When cinematographers talk about their craft, many are keen to reference paintings as a window into their work. Some of them cite specific artists: Rembrandt (Gordon Willis), Georges de la Tour (Nestor Almendros), Edward Hopper (Laszlo Kovacs), Vittore Carpaccio (Vittorio Storaro)—- of course, Vermeer for all of them. However, no painter has so universally been a lodestone for cinematographers as the early 17th century Italian, Michelangelo Merissi, born in Milan, but whose early childhood was spent in the Lombardy town that is the source of his name—Caravaggio.
For art historians as well as for the general public, the dramatic details of Caravaggio’s life command center stage. Shakespeare himself could not have created a more compellingly complex character: part devil—prey to street fights and sordid sexual encounters; part angel—a master of deeply emotive characters and religious ecstasy captured in dramas on painted canvas.
Caravaggio apprenticed in and came out of a Lombardian tradition of naturalistic painting that was as distant in style as it was in geography from the Mannerist conceits that had prevailed in Roman and Vatican ecclesiastical painting since the Renaissance. The reforms of the Council of Trent, held from 1545 to 1563, offered a ready forum for artists who could paint in this newly realistic vein; the Counter Reformation of the Catholic Church sought art and music that was more accessible to the faithful. Caravaggio was the right man for the right time. He painted from life models, not idealized fantasies—often-street urchins, rent boys and prostitutes. Several times, he became mired in controversy when a model for a saint or the Madonna was recognized by sponsoring bishops or cardinals to be a known courtesan. Some commissions were initially rejected and changes were ordered because of his warts and all rendering of models, including martyrdoms of saints with filthy feet, scars and body blemishes. A Madonna was painted for a small altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It stayed there for only two days. A cardinal’s secretary (according to a Wikipedia entry) wrote:
In this painting there are but vulgarity, sacrilege, impiousness and disgust. . . One would say that it is a work made by a painter that can paint well, but of a dark spirit, and who had been for a lot of time far from God, from His adoration, and from any good thought.
Though at first dependent on the Church and its prelates for commissions, Caravaggio’s frequent travels to elude arrest warrants, brought him into contact with secular patrons in southern Italy, Malta and Sicily, art connoisseurs who could offer him work as well as protective residency at their estates. The history of Caravaggio’s wildly colorful life has often outweighed critical consideration of his art; there are numerous recent biographies that continue to offer details of a life lived largely on the run. One of the most controversial is by the Australian Peter Robb, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio:
There are other bios that capture more of the artist in the context of his times but the Robb bio is wonderfully crazed, as is the idiosyncratic film from 1986 by the late Derek Jarman, which can be seen in auto-play succession on YouTube:
Gabriel Beristain beautifully photographs it.
It is the visual drama of Caravaggio’s paintings, not the biographical mishmash that is so compelling to cinematographers. His cinematic mise-en-scene, his dramatic staging and compositional daring alone are enough to elevate his work into intense veneration by filmmakers. But it is the light in the most mature paintings that almost burns through the canvas. No one before Caravaggio, and few artists since, has rendered light with such intensely dramatic, as opposed to purely visual, urgency. The light itself may be the most dramatic character in the work, yet it never threatens to become a thing in itself as it does in the paintings of Joseph of Derby or de La Tour. Here are examples of painters cited at the introduction of this essay.
Caravaggio worked in oil. He despised fresco, partly because it did not support the chiaroscuro, even tenebrous, effects that were essential to him. He worked directly on the canvas with no pencil sketching or under-painting, using at most the blunt end of his brush to create outlines. X-rays reveal the few over-painting alterations. Fresco technique also required elaborate preparation, with full scale cartoons painstakingly transferred by pinpoints to the freshly applied sections of stucco. Caravaggio was in no way a patient man. Moreover, he often worked away from the public forum of fresco; he preferred dark rooms or cellars that were supportive of his singular use of models and light sources.
Caravaggio left Milan in 1592, headed south, and quickly received minor employment in Rome. It wasn’t until 1597 that he won his first Great Church commission (possibly with the support of a patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte.) It was for three paintings in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. One of them, The Calling of Matthew, is among his most esteemed works. It was painted and placed in situ in the Contarelli Chapel, the fifth chapel on the left as you enter the nave. Many visitors regard these few dozen steps from the church portal to that corner as a mini-pilgrimage.
Rome is rich in Caravaggios, with The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul located in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo; another sixteen canvasses are in other churches and galleries. There is only one in the Met in New York, one in London, one in Vienna, two in Paris. There is also one in Dublin, the so-called “lost painting.” More about that complex adventure a bit later.
In early July of 2009, I was in Rome photographing scenes for a Disney romantic comedy starring Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel. A several day wedding sequence was scheduled outside and inside the Church of the Maddalena.
One narrow block from the piazza of the Pantheon, on the Via Rosetta, this lovely Baroque church from 1635 was located close by the Caravaggios of the Francesi. I skipped lunch one day and ran to the Francesi church to see them, as the chapels are open for viewing only a few hours a day.
I hadn’t realized what a magical conceit of lighting awaits you in the Contarelli Chapel. The single source light of the painting is from the right, a seeming companion to the painted window above Christ’s beckoning hand.
There is, in fact, a real window in the chapel, a lunette placed high in the vault—a nominal source spilling onto the figures of the canvas itself. I can think of no other sited painting where the intersection of art and reality so takes your breath away.
In the rest of his brief career, about a decade, Caravaggio painted a succession of ever more jaw-dropping masterpieces, pushing the limits of realism, dynamic space, and light to new levels. It is all the more amazing as his life was so unsettled and the enemies hounding him so numerous. In mid 1610, his most fervent patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of the pope, arranged for a pardon that would allow him to return to Rome. What happened next remains sketchy to this day. Whether he contracted fever en route or was killed by an avenger, it is now agreed that he died on July 10 at Porto Ercole. He is said to have carried three of his recent paintings with him.
The arc of Caravaggio’s reputation waxed and waned thereafter and some of his work fell into questionable attribution; other paintings were “lost,” known only by historical records. The mystery of Caravaggio paintings became a tempting field for scholars. One of the most important of the lost works, known by a number of copies of varying quality, is titled “The Taking of Christ.” It represents the dramatic moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when the apostle Judas betrays Christ to the Romans with a kiss—and Jesus is led away to torture, trial and crucifixion. By the end of the 18th century, the painting was considered lost, not long after it was sold by the Mattei family, who had been one of Caravaggio’s longtime collectors.
In 1990, Sergio Benedetti, Senior Conservator of the National Gallery of Art in Dublin was called to the residency of the Jesuits on Leeson Street, only 500 yards from the museum. He had been prevailed upon to look at and supervise the cleaning of several of the order’s paintings, including a “Betrayal by Judas” by the Dutch master Gerard van Honthorst. This canvas had been given to the Jesuits, and it had been hanging in their dining hall since 1930. Benedetti, a Caravaggio scholar transplanted from Rome (though there were no Caravaggios in Ireland) suspected it might be a very good copy of the lost Carravagio. Permission was granted to remove it to the conservation facility at the museum, which was located in a cramped space on the institution’s uppermost floor. Painstaking examination by Benedetti led him to suspect it could actually be a lost Caravaggio.
At the same time, two female graduate art students in Rome, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, were discovering the paper trail of the “Taking of Christ” after it had left the possession of the Mattei family, its provenance being a vital corollary to analysis of the painting itself.
The story of the finding, restoration, provenance and final destination of this painting is told in a five-part BBC documentary, an art-historical mystery, part of an ongoing series called “The Private Life of a Masterpiece.”
Part one. After the Biblical Passion story represented by the painting is explained, we are led to pilgrimage sites in the hills above Milan, to the so-called “sacri monti.” Here are life sized terra-cotta sculptures set into grottoes that illustrate for the faithful the key events in the life of Christ. These folk art sculptures are a demotic presentation of the new thrust toward realism:
In part two, the “Calling of Matthew” is presented in the Contarelli Chapel, followed by Caravaggio’s contract to work for the Mattei, Rome’s most wealthy family. He moves into a studio in their palazzo and begins painting the “Taking of Christ” after finishing another Easter themed work, “The Supper at Emmaus.”
A demonstration of Caravaggio’s contrarian technique of painting follows— a dark, rather than pale, ground covering the entire canvas. Rubert Feathersone of the University of Cambridge serves as a hands-on guide to the artist’s hermetic technique:
Part three investigates the construction of the painting itself. There are seven figures in the “Taking of Christ.” They were painted in small groups or even singly, in quick sessions of about half an hour, invariably painted from life models as was the painter’s mode. Featherstone continues illustrating effects of light, highlights, and shadows, showing how Caravaggio was able to create his highlight effects with few strokes, the speed being the result of focused practice. You can’t help but think of the analogous lighting of a film set, quickly and with few lights, by a master like Jack Cardiff. Great light in film, as in art, is created through a distilled, reductive process that comes with years of experience.
The painting remains with successive generations of the Mattei family for nearly two centuries, as recorded in an account book from 1793.
Part four features Fr. Noel Barber, superior of the Jesuit community, who introduces the restorer Sergio Benedetti, who then describes the post WWII Caravaggio revival that reflected the “ragged realism” of an impoverished Italy, and the gritty neo-realism of its cinema.
In 1802, the painting is sold as a group of six to a Scottish collector who moves them to his country estate. The convolutions of the work’s provenance become even more labyrinthine until the trail seems to end in 1920 in a minor Edinburgh auction house—where, if possible, the story becomes even stranger. It ends up as a gift to the Jesuits from a WWI widow, who sees in the figure of Christ, violently seized by soldiers, an analogue to events surrounding the death of her husband, as though his parallel story, too, “drips with blood.”
The two young Italian women cited earlier verified much of the painting’s paper trail. They found old account books of the Mattei family in a cellar archive in the village of Recanati. Neither of them is acknowledged in the BBC documentary, though it was their papers, published first in the Italian Arte e Dossier, then in the prestigious Burlington Magazine, that set the art world abuzz. The film suggests by omission that Benedetti was the sole person responsible for establishing the provenance of the “Taking of Christ.” Perhaps the producers found the tale of the painting already a bit “shaggy.” But there is a wonderful book by Jonathan Harr that tracks in detail the story of the painting. He gives much more credit to the two women. The book is a page-turner.
In part five, the final gaps in the provenance trail of the “Taking of Christ” are filled. The authenticity of the painting once housed in the Jesuit residence is verified and the priests are confronted with the decision of what to do next. In November of 1993, after three years of secret restoration and research, the “Taking of Christ” is unveiled along with London’s National Gallery canvas of the “Supper at Emmaus,” as cornerstones of a Dublin exhibition of Caravaggio and his followers. Today, it is the proud centerpiece of Ireland’s National Gallery, on permanent loan to the people of Ireland from the Jesuit fathers.
Whenever you are in Dublin, even if you’ve missed the annual June 16 Bloomsday pilgrimage retracing the route of the wandering hero of Ulysses, you can drop into Merrion Square to see this much-travelled masterpiece, then move over to Davy Byrne’s Duke Street pub to hoist a pint to these two peripatetic artists, Caravaggio and Joyce. In spirit at least, they would be welcome drinking companions.