One of history’s most important artists was known for brawling in the streets of Rome, 400 years ago, and threatening his enemies with a sword. Despite his rowdy reputation, some refer to Caravaggio as the first “modern” painter. As the Cleveland Museum of Art prepares to restore its own Caravaggio painting, ideastream arts reporter David C. Barnett offers this introduction to the man whose personal life was as dramatic as the style he helped create.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio came to prominence in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when religious paintings were full of good-looking saints, with perfect bodies, often surrounded by sweet, cherubic angels sailing in on pink clouds. Caravaggio had a different, more naturalistic vision. Cleveland Museum of Art Curator Cory Korkow says many of the models he used were street people.
CORY KORKOW: He paints children that he sees on the street with dirty feet. He’s painting prostitutes as the Virgin Mary. This is a really aggressive way to treat biblical figures.
And his portrayals of crucifixions captured more of the agony than the ecstasy. In his 6 and a half foot painting of St. Andrew on the cross, you see a feeble-looking, bearded man, being taken down after hanging there for two days. The scene is dark and brooding, except for a shaft of light that illuminates the martyr’s emaciated body.
CORY KORKOW:It’s an incredibly important painting.
Some church officials found Caravaggio’s work vulgar and sacrilegious, but he was never lacking for patrons who supported his striking style. Corey Korkow says Caravaggio’s break with tradition is part of what makes him one of the most influential figures in the history of Western art.
CORY KORKOW: He really transformed painting in Italy.
The artist’s personal life also reflected a rebellious spirit. He was a bit of a hothead, actually --- frequently getting into brawls on the streets of Milan and Rome. Italian immigrant and former Cleveland journalist, Alphonso D’Emilia, reads from Caravaggio’s police record.
ALPHONSO D’EMILIA: [reads in Italian, which cross-fades into English] I was on duty with my men when he came by carrying a sword and a dagger. I stopped him and asked him whether he had a permit to carry the said weapons, and he replied “No”. I arrested him and took him to prison
In May of 1606, Caravaggio’s rap sheet reveals that he killed a man in Rome. The pope issued a death warrant for him. The artist fled to Naples, and that’s where scholars believe he painted The Crucifixion of St. Andrew. This centuries-old painting will be restored at the Cleveland Museum this summer before sending it to Sicily as part of an international cultural exchange. Conservator of Paintings, Dean Yoder, will be removing a yellowed coating of varnish from the work and retouching a number of worn spots.
DEAN YODER: I will be reconstructing some of the areas where paint is missing.
Yoder says X-rays and infrared photography have revealed hidden layers under the painted surface where Caravaggio made changes. For instance, he re-did the figure of an old woman in the lower left corner of the scene. In the first version, her hands were raised, covering a prominent goiter on her neck. In the final painting, the hands are now at her side, revealing her misshapen throat.
DEAN YODER: So, what does that mean? That’s a question that we’d all like to know.
DCB: Perhaps, it was to emphasize a human flaw, a quality in Caravaggio’s paintings that brought his religious characters…down to earth and approachable. After his death in 1610, at the age of 38, Caravaggio’s stylistic influence remained strong in the generations of artists that followed, including Rembrandt, Vermeer and Velazquez.
NICKY NODJOUMI: He was amazing.
The cross-cultural appeal of Caravaggio remains. Iranian political artist Nicky Nodjoumi was recently in Northeast Ohio to speak to students at the Cleveland Institute of Art. His eyes lit up as he looked at a photo of The Crucifixion of St. Andrew.
NICKY NODJOUMI: You know, the most attractive thing to me is not the story. The attraction is how he plays the darkness against the lightness. It’s very dramatic, very powerful.
Visitors to the Cleveland Museum of Art will be able to watch as Dean Yoder slowly restores this powerful painting, over the course of three months, starting June 3rd.
Once the Caravaggio is all cleaned-up, it is due to be shipped to Sicily, as part of an exchange deal that started with the loan of some ancient Sicilian relics to Cleveland, last year. But, there was a lot of drama behind this swap of art objects, as you’ll hear in Part Two of our story.