It's the 400th anniversary of his death this year -- this week, in fact -- and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (aka my second favorite painter) is hot hot hot. Record-attendance exhibition in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale, other exhibitions in Florence and elsewhere...check. Stolen Caravaggio recently recovered...check. A group of scientists announcing they've found Caravaggio's bones and are installing them with honors in Pont'Ercole, where he died...check (although on this one I'm tempted to say, Isn't that conveeeeenient?). And now this morning, none other than Vatican officials are speculating whether they've "discovered" a new Caravaggio. What would Caravaggio himself think of all this fuss? Well, unlike my friend Vincent, who I believe would be embarrassed and bewildered over the modern attention paid to him, I suspect Caravaggio would guzzle it like a good Chianti. Caravaggio was anything but shy!
I went to Rome earlier this summer (for the fourth time) and followed my own Caravaggio trail. The Scuderie exhibition was *amazing,* to say the least. By the time of my visit, about four of the paintings had already gone home or on to other shows, but the twenty or so that remained -- all securely attributed paintings by the master -- were knockouts. Even with massive crowds, Caravaggio's work has the power to smack you around and call you chump. The Scourging of Christ (from a Vienna museum) was the one that affected me the most, not having seen it before in person. The Taking of Christ (in Dublin) was another powerful piece. A special treat was seeing the first version of The Conversion of Saul (or The Conversion of Saint Paul): that version was rejected by its patrons, and Caravaggio's second version is the one hanging in Santa Maria del Popolo today. The first version is in a private collection and is seldom displayed in public. (Mille grazie, by the way, to the nice guard who pitied short little me and led me to the front of the pack for a good look-see!) In Florence, before coming to Rome, I had just missed by three days (THREE DAYS?!) a big show on Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti, which means I also missed the Uffizi's Bacchus and their works by Artemisia Gentileschi. Caravaggio's Medusa, though, was on view all by itself in a spotlit room, watched over by a bored guard filing his fingernails. Three trips to the Uffizi, and I'd never seen the Medusa. She's fabulous.
Other stops on my Caravaggio trail in Rome: the churches of Santa Maria del Popolo (Conversion of Saint Paul, Crucifixion of Saint Peter), San Luigi dei Francesi (the three Saint Matthew paintings), and Sant'Agostino (Madonna of the Loreto). Also paid a visit to the Chiesa Nuova to see the original site of the Entombment, although the painting now hangs in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums. The Galleria Borghese to see their paintings they hadn't lent to the Scuderie. The Galleria Doria Pamphilj (Mary Magdalene). And just for pure atmosphere, a swing through the creepy little backstreet the Vicolo del Divino Amore, where himself lived during his last and most turbulent months in Rome. I didn't see any plaque commemorating Caravaggio's time there, but once I entered the almost-alley, I didn't exactly stick around!
Last night, to commemorate the anniversary of Caravaggio's death, the Galleria Borghese and the above-mentioned churches stayed open all night -- with free admission -- for his devotees to pay their respects. I bet there were a lot of them. The first time I walked 'the trail' in 1996, I had the churches to myself. Now you jostle with hordes of admiring fans. Oh he's hot, all right. And somewhere he's smiling.