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  • Hello, my name is Letizia Treves,

  • and I'm the curator of the later Italian and Spanish pictures,

  • here at the National Gallery.

  • And, by popular demand, today I'm going to talk to you about Caravaggio

  • And Caravaggio's an artist

  • who's as well known for his art, as he is for his bad behaviour.

  • And the purpose of today's talk is really to talk you through his life,

  • so it is a lot about the biography of the artist,

  • but I'm going to use the pictures that we have here

  • to illustrate why he was so famous then, and so innovative in his style.

  • And the National Gallery is extremely lucky

  • to have three major works by Caravaggio.

  • One from each of the distinct phases of his career,

  • so it's the, sort of, perfect place to give you this talk, if you like.

  • So, Caravaggio was born in Milan in 1571.

  • His name is Michelangelo Merisi,

  • but he is known as Caravaggio after the small town to the east of Milan,

  • from which his parents came,

  • and where he spent quite a few years during his childhood, as well.

  • His father was a mason, a muratore,

  • and he died when Caravaggio was just six years old.

  • And there's been speculation as to whether Caravaggio

  • was, sort of, launched in that career before he became a painter

  • but there's really no evidence for that.

  • What we do know is that when he was 13, he was sent to Milan,

  • and he signed a four-year apprenticeship with an artist called Simone Peterzano

  • an artist from Bergamo,

  • who'd worked in Venice, and who sort of styled himself as Titian's pupil

  • And he works with him for four years,

  • and we have a contract, but we don't have much else.

  • But one can imagine that in the workshop

  • he learnt the rudiments of drawing, he learnt how to grind colours,

  • how to prepare canvases.

  • He may have learnt how to paint in fresco,

  • although he is not a fresco painter, later on in his career.

  • And after these four years with Peterzano, there's a sort of mystery.

  • We don't really know what happened to him until 1592,

  • and that is when he goes to Rome, almost certainly in 1592,

  • around the age of 20.

  • And this is the problem with Caravaggio - there's very little documentary evidence

  • Of course, it's been scrutinised and read in many, many different ways,

  • and it's very fragmentary,

  • and so we've tried to reconstruct his life on the basis of the documents,

  • but, really, we rely enormously on the biographers, who wrote about him,

  • which, of course, do provide conflicting information sometimes

  • and often have their own slant on Caravaggio.

  • So even that has to be sort o taken with a pinch of salt.

  • But Caravaggio arrives in Rome, he's about 20,

  • and, of course, now we know he became a very famous artist.

  • But when he arrived he was a nobody.

  • He arrived and he really was desperate, destitute.

  • He jumped from one workshop to another. He painted hackwork.

  • We know he produced these, sort of, heads. Three heads a day for no money.

  • He lived with someone called Pandolfo Pucci,

  • who he nicknamed Monsignor Insalata, Mr Salad,

  • because, apparently, that's all he ate under his roof.

  • He was given very meagre food.

  • But the biographers do agree on certain points of these early years.

  • It seems that he arrived,

  • and somehow worked in the workshop of a Sicilian painter called Lorenzo Carli.

  • We know nothing about him, really.

  • And no paintings can be attributed to him from this time.

  • And then he worked in two other workshops,

  • Antiveduto Gramatica and Cavalier d'Arpino.

  • And what we know about these two experiences is

  • that for Antiveduto he painted heads,

  • and for d'Arpino he painted flowers and fruit.

  • And this is important because these two formative experiences

  • really help in understanding the early group of works that Caravaggio produced.

  • And we know from the biographers,

  • that having, sort of, jumped from one workshop to another,

  • he then decided to launch himself as an independent artist,

  • but really struggled.

  • I mean, he was, as I said, destitute.

  • He was painting pictures for the open market.

  • I mean, artists at this time either worked within a workshop framework,

  • or they were patronized by a wealthy patron,

  • who would sometimes house them in their palazzo,

  • and would protect them, as well.

  • Of course, Caravaggio had neither of those two things at this at this point in his career.

  • So, he produces works for the open market,

  • and manages to catch the eye of influential patrons that way.

  • And we know that one of these pictures that he produced

  • was the 'Boy bitten by a Lizard', which we have here in the National Gallery.

  • There's another version of this picture in the Fondazione Longhi

  • which is generally attributed to Caravaggio,

  • but is not unanimously accepted.

  • And, as you can see, remember what I said before about his formative years.

  • So, here there's the combination of a beautiful still life,

  • with these, sort of, half-length figures,

  • and you can see how those formative experiences

  • might have led to this kind of picture.

  • But this is a very original and novel kind of picture for its subject matter,

  • and that's almost certainly what attracted the attention of these patrons in Rome.

  • It's a, sort of, genre subject that, of course,

  • one might have seen in northern Italy, and even in northern Europe,

  • but really was very new to Rome.

  • And this picture has been read in many different ways.

  • It's been read in, sort of, a poetic vein,

  • looking at literature and poetry of the time.

  • It's been read as an allegory, an allegory of the sense of touch.

  • It's also been read as an allegory of the sort of pains that hide behind beauty,

  • the pains of love, the lizard hidden amongst the sensuous fruit, you know.

  • But, actually, I think the most convincing reading

  • is perhaps the most straightforward,

  • which is just really it's a study in expression.

  • This, kind of, moment of surprise, of unexpected pain,

  • and he's, sort of, shrinking away.

  • But it's a fascinating picture.

  • Before he was bitten by the lizard, what was this boy actually doing?

  • You know, he has this flower behind his ear.

  • It's been read in a, sort of, homoerotic vein, as well,

  • and there is something very sensual and sensuous about this picture.

  • And of this early group of paintings, of youths and boys,

  • which I should say are often based clearly on live models,

  • and on people that Caravaggio knew.

  • Sometimes they also include his own portrait.

  • We know he used his own image, because he couldn't afford models.

  • He couldn't afford to pay models.

  • And this picture has also been read as a self-portrait,

  • although, generally, now that's discounted.

  • I personally don't think it's a self-portrait.

  • I'm sure you know this picture and if not,

  • do come and look at it more closely.

  • The really striking element of these early works is the quality of the still life.

  • This fruit, you can just pick these cherries up - it's good enough to eat.

  • And the combination of that with these, sort of, sensual youths,

  • quite androgynous-looking, and rather ambiguous to read.

  • It's an odd subject,

  • and you can imagine it would have spurred interesting and lively conversation,

  • if it was hanging on a cardinal's wall or in, sort of, elite circles.

  • And as well as this sort of picture of a youth,

  • there's a famous picture in the Borghese,

  • of a boy holding a basket of fruit, as well,

  • where, once again, still life plays a very important role in these early pictures.

  • He also painted, sort of, street scenes, famously the 'Cardsharps',

  • you know, card players cheating, hiding cards behind,

  • another man behind signalling, or fortune tellers.

  • These were highly theatrical scenes,

  • but things one would have seen in everyday life in the streets of Rome at the time,

  • but incredibly novel,

  • to, sort of, elevate these genres in a way to, sort of, history painting.

  • You know, still life was really the lowest form of painting in around 1600

  • but yet Caravaggio really manages to elevate that.

  • He famously said that painting still lives

  • required as much artistry as painting the figure,

  • which, you know, to us today doesn't seem such a sort of dramatic thing to say,

  • but at the time it was really quite a novel approach.

  • But what he means is the importance of nature, of looking around,

  • and so this was his real innovation.

  • It was looking at nature and painting still life, but also using live models,

  • and he was also criticised for this later on his career,

  • you know, for the fact that he didn't select the best in nature,

  • he just painted exactly what was in front of him.

  • But it was really the sort of most original aspect of his art.

  • So, these early pictures brought Caravaggio

  • to the attention of powerful and influential patrons in Rome,

  • principally the Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte,

  • who then invites Caravaggio to live with him in his palazzo,

  • so he now is looked after, protected.

  • For about five years.

  • And also the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani,

  • another key figure in Rome at the time.

  • And they start buying pictures by him,

  • they start commissioning pictures from him,

  • and, you know, he's certainly far more comfortable

  • within quite a short space of time.

  • But the real breakthrough for his career comes in 1599.

  • He receives the commission to paint the pictures today

  • in the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi,

  • and you have to remember these genre paintings

  • were for a private patron, and also for a private environment.

  • They were hanging in these palazzi,

  • and they were accessible to only a few people, an elite, if you like.

  • But suddenly this is his first public commission,

  • and it's the first time that his art can be seen in the public domain, if you like,

  • is accessible to artists, and people visiting Rome.

  • And when these pictures were unveiled,

  • and you can still see them today in the Contarelli Chapel,

  • 'The Calling of St Matthew', and 'The Martyrdom of St Matthew',

  • when they were unveiled, I mean, it caused a real sensation.

  • We know from the biographers,

  • people flocked to Rome to see these pictures.

  • And, of course, it was part of an artist's training.

  • You would go to Rome, and you would look at classical antiquity,

  • and you would also look at contemporary art being produced.

  • Artists from all over Europe were coming to Rome,

  • and so very quickly Caravaggio's fame and reputation

  • really went far beyond the confines of Rome itself with these public paintings.

  • Shortly after the Contarelli Chapel, he was commissioned to paint pictures

  • in Santa Maria del Popolo, in the Cerasi Chapel.

  • Again, these are private commissions, these are private patrons.

  • It's not the church itself commissioning him.

  • But these pictures were finally on view in public.

  • That's why, in a way, there's a delayed public reaction to Caravaggio's art.

  • He'd been in Rome for a number of years, but 1600 is a key moment.

  • And the result of that is that he's hugely sought after,

  • and as well as del Monte and Giustiniani, who I've referred to,

  • there are three brothers, the Mattei, who are very wealthy bankers in Rome,

  • and they commission Caravaggio three paintings in the course of two years,

  • and we know that because we have documents,

  • and he goes to live in one of the brother's palazzi.

  • And one of those pictures is 'The Supper at Emmaus'

  • that we have here in the National Gallery.

  • This is painted in 1601,

  • and, for me, it sort of shows he's really at the height of his career.

  • He's riding on a wave, you know, on the crest of the wave.

  • He's incredibly famous at this point, and he's already developed as an artist.

  • I mean, you can see just by comparing the two pictures either side of me,

  • there are, sort of, awkwardnesses, particularly in the anatomy of this boy,

  • and the way the shoulder doesn't quite work.

  • You can see there's a sophistication already in 'The Supper at Emmaus'.

  • The other extraordinary thing about his art, not just using of live models,

  • is, of course, his use of light, which is what he's now also most famous for.

  • But what was extraordinary about his use of light

  • is it's using the light in a way,

  • not just for, sort of, the aesthetic enhancement of the picture,

  • but the light always really underpins the meaning in his pictures.

  • So, here we have the risen Christ.

  • Instead of showing him on the road to Emmaus,

  • where he meets two disciples, who don't immediately recognise him,

  • they invite him to supper, and here they are at supper.

  • And this is the moment that Christ blesses the bread,

  • and the disciples realise that they're sitting with the risen Christ.

  • And he's chosen the culminating moment in the narrative,

  • and this is what Caravaggio's so... so brilliant at doing.

  • It's a familiar subject, but he represents it in a completely novel way,

  • with a, sort of, freshness of vision, as well.

  • And, as I say, he chooses the culminating moment in the narrative,

  • and the light is essential in conveying the story here,

  • because it's the light of recognition.

  • This is the moment the disciples have recognised him.

  • This one's leaping out of his chair. His elbow's jutting out.

  • The other one has, sort of, spread his arms in surprise.

  • And the innkeeper, completely oblivious to what's happening, remains in the dark.

  • You know, his face is in shadow, because he hasn't seen the light, if you like.