Home » Following in the footsteps of Caravaggio – Mattia Giusto Zanon

Following in the footsteps of Caravaggio – Mattia Giusto Zanon

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Following in the footsteps of Caravaggio – Mattia Giusto Zanon

Paintings by Caravaggio at the Borghese Gallery. Rome, January 2020.

(Eric Vandeville, akg-images / Mondadori Portfolio)

In the Campo Marzio district, in Rome, there is a street with a curious name: via di Pallacorda. In this irregular alley on May 28, 1606, during a match for the ancestor of tennis that ended in a fight, Michelangelo Merisi – known as Caravaggio – kills the captain of the rival team, Ranuccio Tomassoni. The authorities don’t take it well. Tommasoni has powerful friends behind him and Merisi is sentenced to capital punishment: death by beheading.

A sentence that could be carried out by anyone who had recognized him on the street and that for the painter will become an obsession, so much so that from that moment on, severed heads with his features will begin to appear in his paintings. Condemned and hunted down, Caravaggio is forced to flee, thus giving himself a four-year escape that will end up on the beach of Porto Ercole, where he died of disease at the age of 38, on 18 July 1610.

Caravaggio was Lombard, but lived in Rome for many years. To discover his first steps in the city you have to start from Largo Argentina. Not far from there there is a church which is an introduction to the journey: Santa Caterina dei Funari. Entering it you do exactly what Caravaggio did in his twenties in 1594, while he visited Rome in search of his own style.

Shortly after his arrival in the city he entered this church to admire Annibale Carracci’s altarpiece with Santa Margherita, a painting in which he glimpsed a glimmer of hope for Italian art, which he considered by now dead and lost in the maze of mannerism. He became passionate about this work to the point that years later Francesco Albani, a pupil of Carracci, told his students that, if they wanted to paint, they had to run to Santa Caterina to see “that canvas that Caravaggio died on it, to look at it” .

It is only with his arrival in Rome that Caravaggio really begins to develop that aesthetic which then became the characteristic of his style: the painter captures the sudden rays of light that hit the faces of ordinary people in taverns and brothels, in the streets. infamous and in cathedrals, among the smelly crossroads of papal Rome.

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The conversion of the horse

Leaving Santa Caterina, along Via del Corso you arrive at Santa Maria del Popolo, a useful visit to deepen the premise just made. At the bottom, to the left of the transept, there is the Cerasi chapel, or the direct confrontation between Carracci and Caravaggio, in which the latter finds himself competing with his older colleague, whom he revered as a teacher in the past.

The two side blades are his: the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paulwhich are opposed toAssumption of the Virgin by Carracci, in the center. In Conversion Caravaggio makes a revolutionary choice: the center of the canvas, the main space, is reserved for the horse – an animal – something that was considered inconceivable at the time, so much so that critics spoke of the “conversion of the horse”. The majesty of Carracci’s bodies is contrasted by the naked truth of those by Caravaggio, devoid of filters or embellishments. It is a crossroads: before our eyes we have the two different paths that the Baroque will take.

The model who gave the face to the Virgin was Lena, a prostitute who loved the painter

Leaving the church, you go up to the Pincio and, after a walk through the gardens of Villa Borghese, you can visit the gallery of the same name by booking. There is the Sick bacchus, the oldest known work by Caravaggio. This painting, which belonged to Cardinal Scipione Borghese and has always remained part of the family collection, is located in one of the places in Rome with the highest Caravaggio rate: you are in one room.

In addition to Bacchinothere are St. Jerome writing, St. John Baptist, David with the head of Goliath, The boy with a basket of fruit and a work that at the time caused much discussion: the Madonna of the Palafrenieri. This canvas was immediately rejected by the clients, perhaps because of the neckline of the Virgin or because of the detachment of Saint Anne or, according to some, because of the excessive participation of the child Jesus in the killing of the serpent.

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It certainly did not help the fact, already known at the time, that the model who gave the face to the Virgin was Lena, a prostitute who loved Caravaggio. He will also depict her in the Madonna of the pilgrimsa work that continues the itinerary towards Piazza Navona.

A few steps from the square that was the stadium of Domitian in Roman times, there is Sant’Agostino in Campo Marzio. The church is often empty, there is just someone who comes for mass. It is good to get there with a few one or two euro coins: here too, in fact, as in many churches that house works by Caravaggio, the light of the chapel in question is kept off and to see it illuminated for a few minutes you need to insert a coin.

Entering, in the first chapel on the left is the Madonna of the pilgrims, or rather Caravaggio painting for himself: a common Virgin dominates a scene that seems taken from everyday life, with exhausted pilgrims and dirty feet. Quite the opposite of the ethereal spirit of a traditional sacred scene.

A little further on, in San Luigi dei Francesi, there is the Contarelli chapel, Caravaggio’s first major public work. It is located at the bottom of the left aisle. On the walls the three large canvases attract the gaze as if they were magnets: it is the triptych of St. Matthew. From the left the Vocation of St. Matthew, St. Matthew and the angel and theMartyrdom of St. Matthew.

The Vocation, in particular, it is amazing for its chiaroscuro, for the cut of dense light that comes from the figure of Jesus and for the workmanship of the clothes. Caravaggio brought the episode back to his time, made it material, setting it in what looks to all intents and purposes a dive.

Walking towards via Veneto, at the national gallery of Palazzo Barberini, the works of Caravaggio that can be admired are three: the Narcisoil St. Francis in prayer and especially the Judith. This canvas, which depicts the heroine of the Old Testament beheading Holofernes, was commissioned in 1599 by the banker Ottavio Costa, who was very jealous of it: he showed it only to a lucky few and arranged on his will that it could not be resold by the heirs.

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Of the Judith however, traces have been lost for centuries and only reappeared in 1951, thanks to the intuition of a restorer who recognized it in a private Roman palace.

Other works by Caravaggio in Rome can be found in the Vatican Museums, where there is the Deposition; at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, where there are two canvases, The rest on the flight to Egypt e The penitent Magdalene; at the Corsini Gallery there is the St. John Baptistwhile the Capitoline Museums preserve the Good luck and a third Saint John.

Not far from Piazza Barberini, towards Porta Pinciana, there is the casino dell’Aurora, which brought Caravaggio back to life and would have been the ideal conclusion of the itinerary, if it were not a private residence closed to the public. The casino belongs to the Boncompagni Ludovisi family, which following a legal dispute between the prince’s widow, the Texan Rita Carpenter, and the other heirs is currently up for auction.

In January, the base figure had attracted the curiosity of the media around the world: 471 million euros. A price due to the size, history and prestige of the lot, of course, but above all to a detail: on the ceiling of a room there is the only fresco by Caravaggio in the world. This is the Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, an alchemical allegory. The January auction was deserted, as well as that of April and June.

Roberto Longhi
Caravaggio (Hidden 1952)
A cornerstone of the history of art that contributed to the rediscovery of Caravaggio and his modernity.

Yannick Haenel
Loneliness Caravaggio (Neri Pozza 2021)
An original reflection on the intertwining of cruelty and sensuality that permeates life
and the artist’s work.

Riccardo Bassani
The woman of Caravaggio (Donzelli Editore 2021)
On the figure of Maddalena Antognetti, known as Lena, a prostitute loved and portrayed by the painter who greatly influenced her life.

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