Caravaggio in Rome: the art of shock and awe
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 telegraph.co.uk/ tt-portraitroma for our detailed review and a booking link). For our guide to other good hotels in Rome, go to telegraph.co.uk/ tt-romehotels; and to download our app, go to telegraph. co.uk/tt-travelapp
Eight-day escorted tour of Classical Italy , from £809pp. Includes Rome, Florence, Siena. 0330 134 1135; telegraph.co.uk/ 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