Caravaggio's Grand Passions
400 Years after Caravaggio’s death, an incredible exhibition of the Italian master’s works shines in Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale.
The most perfect knee in the history of art appears in a painting by Caravaggio of St. John the Baptist, now in Kansas City. The top of the saint’s left knee, spot-lit and flushed a tender pink, punctuates the lower right quadrant of the painting, catching the eye below a sweep of frayed red drapery. If you look close enough, you can just make out scars in the canvas surrounding the knee, where Caravaggio used his palette knife to scrape off a dissatisfactory first attempt. You’re unlikely to get that near the painting, though, at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale, where the Kansas City Baptist appears alongside almost 30 other works by the master in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of his death. The galleries are thronged inside the former royal stables, and every 30 seconds or so an alarm goes off when a visitor gets too close to a painting. None of this matters. Seeing so many Caravaggios together is a revelation.
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The exhibition, which closes Sunday, shows the painter reworking a key group of subjects, the evolution of his style echoing a brief and tumultuous life. Caravaggio began his Roman career in the service of the Cardinal del Monte, an aesthete with a taste for painting, music, and young men. An earlier John the Baptist, now at the Capitoline Museum, dates from this period. Twisting back from his embrace with a ram, the naked youth cheerfully greets the beholder. There’s no religious iconography here, just the sexy juxtaposition of skin, linen, and fur. The same ginger-haired model served Caravaggio for his Amor Vincit Omnia, where Cupid stands astride an unmade bed. Around him lie the trampled insignia of worldly accomplishment—armor and laurels, a quill and a lute. Cupid shows us the lives he’s overturned—our lives—and dares us not to smile back at him.
By the time Caravaggio painted his final John the Baptist, now in the Galleria Borghese, he’d murdered a man over a game of tennis, been sentenced to death, and led the peripatetic life of a refugee in Naples, Sicily, and Malta. This John is sickly and sallow, his body lacking plasticity. If his confrontational look is an invitation, it’s to a joyless encounter. Caravaggio died shortly after he painted this work, at the age of 38, having finally received permission to return to Rome. In a career spanning merely 15 years, he had changed the history of art—Rubens, Velázquez, and Rembrandt, to name just his immediate successors, are unthinkable without him.
The marvelous exhibition at the Scuderie concludes with a monumental religious painting, The Annunciation from Nancy, that has been specially cleaned for the occasion. A long-armed angel, holding a bunch of lilies, descends toward the kneeling Virgin in a murky interior. There’s another unmade bed, another life derailed. More than any other painter, Caravaggio shows us what a beautiful thing such an undone self can be.
Adam Eaker is traveling Europe on the tail of Caravaggio and other great artists.