Art enthusiasts are, of course, spoilt for choice in Rome – and lovers of Caravaggio are particularly well served by the Eternal City. This genius of the Baroque arrived in Rome in 1592 at the age of 21 and by the turn of the century he was one of the city’s most famous and controversial artists. He forced his way into the public consciousness by ignoring the staid conventions of religious painting – by tradition an idealised and scrupulously tasteful aesthetic – and instead created dark, grimy and naturalistic altarpieces that brought biblical narratives right down to street level.
His art astonished and appalled in equal measure, and Caravaggio’s personal life was just as tempestuous. He committed a string of misdemeanours, including hurling a plate of artichokes at a waiter and penning slanderous verse, before eventually fleeing the city in 1606 having murdered a man. Although Caravaggio exited Rome a fugitive, more importantly, he left behind the foundations of an astonishing artistic legacy, and, thankfully, much of it is still there to be marvelled at today. Here’s a guide to going on a Caravaggio tour of Italy’s capital…
Saint Matthew paintings
The contarelli chapel in the centre of Rome, contains not one, but three major paintings by Caravaggio. The Calling of St Matthew, The Martyrdom of St Matthew and The Inspiration of St Matthew adorn the walls of the church’s Contarelli Chapel.
Of the three, The Calling of St Matthew, is the best known and it certainly ranks as one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces, with its unforgettable depiction of the moment the tax collector and future saint, sat amid a motley bunch of associates and illuminated by a symbolic shaft of light, is picked out by Christ to follow him. Remember to take some euro coins with you, as you’ll need to drop some in the meter to light the chapel and view the paintings.
The Madonna of Loreto
One of Caravaggio’s boldest innovations – and one that attracted plenty of ire from his critics – was the way he populated his paintings with the kind of downtrodden people who filed into churches to stare up at them. This is made clear in his altar painting in the Cavalletti Chapel of the Church of Sant’Agostino, just round the corner from the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
The Virgin and the naked Christ child appear as an apparition before two dirty-footed pilgrims. Not only would viewers at the time have seen themselves in the pilgrims, but they’d also have looked at Mary, also barefoot and as far removed as you can get from the idealised vision of Carracci’s Madonna, as someone who might just have been walking among them.
The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion on the Road to Damascus
A 20-minute walk from the of the Church of Sant’Agostino there is yet another place to see Caravaggio’s works in their original setting. The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo’s Cerasi Chapel is home to The Crucifixion of St Peter, a masterclass in composition that vibrates with brutal action and showcases Caravaggio’s ability for conveying complex human emotion. As St Peter is nailed to a cross upside down and hoisted aloft by a trio of thugs, the expression on his face elides saintly defiance with a very human fear. The Conversion on the Road to Damascus, on the opposite wall of the chapel, is equally as dramatic and the story behind it highlights Caravaggio’s penchant for confrontation.
The painting depicts St Paul, lying prone under his horse with his arms outstretched to heaven. Famously, the horse’s sizeable backside is pointing firmly in the direction of the painting hanging on the chapel’s central wall. This work, The Assumption of the Virgin, is by Annibale Carracci, and the positioning of the equine arse is a less than subtle insult by Caravaggio to his rival. Carracci’s painting is worthy of attention in its own right, but with its high renaissance elegance, it also provides a clear example of exactly the kind of art that Caravaggio’s gritty naturalism was at war with.
David with the Head of Goliath
From the Santa Maria del Popolo, stroll through the Villa Borghese gardens to the Galleria Borghese to see a number of Caravaggio paintings that span his career – there are seven in all. Boy with a Basket of Fruit and Self-portrait as Bacchus (also known as the Sick Bacchus) are early examples of the artist’s extraordinary talent – his canny knack for still lives is very much in evidence in these works.
There is also the stunning Madonna of the Palafrenieri, an altarpiece commissioned for St Peter’s Basilica but rejected for reasons that remain unclear (In his excellent book Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, Andrew Graham-Dixon contends that the presentation of the Virgin as a voluptuous figure in a low cut dress could well be the reason). Following the rejection, it was sold to the originator of the gallery’s collection, Scipione Borghese, one of Caravaggio major patrons. Also on show is David with the Head of the Goliath, which sears itself into the mind of anyone who views it. An impassive David holds up the severed but strangely alert head of the slain giant, which is a self-portrait of the artist.
The picture was probably painted not long after Carvaggio left Rome, meaning it has come to be viewed as a demonstration of his contrition for the murder he committed in the city, and a plea for clemency. Booking ahead for this gallery is essential – only a limited number of people are allowed in at any one time.
Even more to see…
Vatican Museums is the place to see Caravaggio’s monumental Entombment of Christ (also head into to St Peter’s Basilica to see Michelangelo’s Pieta and note the compositional nods Caravaggio makes to this wondrous sculpture in this painting), while the Palazzo Barberini Gallery and the Capitoline Museums both feature a couple of Caravaggio pictures each. The truly committed fan can book a guided tour of the Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi to see Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, the only ceiling painting Caravaggio ever did.