PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Caravaggio May Be the Least Documented Yet Most Constructed Renaissance Artist

Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity draws attention to both the skill of the historian and the enduring and towering genius of the artist.

Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity

Publisher: Reaktion
Length: 271 pages
Author: Troy Thomas
Price: $22.50
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-10

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.