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  • Caravaggio: Realism, Rebellion, Reception
  • Charles H. Carman
Genevieve Warwick , ed. Caravaggio: Realism, Rebellion, Reception. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2006. 146 pp. index. illus. bibl. $52.50. ISBN: 0–87413–936–8

As the title promises, Caravaggio's realism and personality are rehearsed in light of new research and much hard thinking about the evident biographical record. Despite negative historical views (Bellori et al.), there endures the artist sought by patrons in high places. How then to see Caravaggio as a respondent to the complex levels of Roman Counter-Reformation culture?

Throughout these essays, the polysemous nature of Caravaggio's realism is met by sober and exciting ways to understand the polymorphous nature of his clients and patrons. Warwick's introduction begins by framing Caravaggio's art as "performances of history staged as the present" (19), an approach that she extends to great advantage in her essay "Allegories of Eros." There she argues that within Rome's courtly culture, gender and sexual identities, audience and actors, the high and the low, intermingle to challenge the often fixed meanings presumed today. Similarly, Todd Olson's "The Street Has Its Master," finds semantic plenitude in the margins. Though here, while intermezzi might have players of gypsies and cheats (the despised) interact with the audience (the privileged) at performance end, elite participation is seen now as "managing" the inferior. Pleasure and suppression go hand in hand. Caravaggio, in turn, exacts for them (the despised) their own managing: the repaired patch on the elbow jutting at us in the Supper at Emmaus signals "significant opposition to the sign of dissolute poverty: unkempt appearance" (76).

David Stone's "Self and Myth" looks more at the artist's psyche, where his self-portraiture is "a carefully planned act of self-fashioning, or myth making" (38). Our artist might still be the sociopath of historical record, but he's a clever one, capable of intelligent literary conceits and brimming with furbezza. Stone's is an especially sensitive analysis both psychologically and stylistically. Skillful too is Colantuono's "Caravaggio's Literary Culture," which explores evidence of Caravaggio's poetic knowledge (his likely role in the crude, witty poems that defamed Baglione), tied not only to satirical ironies of contemporary poetry (Marino), but also to the epigrammatic tradition. An even more intellectually astute Caravaggio emerges under the mature scrutiny of Elizabeth Cropper's deepening insights into the artist's ties to the controversial tendency of the period know as atomism, taken to special advantage by Caravaggio given his well-documented relationship to the real. Thus, he allies broadly with threats associated also with Galileo, but more importantly with the poetry of Marino. Like Marino, Caravaggio is drawn to tendencies that invert the traditional relationship of real and ideal. [End Page 159]

Catherine Pugliesi's "Life and Lives" shows that it is no easy task to sift back and forth between historical bias of biographers and the related mythbuilding of critics. By paying close attention to the nature of his successful commissions, and even reclaimed rejections, Pugliesi helps clarify the questions that may be easily overlooked, such as the meaning of his alternately interpreted famous or infamous use of tenebrism, which "underpins Caravaggio's reception as a great and moving religious artist" (33). Charles Dempsey, finally, anchors these reevaluations by shedding his own enlightening analysis of Caravaggio's choice of a non-idealizing naturalism, which he sees as a conscious choice to exploit a "specular" rather than a "macular" approach to capture nature. He echoes, I think, the other essayists by believing in the "need to understand the critical dialectic in which all artists participated, and to which they (and their patrons) all responded in their different ways" (92). Boldly facing the sources and the context of early seventeenth-century Rome, Dempsey can say that Caravaggio's choice to reject an idealizing naturalism "is why the figure he has cast as Christ in the Supper at Emmaus, however realistic, is not believable as Christ" (93). Caravaggio could be polemical, and so, yes, the sources must be taken seriously and the differentiation between real and ideal sorted out, accepted, and explained. Collectively these essays (accompanied by an excellent...


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