Andrew Lambirth

Gathering darkness

The glorious Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery

Michelangelo Merisi (1571–1610), called Caravaggio after his place of birth, has become something of a mythical figure in the half-century or so since his reputation was rescued from obscurity. Today he is celebrated as the great precursor of realism, the archetypal bohemian artist, and the prototype genius who behaved badly and died young. Caravaggio is hot property, and a full-scale retrospective of his work would be a certain crowd-puller, a blockbuster to cap all blockbusters. (Caravaggio scores on so many counts: proto-Marxist, rebel, homosexual icon, avant-garde hero — a PR dream.) But 20 years ago it was already proving difficult to get the loans to make up a proper survey of his career, and the situation has steadily worsened since then, with museums simply refusing to lend. In such a context, a smaller, more focused exhibition suggests itself, and this is what has been produced by the Capodimonte Museum in Naples in collaboration with the National Gallery. It is a glorious success.

There are just 16 paintings in the exhibition, and what a delight it is to have so much space in which to view them. All except the National Gallery’s own ‘Supper at Emmaus’ date from Caravaggio’s final years, 1606–10, and offer a splendid opportunity to sample his controversial late style in some depth. I say ‘controversial’ for it’s a style of painting which was once derided as slapdash and inept, and which, despite its palpable directness, is even now sometimes difficult to read and appreciate. One of the reasons Caravaggio appeals to us today is that his late work is concerned very much with fragments, and we are temperamentally drawn to the sketchy and incomplete. But the other main tenet of his late style is what is known as ‘tenebrism’, the darkness which slowly engulfs his figures, the shadowy backgrounds in which details only — of face or clothing — are highly lit.

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