‘Caravaggio and Beyond’ is the first exhibition of the painter’s work ever seen in Scotland
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio [aka Caravaggio] is one the most famous painters in the world. A pioneer in the Baroque style he is one of the ‘Old Masters’. His ground breaking imagery was admired by Reubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez and a host of other internationally renowned painters. An exhibition of his work [and of those he inspired], never seen before in Scotland, is underway at The National Gallery.
Born in Milan in 1571 Michelangelo Merisi took his artistic name from the Lombardi village, Caravaggio, near Bergamo, where his father was born and to which his family fled when he was a child to escape a plague then engulfing Milan.
His ‘chiaroscuro’ style features beautiful tones of dark and light set into three-dimensional scenes and figures. It was different to the ‘Mannerism’ that preceded him in 16th century Italy and was considered a radical departure and he a ‘revolutionary naturalist’ because he presented much more life like people and places.
Like most painters of his time, he was employed by wealthy patrons. His commissions came largely from the Catholic Church in Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily. But he insisted on using secular and contemporary locations and occupations in his depictions of religious scenes.
Caravaggio transformed the art world from top to bottom. His use of light and shadow, perspective and larger than life compressed canvasses imbued with lateral narrative references was highly original, innovative and evocative. Estimates vary as to the extent of Caravaggio’s ‘oeuvre’ or output, some say he painted as many as 80 pieces in his lifetime others just 40.
Caravaggio was an outsider with no family tradition or connections to the art world. He began at the bottom, worked prodigiously and tirelessly under a series of tutors including Antiveduto Gramatica, whose work is also found in this exhibition. And he was humble enough to seek out and learn from others. Like many brave outsiders he transformed the stuffy conventions with his dissidence and challenges to authority and their aristocratic/feudal norms.
He was however also a ‘larger than life’ personality who liked to ‘let his hair down’ away from work. It was dangerous to be in his company at times like this, however. Arrested 14 times for a variety of drunken misdemeanours he was even indicted for murder and fled Rome to Naples and Malta to escape prosecution. ‘Bad boy’ Caravaggio is not your typical artist – if indeed there is such a thing. Like Mozart, there were many sides to him. One side was utterly rebellious, incorrigibly argumentative, an inveterate sword carrier, a drunken brawler and public nuisance jealous of the commissions other artists secured. But he was also a profoundly gifted artist, distinguished and intensely dedicated Master painter himself. He died in Porto Ercole, Tuscany after yet another short spell in jail aged just 39.
His work fell into obscurity after his death in 1610. And it remained there for three hundred years. Yet today his paintings sell for tens of millions of pounds and the terms ‘Caravaggisti, Caravaggism, Carravagesque’ refer to the artistic movement and style his work gave birth to. It was the renowned Italian art critic and intellectual Roberto Longhi who somewhat controversially asserted in 1920 that this rather obscure Italian painter, Caravaggio, belonged in the upper echelons of art appreciation: ‘Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without Caravaggio’ insisted Longhi adding ‘And the art of Delacroix, Coubert, and Manet would have been utterly different.’ The influential American art historian Bernard Berenson concurred suggesting ‘With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence.’ From that moment on attitudes to Caravaggio’s work shifted irrevocably.
This ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition
There has never been a display of Caravaggio’s work in Scotland before. And three or four paintings may not constitute an extensive ‘exhibition’ to be sure, yet such is the reputation he enjoys in the art world today that there is intense interest in this small collection. The National Gallery of Scotland has been able to bring these Caravaggio’s together through a collaboration with the National Gallery in London where the exhibition has been until now and the Irish equivalent in Dublin.
The Supper at Emmaus  [above] is on loan from The National Gallery in London as is the Boy Bitten by a Lizard [1594/5]. The Taking of Christ  on the other hand is on loan from the National Gallery of Ireland. This latter work was discovered in the Jesuits’ residence in Dublin in 1990. It had previously been offered to the Scottish National Gallery in 1921 by the family of William Hamilton Nisbet of Biel, East Lothian. But the Gallery authorities had turned it down! This was a reflection of the poor standing Caravaggio’s work was held in the early 20th century.
The fourth painting on display thought to be by him is entitled Boy Peeling Fruit [1592-95].
Of the other wonderful works in the exhibition – the ‘beyond’ as it were – are those by Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter Artemisia Gentileschi, Jusepe de Ribera, Valentin De Boulogne, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Guido Reni and Hendrick Ter Brugghen. The sublime influence of Michelangelo Merisi is clear in all 30 of them and indeed in the entire art world beyond.
By Anthony Thomas
’Beyond Caravaggio’ is on at The National Gallery of Scotland at The Mound until September 24th. Tickets are £12.00