he lived. His paintings fill with questions as if they were crime scenes to be analyzed. The scenes seem to come from a dream, almost incomplete, and all that black, that shadow, tells us that something is hidden, that under the black sun, nothing can be fully understood. So is life, so is reality, so was Caravaggio himself, a Black Sun, divine humanity, a prodigy artist with a rebellious soul.
I conclude with a quote from Roberto Longhi, who fills the time space mentioned above, and recalls the importance of isolated and solitary figures, but of great impact and influence on the future like Caravaggio:
“Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him and the art of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet would have been completely different”.
We thank that shadow that allows life.