by Luciano Arcangeli
By the start of the seventeenth century, the transformation of Rome into the artistic epicenter of Italy was a fait accompli. Florence and Venice, which taught the continent the visual language of the Renaissance, had lost much of their dynamism. The Italian cities that now began to manifest the most artistic vitality and originality were Genoa, Bologna, and Naples, but such was the potential for fame and success in Rome that few artists, whether Italian or foreign, felt they could do without a sojourn in the eternal city, which would test their abilities through exposure to its fierce artistic competition.
In its capacity as an international cultural capital, then, seventeenth-century Rome was analogous to nineteenth-century Paris or postwar New York. In addition to welcoming formal experiment and fostering artistic dialogue, the city offered countless opportunities to study the past, functioning as a theater on whose stage gifted artists could interact with each othersometimes stormilyunder the eye of tradition. Quarrels between artistic factions assumed an unprecedented importance. As mentioned with regard to the previous century, Rome seemed about to explode”; it was home to a dazzling array of artistic personalities who would revolutionize western art. Moreover, during the century’s early years the city’s dominant class changed in significant ways, developing a taste for artistic innovation that would favor the city’s emergence as a preeminent artistic center. From this time forward, the throne of Saint Peter was occupied not by representatives of the venerable warrior aristocracy of Rome and Latium but by those of families based in other parts of Italynotably Tuscany and Emiliawho were eager to exploit the considerable power of the office, and who were much more inclined than their Roman predecessors to foster emerging trends, protect artists, and enrich their personal collections.
It was this transformed Rome that received an artist destined to revolutionize European painting: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The realism of his vases of flowers and bowls of fruit, rendered with an unprecedented immediacy, and the naturalism of his young models, disarming in their sexual ambiguity, soon caught the eye of the city’s most cultivated collectors, from Cardinal del Monte to the all-powerful Scipione Borghese, nephew of the future Pope Paul V. But it was Caravaggio’s entry into the prestigious and exclusive sphere of religious painting that produced the equivalent of an explosion in the Roman art world. The works that he painted between 1597 and 1600 for his first sacred commission, destined for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, swept away conventions that had governed the treatment of religious subjects for centuries, with results that persuasively situated the core truth of the Christian message in the poverty, beauty, and brutality of everyday life. The light, too, in Caravaggio’s canvases is unlike that of Renaissance works; emanating from well-defined sources, it scarcely suffices to illuminate the small rooms depicted, yet strikes the figures inside them with real force. It is the light of truth and revelation, exposing nothing less than the dramatic reality of existence.