Posts Tagged ‘art’

“Titian” by Sheila Hale

We are still, I think, wedded to an image of the great artist as someone who is single-minded, who is not prepared to compromise, who, with mind focused on visions beyond the merely worldly, is prepared to suffer for his art. He is a Michelangelo chiselling the rippling muscles and veins of Moses in a sort of divine fury; he is Beethoven struggling with the demons of fugual counterpoint; and so on, and so forth. We have trouble with those artists – especially if they are artists whose works are indisputably great – who are of a more down-to-earth and worldly nature; who are, indeed, businessmen. Shakespeare was probably one such. And Titian certainly was. His art studio was a successful business venture in that most commercial of cities, Venice, and, while he certainly created some very great works of art – some of the very greatest, indeed – he often seemed quite content to let works pass out of his studio that weren’t always up to the highest standards.

Take, for instance, his group portrait of the male members of the Vendramin family, now hanging in the National Gallery, London. It is a vast and imposing canvas: Titian had been working on it on and off for a few years, and he must have known that he was creating a masterpiece. And yet, he seemed perfectly happy to allow a studio assistant to paint three boys in the bottom left corner in such a way as to make nonsense of the painting’s spatial unity. Why would he allow this? Presumably, the request to paint in the boys was received late, and the customer had to be satisfied. But given that Titian had failed to meet his deadline anyway (and not for the first time either, nor the last), the obvious solution would have been to expand the canvas to the left to create a suitable space for the boys. But what we have instead is a clumsy blot on what is otherwise a breathtaking masterpiece. Somehow, one cannot imagine an artist of Michelangelo’s temperament allowing something like that.

The comparison with Michelangelo is bound to come up, firstly because Michelangelo and Titian were the two leading figures of the 16th century Italian High Renaissance (Raphael was of the same generation, but he died when still in his thirties, leaving the field open, as it were, to the other two; and Leonardo was a generation older); and secondly because they had such sharply contrasting artistic styles, and aims, and temperaments. Titian had seen Michelangelo’s work, and, while no direct quotes exist on the matter, it is clear he was deeply impressed; indeed, as Sheila Hale points out, the pose of the woman in the early Miracle of the Jealous Husband (in the Scuola del Santo in Padua) is the exact mirror image of the pose of Eve reaching for the forbidden fruit in the Sistine Chapel. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence.

Michelangelo, on his part, had seen Titian’s portrait of Alfonso d’Este in Ferrara, and, according to Vasari, looked at it in “stupefaction”. The only recorded meeting between the two was in 1545, when Titian was passing through Rome. According to Vasari, Michelangelo saw and expressed admiration for Titian’s painting of Danaë, but, on leaving, muttered that it was a shame that Venetians don’t learn how to draw. This story has now become famous, but it’s hard to discern how accurate it is: Vasari, after all, had his own biases on the matter. But this does lay out, albeit in crude terms, the very different aims of the Florentine and the Venetian schools, and, in particular, of Michelangelo and of Titian, the leading representatives of these two schools. Put crudely, the Florentines were interested in draughtsmanship, in accuracy of line, in the creation of space according to the law of perspective, in the sculptural solidity of figures and objects situated within that space; while the Venetians, on the other hand, were interested in light, in shadings, in textures, and, above all, in colour.

The two sets of interests are not mutually exclusive, of course. Sheila Hale insists that, no matter what Michelangelo may or may not have said, Titian was indeed a very fine draughtsman: there are too many examples in his work of very fine draughtsmanship to think otherwise. Take, for instance, that superbly drawn figure of Actaeon at the left of the painting of Actaeon and Diana (now jointly owned by the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and the National Gallery, London). Here, Actaeon, out hunting, chances upon the private woodland bower of Diana, goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and sees what he, a mere mortal, shouldn’t. We see him moving away a hanging drapery as if it were a curtain on a stage, screening a tableau vivant behind. And the draughtsmanship here is quite exquisite.

“Diana and Actaeon”, courtesy National Gllery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and National Gallery, London

And yet, what are we to make of the very strange figure of Diana in the same painting? Her head appears too small. We appear simultaneously to be seeing her side profile and her back – which is anatomically impossible. Is his not indeed poor draughtsmanship? This had long troubled me: how could the artist who had created the rest of this miraculous painting with such breathtaking skill mess up so badly at this point? But, Sheila Hale tells us:

Titian took immense trouble with the figure of Diana, first painting her realistically from the side, and only at the end deciding on the anatomically impossible pose – a deliberate solecism that was unprecedented in European painting – that shows the breast in profile as well as the whole of her back. Her averted head, too small for her body, gives a snake-like venom to her pose.

In short, it wasn’t that he couldn’t: he didn’t. The distortions are deliberate. And it is for us to determine why Titian chose to distort in this manner.

I personally think it is because Titian wants us to see Diana as Actaeon sees her. He doesn’t see much of her head, as Diana very quickly hides it. Diana also turns away from him. So Actaeon, in the brief moment that he sees her, has a fleeting vision of her side profile, and of her back. It is this momentary view, startled and confused, that Titian chose to depict. As for showing both the side profile and the back at the same time, modern viewers, used to cubism, should have no problem with that: it’s the fact that we are seeing this in a sixteenth century Renaissance painting that, I think, throws us. (At least, that, I think, is what threw me.) There is much in Titian’s artistic vision, or, rather, in his artistic visions, that can still throw us.

But Titian was, nonetheless, a businessman, and a very successful one too. He was also a man widely respected and admired as an artist: no starving in the garret for him. His art was in demand by princes, by cardinals, by the wealthiest of families, and even by Emperor Charles V himself. (And, after Charles’ death, by his son, Philip II, who was something of a connoisseur.) The famous anecdote about Emperor Charles V picking up a paintbrush for him that he had accidentally dropped is, most likely, apocryphal, but the very existence of such an anecdote reveals the extent to which he was esteemed by even the most mighty and the most powerful. However, although we know much of the history of the times – political social, cultural – there doesn’t really seem to be much about Titian the man. What letters remain by Titian are mainly business letters. (Titian, like most artists, was apprenticed to a studio at an early age, and was not the most well lettered of people: he would often ask his friend, the flamboyant and larger-than-life figure Pietro Aretino, to draft formal letters he sometimes had to send to princes and clerics). We know nothing about what Titian thought on politics, on religion, on social matters, or even on art. Indeed, we find more biographical details in Hale’s book of Titian’s friend Pietro Aretino than we do of Titian himself: Aretino’s life is far better recorded. We may infer from all this that Titian, despite his social stature, and despite his closeness with some of the most powerful men of his time (including the Holy Roman Emperor himself), kept, by and large, a low profile. However, his close and long-lasting friendship with a man as erudite and intellectual as Aretino does suggest that Titian’s was not a dull personality; and his closeness with the highest and the mightiest indicates a man possessed of tact and of courtly manners. Further, the success not merely of his studio, but also of his interventions in the family business, suggest a man who was commercially shrewd. And that’s about as much as we know of his personality.

We know also of his repeated attempts to find an ecclesiastical livelihood for his elder son Pomponio, and also of Pomponio’s reluctance to lead such a life; we know also of the eventual estrangement between father and son. But beyond this, there isn’t really much to tell.

This means that Hale has to focus not so much on the details of Titian’s life, but more on the times – on the various wars and political upheavals, on the social and cultural aspects, on the various religious disputes, and so on. These were momentous times. Of course, any period in history will have its fair share of wars and conflicts, and of various political manoeuvrings, but the sixteenth century saw also the beginnings of Protestantism. In 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed the text of his “95 Theses” to the castle church door in Wittenberg. It was not as dramatic an act as it might now seem: nailing theological theses to the church door was quite common practice. Luther himself was unlikely to have anticipated what this seemingly simple act would eventually lead to, but to describe the aftermath of his act as “seismic” doesn’t seem an overstatement.

The era of the Reformation, and also of the counter-Reformation that followed, is among the most crucial periods of European history, and scholars may spend entire lifetimes studying it. I am not a historian, and my understanding of this era may with justice have been described as “sketchy”. However, while great works of art may well transcend their times (and I, for one, believe that they do), they are also, paradoxically, products of their time; and so, to come to even an adequate understanding Titian’s works, we must have some understanding, at least, of the times in which they were created. This Hale gives us: not an in-depth picture of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation (that is not what this book is about), nor an in-depth analysis of the various political power struggles, the various wars, the various territorial and trade disputes, and all the rest of it; but as much of it as is needed for a layman like myself to make at least some sense of the era in which these masterpieces were created.

But of Titian the Person, who lived through it all, we don’t really know much more than we do, say, of Shakespeare the Person. Except that, despite the picture we may still have of what great geniuses ought, at least, to be, they were both shrewd and successful businessmen.

Which leaves, of course, the art.

For any artist whose creative life spans so many years (and Titian’s spans over 60), the nature of the art has to keep renewing itself; otherwise, it becomes stagnant and the fire dies. Titian’s art did most certainly renew itself over the years: the early masterpieces are very different from the later ones. There was a period, when Titian was around 50 or so, when he seemed content merely painting portraits of rich and powerful people – although, perhaps, I shouldn’t use the term “merely”: these portraits are, without exception, magnificent: Titian ranks with the likes of Holbein or Rembrandt as among the greatest of portrait painters. However, he could easily have continued his thriving business painting merely these portraits. But one does not become a great artist without having some sort of artistic vision burning inside, no matter how shrewd a businessman one may be, and Titian, no less than his contemporary Michelangelo, had such fires burning inside. But the essence of these fires is not easy to apprehend, let alone describe.

“The Assumption of the Virgin”, courtesy Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

What strikes one immediately about Titian’s paintings – and especially, I think, his early paintings – is the brilliance and vibrancy of his colours. While Luther was preparing those ninety-five theses that he famously nailed to the church door, Titian, then in his late twenties, was at work on one of the monumental masterpieces of Catholic art – The Assumption of the Virgin for the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari church in Venice, where it still hangs. It is a vast work, almost 7 metres in height, and depicts the moment when the Virgin Mary is taken up into Heaven. It is a subject that had been treated before by other artists, but never like this. Raphael had painted the subject some fifteen or so years earlier, and the contrast between the two is instructive. Raphael’s is a calm and serene affair, with the disciples in the lower half of he painting standing in an orderly line, looking up reverently into a heavenly world that is distinctly different from their own earthly world. In this heavenly world, the Virgin Mary, eyes demurely downcast in worship, is being crowned. Titian’s vision, though, is very different. The first thing one notices – at least, the first thing I noticed – was the colour. Instead of casting the scene in the sober and muted hues of Raphael, Titian chose a much warmer palate, and saturated the canvas with the most vivid of colours. Particularly striking is the flame-like red in which he chose to dress the Virgin (rather than in the more traditional blue), and the repetition of that same shade of red in the gowns worn by two of the disciples below: these three figures form an isosceles triangle, with Mary at the apex. And behind Mary is the most extraordinary golden light, which dazzles the viewer as much as it appears to dazzle Mary. Now, how one can paint an unearthly light using what are, after all, merely earthly paints, I do not know, but I cannot think of any light in any other painting I have seen that seems so insistently to belong to another world.

And, again in contrast to Raphael’s painting, there is a sense of drama. The figures here are not idealised representations: these are real, natural people, albeit witnessing a seemingly unreal and supernatural event. Of course, they are in turmoil. Most of the disciples are in the shade: the few whose faces we can see look up in bewilderment. The postures of the others suggest disorientation and confusion. What they are witnessing maybe an other-worldly vision, but it is here – right here, on earth. The heavenly world may be different from the earthly one, but the boundary is not as strictly defined as it is in Raphael’s more ordered vision: here, the muscular arm of one of the disciples seems almost to touch that other world.

And neither is there anything calm and collected about Mary’s reaction: her posture, with her hands raised, may be seen as one of religious ecstasy, but it is also, I think, the posture of an earthly creature startled by the sudden revelation of the Eternal. Caravaggio is the artist often credited with placing people from the real world into his religious scenes, but, on the basis of this painting, I’d say Titian had got there almost a century earlier.

Masterpiece followed masterpiece: religious scenes, mythological scenes, genre scenes, portraits, group portraits, small canvases, large canvases, monumental canvases – all painted with a mastery that seemed able to adapt itself to whatever was required. The tragic, the joyful, the everyday – nothing seemed beyond his scope. Even the erotic. Perhaps, in seeking to distance the sacred calling of Art from mere fleshly lust, we have tried to downplay this aspect of Titian’s art, or, maybe, sublimate it into something that may be thought of as nobler and loftier; but Titian clearly loved the nude female form, and was quite unabashed by it. When Mark Twain described Venus of Urbino as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses”, I think he had a pretty good idea of what Titian was depicting. Indeed, I find it hard to see Titian’s nudes, in poses that often anticipate those of Playboy, and miss the delight he took in the female body. From the agony of Christ’s Passion to the voluptuous delights of the female nude: nothing in life was too sacred or too profane for his art.

Titian’s depictions of light, of various types of lights, are still as breathtaking now as they must have seemed back then; his figures are endowed with tremendous life and with vitality, his textures are exquisite, and his colours are like nothing seen before. Of course, other artists have also used vivid colours, but Titian, to a greater extent, I think, than just about any other artist I can think of, seemed to depict a world in which the vividness of the colours seems to define the dynamism and the radiance of life itself.

When an artist’s work ranges so widely, it becomes difficult to identify, let alone describe, the nature of his artistry, or of his artistic vision. The very range of Titian’s work is dazzling: it seems hard to imagine an artist less single-minded. But it is quite sobering to realise that much of what Titian had painted, including many regarded as among his greatest masterpieces, is now lost. The Assassination of St Peter Martyr, for instance, was regarded by many as Titian’s greatest masterpiece: it was destroyed completely by fire in 1867, and what hangs now in its place is a copy made in 1691 by a Johann Carl Loth. How well or otherwise this copy communicates what the original painting had communicated can only be a matter of conjecture.

But looking through the astonishing treasures that remain, I really don’t know that it is possible to pick a single painting as the “greatest” masterpiece. And, contrary to the myth of great artists being recognised only after their deaths, the art of Titian (as of Michelangelo) was recognised in his own times.

Titian was patronised even by the Emperor Charles V, and, after his death, by his son Philip II, both of whom liberally commissioned works from him – portraits of themselves and of their families, and subjects both religious and mythological. It was for Philip that, in the mid-1550s, Titian painted a set of six paintings, now collectively known as “Poesie”, based on episodes from Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses. Hale describes them as:

… first and foremost about erotic passion (or in the case of the Diana pictures about its negation) which for better or worse changes us and determines our destiny. And just as Ovid edited the much older and more detailed Greek myths in order to dramatize that underlying theme, so Titian took liberties with Ovid to convey, in a way that would be rivalled only by Shakespeare, the many manifestations of the most primitive and overwhelming of human emotions: the sadness of anticipated loss, the suspense, danger, cruelty and unfairness, and the sheer anarchic fun. It was in these paintings that Titian … showed himself to be the dispenser of all emotions and the plenipotentiary of the senses.

The series consists of; Danaë (the version currently in Apsley House, London, is now believed to be the one presented to Philip); Venus and Adonis (Prado, Madrid); Perseus and Andromeda (Wallace Collection, London); Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Collection, Boston); and two paintings featuring Diana, now shown in rotation in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and the National Gallery, London – Diana and Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto. Lucian Freud once described these two Diana paintings as simply “the most beautiful paintings in the world”.

Though now scattered around different galleries, in 2020, somewhat delayed by the pandemic, they were they brought together and exhibited in a single room. This exhibition toured the world, and I saw it when it came to the National Gallery, London. The exhibition was titled, perhaps rather cheesily, Love, Desire, Death. Big themes, certainly, and perhaps themes that all major artists have to address. But there was no sense of portentiousness. I felt little sense of awe or of reverence that one often feels in the presence of art of this stature. Rather, what I felt was a sense of exhilaration, of elation; a sense of being in the midst of the most extraordinary whirl of colours and of movement. Or, as Sheila Hale puts it, a sense of “sheer anarchic fun”.

But, along with the anarchic fun, there is also cruelty. And it seems to me that as Titian entered into his old age, this element of cruelty started becoming an increasingly salient feature in his work. Not that Titian hadn’t depicted tragic themes before, but the vibrancy of his colours and the exuberance of his compositions communicated in those earlier works an intoxicated sense of elation, of exhilaration, that seemed somehow to counteract the tragic. But in his later paintings, the tone seems to me to become darker, both literally and metaphorically. The palette becomes more restrained, the brushwork rougher, the finish less glossy; and there seems less radiance in the light. At times, indeed, he seems to be depicting wat Milton later famously referred to as “darkness visible”: rather than a brilliant or a gracious light bathing the world, we seem at times, in his very late work, to be enveloped in some profound murk lit only fitfully by spots of light spontaneously bursting and dying in the air.

“The Crowning of Thorns”, courtesy Louvre, Paris

To see the contrast most clearly, one may compare two paintings of his on the same subject – The Crowning of Thorns. The earlier version, now hanging in the Louvre in Paris, dates from around 1540, when Titian was around 50 or so (his exact date of birth is uncertain); the later, now hanging in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, was painted some thirty-five years later in extreme old age. The composition is much the same in both, but where, in the earlier painting, the vibrancy of the colours and of the light involves us in the sense of movement, there is no mistaking the terror and the despondency of the later vision, painted with brushstrokes that are far less smooth, and seen seemingly through broken shards of light. The vision has, without doubt, darkened.

“The Crowning of Thorns”, courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Not that the turn was sudden, of course. Even in the “Poesie”, we had had more than a few hints of the tragic. Take, say, the painting of Diana and Callisto: In Ovid’s poem, Callisto was one of Diana’s handmaiden, but was banished after she was judged to have broken her vow of chastity. (Never mind that she had been raped by Jupiter.) In Titian’s painting, against a dramatically darkening sky, the pregnant Callisto is dragged before Diana by the other handmaidens, and right at the very centre of the composition is Diana’s imperiously outstretched finger, condemning without sympathy. If the mood isn’t quite tragic, it isn’t, perhaps, too far off.

“Diana and Callisto”, courtesy National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, & National Gallery, London

But this was not the last painting by Titian about Diana, and neither is this the last time Diana passes her divine and inhuman judgement on an uncomprehending humanity. In one of the paintings in the “Poesie” he had painted for Philip, he had shown Actaeon stumbling upon Diana’s bower; The Death of Actaeon, now hanging in the National Gallery, London, shows its terrible aftermath. Actaeon is transformed into a stag, and is torn to pieces by his own hounds.

“Death of Actaeon”, courtesy National Gallery, London

Whether Titian had intended this as an addition to the series is not known. My guess is that it isn’t, as its tone, far from projecting a sense of dizzying intoxication, is now grim. The palette is far more restricted than it had been – even though a forest scene, there’s barely any trace of greenery – and the whole thing seems oppressive and airless. The goddess, faceless (her facial features are not seen) delivers a terrible judgement on humanity that can make no sense to human sensibilities.

This was one of the paintings still in the studio at the time of Titian’s death, and there is some controversy about whether it is finished, but I am not sure it matters. Over his last two decades or so, Titan had moved away from the highly finished works of his earlier years to something much newer and much more innovative: in a great many paintings now, not only are the individual brush-strokes not hidden, they’re not meant to be hidden: we’re supposed to see the internal workings, as it were; the very textures of the brush-strokes is part of the effect these pictures are intended to create. I am no art historian, but I think this was new, and was taken up afterwards by entire generations of artists.

Titian had painted tragic subjects before, but comparing his earlier tragic works to his later is a bit like comparing Romeo and Juliet to King Lear. The exuberance has gone; in its stead has descended a profound gloom, as mankind suffers dumbly under divine judgements that, to human standards, can make no sense. The Flaying of Marsyas, now in the State Museum of Kroměříž in the Czech Republic, was also one of the paintings still in Titian’s studio at the time of his death, and depicts the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of the satyr, Marsyas, who had challenged the god Apollo to a contest of musical skill. Marsyas had lost, of course, and the punishment divinely deemed suitable for his transgression was for him to be skinned alive. In this painting, right down the central vertical axis, we have the startling and rather grotesque image of the satyr Marsyas hung upside down, his goat’s legs prominent. The hideous act is skinning alive has already begun, and a puppy sniffs at the blood that is soaking the ground. To the left, a musician, possibly Apollo himself, plays a stringed instrument (a lira di braccio), gazing upward, and seemingly oblivious to the atrocity carried out right under his nose. And to the right, King Midas looks down upon the skinning: there is no trace of horror either in his posture or in his expression. These figures are all painted close to the plane of the canvas, taking up the foreground; and what little space there is between these figures is painted with textures so thick as to appear airless. The colours are bright, but not really in harmony: they appear garish. And the light is dense and murky. I saw this painting when it was exhibited in London nearly twenty years ago, and it seemed to me then, and seems to me still, as grotesque and as disturbing as anything I’ve seen. It projects a sense of terror that I have experienced only one other time in the presence of art – when I stood before the Black Paintings of Goya in the Prado.

“The Flaying of Marsyas”, courtesy State Museum of Kroměříž

There’s a late Nymph and Shepherd hanging in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, but we’re far from a pastoral idyll here: the shepherd holds his pipe, and the nymph smiles at him, but the landscape these two traditional lovers inhabit, far from evoking the pastoral, seems to speak of some apocalyptic devastation. It’s as if Titian had deliberately seized upon the traditional images of pastoral grace precisely in order to subvert them. But to what purpose he subverts them in such a manner, it is for us to decide.

Pietà“, courtesy Gallerie dell’Academia, Venice

And there is the enigmatic and terrifying Pietà, which Titian, seemingly, had intended to be placed over his own tomb. There seems a sort of nostalgic glance back at the graceful and radiant paintings of Giovanni Bellini, who had been active in Venice when Titian had been starting out: Bellini had often set his figures within a niche, with an arch overhead. (The San Zaccaria Alterpiece is a very beautiful example of Bellini’s art.) In Titian’s painting, we have, once again, the arch and the niche, but there is nothing graceful or radiant about this. The arch itself seems constructed of large, ugly stone, roughly put together. The light, once again, is unreal, but it is no heavenly light; we seem, rather, in some unearthly region, as far as can be imagined from the light of Paradise that had greeted Mary on her assumption in that painting from over fifty years earlier. The paintwork here is rough: the paint on the chest of the dead Christ seems to have been applied with the fingers rather than with a brush. Mary looks upon her dead son in quiet contemplation, but, towering over her and forming the apex of an assymetrical triangle, is the gigantic figure of Mary Magdalene, screaming into the dark. Standing before this extraordinary painting in the Gallerie dell’Academia in Venice is a chilling experience: one feels in the presence of death itself. One feels the need immediately afterwards to go over to the Frari church to see again The Assumption of the Virgin to remind oneself of what Titian’s vision once had been.

It is hard to say why Titian’s vision darkened. From the evidence of his paintings, it was a gradual rather than a sudden change. But I don’t know that biographical reasons, even assuming they exist, could take us any closer to the heart of this vast and magnificent body of work. Great artists will always look beyond what is immediately in front of them: studying what is immediately in front of them can be instructive, but we mustn’t expect that to unlock the mysteries that all great art contains.

It is hard to see how Sheila Hale’s biography of Titian could possibly be bettered. She tells us what little we know of him as a person, without passing judgement on any aspect of it; and, more importantly, she gives us, with great scholarly rigour, a fascinating picture of the historic and cultural background against which Titian created these magnificent works. Reading this book, we come to understand these works in the context of their times; but if we are to understand how these works – from the profound sensuality and exuberance of his earlier paintings to the dark and comfortless vision of the later – we must, as ever, look for ourselves. The miracles are right there, before us: all we need to do is to look. Look, and wonder.

On reverence

Many people have a very strict definition of reality: only that which exists as a physical entity in the real world may be considered real. Turgenev’s Bazarov may have agreed: twice two is four, and everything else is nonsense, he gleefully proclaimed, though it may be worth asking the Bazarovs of this world (and there are many) if, given that definition, “two” and “four” can themselves be considered real, given that, when not attached to objects – e.g. “two trees” or “four cars” – numbers do not have a physical presence either. But if this is indeed an adequate definition of reality, what are we to make of our emotions – those things we all feel, such as fear, anger, joy, contentment, anxiety, apprehension, delight, and so on? I’m sure that the definition of reality is a complex philosophical issue, and one that I, as a layman, am not qualified to comment upon, but if our definition of reality does not accommodate our emotions, then, it seems to me, such a definition doesn’t come close to describing our real lives as we live them.

So let us grant that, however we choose to define reality, our emotions are “real”. Let us, for convenience if nothing else, cut through the various philosophical subtleties and complexities, and proclaim that what we feel must be real. For, without such an assumption, our thoughts, our actions, our very lives, would be based merely upon illusions.

We may describe most of our emotions by ascribing to them labels: we may label certain emotions as “anger”, or as “fear”, or as “contentment”, and be confident of being understood when we use these terms, since these emotions have been felt, we can be fairly certain, by most, if not all, other humans. There’s no point trying to formulate definitions when a general understanding already exists.

But what about those emotions that one has felt for which there is no handy label, no descriptive term or word? And which we cannot even be sure have been universally experienced? I mean those experiences that, for want of universally understood terms, we tend to refer to as “spiritual”, or as “transcendental”, or something similarly vague. Those experiences that, in Wordsworth’s words, give us a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Such emotions may be straying too close for comfort to religious experience, but even diehard atheists often admit to having felt this kind of thing. We may feel these things in the presence of a resplendent sunset, say; or on viewing some majestic vista from atop a mountain; or on viewing the glory of a star-emblazoned sky on a clear and cloudless night.

We may, indeed, describe the experience of these emotions as “sacred”, but here we run into difficulties: the sacred is usually defined as that which is related to divinity; however, though belief in divinity has declined sharply over the last few decades (at least, in the western world), our capacity to experience those feelings that we may describe as “sacred” hasn’t. And neither, I’d argue, has our need to experience them. So, if the concept of the “sacred” continues to hold meaning for us even if we have stopped believing in God, or even if, like myself, we’re agnostic, we must question whether the “sacred” need necessarily be tied to religion. But how can we define “sacred” otherwise? If we decouple the “sacred” from religious experience, and describe it in more secular terms as anything to which we feel we owe reverence, then the concept of the “sacred” loses all objectivity, and, can, indeed, be anything. To Félicité in Flaubert’s story “Un Coeur Simple”, even a stuffed parrot becomes “sacred”.

However, if what may be deemed “sacred” is not purely objective, it is not, I think, purely subjective either. For what gives rise to these feelings are generally not stuffed parrots, but, rather, resplendent sunsets and mountain-top vistas and the like. And, also, certain works of art. This last I know for a fact, because I have felt this emotion myself when I have come into contact with certain music, certain poems, certain paintings. And, if we deem emotions to be real, then this emotion, too, must be real.

And these emotions are, I’d argue, very precious emotions, whether we feel them in the presence of starry skies, of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or even, for that matter, of stuffed parrots. Towards the end of Flaubert’s story, Félicité, her mind never too strong to begin with and now further weakened by age, as she breathes her last, has a resplendent vision of a gigantic parrot hovering above her. It is utterly absurd, yes, but at the same time, this passage has about it a sense of gravity, of solemnity, that, given the ludicrous nature of the image, is hard to account for. I find it hard to tell whether Flaubert intended to debunk the very idea of religious experience, or to elevate Félicité’s absurd vision into something significant, something that gives a meaning to her otherwise meaningless life. Perhaps there are elements of both: literature can signify many things, even contradictory things, simultaneously. But either way, the sense of rapture Félicité feels is real, even if the gigantic parrot hovering above her isn’t. That sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused exists even here, and is precious, even though there is nothing here interfused, far more deeply or otherwise.

I think this accounts for the often quasi-religious zeal many of us feel for the arts: the arts provide, or, at least, are capable of providing, experiences generally considered to belong to the realms of religion. The idea that art can, or should, give rise to such feelings remains, however, hotly disputed. There are those who insist, often quite aggressively, that the arts exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to give pleasure. The arts, we are told, traditionally existed for no other reason, and that we only started to become precious about it in more recent times. For instance, Alan Bissett, in the article linked to above, solemnly tells us:

Stretching back to oral folk culture, stories were democratic in their nature, bonding communities in a shared experience. Everyone had a tale to tell around the fire; the audience could decide for themselves if it was good or not.

Tempting though it may be to picture our distant forefathers seated around a communal fire and entertaining themselves, purely for pleasure, with recitations from The Book of Job, it doesn’t seem to me an image that rings particularly true. From even the earliest of our surviving literature, it is obvious that the creators, even when they set out to entertain, had set out also to achieve more.

Bissett starts his piece by telling us that there is “art appreciation” and “art worship”, and while he allows the former to be acceptable, the latter he doesn’t. Which would be fine if he could at least explain to us what the difference is between the two, but he doesn’t. And since he doesn’t, I can only guess at what he means: I’d guess that what Bissett refers to as “art worship” is the reverence that some of us may feel for a work of art. And that, according to Bissett, is a Bad Thing. For the purpose of art, he solemnly informs us with all the earnestness of a conscientious hedonist, is to provide pleasure. Nothing more.

The claim that there can be no other point to art than to entertain and to provide pleasure, and that, by implication, anyone who claims to have obtained from art anything other than that must either be fooling themselves or are lying, strikes me as, frankly, gratuitously insulting. Even if one does not feel certain things in the presence of art, the contention that no-one else can or should feel these things either, is presumptuous, to say the least. It also strikes me as boorish and ill-mannered.

The idea that the arts can give rise to certain feelings that are close to religious emotions has long, I think, been acknowledged. Religion itself has recognised this: various religious institutions have either outlawed the arts from the act of worship, considering the quasi-religious feelings derived from art as unwanted rivals to true religious feelings; others have done the opposite, and have incorporated the arts into the act of worship, welcoming the quasi-religious as a legitimate means of approaching the religious. And in recent times, with religious beliefs receding in the West, the arts have in many cases become a sort of secular religion in themselves – a replacement for religion, providing experiences that we can no longer obtain from religion, but which we nonetheless require to prevent our lives from sinking into triviality. For a mortality in which there is nothing serious, in which all is but toys, is, we instinctively realise, a sort of hell.

Yet this hell of triviality is what many seem to recommend to us. Here, for instance, is pianist Charlie Albright, who tells us in a well-meaning article that to bring audiences back to classical concerts again, we must make it fun, and take the seriousness out of it.

Breaking down such “classical” rules will kill “classical” music — and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting … It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert.

But could it not be the case, I wonder, that the “seriousness” of classical music may well be the very reason why so many of us are drawn to it in the first place? Albright is not gratuitously offensive, as Bissett is, but interestingly, he too conjures up a picture of music once being fun, until we unnecessarily burdened it with all our deplorable seriousness. But once again, this does not ring true. The oldest music I know is the choral music of medieval composers such as Josquin des Prez, or Hildegard of Bingen, and I can’t say it is music that makes me want to get up and boogie. Beethoven wrote above the score of Missa Solemnis “From the heart – may it go to the heart”; the piece itself is eighty minutes of very knotty and immensely demanding music. Some may disagree, but I do not get the impression from this that Ludwig had set out to give his audience a bit of fun. What the music does give us, however, is something I do not have the words to describe, and for which I need once again to borrow from Wordsworth – that “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. I feel, indeed, a reverence. And if anyone tells me that I am but fooling myself, and only imagining that I feel this; or even that I shouldn’t feel this; then, frankly,I don’t know that we need take this person too seriously.

I do not know how to describe these emotions, but since I can feel them, they are real. If these emotions I feel aren’t real, then no other emotion I feel can be real either. And yes, the music – or the painting, or the poem – that can give rise to such emotions is indeed something to which we owe reverence. And if that is a definition of the sacred, then yes, it is sacred, and will continue being so, no matter how many Bazarovs there may be in our world telling us that twice two is four, and all else merely nonsense.

The ecstasies of Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Rome can sometimes seem – to the tourist, at least – as a vast museum and art gallery. Look over there – there’s a Raphael. And a few Caravaggios over here. There goes Michelangelo. And if you blink, you’ll miss that church designed by Bramante. Even on the way to the hotel, in the Piazza Barberini, on a traffic island, with all the cars and buses driving indifferently past it, there was a fabulous fountain sculpted by Bernini – a Triton, his head flamboyantly thrown back as he blows into his conch shell.


“Triton” by Bernini at Piazza Barberini, Rome

I spent a few days in Rome recently. And yes, I took in as much as I could of the Bramantes and the Borrominis, the Michelangelos and the Raphaels, and the various Caravaggios that are dotted around the city. And yes, they are all every bit as wonderful as I had expected them to be. Even with the vast sea of people teeming inside the Sistine Chapel, I was enthralled: it was magnificent. Some complain about all those people ruining their view, but, as one of those people myself, no doubt ruining someone else’s view, I didn’t feel in a position to make such a complaint: I was grateful simply to be there.

I had expected Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio to make a big impression: and they did – no doubt about that. Less expected, perhaps, was the impression made by Bernini, who seems omnipresent in Rome. From that very first glimpse of the Triton on the way to the hotel, his works impressed themselves upon my imagination. As he had no doubt intended: all that Baroque flamboyance – some may say “exhibitionism” – is designed, after all, to impress. There may or may not be depth in these works, but it hardly matters when one is so blown away by the surface brilliance.

There is a tremendous sensuality to these sculptures, and it is difficult not to respond to it. In a small, unassuming church near my hotel, is the very famous sculpture of “St Teresa in Ecstasy”. The ecstasy is presumably religious in nature, but, in St Teresa’s own description of her vision, in which an angel stabs an arrow repeatedly into her heart, the sexual imagery can hardly be missed:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

(This excerpt is taken from an article in Wikipedia, and the translator is not identified.)


“St Teresa in Ecstasy” by Bernini, courtesy of Santa Maria delle Vittoria, Rome

And the sexual ecstasy seems to me very obvious also in Bernini’s interpretation – the eyes closed, the head thrown back, the disordered creases of St Teresa’s gown more than suggesting a wild and uncontrolled sexual delirium. I do not know what those of a more religious temperament than mine would make of this blurring of the religious and the sexual: I wouldn’t be surprised if some were to find it disturbing.

What I find more disturbing is the sensuality of two sculptures in the Galleria Borghese, both based on episodes from classical mythology. The first concerns Apollo’s attempted rape of Daphne. In this story, the god Apollo takes rather a fancy to Daphne, and, as gods do, attempts to rape her. And, to save her from this fate, she is metamorphosed into a laurel tree. Thus, Apollo is thwarted, but at a not inconsiderable cost, one imagines, to his intended victim. In Metamorphoses, Ovid narrates this story, as he does all others, without taking a moral stance on the matter, and Bernini does the same. And he goes further: he renders the scene as a moment of great beauty, and of wonder. And I can’t help asking myself whether either is appropriate in a depiction of what is, after all, a scene of attempted rape.


“Daphne and Apollo” by Bernini, Courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome

Even more disturbing is his sculpture of the Rape of Prosperine. This time, it’s the god Pluto who takes a fancy to Prosperine, and this time, the rape is successful. Bernini depicts the violence of the act, with Prosperine desperately trying to push away the divine rapist. But there’s also a sensuality about the sculpture that I can’t help but find disturbing. It could be claimed that Bernini was doing no more than depicting: Prosperine is undoubtedly beautiful, and, indeed, desirable, so why should Bernini not depict her as such? It is hard, indeed, not to respond to her beauty and her desirability. The detail of Pluto’s fingers pressing into the soft flesh of Prosperine’s thigh seems little short of miraculous: never has marble seemed more like a living being of flesh and blood. In art, one tends often to take the artist’s technique for granted, and to focus on the artistic end to which the technique is deployed; but Bernini is asking us here to admire the technique for its own sake, and it is well nigh impossible not to do so. But when I consider the ends to which this technique is deployed, I can’t help but feel somewhat disturbed: can it be morally acceptable to depict such grotesque violation of a human being with such loving sensuality? I do not know. But it just feels wrong.


Detail from “The Rape of Prosperine” by Bernini, courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome

On my last day in Rome, I went to the Trastavere, on the west side of the Tiber, south of the Vatican. There were those wonderful frescoes by Raphael in the Villa Farnesina, and, further south, a delightful complex of piazzas, restaurants, and churches: even at the height of the tourist season, there was about the place a sense of stillness and quiet. My aim was the church of San Francesco a Ripa, which contained, so my guide book informed me, a late Bernini, created when he was in his seventies – a funerary sculpture of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. Although not far – certainly within walking distance – from the crowded centre of Rome, the church was deserted: I was the only one there. The atmosphere was still and solemn, and, one might reasonably expect, a funerary sculpture, created when the sculptor was himself in his old age, and, no doubt, contemplating the stillness and the silence of eternity, would share something of the sombre and pensive qualities of the surroundings. What I saw was rather different.


“Beata Ludovico Albertoni” by Bernini, cortesy San Francesco a Ripa, Rome

Once again, Bernini seems to see no division between religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy. While this may well have been justified in the case of St Teresa, there seems little justification of it here: it is almost as if Bernini is incapable of seeing anything, no matter how profane or sacred, in anything other than purely sensual terms. The Blessed Ludovica, like St Teresa, has her head thrown back; her right hand is pressed close to her soft breast, while her left hand clutches frantically at her midriff; her thigh is at an angle to her torso, her knees bent, her entire body electrified in an orgasmic moment of sheer sensual ecstasy. I, certainly, have never seen a funerary sculpture anything like this.

What do those of a more religious temperament than mine make of this, I wonder? Are they as disturbed by this as I am by the Rape of Prosperine? Are some, perhaps, shocked? And if so, did Bernini intend to shock? Perhaps not. I know little of Bernini the man, but, observing his works, I get the impression of someone who saw everything – the sacred and the profane, this world, the other world, all that is, and all that could be – in the most unashamedly sensual and erotic of terms. And even in old age, when the heyday in the blood is tame, humble, and waits on judgement, Bernini’s throbbed as voluptuously as it ever had done. And if this disturbs puritans such as myself, well, perhaps we deserve sometimes to be disturbed.

This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

“Caravaggio: A Life” by Helen Langdon

Many use the adjective “theatrical” as a pejorative, but as someone who loves the theatre, I can’t say I do. As I understand it, the word refers to a heightening of the audience’s response not merely in an artificial manner – all art is artificial, after all – but in a knowingly artificial manner: we are aware as we experience it of the artifice of the creation – of the artist (or the author, or the composer, or whoever) pulling the strings in order to intensify our response. Indeed, our awareness of the artist pulling the strings is part of the intended effect. This can, I accept, lead merely to the meretricious, especially when the material is slight, or is treated in a superficial manner. But when it isn’t, when the material itself is substantial in its own right and the treatment is more than superficial, then the artist’s presence, if sufficiently striking, can enhance the work.

Some seven or so years ago now, the National Gallery in London had hosted an exhibition of some late paintings of Caravaggio, and I remember vividly the effect of walking into that first room. No reproduction could have prepared me for something such as this. There, looming out of the darkness, was a vast canvas, almost three metres in height, of the Flagellation of Christ. At the centre was Christ’s almost naked body, lit as if by a fierce spotlight, his hands tied behind him, and his head, crowned with thorns, hanging limp; to the right of the picture, one of the executioners presses on Christ’s calf with his foot as he tightens the bonds; while to the left, another executioner, a man who, to judge from the vicious sneer on his face, enjoys his job, grabs Christ by the hair with one hand, while holding the scourge in a clenched fist in another; and a third executioner, in the forefront at the bottom left, is tying the rods together in preparation for the beating. These are working men doing a job: their job just happens to be inflicting pain. But it is that lighting that is so theatrical – that relentless spotlight picking out these figures from the profound dark that surrounds them, and covering them in a light of the most dazzling brilliance.

"The Flagellation of Christ", courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

“The Flagellation of Christ”, courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

I remember going from room to room, amazed. Nowadays, the adjective “amazing” merely signifies “very good”, but I actually was amazed: never, on seeing these paintings in reproduction, had I imagined that their real presence could make so visceral an impact. These were all late works, painted in Naples, Malta, and Sicily, while Caravaggio was on the run: in Rome, he was wanted for murder, and there was a price on his head. Of course, any work of art should be judged purely on its own terms, but once something such as this is known,  it is not possible to un-know it: like it or not, it is not possible to look on these highly charged tragic works, these meditations on violence and mortality and terror, and, sometimes, even of tenderness, without having in the back of one’s mind the thought that these were the creations of a man who had himself killed, and who feared for his own life every day. In one picture, David holds the severed head of Goliath. David is but a boy, and his face, though expressive more of sorrow than of triumph, is relatively bland. It is the dead head that seems a living thing. The strength of character is all in that dead and battered head of Goliath, and here, Caravaggio had painted himself. How is it possible to see this painting and keep from one’s mind the circumstances in which it had been painted?

It was that last room of that exhibition that particularly affected me. Here were three paintings rarely seen – two from the Museo Nazionale in Messina in Sicily, and the other from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nancy in France. The Sicilian paintings depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Raising of Lazarus, while the painting from Nancy depicted the Annunciation – all familiar subjects in Western art. But never had they been treated like this. In the Annunciation, the angel seems to be entering the space of the painting from our own space, and, his back to us, his shoulder and arm are brightly lit by a white light supernatural in its radiance. Before the angel, Mary, dressed in a deep blue, bows in deep submission, at once accepting and weighed down by the burden placed upon her. Mary appears again, of course, in the adoration of the Shepherds, this time in red. Here, she is not, as in most paintings of this subject, joyfully showing her divine child to the adorers: she is, instead, clutching the newborn baby in her arms, and is collapsed on the dirty floor of the stable in utter exhaustion, as if unaware of the shepherds who have come to pay homage. The shepherds themselves are ragged working men; the stable is dark and dingy and filthy. These figures take up less than half the space of the canvas; the rest – especially the vast space above the figures – is in almost complete darkness. And similarly with the raising of Lazarus: the top of the figures’ heads come up to just above the half-way mark of the height of the canvas, and all above is a cavernous, dark emptiness. These figures are seen in an unearthly, ghostly half-light, as if inhabiting some vague region between life and death. Christ’s face is in darkness: the light, from behind Christ and outside the frame of the picture, catches the back of his shoulder, and the top of his sleeve as he points towards the resurrecting Lazarus. Around Christ’s head is a complex of several other heads: Christ’s head stands out from theirs not by being in the light, but by being in the dark. One of the heads behind Christ strains forward to see what is happening; two workmen in front of Christ, holding the stone which is to cover the grave of Lazarus, seem to be looking over their shoulders to somewhere behind Christ, towards the source of this mysterious light that illumines the scene. The body of Lazarus is stiff with rigor mortis; the flesh is greenish, and the arms outstretched, as if crucified. Only the right hand has begun to move: it is at an angle from the wrist, and is receiving divine light. Pressed close to his face is the face of his sister, loving and tender even in the face of Death itself.

"The annunciation", courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

“The annunciation”, courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

These three paintings in the last room seemed to contain an entire world. It was a sensibility that was entirely new to me. It presented a world that is profoundly dark, where pain is as intense as it is inevitable, and where divine power, whatever power there is that is greater than our own, fills us with awe and wonder, but not with joy. And yet there is in all this human tenderness. There is the tenderness with which the rough and ragged shepherds view the newborn child, the tenderness of Mary who, even in the utter exhaustion of childbirth, holds the beloved child close to her heart; and there is that unforgettable image of the sister of Lazarus (who is either Mary of Bethany or Martha), pressing her living face close to the face of her dead brother, her love persisting even beyond this greatest of all mysteries. These are visionary works. And yet, how could such a vision belong to a man who was a common brawler and murderer?

"The Adoration of the Shepherds", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina


I came out of that exhibition barely able to think, but when I did recover my faculties, I found myself thinking that I must get to know more about this artist. So why it took me a full seven years to come round to reading Helen Langdon’s acclaimed biography I don’t know. I suppose it’s because I’m not really a great reader of biographies: I am interested in the work, not the man. But Caravaggio is so fascinating a person; and it is so hard to think of the works without thinking also of the man behind them; that I was prepared to make an exception: what kind of man was this Caravaggio?

"The Raising of Lazarus", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Raising of Lazarus”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

Well, as far as can be judged, he was a thug, a brawler, a bully, and a great quarreller; he was a man quick to take offence, and  given to almost gratuitous acts of violence; and he was, possibly, a neurotic. As with his almost exact contemporary Shakespeare (Shakespeare was only seven years older), we don’t really know that much about Caravaggio’s life; we know that, like Shakespeare he was born in the provinces – in Caravaggio’s case, in a small town near Milan; that, again like Shakespeare, he came to the capital city to make a career for himself; and, once again like Shakespeare, his art developed from gentle and sensuous lyricism of his early works to a visionary tragic intensity that has not since been surpassed, or possibly even equalled. But that’s where the similarities seem to end. Shakespeare, to the great dismay of his biographers, seemed to have kept a low profile while in London, and was sufficiently level-headed and business-like to make a fortune and retire back to his home town; Caravaggio, on the other hand, seemed to spend his time whoring and brawling, and, while Shakespeare was buying himself the biggest house in Stratford, Caravaggio was fleeing from place to place, armed even in bed at night, constantly in fear of his very life.

Helen Langdon’s biography of this spectacularly unbalanced man is very level-headed and sober, almost to a fault. She gives wonderfully vivid depictions of the milieux which Caravaggio inhabited – from the plague-ravaged Milan of his youth to the violent and sexually licentious streets of Rome – but generally, she is not prepared either to speculate, or even to consider certain possibilities. She is not interested, for instance, in whether Caravaggio was gay: she reminds us that homosexuality was a capital crime in those days, that the awful punishment for sodomy – burning at the stake – was enforced, and that, under such circumstances, even if Caravaggio had been gay, he would hardly have advertised the fact. And indeed, there is no evidence except in his paintings – from the sensually painted young men in his early works with their delicate, androgynous beauty, to two rather explicit paintings of male nudes –  the Victorious Cupid in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and St John the Baptist in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. The male nude is of course hardly a new subject in art, and in both these paintings, the pose is very obviously taken from Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel; but the sexually enticing and blatantly provocative nature of these Caravaggio’s nudes can hardly be mistaken. Of course, we live, thankfully, in more tolerant times, in which gay culture is not just tolerated but celebrated; but these paintings of Caravaggio remain disturbing because they indicate not homosexuality, which does not trouble us, but pederasty, which does. If any photographer nowadays were to exhibit such sensual images of naked boys, far from celebrating them as art, we would, I fancy, have the exhibition closed down. And yet, disturbingly, these paintings are undeniably masterpieces.

We have other reasons also to find Caravaggio a disturbing figure. Rome in those days was a dangerous and violent city, and, from the surviving evidence, Caravaggio seemed to revel in it. Even as a successful and much sought-after artist, he seemed to delight in low-life, moving from tennis court to tavern to brothel, often deliberately quarrelling and provoking fights. Reading through the pages of Langdon’s biography, the wonder is not that he eventually killed someone in a brawl, but that it took him so long to get round to doing it.

And yet, all the while, he was producing masterpiece after masterpiece. The turning point came in around 1599-1600 – at around the same time as Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar and As You Like It and Henry V and Hamlet – when he painted for the Contarelli chapel three extraordinary paintings relating to St Matthew, and, for the Cerasi Chapel two paintings – the Crucifixion of St Peter, and the Conversion of Paul – which flank and overwhelm by their extraordinary intensity the central painting by Annibale Caracci.

Just about everything he painted after that was a masterpiece: The Supper at Emmaus (currently at the National Gallery London); the Deposition (currently at the Vatican Pinacoteca), and the almost unbearably moving Death of the Virgin (currently at the Louvre in Paris); possibly the most poignant depiction I think I have come across in painting of the sheer pain of loss; and many, many others.

And then, of course, those last few years of his desperate life. Little is known. Why, for instance, did he leave Naples in such a rush? Why, after his welcome in Malta and his success there (he was made a Knight of the Order of St John), did he end up in prison? How did he get out of prison? (The story goes that he made a daring solo escape, but Helen Langdon is sceptical: it is more likely, she suggests, that he had powerful friends who helped him get away.) Why, in Sicily, did he sleep armed with a sword? Why did he hurriedly leave Syracuse immediately after completing the Burial of St Lucy? Was he, perhaps, being trailled by his enemies from Malta? (Certainly, he had good reason to fear: he was savagely attacked and almost killed in Naples only a few months later. Who attacked him, and why, remain unknown.) And, perhaps the greatest mystery of all, how is it possible that such a thuggish and violent brute could have painted – especially given the state of mind he must have been in – works of such visionary intensity?

Caravaggio’s death in 1610, aged only 39, is part tragedy, part farce. A pardon had been arranged for him in Rome, and he was on his way back. But when his ship stopped at the town of Port ‘Ercole, the governor of the town, either not aware of the pardon or not knowing who Caravaggio was, had him imprisoned. And by the time Caravaggio could buy his way out of imprisonment, his ship, containing paintings he was intending for Rome (and now lost), had vanished. Desperate to recover his precious paintings, Caravaggio trekked overland, through disease-ridden marsh-land, to catch up with the departed  ship; and in the process, he caught fever and died. While his contemporary Shakespeare was no doubt in the process of buying with his carefully accumulated wealth the largest house in Stratford in which to spend his well-earned retirement, the violent and unstable Caravaggio was feverishly shivering to death somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The enigma remains. I look at the face of the dead St Lucy in the painting now in Syracuse: she is lying on the bare earth with her face turned towards us, filling our hearts with infinite pity; and I ask myself how a man who habitually and gratuitously inflicted violence upon others could ever sympathise so entirely, at least in his art, with this innocent victim of that same violence.

There is no answer to these questions. If we consider what little we know of Shakespeare’s life, all we see is a provincial who comes to the big city and becomes a success, carefully accumulates wealth and invests shrewdly, and then returns to his home town to spend his retirement in a big house. In short, we encounter a middle class bourgeois with middling aspirations. And yet, this seeming mediocrity created Falstaff, Hamlet, Cleopatra, plumbing the very depths of the human soul. And meanwhile, the brutish and neurotic Caravaggio, thug and murderer and possibly pederast, conveys the most intense and dark visions of awe and terror and pity.

Perhaps it is a mistake to expect geniuses to be different from the rest of us. They come in all shapes and forms, much as the rest of us do. Some of them may indeed be noble and generous; some may even correspond to the popular image of the genius as a misunderstood and tortured soul; while others may indeed be as mediocre and as unremarkable, or as nasty and as violent, as their less gifted fellow humans. Perhaps there is no real difference between geniuses and the rest of us. Except, of course, for their genius.