Chasing Caravaggio in Rome
Summer 2010. I arrived in Rome in the middle of a July heatwave. The parched air hung motionless at street level, smelling of ancient dust and modern pollution. After an hour of slithering through the sweaty bodies in Piazza Navona, I was desperate for a dark, cool refuge to hide from the relentless sun. I pulled the guidebook from my backpack and searched for an indoor attraction that might offer the needed relief.
A quick glance at the map showed me that the church of San Luigi dei Francesi was nearby and apparently worth a visit. Without reading further into the description, I set off in that direction.
From the outside, it didn’t look like much, especially in Rome where your criteria for aesthetics becomes skewed to the extreme. As I entered the church, I spotted a small group of Japanese tourists crowded around a side chapel just left of the main altar. A spotlight shut off with a loud clunk as they all re-capped their camera lenses and shuffled away from the darkened corner.
A moment later I walked up to the chapel by myself and drew a one Euro coin from my pocket. When I placed it into the slot, the spotlight came back on in a brilliant flash and I was overcome by what I saw: an angel, as real as the Japanese man who had just brushed my shoulder, dropping down from the sky and falling gracefully into this small space. Below him stood St. Matthew, looking as startled as I felt by the sudden appearance of this robed messenger.
This is classic Caravaggio, the full realization of the chiaroscuro style: employing dramatic use of light and dark to create a hyper-condensed moment in time. The whole scene floats over a black hole, where at any second it might be violently sucked in and just disappear forever. The periphery of the canvas is dark, but the two central characters are lit up as if a photograph had been snapped at the precise instant of a lightning strike.
After we catch our breath we realize that Matthew is a man, not a saint. His feet are bare and dirty, his face tired and wrinkled, the veins popping out on his hands. For better or worse, Caravaggio championed this Baroque philosophy, showing real life in extreme contrasts. But…life as it truly was and not how we wished it to be.
This put him at odds with many art critics and church officials of his time who preferred biblical scenes of majestic splendor and pastoral perfection—a style which had achieved its height during the Renaissance. Indeed, during this Baroque era of Italian painting in Rome, the two opposing camps were represented by Caravaggio on one side and his rival Annibale Carracci on the other.
First Stop: Piazza del Popolo
To fully appreciate this contrast in styles, go to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo where you can view these two very different artists side by side. You can plainly see Michelangelo’s influence in Carracci’s work, using soft pastel colors, and lots of fat cherubs clinging to Mother Mary. Also notice the order and symmetry. Now look to the left at Caravaggio’s “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter.” It’s difficult to believe that they were painted in the same year.
Once you’re finished admiring the paintings, step outside and take in the piazza itself; a masterpiece of Baroque expression in its own right. It is imposing, grotesque, enormous, overstated, and impressive. This was the goal of the Counter Reformation; to awe, inspire and even frighten all those who might be tempted to stray from the One True Faith. The message was, “Your life is small, pilgrim, but the lives of these angels and saints that inhabit our Holy City are grand. Take a knee. Humble yourself. You’re in the real house of God now.”
Imagine some peasant who had just traveled all the way from Spain or France on foot and arrived at the gates of Rome and the first thing they saw was this magnificent square. The feeble voice of Luther whispers, “God is everywhere…in the forest, in the provincial towns, in your heart.” But then you fix your gaze on Bernini’s piazza or Caravaggio’s painting and realize that only the true God could inspire talent so immense; only the true God has the capacity to communicate with such beauty and power. The words of Luther suddenly ring hollow and meaningless against this mighty spectacle: the city of Rome and all its miraculous treasures.
Welcome to the Counter-Reformation. Mission accomplished, now pass the collection plate. (These artists didn’t work for free, after all.)
Are you ready for more? Let’s go! You can follow with the map that I’ve created on Google Maps: Caravaggio in Rome
Second Stop: Sant’Agostino
Now we have arrived at The Church of Sant’Agostino. Here we can admire the famous “Madonna of Loreto.” The subject of Caravaggio’s painting could hardly be more simple and unassuming—once again he uses real people encountering the divine to breathe life into his art. In fact, the model for Mother Mary is said to be one of the many prostitutes with whom the artist was intimately familiar (don’t make me spell it out for you). If he was trying to provoke the moral watchdogs in Rome, once again he succeeded immensely.
We can again clearly distinguish a departure in styles if we have a look at Carraccci’s interpretation of this same scene (also in Rome, but not in this particular church—it’s at Chiesa di Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo).
Indeed, Carracci portrayed the story of The Madonna of Loreto more literally, where we see the actual house of Mary’s youth being transported like some magic carpet from Nazareth in Galilee to a small village in Le Marche, Italy where it is said to have landed (intact, of course) after this mystical passage over oceans and continents.
Ahem—cough, cough. Well, I think we can leave that one alone for now and move on…
Third Stop: San Luigi dei Francesi; Caravaggio’s backyard
From here, we only have to walk a short way back to where we started this journey, at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Besides the painting that I already mentioned (“The Inspiration of Matthew”) we can see the two others that complete the Matthew cycle, “The Calling of St. Matthew,” and “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew.” “The Calling” is particularly notable for its use of the light; notice how Christ is almost invisible in the shadows, but his “light” shines brightly on the astonished face of Matthew.
Once you’re done here, step outside, take a deep breath and let your eyes readjust. Studying Caravaggio’s paintings is a bit like looking at the sun: if you stare too long, your risk permanently altering your eyesight. He makes you believe that the illusions are real.
And by the way, the man himself lived right here in this neighborhood. In fact, in Palazzo Madama, practically across the street from where you’re standing right now. If you want to know more about him and see some of his other works in Rome, consult my map again. I’ve also listed the museums where many of his famous paintings are on permanent display.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed chasing Caravaggio in Rome with me. Of course, there are many masterpieces by history’s greatest artists scattered throughout this incredible city. But Caravaggio manages to stand out, even among this cast of all-star talent. In the words of one critic: “There was art before him and there was art after him—and they were not the same.”
Towards the end of his life, Caravaggio spent some time in Sicily; painting feverishly as he ran from his enemies. It was some of his best work.