Even After Four Centuries, Caravaggio’s a Knockout

Owing to both the circumstances in which it was conceived and the uncommon appeal of the exhibition itself, the show called Caravaggio and His Italian Followers at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford has understandably been causing a stir, and when you go to see it you can easily see why. The best paintings in the exhibition-not surprisingly, they are mainly the Caravaggios-are quite as dazzling as you expect them to be, and there are others worth seeing that have the additional interest of being seldom, if ever, exhibited in these parts, pictures lent to the exhibition from the collections of the Palazzo Barberini and the Palazzo Corsini in Rome.

Add to this the glamour that, for good reasons and bad, now attaches to Caravaggio’s fame, and you have an event guaranteed to attract a good deal of attention. It is therefore a considerable mercy that the show is as good as it is. Caravaggio and His Italian Followers is not, to be sure, a major survey of its subject, and does not pretend to be. But for newcomers to the subject, to which 20th-century art historians on both sides of the Atlantic have devoted extensive study, the exhibition provides an intelligent introduction, and for those already acquainted with the Caravaggio literature, it affords an opportunity to re-examine some of its claims and counterclaims.

About the circumstances in which the exhibition was conceived, much has already been written. Suffice to say that in 1965, the Atheneum acquired in good faith a painting- The Bath of Bathsheba by Jacopo Zucchi (1540-1596)-that turned out to have been stolen from the Italian Embassy in Berlin in the closing days of World War II. Satisfied that the Italian Government had a legitimate claim to the painting, the current director of the Atheneum-Peter Sutton, who came to the museum two years ago-agreed to restore the picture to its rightful owners, and in return the Atheneum has been rewarded with the temporary loan of 29 paintings from the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Roma. Together with 10 paintings from American collections, most of them from the Atheneum itself, these are the pictures that make up the current exhibition. For the run of the show, by the way, The Bath of Bathsheba remains on view at the Atheneum, where it hangs by itself outside the entrance to the exhibition.

As the Atheneum was the first American museum to acquire a painting by the now much admired and much written-about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), having bought The Ecstasy of St. Francis in 1943, and as it has long been the repository of a fine collection of Baroque paintings, it was an inspired move on Mr. Sutton’s part to make the return of the Zucchi picture the occasion for an exhibition that recalls us to the distinction of the Atheneum’s own holdings. With the mounting of Caravaggio and His Italian Followers , moreover, Mr. Sutton has gone a long way toward putting the Atheneum back on the map of museums essential to visit on a regular basis-a position that, for reasons irrelevant to the present occasion, the Atheneum had largely forfeited in recent years.

In this respect, the museum could hardly have come up with a better draw than an artist like Caravaggio. He not only changed the course of European painting, exerting a decisive influence on artists greater than himself-among them, Rubens, Velázquez and Rembrandt-but he was himself a figure of considerable controversy in his own period and has remained a subject of spirited speculation and debate in ours. Did he actually commit murder, as has sometimes been said? Well, he was certainly quarrelsome, occasionally violent and of a generally rebellious temperament-not, in any event, a model of piety and decorum. And it is important to remember that he died young, while still in his 30’s.

Then there is the much contested matter of Caravaggio’s sexuality. Are his highly charged depictions of young male subjects to be read as an expression of his own homosexual proclivities? Some widely respected scholars have attempted to make that case, too, and there is little question but that in certain pictures-I would include The Ecstasy of St. Francis among them-the erotic element can scarcely be discounted.

Quite apart from legends of sex and violence, there is also the problem of Caravaggio’s place in what might roughly be called European thought. “So much fancy ink has been spilled about Caravaggio during the last 35 years,” wrote the English art historian Ellis Waterhouse in 1962, that “the innocent reader of art-historical literature could be forgiven for supposing that his place in the history of civilization lies somewhere in importance between Aristotle and Lenin.” Well, you get the idea.

And since then, of course, we have seen no less an eminence than Frank Stella lay claim to Caravaggio as a precursor and inspiration for his own graffiti-style polychrome abstract constructions-an aesthetic linkage that would have remained permanently unsuspected had Mr. Stella not placed Caravaggio at the center of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University in the 1980’s. Given this history of Caravaggio’s reputation in our own century, it will be something of a miracle if we do not get to see a trashy movie version of the artist’s life, undoubtedly starring Leonardo DiCaprio, in the next.

There is nothing like a firsthand encounter with even a few of Caravaggio’s own paintings, however, to clear the air of all this legend, hyperbole and mystification, and put us back in touch with the raw audacity of the artist’s pictorial powers. What could be better arranged to underscore that audacity and its effect on the painter’s contemporaries than the installation of Caravaggio and His Italian Followers , in which the visitor moves from a Mannerist confection like Zucchi’s The Bath of Bathsheba at the entrance to the show to the knockout Realism of Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps a few steps away?

Bathsheba (circa 1570) dates from around the year of Caravaggio’s birth, whereas The Cardsharps (circa 1594-95), on loan here from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., is the work of a painter still in his 20’s. Yet the latter instantly heralds a new era by sweeping away the posturing and punctilio of the Mannerist style to give us a vivid contemporary scene of disreputable intrigue. Never mind that Caravaggio’s Realism is as much an invention as any other pictorial style. In art of this persuasion, it is the achieved illusion of reality that counts, and Caravaggio was a consummate master of that particular pictorial strategy from an early age. That was what made him a painter of such extraordinary influence on his own contemporaries and on the generations that followed.

Did he achieve that position by lowering the tone of pictorial art, bringing it down to earth, so to speak, from the exalted spiritual heights of the High Renaissance? Undoubtedly. This is what we have learned to expect from the Realist impulse in art from Caravaggio’s day to our own, four centuries later, and it is precisely what makes Caravaggio the progenitor of so much that has occurred in the history of painting ever since he first burst upon the scene with his revolutionary style.

Realism of this persuasion is not without its downside, then, and in Caravaggio’s case it has the effect of rendering the ostensible content of the paintings devoted to religious subjects more than a little dubious. Suffice to say that as a painter, Caravaggio is always more persuasive in depicting the things of this world, especially the sensual attributes of the human physique, than in evoking the realm of spiritual exaltation. The kind of candor he brought to the portrayal of human experience is the key to the power his art still commands for us today, but it is so firmly anchored in the emotions of earthly life that it proves to be an unpersuasive instrument for instructing us in the vocation of sainthood. Caravaggio himself seems never to have bothered to pretend otherwise-and that, too, alas, is probably one of the sources of his modern appeal.

This is also, I think, one of the aspects of his art that separates it from that of his Italian followers. However much they aspired to appropriate the pictorial elements of his revolutionary Realism, few proved to be a match for the master when it came to replicating anything like Caravaggio’s candor and audacity. Marvelous as some of these painters undoubtedly are, they nonetheless tended to make something more respectable and less provocative in their art than Caravaggio himself was temperamentally inclined to settle for. Which is, perhaps, only another way of saying that for the most part, they remained followers rather than leaders in their own right.

One unintended consequence of Caravaggio and His Italian Followers -if, in fact, it was unintended-is that the exhibition as a whole, but especially the Caravaggios in the show, leave us with fewer regrets about the loss of The Bath of Bathsheba than might otherwise have been the case. Whatever the charms of this painting may be, its proximity to Caravaggio in this show succeeds in reconciling us to its future absence from the museum’s collection.

Caravaggio and His Italian Followers remains on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford through July 26.