The Caravaggio exhibition at the Quirinale in Rome is one of those rare exhibitions that would justify a special trip. I’m tempted to try to go back (though I readily concede that I’m always tempted to go back to Rome). Caravaggio died young and didn’t leave a huge number of paintings, so the exhibition isn’t large by blockbuster standards: ten rooms, often with one or two paintings per room. But it is a rare opportunity to see the full sweep of Caravaggio’s career in a single setting.
What a strange, disturbing, irresistible career it was. Four hundred years later, Caravaggio still resists being put in an art historical box. He managed to paint some of the most magnificent Biblical paintings we have, while also leaving disturbing images of sexually charged young boys—both of which are well represented in the show.
Caravaggio’s paintings are not flawless in the way, say, a Raphael painting sometimes seems flawless. Often the objects are oddly small in scale in comparison to the figures. In “Card Sharps” [here
], the dice at the lower left seem microscopic by comparison to the scale of the figures. But paintings are often so arresting, and so psychologically rich, that the distortions seem trivial. (And it may be that art historians even have clever explanations for them).
The exhibition includes the original version
of “The Conversion of Paul,” which hangs in Santa Maria del Popolo, a fifteen minute walk from the Quirinale. For some reason, the original version was rejected. It’s not quite as dramatic as Caravaggio’s second effort
, but it too is a remarkable painting. I assume art historians have an explanation for the rejection—the only thing I could imagine is that perhaps Paul’s bare chest seemed inappropriate for the chapel for which it was intended.
Caravaggio seemed to have a thing for John the Baptist: he presented John in a variety of different poses, most of which are far removed from the Biblical portrayal of John. John is often languid and effeminate, with a hint of sexuality. Perhaps this reflected the interests of Caravaggio’s patrons. My favorite of portrayal of John is this one
, which looks an awful lot like a psychedelic rock singer from the 1960s—someone who might have performed at Woodstock. (Extra credit if you name the singer he most resembles).
It’s hard to imagine a better day than one that begins with the St. Matthew paintings in San Luigi dei Francesi and the Madonna of the Pilgrims nearby, includes several hours at the Quirinale, and concludes with a visit to The Conversion of Paul and “The Martydom of St. Peter” at Santa Maria del Popolo. But if you’re thinking about doing this, buy your tickets in advance on the internet. It took me three tries to get in: I was thwarted once by the huge crowds, and a second time when I tried to slip in at the end of the evening (there were no crowds, but I was turned away because I hadn’t reserved a ticket in advance).