My first trip to Rome was brief but memorable. It was summer, and stinking hot. Kerry was in Europe already, but I arrived in Rome several hours ahead of him. An astute traveler, I found the airport station, train, city and the hotel with no trouble whatsoever. I changed into a light dress and navigated my way down Via Nazionale. I came across a nice café, drank a ‘flat white’, ate lunch. I wonder what those buildings are further down, I asked myself, and kept walking. I arrived in the middle of the Forum, just by chance. This impressed my husband, that’s for sure, as I had no map, and no idea of the rich legacies which lay within reach. Our motto became – If only we had done our research.
The following day, as luck would have it, the temperature was around 34 degrees. As Kerry had been in Rome before, I followed his lead. We ended up beside the Fountain of Neptune in Piazza Navona, plopping down for a respite in the shade of the statue, having bought a gelato to help our sweaty plight. “We are terrible tourists,” my husband said, “not planning anything. If there was one thing you’d like to have seen, what would it be?” I licked the last of my gelato. “Caravaggio.” I said. “Absolutely.”
“It will have to be next time,” he said. “I guess,” I said, and continued walking until we came to (yet another) church. The cool interior beckoned and in we walked; first removing shoes, and donning a scarf around my shoulders, as bare-armed women are encouraged to do. Just inside the entrance hang a large notice, foreign to us, as we don’t know Italian. Funny too, since this was a French church: St. Luigi dei Francesi. There was one word however, we could read, with dates written beside. Caravaggio. “This just reiterates what hopeless travellers we are,” I said. “There’s a display somewhere, and we can’t even work out where it is.” A missed opportunity if ever there was one. However, we were enjoying the cool interior viewing the various religious icons and paintings, when we noticed a crowd of people near the front of the church.
The church was positively gloomy, when lights popped on in a side chapel. I discovered a machine, tripped by a coin, made this happen (this was my first trip to Italy when all said and done). We walked towards the milling Japanese tourists, looked into the chapel and gasped. Loudly. “It’s Caravaggio,” I said to my husband (and whoever else was around). I looked to the left, then right. “There are three,” I added. They’re all his.” The largest were around two metres wide. Astonishing.
I liked the one on the left side wall especially, Calling of Saint Matthew, as it typified to me the character of the work that Caravaggio was most famous for – chiaroscuro, the treatment of light and shade in a drawing or a painting. A perfect word I have always thought. The painting on the right side wall of the chapel is Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, also a good depiction of chiaroscuro, but the content a little more gruesome I thought.
The third, front-facing painting from the Contarelli Chapel is Saint Matthew and the Angel. This happens to be the second version of the painting, executed three years after the first was rejected (c. 1602). These facts I found in the very fine book by scholar Catherine Puglisi. She writes that ‘Caravaggio breached the unmarked border between acceptable novelty and threatening unorthodoxy, and hostility grew against his vernacular reinterpretation of sacred subject matter…’ (p. 179).
I was delighted to see an image of the original, for as brilliant and dignified as the second painting is, it has lost the exuberance of form, and connection between the human and the divine found in Caravaggio’s original Saint Matthew and the Angel. It is sensuous. I wish I could have seen it that day.
This painting was held in the former Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin, which was unfortunately destroyed by fire at the end of World War Two.
Caravaggio by Catherine Puglisi was first published by Phaidon Press Limited 1998.