Vienna museum’s Caravaggio and Bernini catalogue presents the artist’s studio as a theatrical site

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Michelangelo Merisi, Caravaggio, Boy Bitten by a Lizard (around 1594–1596) Courtesy of Fondazione Longhi Firenz

Caravaggios popularity is a fairly recent phenomenon. Unlike the public appreciation of Georges de La Tour that was contemporary with the research that brought back the painter from obscurity, Caravaggios followed scholarly work on the artist by a much longer time lag. Roberto Longhis pioneering study on Caravaggio was published in 1927; the same authors first edition of his monograph in 1962. Both were followed only later by exhibitions of his paintings. As if to make up for this, the past 40 years have been marked by a seemingly never-ending burgeoning of museum exhibitions devoted to Caravaggio or some aspect of Caravaggism. The scarcity of his paintings, the fact that the artist apparently did not use drawings, and the condition and geographic location of the works make it particularly challenging for museum curators to organise such exhibitions. Playing bravely with a limited pack that they must necessarily reshuffle—a pack including not just paintings by Caravaggio himself, but also by his immensely talented followers and epigones—curators have been conscious to avoid, on the one hand, repeating the same exhibition and, on the other, to present, in every iteration of the subject, innovative and thought-provoking groupings and juxtapositions.

Caravaggio & Bernini: Early Baroque in Rome, on view at Viennas Kunsthistorisches Museum (until 19 January 2020) and then at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (14 February-7 June 2020), is the latest of these. It distinguishes itself as the first one to include sculpture besides painting—a welcome and justified paragone, which, surprisingly, has never previously been attempted on such a scale.

There is indeed something slightly gladiatorial and terrifying in the title of the exhibition itself

There is indeed something slightly gladiatorial and terrifying in the title of the exhibition itself: the names of the two most famous artists of the Baroque juxtaposed like those of two heavyweight champions before the match. Willingly or not, we are invited to compare them. The public might indeed be misled to think that it was only Caravaggio who was the tempestuous artist, the bad boy of painting, and in life the unrepentant murderer (a shoe-in for biography-starved visitors to exhibitions of Baroque paintings; only van Goghs self-mutilation and certified madness could guarantee equal success). Of course, this is ignoring Berninis own brush with violence and the disfiguration of his mistress. Mercifully, the exhibition does not delve more than necessary into the murkiness of its stars.

Extreme emotions, theatricality and terribilità: Berninis Medusa (1638–40) Photo: © Andrea Jemolo

The catalogue is a model of clarity, the brief introductory essays to its various sections are informative and well illustrated. Like the catalogues entries, they are written by a group of mostly non-Italian scholars and are clearly intended for a general and educated public rather than for specialists. Discussions on fine points of attribution, or the listing of different versions (which has weighed down many recent publications), are refreshingly absent here, allowing for more substantial and illuminating observations. It is a rare pleasure nowadays to read a catalogue that dares offer such bold interpretation backed up by impeccable argumentation.

Of particular novelty are the essays by Giovanni Careri, “Bernini and Caravaggio, the Body of the Soul”, and Frits Scholten, “Painterly Sculpture”. Both address the aesthetic, spiritual and philosophical relationship between the two artists and, by extension, the subtle affinities between Baroque painting and sculpture. Scholten sees in “the dramatic effect” of Stefano Madernos St Cecilia (1600) a pure, white marble rendition of the young martyr set in a black niche and surrounded by coloured marbles, an equivalent to Caravaggios chiaroscuro. Bernini, Scholten argues, was also keen on transcribing into stone the fleeting effects traditionally reserved for painting, taking, for example, the “rendition in stone of something as active, ephemeral and colourful as the flames under the gridiron” on which his early St Lawrence lies. If Berninis relationship to painting has easily been demonstrated—Scholten illustrates Renis Atalanta and Hippomenes Read More – Source