Car­avag­gio in Rome: the art of shock and awe

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - ITALY -

As a new ex­hi­bi­tion opens at the Na­tional Gallery, Nick Trend rel­ishes the ex­cite­ment of see­ing the artist’s dra­matic paint­ings in the Ital­ian cap­i­tal

There are two chapels in Rome that mark crit­i­cal mo­ments in the his­tory of Western art. Most peo­ple are fa­mil­iar with the first; mil­lions flood into the Sis­tine Chapel ev­ery year to marvel at Michelan­gelo’s ceil­ing. Strangely, the sec­ond is not so well known. Only a steady trickle of vis­i­tors fil­ters through the doors of San Luigi dei Francesi – the French church just round the corner from Pi­azza Navona – in search of the Contarelli Chapel. Yet in some ways the paint­ings of scenes from the life of St Matthew, which have hung here for more than 400 years, mark an even more ex­tra­or­di­nary artis­tic turn­ing point.

When they were un­veiled in 1600 they caused a public sen­sa­tion. At the time, Rome was the epi­cen­tre of the art world, yet never be­fore had it wit­nessed paint­ing of such fo­cus, such power, such dar­ing and such drama. Even in to­day’s highly graphic and vis­ual world, it is re­mark­able how much im­pact they still have when you first stand be­fore the al­tar.

To the left is what, at first glance, looks like a dra­mat­i­cally-lit tav­ern scene, where a group of men bathed in a shaft of bril­liant sun­light are look­ing up af­ter be­ing sur­prised by two shad­owy in­trud­ers. In fact it is a count­ing house at the mo­ment when Je­sus en­tered to call Matthew, the tax col­lec­tor, to fol­low him. It could hardly be fur­ther from the deco­rous, rather an­o­dyne ide­al­ism typ­i­cal of other re­li­gious paint­ings of the time.

Tes­ta­ment to the ex­tra­or­di­nary self-con­fi­dence of the artist is the hand of Christ which ges­tures to­wards his new dis­ci­ple; it is a di­rect quote of Michelan­gelo’s hand of God in the Sis­tine Chapel. Turn to The Mar­tyr­dom of St Matthew on the wall Es­sen­tials

For a treat, the stylish bou­tique ho­tel Por­trait Roma is bril­liantly lo­cated – about 10 to 15 min­utes walk from each of the Car­avag­gio churches and mu­se­ums. Dou­bles from €454 (£400) per night b&b (see tele­ tt-por­traitroma for our de­tailed re­view and a book­ing link). For our guide to other good ho­tels in Rome, go to tele­ tt-rome­ho­tels; and to down­load our app, go to tele­graph.­e­lapp


Eight-day es­corted tour of Clas­si­cal Italy , from £809pp. In­cludes Rome, Florence, Siena. 0330 134 1135; tele­ tt-clas­si­cal-italy-tour op­po­site and you will see the face of the man re­spon­si­ble. Peer­ing out of the gloom in the back­ground – as though he is stand­ing at his easel while wit­ness­ing the scene – are the yel­lowed, slightly un­savoury-look­ing fea­tures of Car­avag­gio.

Per­haps I am read­ing too much seami­ness into his face. But then Car­avag­gio is known not just for his artis­tic bril­liance but also for his dis­so­lute life­style: drink­ing, whor­ing, brawl­ing and, most fa­mously, his time on the run in Malta, Naples and Si­cily af­ter he killed a man in a knife fight. But it was the 15 years he spent in Rome be­fore this which were crit­i­cal to his artis­tic suc­cess – and it was the paint­ings in this chapel, his first public com­mis­sion, which made his name.

The un­veil­ing of the St Matthew al­tar­pieces re­sulted in an im­me­di­ate as­sign­ment to dec­o­rate the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, also still in situ, and a whole string of fur­ther stel­lar com­mis­sions, many of which re­main in Rome.

Car­avag­gio’s art was rarely with­out con­tro­versy. He in­vari­ably trod a fine line be­tween re­al­ism and deco­rum. De­pict­ing Mary with bare legs, or fill­ing much of the can­vas por­tray­ing the con­ver­sion of Paul with the rear end of his horse, was too much for many con­ser­va­tives and some of his re­li­gious com­mis­sions were re­jected. But the re­jected work was soon snapped up by more dis­cern­ing pri­vate buy­ers, in­clud­ing some of Rome’s rich­est art col­lec­tors. They re­sponded to his ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to con­vey the ten­sion of a cru­cial mo­ment of spir­i­tual in­ten­sity, to use what he called “God’s light” to fo­cus the viewer’s at­ten­tion on a crit­i­cal ex­pres­sion or ges­ture. As a re­sult, and de­spite his way­ward ten­den­cies, his years in the city were spent un­der the pro­tec­tion of some its most pow­er­ful men – in­clud­ing the Medici Car­di­nal del Monte, who was re­build­ing the Palazzo Madama near San Luigi dei Francesi when the al­tar­pieces were first un­veiled, and his friend Vincenzo Gius­tini­ani whose own palazzo is just around the corner.

It was no doubt they who pointed out to the re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties that, although Car­avag­gio’s use of ev­ery­day im­agery for high re­li­gious pur­poses could be dis­con­cert­ing, his power to shock was sur­passed only by his abil­ity to in­stil awe. Here was a vis­ceral painter who could reach into a man’s soul. Sadly, their palazzi are not

Car­avag­gio’s scenes from the life of St Matthew, above, have hung at the Contarelli Chapel in Rome for more than 400 years. Right: the Pi­azza del Popolo

by Car­avag­gio, at the Caval­letti Chapel, Rome

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