Marc Mayer with the painting
Photograph by Blair Gable

Caravaggio does Ottawa

His work took Europe by storm. 400 years later, we still can’t get enough of him.

He was a fighter, rebel and murderer. He wore his clothes until they were rags, ate off his paintings, chased women and men with equal vigour, escaped from prison, and died at age 39 in a fit of fever. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, best-known simply as “Caravaggio,” is one of 17th-century Rome’s most scandalous figures. He is art’s original bad boy—and 400 years after his death we still can’t get enough of him.

Centuries before Twitter and PR agents, word of Caravaggio’s talent spread so fast within his lifetime that legions of imitators (known as Caravaggisti) in Germany, France, Flanders, Spain, Holland and Italy started to paint just like him. Single-handedly he not only changed the course of art, his influence was so profound that it is still being felt today. How Caravaggio’s style impacted so many other artists—including superstars Georges de La Tour, Jusepe de Ribera, Artemisia Gentileschi and Peter Paul Rubens—is the story behind the National Gallery of Canada’s major exhibition Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, which opens this week. For all sorts of reasons, the exhibit is a coup for the National Gallery. There has only ever been one other major show of the artist’s work in North America, and that was over 25 years ago at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

According to Marc Mayer, the gallery’s director, throughout the next two months (the exhibition closes in September) 75,000 visitors will make a pilgrimage to Ottawa for what promises to be “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see one of the most influential artists who ever lived.” But if recent findings are any indication, Mayer’s estimate might just be on the conservative side. According to a study last year by University of Toronto art historian Philip Sohm, Caravaggio has surpassed the Renaissance genius Michelangelo in popularity, making him a close second to Leonardo da Vinci as the world’s most celebrated Old Master.

Whereas Michelangelo’s classically inspired and serene art was about “complication, artifice, and challenging the viewer to make sense of it,” says Sohm, Caravaggio was “about emotional impact.” This, combined with the artist’s incredible life story, is what makes him so appealing. “Without both these things, I’m convinced that Caravaggio would be important for art historians, but that he probably would never have made it as far with the public today.”

Born in Milan in 1571, Caravaggio was forced to flee his native city for Rome when shortly after his 21st birthday he wounded a police officer. It turned out to be a stroke of luck that put him in the right place at the right time. The city was the centre of both European religion and diplomacy, making it the most international place on the planet. “There were so many foreign cardinals and foreign diplomats travelling in Rome for various reasons,” says University of Vienna art historian Sebastian Schütze, co-curator of the exhibition. “Like Paris in the 19th century, and New York after the Second World War, everything that happened in the city was noticed and much discussed.”

The exhibition chronicles Caravaggio from his early days in Italy’s capital, when he seduced important collectors like the Cardinal del Monte with his psychologically edgy paintings of never-before-depicted secular subjects. Two such works include The Gypsy Fortune Teller (where a young man is captivated by a palm reader who slips off his ring as she gently strokes his hand) and The Cardsharps (showing a boy duped by card cheats), both painted around 1595 and bought by del Monte. Immediate hits, and widely copied during the artist’s life, these two works about emotional deception helped Caravaggio land key commissions to make paintings for Rome’s churches—art that took Europe by storm.

They included large-scale religious paintings that depicted sacred scenes in a shockingly new way. Packing them with the same psychological energy of his earlier lay works, Caravaggio made the unprecedented move to use street urchins and social outcasts as his models. By painting his sitters in ordinary garb rather than fancy historical robes, he elevated everyday people to the status of saints and gods and made the point that Biblical characters were once mortal.

His approach was not for everyone. After Caravaggio executed St. Matthew as a bald and filthy barefoot peasant, and based his Death of the Virgin on a drowned, bloated prostitute taken from the Tiber River, the artist’s detractors complained that his work was vulgar, and that he was taking realism too far. Yet no one could question his virtuosity.

Using an unconventional combination of techniques that included intense contrasts of light and dark (chiaroscuro), deep shadows, sensuous colour, radical close-ups, and rendering his figures from the waist up, Caravaggio gave his works a theatrical quality that allowed his viewers to feel as though “there is nothing separating them from the figures in his paintings,” says Schütze. “People would stand before his works in disbelief.”

Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome is organized around 10 key Caravaggio paintings—a significant number since his lifetime output consisted of roughly 80 works. They include best-known works like Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594-96) and Sacrifice of Isaac (1602-03), and are organized into thematic groups like “youths and musicians” and “religious saints.” Caravaggisti paintings surround each of the master’s works to reveal how he was seen through the eyes of his contemporaries.

Collectively, the exhibition demonstrates how Caravaggio’s followers offered various takes on psychological realism and why his art remains so relevant. “His whole approach to chiaroscuro is something that we see in film noir,” says Mayer. “The gritty, mean-streets approach to contemporary cinema is something that you see in Caravaggio’s paintings.”

Creating the exhibition, as Sohm explains, was “a connoisseur’s nightmare.” Due to the popularity of Caravaggio during his lifetime, and numerous 17th-century copies of his works, there are frequent disputes over the authenticity of paintings attributed to him. Another challenge faced by the National Gallery was that it does not own a single work by Caravaggio. Most international exhibitions, explains Schütze, “are based on a kind of exchange business,” where galleries loan one of their paintings in order to borrow something in return. You have considerably more bargaining power “if you are the Louvre and your collection has three Caravaggios.”

Thanks to the recent success of the National Gallery’s series of exhibitions on Italian painting, including the 2009 show, From Raphael to Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome,this obstacle was overcome. “The National Gallery has built a reputation for serious Old Master exhibitions,” says Schütze. “That made our lives so much easier.”

Mayer says Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome is “the apotheosis” of his gallery’s recent programming of historical European art, which was organized “to build knowledge, and sophistication, and experience in [the] community.” He’s absolutely right, but this won’t be what draws viewers to the exhibition. Over the summer months, crowds will flock to Ottawa to gaze at works like Caravaggio’s Saint Francis (1606-1607). Painted only three years before his death, while in exile from Rome after killing a tennis opponent, this late Caravaggio shows a gloomy monk whose penitent, downcast head bears the weight of the world.

Does the painting characterize Caravaggio’s stormy situation at the time it was made? “Since we have no letters and few first-hand accounts of Caravaggio’s life, he’s a kind of black box,” says Sohm. This makes us project our own interpretations onto him. “When we look at his paintings, those deep shadows are part of the power. He tells us so little, which is part of the attraction.”