Luca Bortolotti's reflections on the modern phenomenon of caravaggio-mania.


As in a wild party in honour of Dionysus, Caravaggio's drunkenness seems destined to never end. It presents, by now, connotations of collective passion that we are used to associate with others and (presumably) less noble areas of human activity and that, by extension and depth, would seem to have no real precedent in the field of the figurative arts.

Compared to the love and attention that Caravaggio has today, those, though planetary, that concern Leonardo and Vermeer, Van Gogh or the Impressionists, to say nothing of those who over the centuries have involved, but within more strictly elitist boundaries, Michelangelo and Raphael, or, even more selectively, the "primitives" or Pontormo, Canaletto or Francesco Guardi, are almost relegated to niche phenomena.

The phenomenon is well known and in recent years has been widely detected by art historians, but above all it has been well understood and extensively exploited in each of the aspects that, at various levels, revolve around the world of art: exhibitions and cultural dissemination, media and social, up to advertising and the production of gadgets. Today Caravaggio is definitely pop. More: he is pop without having lost (at least so far) anything of his aura in the scientific community, representing a rare case of non-conflict between "low" and "high" culture, of peaceful coexistence between the two levels.

Caravaggio - Sick Bacchus, 1593-94
Borghese Gallery, Rome
During a period of convalescence, the young Caravaggio portrays himself in the role of Bacchus

It would seem, in fact, that the "art public" - an abstract entity, more and more extensive, but less and less provided with a minimally homogeneous identikit - has an insatiable curiosity for any aspect of the life and work of this great artist, constantly claiming new facts, hypotheses, suppositions and of course paintings, which are constantly implementing our already exceptionally large database dedicated to Caravaggio: a dossier that involves even the most indirect aspects, feeding on the most impalpable triangulations as well as the most reckless connections of facts and meanings, but of which, nevertheless, the specialists do not fail to note with deep regret, when not really with dismay, the limited shortcomings. Certainly, there remain some obscure points, in particular linked to training, the times of the fateful arrival in Rome and the events that preceded its tragic end: but, as relevant as they are, an outside eye would be surprised to see how the continuing uncertainties that concern them are perceived by the legions of scholars who deal with Merisi as an unbearable vulnus, which they try to remedy through archive research, conferences and miscellaneous studies that follow one another relentlessly, conditioned by controversy often culminating in academic conflicts at very high temperatures.

The reasons for such passion and fury, which borders on the morbid, have now become themselves the object of critical reflection, with results that, I would say inevitably, end up revolving around the presumed consonance of the naturalistic and hyper-expressive style of Caravaggio's painting with sentiment if not with a hypothetical contemporary zeitgeist: that which, in cascade, inspires daring ideal connections with artists of the recent past, or even living, perhaps suggestive but of dubious gnoseological construct.

Caravaggio - The Musicians (Concert), 1595
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Another self-portrait of Caravaggio's youth recognizable in the young man in the second row who turns his gaze towards the observer


Interpreting the phenomenon of Caravaggio-mania through the telescope of a wide-meshed history of culture (a sort of critique of ideology lightened by the ambiguous clothes of the "history of taste"), involves the use of conceptual equipment that is by nature neither solid nor precise, which before or after fatally leads into the critical funnel of Caravaggio's "modernity": one of the most impalpable categories, the latter, as we know, can be referred to anyone and anything. Explaining fashions, after all, is an enterprise always full of pitfalls, since, in addition to possible general historical reasons, it imposes to properly consider both the relevant share of accidents from which they derive, and the dense network of interests that converge in their full exploitation, first feeding them and finally contributing, by saturation, to their decline.

Here, however, it is not my intention to contribute to the focus of the causes of Caravaggio's fashion, nor to add myself to the many voices aimed at censoring, quite appropriately, the increasingly wild practice of proposing, not infrequently with a staggering amount of gambling, new attributions to the great artist. Rather, I would like to dwell briefly on the scientific and epistemological consequences of such a fashion in the humanities. In other words: to reflect on what Caravaggio's investigation focuses mainly on today and how it does it, with what instruments, with what checks, with what heuristic objectives.

The fact that an object is analyzed at the same time by hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of scholars (including many amateurs and simple enthusiasts) seems to me, in fact, that, in its quantitative exceptionality, can not be without significant effects on the orientations, methods and outcomes of so much work, inevitably orienting the agenda and priorities of research.

Caravaggio - David and Goliath, 1597-98
Prado Museum, Madrid
Among the ancient masters, Caravaggio seems the most prone to self-deception. For the most part, he portrays himself well camouflaged among the crowd of characters that populate the composition, but sometimes he allows himself the role of a spectacular comprimario. This is the case of David and Goliath of the Prado, in which he attributes his features to the severed head of the defeated giant.

Although we do not have objective data, I think I can reasonably maintain that there is no great artist who today boasts a number of scholars and publications comparable to the one that in recent decades has concerned Caravaggio, not only in the field of figurative arts, but also in other fields of artistic production. On the arm, I would say that neither Dante, Shakespeare or Tolstoy, nor Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, are made a sign of such an uninterrupted harvest of contributions of every kind that follow one another at an almost daily rhythm. With the further significant difference that, while these artists constitute an object of analysis reserved almost exclusively for the highest specialism, Caravaggio has become a field from which today everyone feels legitimated to reap some fruit, thanks also to the current paradigm (in itself, of course, not at all disreputable) of archival research: which, however, as is well known, in order to produce significant and not ephemeral results, must remain more a means than an end, being guided by a clear objective upstream of the investigation, by an adequate technical background and a critical awareness that allows us to discern between essential and superfluous, between what may be relevant and what is accessory, or useless, or harmful, with respect to the growth of knowledge around an object of study.

Caravaggio - The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, 1600-1601
Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
To witness the martyrdom of St. Matthew there is also Caravaggio, the last spectator at the end on the left


Today the popularity of Caravaggio and the thirst for new knowledge about him, even minimal, futile or merely collateral (to keep silent about those artifacts or invented, which are not lacking), leads to the indiscriminate accumulation of data, and the construction of the most daring, or even frankly bizarre hypotheses, which still produce the consequence of giving the coveted quarter of an hour of celebrity to anyone who has proposed them. The key word Caravaggio guarantees the public to any medium - books, magazines, newspapers, television broadcasts, websites... - and this constitutes a powerful spring, and in these terms unheard of in the humanities, to ride the wave in every way. Here, then, is the proliferation of new attributions (almost all of them destined to the rejection of the scientific community and to quickly end up in oblivion) and new archival finds (almost all of them without relevant scientific consequences).

It should be considered, among other things, that Caravaggio's body of work is rather limited in number and consists largely of well-documented works, divided between the paintings executed for important ecclesiastical destinations and those reserved for famous patrons. On closer inspection, therefore, there are not an infinite number of essential issues on which it is still urgent to clarify or that call for radical changes in perspective: more than anything else, in-depth studies or adjustments in shooting, always appropriate and welcome, but not such, I would say, as to naturally feed the weekly succession of new contributions.

Caravaggio - The Capture of Christ, 1602
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
In the Capture of Christ the face of Caravaggio can be recognized in the character with the lamp in his hand that closes the composition on the right

Also from the iconographic point of view much has been said, accepted, refuted or denied, and today even on those fronts the crucial interpretative questions that require assiduous philological excavation and a tight critical dialectic appear rather circumscribed (and probably destined to remain without a "definitive" answer). It goes without saying that the always open paths of textual hermeneutics and the questioning of levels of symbolic and anagogic meaning are not discussed here: interpretative challenges that by definition can never be said to be definitively closed, but which, though extensively practiced in the past, within Caravaggio's literature in recent years constitute a small minority.

It follows that a powerful drive to study Caravaggio in this way pervasively, alongside his indisputable greatness, is produced precisely by his popularity, by his position at the centre of the canon of Italian art that common sense, more or less explicitly, now recognizes him (in the place, for example, that Vasari assigned to Michelangelo and classicism to Raffello) and is the result of this wave of collective passion (at the same time irrational and interested, genuine and induced) to which the work of the researcher is committed to give a complete form, with the consequent risks of weakness of critical motivations, excess of love, as well as a certain narcissism on the part of the one who chooses to direct his efforts to such an object of investigation, with the unparalleled return of attention that comes from it.

Caravaggio - David with the head of Goliath, 1609-10
Borghese Gallery, Rome
Shortly before his death, Caravaggio returns to a theme that is dear to him: the David with Goliath's severed head. That head dripping with blood is the most famous selfie of the most beloved painter of all time.


The point of view of the market, as often happens, provides in its own way a relatively objective, albeit partial, response to this problematic state of affairs: in fact, in the face of the plethora of scholars who are, or proclaim themselves to be, specialists in Caravaggio, of all ages, geographical areas, methodological trends, academic prestige (among which, of course, many of the most eminent and appreciated members of our discipline), there is no one whose opinion is "textbook" from the attributive point of view, or at least no one who is recognized as an undisputed authoritative, a super partes positioning that guarantees, at least, a scientific credibility not conditioned by external factors. Too many interests at stake, too many roosters to sing, too quarrelsome and too busy defending their own corner of the yard, one could argue prosaically, but with a certain appropriate bath of realism.

There was a time when the value and necessity of a historical-artistic study were assessed on the importance of the documentary and/or interpretative novelties he communicated about the production and biography of an author, or rather on the originality of the point of view he threw on his work. Today it seems that for Caravaggio every documentary novelty, every attributive hypothesis, every biographical supposition is of special interest and must be discussed, deepened, corrected, overturned: "regardless", Totò would say.

On the sidelines, as further proof of the impressive depth and consistency of Caravaggio-mania, it can be added that, even more surprisingly, this state of affairs now seems to involve indiscriminately, exaggerating for mere territorial contiguity, the "Caravaggesque" painters (a category that by now risks including any artist active in the first half of the seventeenth century who made use of luministic contrasts), which in turn was the object of attention that was unthinkable only a few decades ago. One would think that, in Caravaggio's studios, the night is finally coming when all the cows are black.


Luca Bortolotti

"He was of a gloomy colour, and his eyes were gloomy, and his lashes and hair black; and such naturally succeeded in his painting ... as in the costumes still was murky and contentious. We shall not let the modesty itself be noted in his bearing, and dress him, using drapes and noble velvets to adorn himself; but when he had put on a dress, he never left it off, until it fell into rags. He was most remiss to cleanse himself."

G.P. Bellori
The lives of modern painters, sculptors and architects. Michelangiolo da Caravaggio, 1672

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