Review: From Caravaggio to Bernini, Seventeenth Century Italian Masterpieces from the Spanish Royal Collections

Guercino, <em>Lot and His Daughters</em>, 1617

It was so hot in Rome in mid-July that even a short walk to the Scudierie del Quirinale felt more like a bad dream than a pleasant morning jaunt. But if the dust and heat were a bit nightmarish, the show on view there through the 30th, "From Caravaggio to Bernini: Seventeenth Century Italian Masterpieces from the Spanish Royal Collections," was a revelatory awakening. 

Fede Galicia, <em>Judith with the Head of Holofernes</em>, 1596

The exhibition's incredible range of works, from collections belonging today to Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional, reflected an ongoing series of relationships between the Spanish court and Italian states in the period (when Spain's monarchs were in possession of the viceroyalty of Naples and the State of Milan). It also demonstrated a sort of cultural and stylistic cross-pollination created by traveling artists at the time, as when the Neapolitan Luca Giordano worked in Spain for a decade, or the justly beloved Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera spent most of his life in Naples. It was more than ever possible, in this context, to see references and quotations between one artist and the next, and to recognize how certain similar subjects inspired radically different choices in two or more contemporaries. For example, the organizers helpfully juxtaposed Caravaggio’s Baroque Salome, described more below, with Fede Galizia’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, in which Judith is a rather impressively detailed but irritatingly winsome Renaissance noblewoman, decked with jewels—these two works were created in Italy within a decade of each other but seem to be from different worlds. 

Artists represented here included Guido Reni, Diego Velazquez, Guercino, Charles Le Brun, and some less well known (Andrea Vaccaro, with his luminous allegorical figure Logic; and Massimo Stanzione, to name two) who more than held their own in such company.   

Presented in a sumptuous set of rooms, with lapis-colored walls, fine lighting, and elegantly phrased plaques in Italian and English, the show worked to stress the circumstances under which so many of the images were created: political shifts, disputes over land, and power plays by monarchs, lesser nobles and the Church. When we look at these paintings now, though, what makes them so compelling is not their history but their immediacy. The standouts in the exhibition—and there were many—focused insistently on the body and the senses, surveying youth and old age, pleasure and pain, labor and rest. Because of this, depictions of even extreme experience seemed startlingly quotidian and familiar. The Baroque painters' famous use of chiaroscuro—effects achieved through the manipulation of light and shadow—certainly helps dramatize the psychological states of many of the figures depicted. Just as important, however, are minute variations in each intensely studied bit of flesh; these tell their own stories. The result is a riot of soft-tipped fingers (as in Reni’s St. Catherine), contracted brows (Ribera’s St. Jerome in Penitence), curled toes (Guercino’s Lot and His Daughters, Le Brun’s Dead Christ Mourned by Two Angels). Even the lone still-life, Andrea Belvedere’s Vase of Flowers of 1694-1700, was packed with feeling, a study of the sheer variety in the textures and thicknesses of petals, some fresh, some already curled and dried, many more in semi-decayed states somewhere in between. Such a profusion made for especially marvelous viewing at eye level and close range—the artists’-eye view, as it were. Contrast this with the tantalizing experience of trying to see other works by these same masters in situ—such as Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew (in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)—squinting up into the darkness of a chapel and always wishing for more light, and one can further appreciate the value of this exhibition and the deep satisfaction it afforded. 

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, <em>Salome with the Head of John the Baptist</em>, 1607

The first painting on view was one of the finest: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, of 1607 (according to this exhibition—elsewhere it has been dated 1609). This is one of two paintings on this subject by Caravaggio, and might at first be considered the one less bold. In reproduction, this work tends to appear rather flat, color-wise, and it could be considered more muted, less confrontational. But, at a distance of less than a foot, the canvas becomes lustrous, and tensely alive. Three figures—Salome, her mother Herodias, and a young servant or executioner—crowd together in the right half of the painting, nearly obscuring the poor severed head of the Baptist, which lies on its side, eyes pitifully closed. At left is a thick blackness that both frames and encroaches upon them all. Each of the figures has a singular focus. Salome, turning with diffidence away from the lifeless head even as she carefully holds the plate it rests on, is still a bit disheveled from her dance, with slightly mussed hair and a gauzy material that covered her breasts now nearly untucked. She gazes slightly down and to her left, avoiding what would seem to be a direct look at the viewer. A small scar on her chin, rendered with slightly lighter and thicker paint than the area immediately surrounding it, offers pleasing testament to Caravaggio’s interest in unidealized models. Behind her, her mother, frighteningly witch-like with her excessively creased face and hooked nose, looks spitefully over her daughter’s shoulder and down at the head of John, as if to verify that the vengeful act she had requested has been done. (John had preached against her marriage to her brother-in-law, Herod.) And the young man with them, the mild fuzz on his upper lip barely visible within the heavy shadow upon his face, directs his eyes salaciously toward the spot where Salome’s gown is coming undone. (As I was noticing this, a tiny insect appeared and slowly made its way across the surface of the painting at that spot.) The sensual physicality of these three characters helps underscore each one’s pointed self-interest, while the compositional oval of their bodies around the halo-like plate draws the eye all the more toward the face of the dead saint. This, in gorgeous contrast to the vivid flesh of those surrounding him, is a bloodless, marble-like gray, tinged with green. The painting is mesmerizing, and crushing; it ultimately elicits a sort of pained recognition of the ordinary, everyday humanness of each individual represented, even as they become so condemnable in this extraordinary moment.

Giovanni Baglione, <em>Portrait of a Young Woman in Profile<em>; “Turned to the Right” (left) and “Turned to the Left” (right), 1621-22

If Caravaggio’s painting seems to demonstrate some of the ugliness of being alive, a stunning pair of portraits by Giovanni Baglione, from 1621-22, does just the opposite. Their titles translate simply as Portrait of a Young Woman in Profile; one is “Turned to the Right” and the other “Turned to the Left.” Representing two adolescent girls (they could be sisters) of perhaps about twelve years, the paintings are a marvel of softness, both in terms of paint application and sensibility. Each works to particularize the two subjects, with their carefully braided and turbaned hairstyles, delicate shadows under their eyes, and tender, attentive expressions. They appear to be aware of the honor of having one’s portrait painted. 

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, <em>Crucifix</em>, 1654-1656<br/>from the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.While the sweet intimacy of the above two paintings comes partly from the fact that they are quite small (roughly 9 x 12 inches), several others are massive: wall-sized, or nearly so (Velazquez’s Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, for example–which here was displayed to some disadvantage, appearing to be rather washed out in the available lighting). Just as one might begin to be overwhelmed by so many grand-scale works, the exhibition rooms came to an end and then continued on the next floor, this time concentrating on sculpture and beginning with an astounding crucifix by Bernini (1654-1656), from the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. This work is especially noteworthy for a number of reasons. In the first place, except for the mouth of the Christ, which, with its slightly parted lips, is reminiscent of the mouth of Bernini’s St. Teresa, it doesn't immediately call to mind other work by this master. Unlike the vast majority of Bernini’s sculptures, it is of bronze, rather than of white marble (as are the many famous carved gods and saints of Bernini’s in piazzas, fountains and churches in Rome). In the second place, again in contrast to so many of the artist’s more familiar works, it’s a bit smaller than life-size, rather than a great deal larger, which creates a sense not so much of awe as of empathy, or some sense of personal feeling—the work does not overpower but instead draws one in. Finally, the piece has an extraordinary quality of appearing to be soft, as though a fingertip, pressed against it, might leave a mark. Unlike other bronze works in this exhibition, let alone in cathedrals throughout Europe, this figure has not a single hard edge (think of all those Gothic reliquaries in the shapes of ridged and gabled towers or chapels, for example). The material also attracts because the bronze has a certain glow, yet does not shine, per se; it is anything but showy. Bernini’s figure of Christ seems heavy, yet pliable. Its overall effect may well be in part a result of the quality of the bronze, but in the end, as was the case with so many other of the works of art on view in this exhibition, it seems more reasonable to attribute it to the tremendous skill of the artist. 

Andrea Vaccaro, <em>Logic</em> (detail),

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