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Caravaggio in Rome: The man behind the myth PDF Print E-mail
Feb 26, 2010 at 10:58 PM

Judith beheading Holofernes

Exactly 400 years ago, Michelangelo Merisi , today known to us all as Caravaggio (the name of the town from which his parents came), died alone, penniless and ill in a poor man's hospital at Porto Ercole in Tuscany. Celebrating the centenaries of an esteemed artist's death has now become the fashion, so it is hardly surprising that celebrations have been planned for 2010, with the keynote being the small but intense exhibit in Rome that opened at the Scuderie del Quirinale on February 20, 2010 and will last until June 13th.

The main thrust of the Scuderie show is that of authenticity. Although only 24 works will be exhibited - many on loan from the world's major museums - ever - they are all paintings the authorship of which is clear. There is no question but that , unlike others where attribution is somewhat fuzzythey were painted by Caravaggio himself and by himself alone. They include The Musicians from New York's Metropolitan Museum, the Lute Player from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Amor Vincit Omnia from the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, the Bacchus from Florence's Uffizi Gallery, and the David With the Head of Goliath from the Borghese Gallery in Rome. The Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan has allowed its famed Fruit Bowl painting out for the first time ever. The end result is a consistent and stringent exhibition that sheds new light on the various stages in the development of Caravaggio's tortured artistic career - an exciting, crystal-clear display that distills and enhances the exceptional, indeed the unique, quality of his output, that which has been called the "natural terribleness" of his art.

To complement the exhibition, the city of Rome has mapped out an itinerary of the 15 Caravaggios housed in churches and palazzi around the city, including the first public peek at Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto at Palazzo Boncompagni Ludovisi, where the artist used a mirror to put his own nude body into the picture. "The whole of Rome will become a Caravaggio museum," said Culture Councillor Umberto Croppi, stressing that the works had been left where they are "so people can enjoy them in their original settings".

The Quirinale show will be followed by a joint event at the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti in Florence this May when, indeed, some of the canvases in the Rome show will be returned home or moved.  Entitled 'Caravaggio e i Caravaggeschi', (Caravaggio and the Caravaggio style painters) the Florentine shows will look at work by the master and his followers, thus examining the Maestro's techniques and the long-standing debate over whether and when he worked individually, with another artist or as part of workshop. Another exhibit will open in October at the Castel Sismondo in Rimini. Called "Caravaggio and other 17th-Century Painters', that exhibit will showcase an array of masterpieces on loan from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. A three-day conference is scheduled to take place in Rome this spring, exploring the role of religion in connection with Caravaggio's work, while in September the city of Milan will play host to an event focusing on Caravaggio's links to music, thereby examining the artist in yet another light.

According to Maurizio Calvesi, the highly-respected Italian art critic who heads the national committee tasked with coordinating the year's festivities, the coming exhibits, conferences and publications will seek to reveal more about "the man behind the myth. "Caravaggio is perhaps the most famous and appreciated artist of history. We hope our initiatives will better investigate his works and eventful life, particularly from a documentary point of view", Calvesi has been quoted as saying. Indeed, modern diagnostic equipment has been providing experts with more information about how the master worked. For example, laser imaging has revealed that he frequently mapped out a detailed drawing on the canvas before applying any paint.

Caravaggio worked in Milan, where he was born in 1571, in Rome, Florence and Naples . Known for his hot temper, which repeatedly got him into trouble with the law, his fate was more or less sealed after the 1606 death of a young man with whom he quarrelled, Ranuccio Tomassoni. Condemned to death, Caravaggio fled to the Kingdom of Naples where his fame brought him numerous commissions from private individuals and confraternities. In July 1607, he left for Malta where the intervention of friends in high places allowed him to convince the Holy See, which then governed Rome, to grant him a knighthood and thus a reprieve from his death sentence.

But things went horribly wrong and other fights again landed him in jail. Escaping,he fled to Sicily where new commissions led to paintings such as The Burial of St Lucy for the church of the same name in Siracusa, The Raising of Lazarus in the church of the Padri Crociferi of Messina, and the well-known Palermo Nativity. In 1609 he returned to Naples where he produced new paintings but fled after an unsuccessful attempt on his life. His paintings were shipped by boat but were subsequently confiscated at Palo (Civitavecchia). While hoping, in vain, to recover his canvases, Caravaggio fell ill and on July 18th, 1610, died in the S. Maria Ausiliatrice hospital.

The museum is offering a Caravaggio Card for €20 that offers a skip-the-line entrance ticket, a 24 hour ticket for the "110 Open" bus, an audio packet for a tour of  the Rome churches with Caravaggio masterpieces  and discounts for other Caravaggio exhibitions and for the Scuderie café and bookshop.

The exhibit will be open Sunday through Thursday 10.00 am to 8.00 pm; Friday and Saturday 10.00 am to 10.30 pm. The Scuderie is closed on Mondays. .

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