Inherent Revolution: Why the artist was the first to make paintings of timeless mass appeal

by Claudio STRINATI

Caravaggio inevitably attracts us because we sense that his life and art are tightly, inextricably connected.  At one time, the explanation for this fact seemed straightforward: He lived a tragic, challenging life, withstanding many difficulties, which manifested itself in the extreme (some say grotesque) power of his art filled with violence, inescapable fate and sadness. Now, however, major studies of his work question this interpretation.

In recent years, much information and thinking have emerged that lead us to see beyond the simplistic notion that the aesthetic reflects solely the experiential.

Inherent Revolution_David

Yet, the cause inspiring this examination has not changed; what has changed is only the vantage point of those who seek to explain the phenomenon.

Autobiography deeply fascinates us; it establishes the foundation of literary and philosophical traditions and determinants of our culture. Plato’s Dialogues and Dante’s Divine Comedy are essential works in Western Civilization, as are Homer’s Odyssey and Goethe’s Faust. But for centuries, autobiography manifested in all aspects of art except in painting. It is unthinkable to interpret the works of Giotto, di Massaccio or Piero delle Francesca using an autobiographical lens.

However, some visual autobiographical references seep into the works of the Renaissance masters: almost certainly with Michelangelo Buonarroti; perhaps seen with Leonardo da Vinci and Raffaello.

But none of these artists consistently declare here “I” am.

In Caravaggio, that which 100 years before was vague, became explicit. Although there may be no proof, what appears plainly evident is that he transposed an existential, personal meaning into his figurative works. The true “revolution” of Caravaggio is here, not just in the magnificent contrast of light and dark, in the bewildering intersection of undisguised hedonism with the banal, in the juxtaposition of stark emptiness with a looming density palpitating with emotion.

The “revolution” is the fact that the artist painted himself and of his experience, and questioned the viewer in a way that had never been done before.

In many of his works the figures unabashedly turn themselves toward the viewer, as in Love Conquers All  (Staatliche Museum, Berlin), the wonderful Bacchus (Uffizi, Florence), The Musicians (Metropolitan

Museum, New York) or the Young Saint John the Baptist (Musei Capitolini, Rome). In Love Conquers All, the boy is even laughing – a rare expression in the iconographic tradition. However, when the artist places his own visage in his paintings, he is opposite the viewer and yet never meets our gaze, for example, in the scene of the Martydom of Saint Matthew, or when he screams with pain as the head of Goliath in David and Goliath (Galleria Borghese, Rome).

Perhaps the essence of our fascination for Caravaggio’s art lies in the idea that he transformed the autobiographical into the universal, as Dante and, in a completely different style, his contemporary Shakespeare also did.

The evocative, convincing parallel between Caravaggio and his works with Galileo and the Accademia dei Lincei is not commonly noted. Yet undoubtedly the profound complexity and detail of his paintings recall the responsibility of the artist, similar to that of a scientist’s.

An excellent artist is one who has a sense of responsibility for that which he creates because he ultimately respects the supreme purpose of his art: to represent, or, better, to represent us. Even though it could be said that art is universal, like the practice of democracy, it is accessible to “all” only within its own criteria. No artist in any moment in history, was ever able to represent an entire population at once (an unrealistic audience in any case). On the other hand, society as a whole is not solely comprised of indifferent individuals who share nothing in common.

This thesis regarding Caravaggio is really about the contemporary concept of communication. Clearly, art may not reach each individual. Yet, in time the messages contained within certain works that transcend the social-political climate in which they were created, continue to have meaning. Caravaggio first understood that the autobiographical is the device par excellence for an uninhibited, overwhelmingly direct communication with whomever is a witness to the visual.

The aesthetic experience conceived in this way, is thus truly available to everyone. In true democracy (an idea sprung from the restless intellect that scans a chaotic world ever-vacillating from frailty to stability), art can be called the most

About the Author


Claudio Strinati is an art critic, author and art historian. His field of study is particularly concentrated on the 16th and 17th centuries. He has been the curator of many exhibitions and cultural events in Italy and abroad. He was the Superintendent of Rome’s Polo Museale for about 20 years. He is the creator of the recent “Caravaggio” Exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome.