Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity is a splashy title that implies, at least, some degree of calculated passage and delivery into a new age from the mind and hands of the artist. Certainly, Caravaggio is an attractive subject for historians who are, we might say, promiscuous in their habit of discovering an image of themselves or their specialty—whether Marxist, modernist, critical theorist or otherwise—reflected in their historical subject matter.
Where Caravaggio is concerned, this is partly a function of the fleetingness of his career and the mystery around his life and character. Between around 1595 until 1610 he flickered in and out of existence like a ghost and left behind only a trail of art to speak on his behalf. He’s probably the least documented Renaissance artist that still captures the imagination of the public and as a result probably the most “constructed” of them.
It is with relief, then, that Troy Thomas avoids the anachronistic trap of interpreting the 17th century artist in light of only present-day concerns and categories. Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity is carefully designed as a forceful and concise statement on the artist’s innovations. Thomas’s objective is not to capture the milieu in which Caravaggio lived and worked in great social or economic detail, nor even so much to capture Caravaggio himself. He is even careful about the appearance of causal links between Caravaggio’s art and the large-scale, long-term, and broad conjunctures culminating in the modern condition. “In creating a new kind of art around 1600,” he writes in the Introduction, “Caravaggio went further than any previous painter in establishing characteristics that are today recognized as modern.”
In the Conclusion such characteristics are again described as foundational to modernity but are also at the same time “rooted in” Caravaggio’s cultural moment. He may or may not have caused the modern age to happen. But he will certainly be understood on his terms to the extent that that is possible, and as reflecting both early modern and modern characteristics.
So Thomas’s key aim is to reveal the innovative qualities of Caravaggio’s works. But he’s also concerned with, and does a great deal of justice to, those elements of Caravaggio’s works that belong more firmly to a cultural moment at the turn of the 17th century. There are subtle meanings an early modern Christian observer would read off his scenes of divine revelation, or of his depictions of poor people, or his uses of light that are likely to be lost on a modern observer. Thomas holds both the modern and the early modern perspectives in balance.
He proposes a definition of modernity and analyses each component of it as they relate to Caravaggio’s works, chapter-by-chapter, and proceeds in a roughly chronological manner. The main categories that are taken as “quintessentially modern” in Caravaggio include self-consciousness, self-reflection, introspection, experimentation, social awareness, ambiguity, individualism, and loss of certainty. Thomas stresses the “far-reaching and foundational” nature of ambiguity in Caravaggio’s works and it overlaps throughout, in one way or another, with all other of his categories of modernism.
Caravaggio’s depictions of poor people, for example, possibly arises out of a social awareness cultivated by the poverty he experienced until the 1590s. The meaning of such depictions is deeply ambiguous. Caravaggio showed the low, humble, and ignorant exactly how they appeared to him; tattered clothing, holes in coats, dirty fingernails, soiled feet. As worshippers, they are crowded together helplessly before St. Dominic and the Virgin, clutching their rosaries. As innkeepers, servants, and workers—- like penitent Mary Magdelen is shown sitting alone in ordinary 16th century dress next to her broken pearls, head bowed in a forlorn countenance. It captures a sacred text but could just as easily be a secular portrait of a troubled young woman with whom we are invited by Caravaggio to empathize. The painting conveys another layer of meaning when we learn that it was well known at the time that Caravaggio employed local prostitutes as models, and one Anna Bianchini is likely to have modeled here as the Magdalen, and on other occasions, for Caravaggio. It is in any case far from traditional classical depictions of the Magdalen in which she appears sensuous and semi-nude. Caravaggio thus reinvents a sacred text as a living, human drama.
Caravaggio extended this approach to his depictions of saints and Apostles. A striking example is his first version of the Inspiration of St. Matthew in which the Apostle is shown as an illiterate peasant, shocked and confused, struggling to compose the Gospel despite divine help. Matthew is here less decisive and authoritative, more a “dullard”, to use Thomas’s term; more likely to evince pity than reverence.
From one point of view, depicting an Apostle as a simple person utterly unprepared to receive divine communication has the effect of heightening the sense that the divine realm is foreign from the earthly realm. From another, the sentiment resembles certain Protestant theologies—the later English Quakers, for example, would believe that the holy spirit speaks to all individuals equally, to Pope and to pauper, in the very same manner. Such an interpretation was probably not intended by Caravaggio. But it might not have been lost on an astute Counter-Reformation observer, and it nevertheless highlights the ambiguous qualities inhering in his works.
Tellingly, Caravaggio’s first piece on St. Matthew was rejected by the Contarelli Chapel in Rome for either the indecorousness of the depiction, the excessiveness of its realism, or the ambiguity of its message. The potential for negative responses is clear and Thomas shows that it was not lost on Caravaggio’s 17th century critics. One disliked him for his predilection for “filth and deformity”. Another dismissed him and his “dirty prostitute from the Ortaccio”.
There’s much more to say about this excellent book and Thomas offers daring interpretations on almost every page. Some are far-fetched. In the Martyrdom of St. Matthew, does the Apostle seem to reject the outstretched hand of an angel during the moment of his execution? Probably not, but a reasonable seeker of the truth might make the case.
Others are more plausible. Caravaggio’s famous use of dramatic lighting (tenebrism), for instance, is well known to have had a deep influence on the course of modern visual art. But modern observers might be less aware of the philosophical ideas that inspired it, and Thomas suggests one potential origin in Neoplatonic theories of light. For the Neoplatonists, humankind in its fallen condition resides in a lower darker order on earth, alienated from God, the source of all light. This dynamic is dramatized by Caravaggio on canvasses filled with heaving and oppressive darkness, pierced by mysterious and merciful shafts of light. Moments such as these underline both Thomas’s skill as a historian and Caravaggio’s towering genius.
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