Giorgio Gruppioni, Silvano Vinceti and Antonio Moretti (left to right), exhibiting purported bones of Caravaggio. Photo Enzo Russo.

Last March, six hypothetical descendants of Caravaggio (1571–1610) had their DNA tested. The hope was to establish a match with bones and teeth from some corpses exhumed at Porto Ercole, the Tuscan coastal town not far from Rome where the artist possibly was buried. No matter that by now Caravaggio’s DNA would be considerably degraded, that there is no evidence of descendants (he had no children), of where his grave is (even the alleged cemetery has been moved) or that the leader of the project to conduct a belated autopsy, Silvano Vinceti, best known as a TV host, is neither a scientist nor a historian. As suggested by thereligious setting of a photo-op in which Vinceti displayed some of the possible remains, “identification” of Caravaggio’s bones portends their elevation to relic status.1

Meanwhile, a pilgrimage site is being readied. Factum Arte, a Spanish company renowned for its high-quality super 3-D scans (of Leonardo’s Last Supper and Veronese’s Wedding at Cana; see A.i.A., Feb. ’09) is replicating Caravaggio’s paintings so that his entire oeuvre can be exhibited in facsimile in Caravaggio, the Lombard hometown of the artist’s family, even though, as luck would have it, the painter was not born there (documents designate Milan). In another effort to boost local tourism, the French town of Loches-en-Touraine claims that two mediocre copies of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (London) and Doubting Thomas (Potsdam) are originals and worth the visit.

The sanctification process has gathered speed at an extraordinary pace and begs for explanation.2  The most tangible way to measure the craze is to track the approximate number of publications since 1600 that have cited Caravaggio.3  Across the first three centuries, the rate was relatively steady, about a dozen or so per decade. During the next 50 years the tempo quickened, but the acceleration was modest in comparison with an upsurge following the “Mostra del Caravaggioe dei Caravaggeschi” at the Palazzo Reale in Milan in 1951. This flurry prompted the art historian Ellis Waterhouse to remark in 1962 that “the innocent reader of art-historical literature could be forgiven for supposing that [Caravaggio’s] place in the history of civilization lies somewhere in importance between Aristotle and Lenin.”4

Little could Waterhouse have foreseen the explosion in the 1980s, which included Howard Hibbard’s widely read Caravaggio and Mia Cinotti’s unsurpassed Caravaggio: Tutte le opera (All Works), both published in 1983, the same year Italy issued a 100,000 lire banknote honoring the artist. The acceleration continued into the 1990s, and in the past decade reached a staggering 1,000 citations. The database of Libro Co. Italia, a distributor of books on art, contains over 300 recent titles with Caravaggio’s name, and his work embellishes dustcovers of countless other publications on every conceivable, often irrelevant, subject.

Not surprisingly in light of these data, Caravaggio now is the most cited Italian Baroque painter in the catalogue of the great research library in Rome, the Bibliotheca Hertziana, leaving far behind (in descending order) Pietro da Cortona, Guido Reni, Annibale Carracci, Guercino, Ribera and Domenichino. Only Bernini, who was an architect, sculptor and painter, and enjoyed a career three times the length of Caravaggio’s, has more entries—but almost certainly not for long. This frenzied scholarly activity, which generally is a harbinger of popular appeal, has been augmented by the kind of sensational speculation that more readily grabs media attention, such as David Hockney’s and Roberta Lapucci’s dubious contentions that Caravaggio utilized lens-and-mirror devices and, still more unlikely, Lapucci’s theory of a pre-photographic, glow-in-the-dark, light-sensitive powder made from crushed fireflies, with which he fixed his compositions on the canvas.5

Museum exhibitions and their catalogues are a crucial component of this Caravaggio industry. In 2010 alone (the 400th anniversary of the painter’s death), complementing a veritable flood of new monographs on the artist, there have been exhibitions of his and his followers’ works in Stockholm, Genoa, Caravaggio, Rimini, Florence, Porto Ercole, Naples and most notably Rome, where the pointless “Caravaggio Bacon” inaugurated the centennial year. In the catalogue, we read that its avowed purpose was “an aesthetic experience rather than an educational one,” because “Bacon’s painting makes no reference to Caravaggio . . . nor does Caravaggio occupy a significant position among the artistic preferences that Bacon so abundantly and generously cited.” The effort to shoehorn Caravaggio into museum programming—more often than not to maximize attendance and revenue—has encouraged such misguided projects, in this case with the untenable premise that Caravaggio’s and Bacon’s works could be exhibited with “an autonomous aesthetic value.” The public nevertheless was directed to believe that “Caravaggio summons up Bacon” (Caravaggio chiama Bacon) and the pseudo-Cartesian nonsense that “Caravaggio is” (Caravaggio è).6

The main exhibition of 2010, “Caravaggio,” at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome [Feb. 20-June 13], focused on two dozen “unquestionable” Caravaggios. Attendance was so great—more than 5,000 visitors daily packed into uncomfortably confined galleries—that during its final days it remained open nonstop.7  As would be expected at a time when there is not much left to be said about Caravaggio, the exhibition spawned further prattle—not an innocuous outcome, for it weighs down each work with implausible “meanings” that will have to be stripped away. To give an example, we were told by one reviewer that the alluring eyes of the sassy, playful Amor “convey fear, perhaps, hatred, and, most of all, unspeakable sadness.”8

A month after the exhibition closed, the celebration resumed: On the night of the 400th anniversary of the painter’s death [July 17-18], a special Linea Caravaggio (Caravaggio bus line) linked the Galleria Borghese and the chiese di Caravaggio (Caravaggio churches), which remained open all night. The Roman finale will be an exhibition scheduled to open in mid-December at the Archivio di Stato. Featuring Caravaggio documents, it is titled “La vita segreta di Caravaggio a Roma” (The Secret Life of Caravaggio in Rome).

Some curators have exploited Caravaggio’s box-office attraction by sticking his name into titles such as “Guido Cagnacci: Protagonista del Seicento tra Caravaggio e Reni” (Guido Cagnacci: Seventeenth-Century Protagonist between Caravaggio and Reni), regardless of historical incongruity. (Cagnacci’s art is independent of Caravaggio’s.)9  This unbridled drive for publicity not only misleads but raises questions of ethics, as when an exhibition titled “Caravaggio: L’immagine del Divino” showed only half of the catalogued 17 paintings, andnot any of those on display wasdefinitely by Caravaggio; or when one privately owned “Caravaggio” was lent to an exhibition called C’est la vie! Vanités de Caravage à Damien Hirst (That’s Life! Vanities from Caravaggio to Damien Hirst), yet the “Caravaggio” on loan was not autograph.10

Still worse, original paintings by Caravaggio have been shipped around when they have no relevance to an exhibition’s purpose.11  No longer is the word“Gold,” “Treasures” or “Masterpieces” required to beckon the crowds. Just “Caravaggio!” Nor has the latent diplomatic value of the master’s art been overlooked. Late last year, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome) was used as a political calling card by the Italian government, which sent the painting to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for a fortnight in advance of a visit by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to Israel.

Another far-reaching aspect of the obsession with Caravaggio is its effect on attributions, the crux of what defines an artist. Approximately 60 paintings constitute Caravaggio’s undisputed oeuvre—a small number, making his work special to see and exceedingly lucrative to sell. (One sign of Caravaggio’s recent market value is that even a copy of his St. John the Baptist in Kansas City brought $220,000, at Sotheby’s, London, July 8, 2010.)There is also a relatively small number of problematic pictures that scholars reasonably debate. The trouble arises from a third group of far-fetched attributions that, in a drive to expand the body of work, have been the focus of books and exhibitions.12

Along with the numerous “second” and even “third” versions that have been touted as autograph Caravaggios (copies of the Luteplayer, Card Sharps, Una musica, Medusa, St. Mary Magdalene, Supper at Emmaus [London], Taking of Christ, Doubting Thomas), which at least are directly linked to the master, many others would make Giovanni Morelli turn over in his grave for what the fashion has done to connoisseurship, the method he so significantly developed.13  Two examples must suffice for the regrettably larger whole. The first is a Sacrifice of Isaac, a picture of undoubted quality but just as undoubtedly not by Caravaggio. It is a characteristic work by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, a painter influenced by Cristoforo Roncalli and Caravaggio, though Cavarozzi rejected Caravaggio’s typically dramatic figures in favor of more gentle, withdrawn, attractive characters. Nonetheless, a group of scholars persists in calling the Sacrifice of Isaac a Caravaggio. Taking this unwarranted confusion a big step further, a recent monograph dedicated to an inferior copy of the Sacrifice of Isaac incredibly contends that it is an autograph replica by Caravaggio himself.14

The second example of far-fetched attributions is an unremarkable St. Peter Repentant, which also is the subject of a recent monograph. Unlike the Cavarozzi, however, it is scarcely Caravaggesque.15  As in many other publications of supposedly new Caravaggios, this monograph overstates the significance of technical data (X-rays, pigment analysis, pentimenti) that cannot establish, but only exclude, authorship.16  Financial implications aside, the trouble with such untenable attributions is that the public will form a false impression of Caravaggio’s artistic achievements, and future research will be mired in untangling a muddled oeuvre.

If the numerous bibliographic citations plotted in the graph on p. 119 reflect Caravaggio’s scholarly fame, and the flurry of exhibitions tracks his status with the art public, commercial exploitation reveals the extraordinary degree to which “Caravaggio,” like the Mona Lisa, Munch’s The Scream and anything van Gogh, has become a ubiquitous lure. In some cases, marketing links are logical, as when the name Caravaggio advertises a double-primed canvas (a product of Blick), a collapsible painter’s easel (Trident), pendant light fixtures (Lightyears), a dark granite (Atlantis Group) or even a studio in Toronto that specializes in male fashion photography (see modelmayhem.com/caravaggio). Less obvious is the thinking behind a Caravaggio brand of eyeglasses, a Caravaggio “velvet effect decorative stucco” or, given the master’s aversion to drawing, an Etch-a-Sketch Magic Caravaggio® screen. While “Caravaggio” also has been adopted as the name of hotels and restaurants, so far there is no Caravaggio salad for starving artists or Caravaggio artichokes to throw at waiters.17  His Judith, however, adorns the label of a blood-red pasta sauce, and his name appears prominently on bags of Landucci coffee and bottles of wine.

Zazzle.com offers 3,352 (!) customized Caravaggio products and gift ideas, including collectible stamps with all of Caravaggio’s paintings. Meanwhile, real postage stamps commemorating the artist have been issued by Albania, the DDR, Dominica, Grenada, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Paraguay, Russia, San Marino, São Tomé e Principe, Umm al-Qiwain and, for this anniversary year, the Vatican. Zazzle also sells Caravaggio ties, coffee mugs, key chains, mousepads, hats, magnets, tote bags, aprons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts for your dog.

Inevitably, fads are fleeting, but when this one will wane is hard to predict. On a positive note, for the first time an artist of the Italian Baroque is captivating a large modern audience.

 

No one cause has triggered the rage for Caravaggio, yet two complementary factors largely account for the phenomenon: first, the artist’s style and biography, which, in overlapping aspects, are significantly relevant to current sociopolitical concerns; and, second, the congruence between his work and the media. The truism that the general public prefers the compelling mimesis of naturalism to idealization in art resonates in Caravaggio’s much-parsed remark that a good painter (valentuomo) “knows how to paint well and to imitate well natural things.”18

On a basic level, Caravaggio’s appeal is immediate and easy, especially in comparison with more classicizing, demanding artists like Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni, who arguably equaled Caravaggio as painters and were historically more influential. While for the most part incontestably Catholic, Caravaggio’s imagery, unlike Annibale’s and Guido’s, has a deceptively secular cast that is more approachable to other religious and lay audiences. The secular cast is also a major component of its extraordinary originality, which also strongly appeals to contemporary values of what constitutes significant art.

Besides, its quick accessibility means that Caravaggio’s is an art that functions differently from that by more cerebral painters like Poussin, whose work has theeffect of slowly penetrating the mind. Instead it can be “swiftly” appreciated for its “appearance,” terms used by Virgilio Malvezzi in the 17th century to criticize the “vulgar herd” who did “not take time to look” but applauded “whatever is most conspicuous” and “closely connected with the senses.”19  This is not to imply that Caravaggio’s work fails to reward sustained looking, which surely it does, or that it appeals only to the populace or the 100 million who communicate in Tweets. Rather, the point is tounderscore that it is a profoundly visual art with distilled messages that are not reliant on familiarity with conventions; and that, in this regard, it is significantly in step with contemporary culture and fast-paced media. As the painter Peter Doig described his first encounter with Caravaggio’s paintings, “I found them immediately accessible.”20

Two great critics of Caravaggio, Roger Fry and Roberto Longhi, when suggesting that the painter should be christened the first modern and “first purely popular [artist],” perceived in him an “essentially journalistic talent,” specifically because of his affinities with film: “How admirable an impresario for the cinema Caravaggio would have been.”21  Despite their perceptive, brief remarks, little attention has been paid to the photographic and cinematographic qualities of Caravaggio’s austere verism, framing and lighting as vital factors that prime contemporary viewers for relating to his work.

Film directors, cinematographers and scriptwriters have tried to explain some of these qualities. “If Caravaggio were alive today,” remarked Martin Scorsese, “he would have loved the cinema; his paintings take a cinematic approach. We film-makers became aware of his work in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he certainly was an influence on us.” Scorsese added, “Though his light seems to be coming from a single source, it’s not a real light, it’s a dramatic light: it just lights the scene from one mysterious burst. . . . What hit us about his work was the extraordinary power of what seemed to be realism.”22

Vittorio Storaro, the celebrated cinematographer who shot Angelo Longoni’s Caravaggio, declared in a lecture the year the film was released (2007) that “Caravaggio was . . . a great filmmaker, he conceptualized the subject and the composition, chose the figures, did the costumes, designed the sets, and illuminated them like a cinematographer. . . . He was searching for a composition, exactly the way we do when we look through a [view] finder or [at] a monitor or [when] viewing the subject on a screen. The ‘frame’ is what sets off the subject from the surrounding reality.”23

Albeit without reference to Caravaggio, a remarkably germane observation comes from the renowned film director Ermanno Olmi, like Caravaggio an unconventional Lombard artist whose visual rhetoric conveys the real. Having discussed with Pasolini “the value of films that were so closely related to reality as to become our vision of reality,” and motivated by Rossellini’s early neorealist work, Olmi understood that “you could see at the movies what you saw in the streets and in real life. I . . . intuited that film could be a way of looking at the real world not with the intent to escape from reality, but that films could suggest a key to understanding reality.”24

During the decade when the Caravaggio literature swelled dramatically, Derek Jarman’s film Caravaggio (1986) premiered at the Berlin Film Festival to much acclaim. On the one hand, it brought to the fore a controversial subject that had entered the scholarly literature the previous decade and remains a vital aspect of the Caravaggio cult. This is the question of whether or not the artist was gay (for Jarman, the answer was decidedly yes).25  On the other hand, through his scenography, color and lighting, and through a series of tableaux vivants, Jarman—who was a painter as well as a filmmaker—skillfully drew upon and reinforced the cinematographic quality of Caravaggio’s art. Personally identifying with his subject, he highlighted the painter’s audacious imagery, rebellious attitude and outcast career in a complex, intensely melodramatic, yet realistic film.

Not only films, but plays, novels and television shows have embroidered the Caravaggio story and spread his fame. For example, the fictionalized biography M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, by Peter Robb (New York, Henry Holt, 2000), which, with good cause, was severely criticized (“an astonishingly awful book” said the Sunday Times of London), became a best seller due to its sensationalism. Caravaggio was included in the BBC TV series “Simon Schama’s Power of Art” (2006); in July of 2010, BBC TV broadcast “Who Killed Cararavaggio?,” and the same month, BBC Radio 3 aired a five-part essay, “Reflections on Caravaggio.” Longoni’s film mentioned above started life as a Rai Radiotelevisione Italiana biopic. Among various ongoing Caravaggio projects are Richard Vetere’s unproduced play Caravaggio, and performance artist John Kelly’s The Escape Artist (a portion of which was titled Cara Viaggio, 2007).

A widevariety of visualartists, many of whom are dubbed “appropriation” artists, likewise have re-presented his paintings to a modern audience.26  Perhaps the most original recent production was a performance combining dance (Deda Cristina Colonna) and music (Mara Galassi) with spoken texts from Baglione’s and Bellori’s lives of Caravaggio, inspired by the artist’s affetti (gestures). After a successful tour, it was turned into the film Voluptus dolendi: I gesti del Caravaggio (The Pleasure Caused by Pain: Caravaggio’s Gestures), directed by Francesco Vitali (2008).27

Such works sustain the perception that, in our culture, artists who attain celebrity status—Leo-nardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, van Gogh, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol—typically have an absorbing life story on which the public can fasten. Biography is fetishized. In Caravaggio’s case, his penniless beginnings; quarrelsome, rebellious personality and disregard for decorum (the willful, independent “bad boy”); his patrons’ rejection of commissioned paintings (the “misunderstood, maligned genius”); his repeated arrests, murder of a rival and flight from Rome; his imprisonment in Malta and dramatic escape; his unique signature, spelled out in the red of the Baptist’s blood; his self-portrait as the decapitated Goliath; the attempt on his life in Naples; and, while he was still on the run, his early death on the beach of Porto Ercole just at the time when a pardon was granted—all are the stuff of romantic legend and a perfect fit for the image of the archetypal anguished bohemian artist. At the same time, Caravaggio’s biography is uncommonly mysterious because of the scarcity of informative documents.28 With virtually nothing known about issues as important as the painter’s education, sexuality and religion, the invitation to “read in” is irresistible.

The aspect of Caravaggio’s personality that especially draws the modern public is his refusal to play by the establishment’s rules, his determination to be a contrarian and “go it alone.” Particularly at the time of worldwide separatist and identity politics, of extremist militia groups and Tea Party and Libertarian zealots attacking the U.S. government for excessive control, of grassroots resistance to corporate dominance, and of movements striving for empowerment of the marginalized, Caravaggio represents the paradigmatic revolutionary, the underdog who, with bold independence, snubbed authority and won. Moreover, he did so with a directness and candor that today would pass as “straight talk.” Simultaneously, he is a fitting icon for the 500 million who circulate a self-fashioned Me on Facebook.

The recent attention paid to Caravaggio—especially to his socially leveling imagery—is not unlike that paid toreality television, withits ostensibly unscripted narratives relating “actual” events as they happen to “ordinary” people. This correlation has enormous implications for the size of Caravaggio’s potential audience.Of all the television programs in the U.S., the reality series “Survivor” (created by British television where it is now in its 21st season, and broadcast in different versions in more than 50 countries) and “American Idol” are watched by the largest audiences (over 50 million viewers per episode). Two channels in the UK and the States are totally dedicated to the genre, Zone and Fox Reality. The “reality,” of course, is contrived, a documentary-style illusion scripted for maximum dramatic effect with planned plots and screened, often coached, participants. Caravaggio, with similarly captivating artifice—but immeasurably greater artistic worth—skillfully manipulated the cast, lighting, action and location of his reality in order to make us believe that what we are seeing is what really happened.

The Italian publishing firm Scala encapsulated the Caravaggio frenzy this spring. Drawing on its extensive photo archive and associations with other publishers and the press, Scala released an application for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch promoted as “an indispensable tool for gaining in-depth knowledge of the great master’s art as well as to retrace his footsteps whilst walking around Rome.” Available for €1,59 or $1.99 in both Italian and English, and equipped with a GPS option, the app is aptly named Caravaggiomania.

 

RICHARD SPEAR has published books on Caravaggio, Domenichino and Guido Reni; his most recent, with Philip Sohm, is Painting for Profit (Yale University Press, 2010).