Sunday 11 April 2010

Dangerous and Brilliant

If there was ever an artist to whom the words mad, bad and dangerous to know apply it really has to be Michelangelo da Caravaggio, known simply as Caravaggio, a great painter and an altogether infamous human being! He was a hard-fringing, hard-living, hard-fighting man, whose actions did not stop short of murder.

His reputation as an artist opened doors, just as his actions as a man quickly closed them again. At one point he was even enrolled among the Knights of Saint John on Malta, only to be expelled in December 1608 as a “foul and rotten member.” Even the precise circumstances of his death in 1610 are still shrouded in mystery. Supposedly dead of a fever, no body was ever found and no grave exists.

But as an artist he is one of Italy’s greatest, and a personal favourite of mine. In some ways he was a political artist, a propagandist for the Counter-Reformation, not just in the devotional subjects he chose but the style, the new life he breathed into religious painting that had been dominated for so long by the dead hand of Mannerism. In technique he was a naturalist, who made the most inventive use chiaroscuro, the sharp contrasts of light and dark, giving a heightened sense of drama, vivid, wonderful and intense. I see in Caravaggio the beginnings not just of Baroque but a great many subsequent trends in art. This is painting at its most passionate, no matter if the subject is sacred or profane.

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