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.