Monday, December 8, 2008

Caravaggio's Lost Painting

In 1597, Caravaggio received from the patrons of the Contarelli chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome his first major commission. He was asked to produce three large paintings depicting the three major episodes in the life of Saint Matthew: his calling by Jesus to become an apostle, the writing of the Gospel and finally his martyrdom. These works would eventually launch him as a major artist among his contemporaries, but he had to endure a highly publicised setback along the way. The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel, reproduced below, was greeted by a unanimously negative, if not derisive, response, and rejected outright.

If you're not familiar with the circumstances, you might try to guess why. Go on, I'll wait.

Ready? Here's what I think you might have guessed: could it be the almost satirically undignified, irreverent depiction of the saint, his humble demeanour, his obvious illiteracy? In his mega-best selling The Story of Art, E.H. Gombrich has this to say:
Caravaggio, who was a very imaginative and uncompromising young artist, thought hard about what it must have been like when an elderly, poor, working man, a simple publican, suddenly had to sit down to write a book. And so he painted a picture of St Matthew with a bald head and bare, dusty feet, awkwardly gripping the huge volume, anxiously wrinkling his brow under the unaccustomed strain of writing. By his side he painted a youthful angel, who seems just to have arrived from on high, and who gently guides the labourer's hand as a teacher may do to a child. When Caravaggio delivered this picture to the church where it was to be placed on the altar, people were scandalized at what they took to be lack of respect for the saint. The painting was not accepted, and Caravaggio had to try again. This time he took no chance. He kept strictly to the conventional ideas of what an angel and a saint should look like. The outcome is still quite a good picture, for Caravaggio had tried hard to make it look lively and interesting, but we feel that it is less honest and sincere than the first had been. (p. 12)
Which makes for a lovely story, exemplary of the struggles between art and power, truth and beauty, a resolute commitment to the real and the trappings of convention and tradition. Except it's almost entirely false. Documentary evidence shows that Caravaggio had already finished and delivered the other two paintings of the commission, in which Saint Matthew appeared rather different. In The Calling, below, he was depicted as a well educated tax collector of Caravaggio's own times, reacting with perhaps justifiable surprise at having been chosen to join a group of men of supreme virtue.

Whereas in The Martyrdom the saint is an older man, but not the same older man - at least in terms of demeanour and social condition - who earlier penned the Gospel according to Caravaggio's own depiction.

How to explain this paradox, then? In a watershed study published in the mid-seventies, Irving Lavin argues that Caravaggio intended to convey a specific message that justified breaking away from the continuity of depiction of the saint across the three paintings, and that it was not in fact a message of anti-establishment proletarian realism, but rather one wholly consistent with the ideology of the counter-reformation regarding the continuum between Paganism, Judaism and Christianity, as mediated of course by the Church.

The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel was rejected, that much is true. But the new canvas, reproduced below, was far from conventional. As Lavin explains - and it's hard not to capitulate under the weight of his learned, supremely well-documented argument, which I cannot begin to properly summarise here - it represented another departure, eschewing the tradition of Renaissance evangelical portraiture in favour of the medieval iconography, reinvented so as to cast Matthew as a 'stunned intellectual' instructed by a 'heaven-sent process of strictly rational analysis and exposition' (p. 81), and conveying a message opposite but complementary to that of the rejected painting.

When I came across it in researching this post, dear reader, I resisted Lavin's compelling argumentation with all my sceptical fortitude. I was really fond of the Gombrich-esque, traditional version of the story that I had heard somewhere as a kid, and that cast my beloved Caravaggio (did I mention I was a rather peculiar child?) as a subversive realist - for how could realism be but subversive in the age of the Baroque and the counter-reformation? - forced by the hated Clergy to adhere to the norms of representation at the service of the established power, and yet managing to subvert them and rewrite them as he does so brilliantly throughout his major works. And I was - genuinely, and again perhaps a little peculiarly - sorry in the extreme that I would never get to see the first, rejected, proletarian Saint Matthew, whose intervening vicissitudes I ignored, but that I knew had perished during the bombing of Berlin in 1945, and that has remained for me a symbol of the power of war to destroy not only lives but also culture.

A similar story, but with a happier ending, I was curiously unaware of. When I was in Milan recently with my son, I took him to see The Last Supper, or rather I took us, since I had never seen it myself. These days you have to book months in advance, and they let you in for fifteen minutes at a time, but I imagine it would have been much easier when I was younger, and besides I was often there on account of the fact that the church is next to where one of my very best friends lived. Be that as it may, this was my first time, and in the waiting hall I came across the story of how the fresco survived the war.

This is the basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie on the 17th of August, 1943.

The fresco you can make out on the bottom right of the picture is the (very mediocre) Crucifixion by Donato Montorfano, which is painted on the wall opposite the Supper, so the picture must have been taken by someone who had their back to Leonardo's work. Apparently they had erected a scaffolding lined with sandbags against the fresco for protection, but it's easy to see how much of a close shave it was: most of the refectory - the ceiling and two of the four walls - is completely gone.

Had the fresco been destroyed in 1943, as it very nearly was, we'd still be able to at least know what it looked like thanks to the copies made by other artists throughout the centuries and especially the photographic record, the same (black and white) photographic record that means that Caravaggio's painting - in spite of the title of this post - isn't in fact completely lost to us. Now, I realise that some of the preoccupations that I articulate in this blog expose me to the risk of giving a wrong impression, so allow me to say at this point that I'm not against recording technologies, or computing, far from it. I do happen to think that we (myself certainly included) are liable to not always fully appreciate their materiality, and that much of the rhetoric concerning our digital presents and futures is in need of some serious recasting. But properly understood materiality is there to be exploited, too. And indeed, more so than traditional, film-based photography, or artists' renditions, modern digitisation has tremendous potential when it comes to safeguarding our artistic heritage, so long as it is understood not as a substitute, but as a form of emergency insurance, or of cultural redundancy if you will, primarily thanks to the relative ease with which it can be disseminated at fantastic speed to multiple new storage sites.

The looting of the Iraq Museum of Baghdad, albeit not of the scale that was initially reported, and the deliberately memoricidal fire bombing of the National Library at Sarajevo are two recent tragedies that pale in comparison to the much greater tragedies they were inscribed into, two conflicts that killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. But they are tragedies nonetheless. The West, that has the money and the resources, could laser-scan entire museums and collections, and store them not only for remote access by the masses (that I would strongly advocate, but we don't need to make it an issue here), but also to initiate a plan B should a conflict or other major imminent threat arise: these repositories could then be distributed around the world in the form of torrents, too large for a single computer to store and view in their entirety - at least with the hard drive capacities available nowadays - but with the potential of being pieced back together at a later time by uploading them back from the destination computers, not all of which of course would have to be still accessible and carry the information, so long as enough people had downloaded each chunk for at least one of its copies to survive. I know I'd gladly volunteer a portion of my hard drive for such a project. The haunting image of the human chains outside of the library of Sarajevo, made of people who were risking their lives in order to save as many books as they could, would be enough to make me want to sign up.

That is the challenge, to explore and understand and celebrate the material dimension of our cultural artefacts, and counter the escape velocity of some of the discourses surrounding the digital, while at the same time recognising and exploiting the potential of cyberspace to become a new home and refuge for older treasures, and a place where to carry out precious memory work. Things won't remember themselves, you know.

E.H. Gombrich. The Story of Art. Oxford: Phaidon, 1972.
Renato Guttuso. 'Antiaccademia'. In Angela Ottino Della Chiesa (ed.), L'opera completa del Caravaggio (Milano: Rizzoli, 1967), pp. 5-9.
Jacob Hess. 'The Chronology of the Contarelli Chapel'. In The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 579 (Jun., 1951), pp. 186-201.
Irving Lavin. 'Divine Inspiration in Caravaggio's Two St. Matthews', in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Mar., 1974), pp. 59-81.

Update 1: Pane Ferrarese

I tried my hand at pane Ferrarese the other day, and I am happy to report a significant improvement on my first attempt back in Italy, where the hurried circumstances proved not conducive to proper kneading. I tried the mezza coppia, which is slightly easier to shape, and the results are below (they include a slightly abortive coppia - plenty of room for improvement there).

The taste, not bad at all. Unfortunately they proved so popular with the family that I wasn't able to do the third- and fourth-day test, to verify if the loaves were harder but still delicious - longevity, some of you will remember, is a major selling point of this bread. Next time I'll have to hide a couple of loaves.

Update 2: You Cannot Press a Flower Between Two Web Pages

Lucia engages in a close reading of David McKee's masterwork.


Paul said...

It is interesting to see that, when you talk about books, you get lots of commentary; but silence falls when you talk about pictures. Ah well, an Art Historian rushes in where angels fear to tread.

I like your idea of preserving art works on Internet, but I think our main efforts should be to preserve the originals: paintings are not just images; they are objects. I am also wondering whether the scheme you preserve could be used to knock off some fakes.

The treasures of Baghdad could have been saved had the invading US forces had any concern for Iraq's history and culture. However, they were contemptuous of it, if not entirely ignorant of it, and were far more concerned to protect the Oil Ministry than the Museum.

Giovanni said...

I like your idea of preserving art works on Internet, but I think our main efforts should be to preserve the originals: paintings are not just images; they are objects

I’m not disputing that, not for a moment. But it’s hard to protect artwork against bombs. Not impossible, mind: as a matter of fact, it’s what they did in Iraq - the initial panic about the scale of loot of the museum arose because the stuff wasn’t there, but most of it had in fact been wisely stored elsewhere.

Eventually, though, you run out of safe places, as the loss of the first Saint Matthew exemplifies. Italy was lucky that it was Milan that got bombed, rather than Rome or Florence, but that was an accident of geography. In Sarajevo, the library was specifically targeted. And there’s terrorism, too: in 1993 the mafia detonated a car bomb in Via dei Georgofili, next to the Uffizi, and it was very strategically placed in order to not only kill passers-by (to the tune of five) but also damage the museum. We could reasonably expect more of that. So long as it isn’t a choice of resource allocation, as it is often and regrettably the case - where you can either preserve the object or digitise it, but not do both - I think that in the second instance we should digitise, and start building electronic arks. They could come in handy.

(Although I’m certainly not an apologist of digitisation as a cure for all ills - it's another project that needs to be carefully evaluated and critiqued where necessary. But here’s an entirely gratuitous link to a digital repatriation project in Sierra Leone. Very exciting work.)

harvestbird said...

Matthew went to Antioch,
as did the people who made him their book;
they wrote it after Titus took
or rather, took out, Jerusalem.

This new-made gospel, I was taught,
was built on a bed of I-told-you-sos;
the temple that expelled the cult,
now ashy rubble on the hill.

Taramoc said...

In the context of physical representation alongside to conservation of the real thing, it's interesting what happened to Warsaw in a pre-digitalized era.

The historic center of the Polish capital was bombarded and completely destroyed in War World 2. After the war, the communist regime decided to rebuild an exact copy of it, only photographs weren’t as common, so they relied heavily of paintings pre-twentieth century to get it right. I’ve been there and it’s quite impressive how close it seems to be to the original, but obviously there’s not really a sure way to find out, the original not been available anymore.

When it comes to architecture, there are very few things you can do to protect them when bombs are involved, so digitalization may be the only way to go to have a true to life backup copy. Many projects have been started and completed to this extent all over the world, but I’m going to mention the one I worked on up until four years ago: Parks Canada 3D Tours

I personally took pictures and rebuilt those buildings on a 3D modeling software. I have to say I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for small architectural details in the process.

Paul said...

Sorry, my first comment was rather rushed and ill-considered; the library was closing as I wrote.

On the whole, I think we should digitise, for the reasons you give. I doubt that anyone in pre-War Italy could have imagined the Capella Scrovegni being bombed or that every bridge in Verona would be destroyed. They were but, fortunately, they could be rebuilt. We might not be so fortunate in future. Besides, digital images can assist in reconstruction.

Uroskin said...

I trust you have watched "Caravaggio" by Derek Jarman?

Giovanni said...

I saw the film, but twenty or so years ago - when my English was pretty poor - and without subtitles, so I chiefly remember the visuals, which were stunning. I remember a long sequence about the martyrdom, do you recall if it had anything about the first Saint Matthew? Aw, I just need to get it out and watch it again. That, and Wittgenstein. What a loss Jarman was.

Thanks Taramoc for the Warsaw reconstruction story, I imagine it's what they did throughout Europe but perhaps not on that scale. There's an interesting backgrounder here:

And Paul, it's interesting you should mention the Scrovegni chapel because I think it's one of those cases in which digitisation could be directly involved in preservation. They let you in to watch the Last Supper for 15 minutes, and that’s a bit tight but acceptable. But they also let you in for 15 minutes at the Scrovegni, which is insane: you need much longer than that. A good digitised and publicly available virtual chapel - just like my beloved and most precious Electa photo book of the same - could assist in alleviating the pressure a little. Seeing is destroying, in some cases.

(Oh, and Harvesbird: my mum, who draws the strength to carry on in her advanced age and frail health chiefly from a robust hatred of the church, keeps sending me books about the history of how the gospels came to be. Which is an endlessly fascinating topic - and talk about the manufacture of institutional memory. Once I've finally conquered the last of these books I'll attempt a post.)

Emanuele Ziglioli said...

I'm pleased by discovering your love for Caravaggio, what an interesting character in his personal life too!

Richard Taylor said...

Giovanni - this is an interesting Blog - I was interested in your discussion of Caravaggio - I see your interest is in memory and you wrote on Borges. Jack Ross (who is linked to Scott (Maps) Hamilton's blog - and mine) is interested in this area in his strange but quite challenging "trilogy" (called the REM Trilogy by his friend Gabriel White) - the first book is called nights with Giodorno Bruno and thus "deals with" memory systems etc - but he has also translated Borges's poetry.

By a link to my Blog EYELIGHT you can get to the strange but quite extraordinarily talented (multi-genre writer or 'textualiser') who seems deeply concerned with issues of philosophy and decay or entropy and "remembering" or data storage etc - his focus is on the Internet and computing but he has made films, writes, has studied much philosophy etc

You have probably read the works of Oliver Sacks whose writing I find very intriguing. He talks (amongst much else) about memory and memory loss; and of an Italian who is always painting his own village, which he had long since left in his childhood, in intimate, obsessive, detail.

I remember a story by Moravia in which the protagonist could suddenly see everything at once! This is like knowing everything...the result was chaotic.

Regards, Richard

Giovanni said...

Thank you Richard, I'll follow up the blog links for sure. And I too find Sacks' writing quite illuminating, although the book of his that I consider most formative - Seeing Voices
- has got nothing to do with my topic. But I do have a post in the pipeline on "The Landscape of His Dreams", and it was Sacks who put me on to Luria, of whom he's a great fan.

I don't know which Moravia story you're talking about, do you have some clue as to the title? It sounds interesting but I'm trying to work out if I've even read anything of his (don't go tell my high school teacher, now, will you?)

Richard Taylor said...

Giovanni - yes I see he writes about Luria. My interest isn't so much in memory - I'm not sure - I see his books as kinds of "novels" or texts that go beyond information or science...but I only have read about 3 of his books. What I loved was the way he talked on television - or the way he interacted.

The Moravia story sounds a bit more like something by Calvino. (I suppose Calivno had read Moravia of course!)

I found the story in collection I have called "Command and I Will Obey You" - the story is 'All-Seeing'. His other books I have include The Woman of Rome, Two Women, Roman Tales and some, others. I remember it as it wasn't quite as typical of Moravia... I went through a stage of reading him for some reason. Of course he is a great writer.