Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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. And this wonderful light, not only underlines the message behind the picture, if you like, and really enhances the message within, it's, of course, very theatrical, very dramatic, and the way he crops the composition is very theatrical. This, sort of, half-, three-quarter length cropping brings you right into the picture space.