Simon Schama's Power of Art: Season 1, Episode 1

Caravaggio (21 Oct. 2006)

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Title: Caravaggio (21 Oct 2006)

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Rage.
28 January 2011 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

Speaking as a near ignoramus on the topic of the art of the period, I found this pretty enlightening. Caravaggio was one of those guys I always got mixed up with other painters with equally alien names like Titian and Tintoretto.

I'm still not sure about the others but this episode makes Caravaggio's work and his place in time much clearer. He lived during the same period as Shakespeare. (There was a lot going on in Europe at the time.) Caravaggio made his mark while still a young man, under the patronage of the wealthier people of Rome, who commissioned his paintings, which is more than they ever did for me. He dealt with subjects similar to those of earlier artists -- portraits of the rich and powerful, mythological and Biblical figures -- but brought a new realism to the images. They weren't especially pretty. The work that I found most striking was a painting of Bacchus leering back at the viewer and holding a bunch of grapes. Bacchus looks middle-aged and debauched. His fingernails are dirty and the grapes he holds are beginning to rot.

A lot of violence in his work, too. People get their heads chopped off. He's got David, for instance, holding the head of Goliath. David is a young man but his face displays a kind of sadness as he stares at the head. He doesn't exactly glow with Biblical rectitude. And a look at the bearded face of Goliath, its eyes bulging, reveals that it's Caravaggio's self portrait. If I'd painted the picture, I'd have given my own face a makeover and turned it into David. I might have used my ex wife as the model for Goliath.

But all this violence was very much a part of Caravaggio's life. We see a lot of the Italianate, English actor playing the artist, often in slow motion. He's always got his sword and dagger out, often waving them around menacingly. He seems consumed with rage. Caravaggio was convicted of carrying a sword without a license. I didn't even know you needed a license to carry a sword in Rome in 1600. He wound up in jail, but it didn't stop him from killing a rival in a sword fight and being pursued to exotic places like Sicily. The fact that he'd been honored with a minor title by the authorities didn't help him at all. He fell dead on a beach, trying to hail a ship that was mistakenly sailing away with one of his works that he'd hoped to use to pay off his debts.

What a frenzied and self-destructive life the man led. I didn't find any kind of moral lesson in it though, unless it's "Try to keep your sword in its sheath." Or, "Don't let success go to your head." Okay, he's an historical figure. You probably can't get through a course in Western Civilization with brushing against Caravaggio but, for all the women and talent he had, I wouldn't want to trade places with him but would rather have gone down to the tongueless silence of the dreamless dust, as I will.


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