The more you know

Caravaggio – Works

• Bacchus (in the Uffizi): in this period (1590-1600) he painted portraits of adolescents often with still lifes (Boy with a basket of fruit, Bacchus sick). In Bacchus the young man is lying on a triclinium and wrapped in a sheet, as if it were a Roman garment. This is why Bacchus also has a wreath of vine leaves on his head of curly black hair. His face is rotated by three quarters and leaning forward, slightly reddened: his expression is enigmatic and absorbed in his own thoughts.
He holds a guilt glass cup of red wine with his thumb and forefinger. The wine is poured from the large bottle resting on the table. In the foreground, the still life anticipates the ways of the Fruit Basket, because even here we find rotten fruits and dry leaves (symbol of time that passes and makes everything change).
The atmosphere is dark and almost mystical. If interpreted in a Christian key, the young man would be the Savior and the wine, the split pomegranate, the black belt that he holds with his right hand and the black cloth to the right of the basket of fruit would be clear symbols of the Passion of Christ. We want to re-establish the taste of reality on the late Mannerist bizarre.
• Vocation of St. Matthew (one of the three large canvases that decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the Roman church of San Luigi dei Francesi): the moment in which Jesus, as described by the Gospel, chooses the tax collector (tax collector of taxes) Matthew as his Apostle. On the far right of the canvas we have St. Peter, almost from behind, barely pointing, and Christ, who stretches his right arm towards the future Apostle.
Matthew is seated at the table with four friends and, amazed by the invitation, instinctively points to himself, questioning, to check if the Lord was looking for him. Only Matthew and the two young men on the right notice Christ, who look at him. The old man with glasses and the young man at the head of the table are too busy counting their money. This also makes us understand how much Caravaggio meant that God’s call is addressed to everyone and everyone is free to accept it or not (salvation or damnation).
But the real protagonist of the canvas is the yellowish light that pierces the half-light, imagined to come from a door that opens onto the outside, where Christ and Peter also seem to have entered. The yellowish light makes the squalor of the place appear clearly. It is clear how much Caravaggio was inspired by the taverns in Rome he frequented. Thanks to the light, the figures take shape and are transformed into characters painted with excellent realism. Light is also a symbol, being behind Jesus and with his outstretched arm it seems to direct it to others, enlightened and almost turned on. Light is ideal: it is divine grace, which freezes everyone’s expressions in an absolute way (abstraction from space and time). Realism concerns both the characters, but also their postures and clothes. But the representation of the sacred has very little: it looks more like a genre scene than a religious event. Even the halo of Christ, the only indication of his divine nature, is barely perceptible and perhaps added later to please the client as there is too much “secularism”. However, Caravaggio believed that divinity can be found even in the hearts of those who seem less worthy.

• Crucifixion of St. Peter (in the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo): Caravaggio personally reinterprets usual religious themes. In fact, many works are contested or rejected by the clients. It is a large canvas that depicts the dramatic moment in which St. Peter, after declaring that he is not worthy to be killed like Jesus, is crucified, but upside down. The atmosphere is dark and dramatic, while the three executioners try to raise the cross (on the contrary). The kneeling man is oriented on the diagonal of the painting and puts his feet on the ground to support the cross with his left shoulder, weighed down by the body of Peter, nailed to it. The second man has his head turned three-quarters towards the holy martyr and holds the base of the cross with both arms. The third is prospectively further back and pulls the rope forcefully, more or less parallel to the diagonal of the work, to increase the general feeling of effort. Pietro is the only one who is totally enlightened and tries to straighten up to instinctively counteract the overturning (instinct studied by Caravaggio from life, perhaps by letting one of his shop assistants test his position). The torso is powerful, Michelangelesque and inclined in the opposite direction to that of the executioners: a sense of compositional discontinuity is immediately created in the viewer. Pietro’s face is expressive and grandiose. The setting is poor and bare (considered almost blasphemous) and the light is always the protagonist: it comes from above, on the left, and shapes the bodies of the characters, preventing them from getting lost in the darkness in the background.

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