This was accidentally a London weekend full of references to Lenin and 1917 — both in the (planned) visit to the art of the Russian Revolution exhibition at the RA, and in the (impromptu) attendance of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. (Tom Hollander in the lead as the aging Henry Carr! Brilliant! British Consul in Zürich in 1917, when that city was host to Tristan Tzara, founder of Dada, James Joyce, and Vladimir Lenin! Amazing!)
Here we have Lenin as the ideal:
As a human being he did not live up to this ideal, no one could. I am in agreement with those who tire of hearing (leftist) people cite him chapter and verse. I loved Stoppard’s gleeful Brechtian treatment of him through consul Henry Carr’s fading memories. Loved the brilliant physical acting of Forbes Masson as Lenin (even at this grand moment when he is being called back to Russia) tossing his beruffed head when dismissed in a huff. Sticking his neck through a window to sing. Working hard at the library writing his book. Loved the socialist burlesque scene, the whole of the witty repartee, the sudden hilarity. The limericks. I admire Lenin. I am still troubled by him because I never did agree with his vision for achieving the revolution. Because he was conservative in many ways, his taste in art and music among them, and he had no right to stamp down on the wild flourishing of creativity that the revolution both inspired and made possible.
I think his praxis arguably set the stage for what happened in Russia under Stalin. And of course Stalin was inexcusable, unforgiveable, unforseeable, caused the death of millions. He betrayed everything the revolution stood for.
But goddamn, wasn’t the Russian Revolution glorious for a while? Didn’t it end the terror of the Okhrana and desperate lack of nutrition/education/health care/housing/women’s rights/right-to-anything-at-all-especially a decent life or a dream for the future that comprised existence for so many existing, just existing, under the tsar? Didn’t it open up conversations about democracy and the rights of workers, women, ‘colonised subjects’, writing, art, space travel, architecture? Didn’t it go beyond survival to start thinking about the meaning of a full life for all and create a moment when suddenly the whole world stopped and wondered if that were possible?
Yes, yes it did. We still fight for that possibility. People all over the world have been inspired by it. Still believe that there is an alternative. Still believe that revolution doesn’t lead inexorably to Stalinism. Surely the question becomes how do we strive to reach it without this streak of authoritarianism emerging through our struggle — an authoritarianism that only mirrors what we face. How dare that be forgotten by those who are comfortable in an ever-more unjust world full of hunger and want and bombs falling. To collapse revolution itself into Stalinism is fairly intellectually sloppy, but that was much of the message I received from the exhibition’s written commentary (as opposed to the art itself). Another blogger, whose beliefs run rather counter to mine as far as I understand them, seems to have got something of the same message:
The show arrives, I think, at a particularly timely moment, when artists here in the West have fallen in love all over again with the idea of supposedly avant-garde art as a vehicle for promoting supposedly leftist political causes. As such, the event at the R.A. offers a spectrum of what can only be described as awful warnings.
— Restless Revolutionaries: A Timely Look At Russian Art By Edward Lucie-Smith
I’m not quite sure what that means exactly, staring at it doesn’t help. I’m not sure if the awful warnings are for artists to beware left politics because that leads straight to the gulag (as if art weren’t always political already), or that those fighting for a better world should avoid the avant-garde at all costs. (I’m rather sure that’s not what she’s saying, but makes me laugh all the same.) There’s a similar dire warning of something or other in the Guardian. Do not celebrate this art it says. It rather turns my stomach.
To me, this exhibition rather avoided a full understanding of those early years, being rather too full of phrases expressing sentiments like this one:
Many Russian artists, philosophers and writers were nostalgic for the beauty and charm of the old Russia, rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses.
I lie, that was the most extraordinary of the sentences the exhibition exhibited.
As if the poor had not been systematically shut out from beauty and grace in the previous centuries of exploitation. As if the artists on display here were backward looking. As if they were not propelled by excitement of what suddenly became possible with the overthrow of a violently repressive aristocratic order. As if that violently repressive order did not underpin the ‘beauty and charm’ for a limited few in old Russia. As if the true tragedy of revolutionary Russia was not the immense hope and promise which flourished, only to be crushed in what was not an inexorable process sparked from the moment Russia dared dream of a true revolution, but something rather more complicated. A complex historical process, just as the Bolsheviks and their part in a wider revolutionary movement was complex, full of contradiction as they themselves were full of contradiction.
I suppose we were sat in Burlington House in the West End. Heart of the Empire. What did I expect.
The period leading up to the revolution was full of struggle and heady new ideas full of what was possible, and then it came and what artists created was extraordinary. How could the art of the exhibition not be most wonderful? The inspiration for the exhibition no less exciting:
Taking inspiration from a remarkable exhibition shown in Russia just before Stalin’s clampdown, we will mark the historic centenary by focusing on the 15-year period between 1917 and 1932 when possibilities initially seemed limitless and Russian art flourished across every medium.
Fantastic…and indeed, one of my favourite rooms was that of Malevich recreated from photographs of the exhibition of 1932 ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’, with his white architectural forms and brilliant faceless farmers (his nod to the demand that he be more ‘representational’ — I share the frustration at such a demand. In the here and now the frames have all been reworked to a plain Ikea style, though the picture of the original exhibit gives a sense of the different feel of it).
Then we discovered the Suprematists made food coupons! Amazing. We saw Kandinsky, one of my very favourite artists, The Blue Crest (1917):
Another favourite, Marc Chagall. The painting description notes how Chagall was inspired by his wife pictured here, and said she floated above all of his work. How wonderful:
This exudes the happiness of those early days.
They were showing excerpts from Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, and other clips including a manic one from Eisenstein showing thick and disturbingly spurting milk all over peasant hands and faces.
I especially loved the mixture of paintings, posters, ceramics, textiles and film. I mean, could there be anything more awesome than the phrase ‘agitational porcelain’? Followed by Konstantin Yuon’s New Planet?
Another room that contained El Lissitzky’s design for a new apartment, rebuilt here in all of its streamlined glory. I know Owen Hatherly disapproved, writing
This reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s putative design for a flat in Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building, made for the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA), has a similar discomfort. Lissitzky’s room wasn’t laid out in real space when the building was constructed, between 1928 and 1930; he made a photomontage to show how the duplex flats of this collective apartment building could be furnished.
I see his point, it almost looks shabby hovering in cardboard over the gleaming parquet, but I rather loved it.
The textiles were awesome, like Andrey Golubev’s Red Spinner.
Pavel Filonov — how did I not know Filonov before this? How was he not in Janson’s History of Art, which continues to reverberate through my life with wonder as I finally get to see the originals of those pictures I only ever dreamed of?
But he wasn’t there. Nor was Sofya Dymshits-Tolstaya’s cool glass paintings — This lovely thing Peace to the Sheds, War to the Palaces. How much did I love that?
To end…Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, a model glider that was … impossible to say it was my favourite thing in this exhibition full of wonderful things, but. Well. Wondrous.
So to go from this to Stoppard’s Travesties was pretty awesome.
I knew all about Vienna in 1900 but had no idea what was going down in Zürich in 1917, even though I have chased Lenin in Krakow and elsewhere in Europe. Just a way to explore the city. I chased Joyce in Dublin and Paris. I’ve never chased Tzara, however, despite having chased Aragon and Breton. If I go to Zürich I will start. Of course I will go.
Still, how lucky I am to have been able to see the gallery, these paintings, and then rest my weary feet here, in the eagle’s nest. The only time I love gilded anything is in the theatre. The more there, the better.
And this wasn’t even everything we saw in London. I wanted to say more about Stoppard, but think I will have to read the screenplay. And write more later perhaps.
We went to see Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter today at Bristol’s RWA — I love Angela Carter, one of the true greats. Her amazing words snake round you, drag you in so it is impossible to emerge from the spectacular quality of the worlds she builds and the strangeness of the images that she gives you. No one is whole, no one normal. The struggle of the surreal, the damaged, the hybrid, the brilliant linger long after the novel is done.
She has always filled me with wonder, love and extreme envy in equal measure. Ah, to write like that.
It is hard to imagine what could do justice to her, but this exhibition came close, it was such a pleasure to be in such an evocative space, to encounter these wondrous things. was curated by Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts of UWE, and the artist and writer Fiona Robinson of the RWA. Friday evening we’d been to an event at the Arnolfini — a talk about Ken Adam by Christopher Frayling and then a showing of Dr Strangelove, which Adam had worked as set designer on. We then had a lovely night of it over dinner and drinks with Marie and a few others. It felt like serendipity to come to this today.
A major exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of Angela Carter twenty five years after her death.
In bringing together art and literature, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter explores the enormous impact of author and journalist Angela Carter – one of the most distinctive literary voices of the last 100 years.
Echoing Carter’s recurring themes of feminism, mysticism, sexuality and fantasy, the exhibition includes historically significant works by Marc Chagall, William Holman Hunt, Paula Rego, Dame Laura Knight, Leonora Carrington and John Bellany, on loan from major national collections.
One large room is full of art influenced by Angela Carter, some of it recently commissioned. I confess this was my favourite room because rarely have I loved so much so deeply. It makes me long for disposable income as few things do.
A few of my favourite pieces. Like Sarah Woodfine‘s ‘Untitled‘ (Forest).
She had three pieces in the exhibit — I always feel a bit constrained in taking pictures, so I am missing the other two, but loved them equally. I would buy anything she did.
Also included were two of her exquisite linocuts. I would buy any of them too. Then there was this extraordinary mobile, called ‘The Forest Assassins‘ by Tessa Farmer. The label reads that it is created of banksia seed pods, crab claws, crab eyes, wormshells, birds’ legs, fish jaws, insects, plant roots, crocodile skulls, bird skulls, snake ribs,snake teetch, mouse bones, taxidermy birds, Portugues man ‘o’ war plyps, hedgehog and porcupine spines, whelk egg cases. There is more going on here. Everything is manned by tiny winged figures and ants.
Off there to the right there on the wall is ‘The Follower‘ by Simon Garden. Amazing. One of our other favourite paintings in the room, and on his website, well, I love all of his work.
Then there was these illustrations by Juli Haas, with windows to open on other worlds…
There was Lisa Wright’s ‘After the Masked Visitor‘, which is the featured image here, and Eileen Cooper’s ‘Tail of the Tiger’:
Then there was the amazing Ana Maria Pacheco, particularly ‘The Banquet‘, a massive sculptural installation, which appears incredibly and terrifyingly surprising as you open a dark curtain:
I am leaving people off this list not because they were not brilliant, but because my mind is full to bursting. Because after leaving the great room of art inspired by Angela Carter, you continue on to a second room of art that inspired Angela Carter. Like Marc Chagall, ‘The Blue Circus‘:
The “Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” (1846) by Joseph Noel Paton, that only became interesting when you look quite closely:
Some Leona Carrington — my favourite ‘The Amateur of Velocipedes‘
Then there was still more and even more — another room of illustrations and covers for Angela Carter’s own books. From the presentation as written on the wall:
Angela Carter was a writer who proclaimed to ‘think first in images, and then grope for the words’, embracing the complex relationship between words and images — art and literature.
I loved Eva Tatcheva‘s cover artwork for Sea Cat and Dragon King.
This very cool collection of posters produced in a contest:
It has been a long time since I enjoyed an exhibition this much — and it was particularly exciting to have so many artists still working that I now know to watch out for. And so many of them women. This fails to do it justice and to name all the necessary names, but there is a book available to you.
Walking up the great hill we stopped in the remainder store, and I just happened to buy Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife‘. The first poem in it is Little Red Cap, and I read it waiting for our post-gallery cake and coffee and what another piece of serendipity, because it brought poetry to the prose and to the art we had just been drinking it. I felt lucky to read it for the first time like this.
At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
Into playing fields, the factory, allotments
Kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men
The silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan
Till you came at last to the edge of the woods
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf
He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
In his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw
Red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
He had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me
Sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink
My first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods
Away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
Lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake
My stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
Snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes
But got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night
Breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
What little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?1
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
And went in search of a living bird – white dove –
Which flew, straight, from my hands to his open mouth
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said
Licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
Of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head
Warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood
But then I was young – and it took ten years
In the woods to tell that a mushroom
Stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
Are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
Howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out
Season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe
To a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
To see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
As he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
The glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone
We started at the Lowry on Saturday — arriving in Media City. My partner argues it should be pronounced Mediacity, which does better reflect how shiny it is, how empty and windswept yet expensive, how soulless though it has gone a half-hearted length trying for soul. A few families gave it some life, some heart. But it feels alien from the vantage point of the estates that lie near it:
And honestly, how dared they name the outlet mall after one of my favourite painters known for his incredible street scenes full of workers, children, dogs and cats, sympathetic views of all of us with all of our deformities and sadnesses and tired loneliness showing. Against a great backdrop of factories. One of the great painters of the working classes, the misfits, the outcasts. What I found most poignant was that he painted what would soon be lost. Preserved memories of a city being demolished around him. Like St Simon’s church here:
And now here he is in the ruins of the lively docks. I wish I had seen his pictures in the old Salford Art Gallery. First public library in the whole of the UK. I could see why some were upset when they moved them, though inside the new gallery the space is lovely. But honestly, the mall.
But this post isn’t about Lowry, not this one. (For more on Lowry you should read Mark Bould’s amazing post here.) It’s about some of the landscapes and the factories as they appear now. Nothing at Mediacity called for a photograph somehow, not even by its ugliness. It’s just bland despite its bling, built for consumption and status. Uncomfortable. Cold.
I love water, and yet the water along these old Salford Quays was nowhere inviting or picturesque until we left the regenerated area behind us. I loved the canal, however, the vibrance of the graffiti down alongside it. The exuberance of colour and character. Educational too, as I learned all about David Icke and his belief that we were being invaded by lizard people from outer space. Then there was the kid who walked past us with a backpack disguised as Captain America’s shield.
But regeneration was everywhere — in the great banks of painfully plain boxy buildings that could be either offices or ‘luxury’ apartments, in the old factories still beautiful and tastefully renovated, but swallowed up by the cheap new build. In the still empty lots strewn with rubbish and the poverty looking even dingier. This regeneration sat strange and isolated alongside the asphalted motorway, the wreckage of earlier decades that tore down neighbourhoods to build roads of great size funneling speeding cars past with a roaring and a coughing of fumes. Much of this walk was experienced as the city planners’ great fuck you to the pedestrian. I wondered who had thought a sign welcoming the driver to Manchester in a desolate traffic circle might be a good idea, especially alongside the changing neon sign that carried advertisements for Sky News followed by a notice in small font that the city was working to end homelessness.
Seems like there are more people sleeping rough every evening I walk through the streets.
Still we found pockets of awesomeness, a sense of the past. A reminder that more existed in life, in our humanity.
Everywhere these contrasts. Click any photo below and it will take you to a slide show…
I’ve loved this building since before I knew who Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933) and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) even were. Glasgow Boys and Whistler inside. Almost as great as heading to dinner with my brother and sister-in-law and on to the pub with the incredible Mitch Miller and getting my own copy of Nothing is Lost. To be discussed further, but the coolest thing I’ve seen in forever. You could own it too.
Ħaġar Qim… there is beauty just in the letters, these unique Maltese forms that I love. The temple sits on cliffs just above the temple of Mnajdra, unique and ancient I had never heard of them until I knew I was coming to Valletta. I had never read of the civilization that existed here. 5,500 years ago. Older than Stonehenge, than the great pyramid, I read so much and yet I never stumbled across these wonders. Ħaġar Qim before the covering was built over it:
I missed this sense of the whole and the way that it fits into the landscape, the natural light on stone, but I am glad it is being protected. In the visitor’s centre I had my first experience of 4D, with a 3D screening and scents and watery mist being pumped into the theatre, along with lightening flashes and wind. Noisily. But I rather loved it. This is what it looks like now:
The carvings have been removed to be kept safe in the museum in Valletta — it occupies the old Auberge of the langue of Provence, quite beautiful in itself:
I had seen it the day before in the company of new friend from the conference who had written part of his thesis on this figure, found in one of the first apses of the main building — I was jealous he had come across it before:
The back of it is so lovely. More intriguing, though, are the enormous figures also found there, which I did not take a picture of. This lapse astonishes me. This more official one is undoubtedly better however.
These too are from the first apse, they left me without words. I could never have imagined them and I love coming across such things. They are strangely beautiful, impossible for me to understand. They are massive, an immense presence. The heads were almost certainly carved separately from the bodies, we can only guess why.
Perhaps my favourite is the ‘sleeping lady’, she was found in the Hypogeum (underground prehistoric temple carved into the stone, my god, everything I love in one place) — words cannot convey my sadness at this being closed during my visit, but it ensures my return.
But the temples I did manage to see — this is the first apse, a strange doorway
Replicas of some of the carvings, these pitted stones, and more curves
On the opposing side more stonework — everywhere on this island beautiful stonework:
Ħaġar Qim stands highly visible and highly exposed, unlike all of the others. It has the largest piece of rock I have ever seen as part of a building, much less an ancient one like this. It has multiple entrances, an openness that is also unique, like this outside niche:
A carved hole in one of the apses marks the summer solstice. It was built on and added to over time, a sprawling, slightly untidy nature that you can feel walking through it, as though it were always open to possibility, even as the wind and rain were melting the limestone slowly away.
Mnajdra has a more satisfying perfection, indeed an almost perfect form. A complement to openness I think. This is the walk down to it from Ħaġar Qim alongside fields of beautiful soil.
The museum’s model gives a sense of its completeness:
Perhaps even more beautiful stonework, these wonderful square doorways and pitted decorations:
Everywhere these doorways. They reminded me strangely of the Chaco culture in New Mexico with its unique T-shaped doorways, it makes me think how important doorways always are as you step from one place to another, one world to another, and how much meaning lies encoded in these. They are all amazing given the levels of technology — though their tools were also beautiful, look at this two-person hammer:
And this people’s own architectural model
Their graceful carvings and decorations:
The museum holds great round stones as well, and one theory is that these were used to transport the great slabs of limestone.
From the trail connecting the temples you can branch off along a nature trail — I was alone while there in choosing to explore the longer one that took me uphill. Happiness, yet also a certain disappointment in people really. Because they couldn’t be bothered to see more of this place.
To be out in the countryside — joy. Nopales flourish:
Grapes — though these are struggling:
Figs, this one alongside one of the small stone huts scattering the hillside, built as hides for the trapping of birds:
Another of them, the most picturesque:
Unexpectedly here (I must have blinked at some point in the museum) I found the Misqa water tanks — carved by the temple builders into the limestone to collect fresh water, and still used to irrigate nearby fields.
There are curious remains carved deeply here into the rock
The island of Filfla in the distance — probably sacred to the temple builders, the British used it for target practice, and now it has returned to being a bird sanctuary.
They are deeper than I thought, like the one here on the left:
I admired so much the curves of the beautiful wall there in the background, and as I backtracked down the path a head popped up, scaring me it is true, but thus I met Tony. For many years he had lived part of the year in the Bay area and part of it there alongside the temples, growing figs, olives, and grapes. We talked about nopales, how we cook them along the border. His favourite way to eat them is to pick the young leaves (late July and August) and peel them, then put them in the fridge and eat them very cold. I might try it. We talked about Trump, of course. Trump is bad for everyone. I continue to have those conversations. I love these chance meetings, I hate that it should be shaped by such a man in any way. We ended as friends though, and I continued on my way.
The path curves down alongside an old quarry, on the other side of the road, somewhere hidden in that canyon — part of a large fault system — are the Tal-Maghlaq catacombs. I think perhaps I saw the overgrown entrances, but I am far from sure.
Walking back, the sound of the sea, and the limestone cliffs grooved from the quarrying of stone:
More views of the narrow stone-walled fields terraced across the hillsides
I walked a little of the way down towards the Blue Grotto but the afternoon was lengthening so headed back for the bus. My final views
There is a wonderful fragrance here also, more of herbs than of flowers though I could be wrong about its source.
If I were to do it again I would have more time, have started at the blue grotto and walked up, and then walked into Qrendi I think, I longed to spend a little time in these villages. They are tightly defined, ending where the fields begin. They all have large beautiful churches with a square in front, long rows of terraced houses, they are beautiful and sit well upon the land. Many have oranges and other citrus and figs growing in front of them.
To end with a mystery which I was not able to see, but which I discovered in the museum — that of Clapham Junction (! – but oh yes, this was a British colony and they named some things) and of the deep ruts in the limestone whose causes are mysterious and as yet unknown — variants of them are found all over the island…
I don’t know that I have been anywhere in a landscape that felt so ‘natural’ as it were, but also carried so deeply the craft and mark of human beings. I haven’t even gotten started on the Phoenicians, the Romans…newcomers. Though interestingly, they believe that the temple builders left and there was a period when no one lived here… Still, there is thousands of years of history scored into the limestone, the same limestone that has been built in a myriad of different configurations across five thousand years, that unifies it all in a way I haven’t seen before. England feels a crazed jumble of materials in comparison. Malta is an incredible place, and I haven’t even started on the door handles. I have shared a little about the cats, so really now to end, the great hunter of Ħaġar Qim:
Beyond Caravaggio – a wonderful exhibition, though I wanted more paintings by Caravaggio and more, and more. Because it was incredible to see this after having just read Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.
To see Caravaggio’s work, the paintings themselves… They are stunning, the brushwork is invisible creating pieces so luminous they almost glow. They are bigger than I had expected them, so when I stepped forward everything shifted. The figures emerged from the darkness, fingers stretched towards me from the canvas. The scenes enveloped me. Jostling crowds behind me could almost be forgotten (and I may have to beg their forgiveness, but I never was so rude to stand right in front). I realised too, that these paintings must have been even more wondrous in that first decade of the 17th Century, imagine them candlelit, and without the bloating I sometimes feel of having all art immediately available at the search of the internet to create a jostle of periods and wonders so that novelty is hard to come by.
No wonder Caravaggio had the impact that he did, no wonder that so many copied his style – this exhibition was full of truly inspired examples of that. Orazio Gentileschi, his daughter Artemisia, my other favourite Jusepe de Ribera.
Caravaggio remains apart from the wealth of talent that innovated with his use of darkness and light, not just for the power and skill of his work, but for the common faces bearing their lives in the lines of their skin, the stances that reveal their character, the gestures and the spaces they create that invite you into the paintings. The rips in the sleeves — I wanted to reach out to trace the torn fabric in Supper at Emmaus, itching for a needle and thread. There is also the extraordinary beauty of the object, the crystal glasses and decanters, the baskets of fruit that are incredible perfection of detail. They were unexpected, despite having read of them, seen the reproductions.
The poverty, the dirt encrusted around fingernails and into hands. Caravaggio’s own hand, none too clean, appears in the Taking of Christ, thrusting the lantern above the grouping, his face staring a bit wildly, beetled brows and he has done himself no favours – but impossible to guess at his emotion beyond curiosity. Seeing this as a picture on the screen hides the way that details leap out at you, how much you can see emerging from the darkness…
Caravaggio’s commissions were so often religious, he had little choice in his subjects, yet he clearly felt deeply that these men and women surrounding Christ were poor, old, sick, faltering, doubtful, poor. Their feet bare and tired.
Caravaggio was also a painter of intense violence, matter-of-factly inflicted here upon John the Baptist, a curious, complex expression of Salome’s.
There was one enormous surprise – Cecco. Also from the town of Caravaggio, and Caravaggio’s model, housemate, probably lover, the one who stayed with him until that last flight to Malta (and I imagine that scene of farewells, driven undoubtedly by Caravaggio’s ambitions for a knighthood and the unwillingness of the Colonnas to sponsor him alongside Caravaggio into the very closed society of the Knights of Malta). Nowhere does Graham-Dixon mention, I am almost certain, that Cecco too was a gifted painter. Suddenly their relationship shifted, a collegiality and a greater touch of equality shapes it.
He still remains the laughing boy of Caravaggio’s lighter paintings in my mind — not part of the exhibition sadly, though Mario Minniti appears in Boy Bitten By a Lizard. But here Cecco is the model for a youthful John the Baptist:
Not so surprising as Cecco’s paintings were that the luminous works which draw on Caravaggio’s influence from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, almost all use the chiaroscuro but with rich cloth, wealthy patrons. Many of them copied his two paintings of cheating – the card shark and the gypsy. I was sad they were unable to bring these paintings by Caravaggio to be part of this temporary exhibition. But the small touches seemed absent from the paintings inspired by Caravaggio’s. The humanity, the necessity, the feeling that the next meal requires winning.
Perhaps this is why Jusepe’s work stood out so much to me, though his works were all religious in nature. This one was extraordinary
As was this beautiful painting of Susana and the Elders from Artemisia Gentileschi
I loved the exhibition. I will end on one of the more beautiful of Caravaggio’s paintings, one of a series of John the Baptist in the wilderness. It lingers with you as you leave the final room for the hum of the National Gallery
Caravaggio had, at Graham-Dixon’s guess, set his eyes on rehabilitation and a return to Rome in triumph through a rather curious route — becoming a Knight (read part one of this post on Caravaggio here). Whether this was his goal at the start or not, he was soon on his way after his exile and time in Naples, and through the help of his oldest patron, Costanza Colonna. The process for getting to Malta has changed just a bit since his day:
Malta was not, however, a place where someone could simply turn up unannounced. The whole island was a fortress, and security was tight. No one was allowed in from the mainland without a passport and papers prepared by the order’s network of receivers.
Permission was granted only by the approval of the Grand Master of the Hospitallers himself. The Colonna’ had to have brokered this for Caravaggio, fleeing justice as he was.
A description of the Valleta that Caravaggio approached:
An entirely new city, built of honey-coloured limestone that glowed pink in the sun. Valletta had been constructed at breakneck speed in just forty years. After the turmoil of the Great Siege [by the Turks], the knights realized that they had to fortify the narrow headland known as the Xiberras Promontory, which connected the island’s two principal harbours. The construction of the new capital by an army of slaves, on the steepest incline of the headland had been an immense undertaking… It was named in honour of Jean de la Valette, Grand Master during the siege. The pope’s best military engineer, Francesco Laparelli, was responsible for the plan. The sheer stone fortifications of the citadel rose directly from the craggy outcrop of the island itself…
An army of slaves. They remain otherwise invisible to us, but I had no idea Valletta was built in only forty years, a planned city.
Within its walls, Valletta was laid out on the Renaissance model of the ideal city. The principal architect responsible for the buildings was Girolamo Cassar, who was from Malta but had studied in Rome. His palaces and churches were designed to reflect the knights’ ideals of Christian sobriety and military discipline, with long, sever facades of rusticated stone. The streets were laid out in a grid, with nine thoroughfares running across the peninsula and twelve running from top to bottom. Their strict geometry was softened by gardens and fountains.
It was a steep slog from the harbour to the centre — and everywhere in between. Graham-Dixon notes Byron’s farewell to Malta:
adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs.
I am quoting prolific about the city, but I find this heady stuff…
Approaching Malta for the first time, Caravaggio was surrounded by symbols of the island’s fierce rule of law. On the first promontory on the left of the harbour was the forbidding spectacle of a gallows. Within the harbour itself, prominent on the left-hand side, was the Castel Sant’Angelo, where many of the most famous events of the siege had taken place… it had become a prison for disorderly knights.
At the end of the the sixteenth century, a visitor, Hieronymus Megiser, noted gore still visible on some of the rocks and pointed out by his guides.
A ‘remote and harsh place, rocky and sun-parched’, yet famed for the sweetness of its honey, quantity of almonds, olives, figs, dates, the quality of its cotton. Cicero had his clothes made there.
I have failed to find English translations of Hieronymus Megiser’s descriptions of Malta, so shall quote what Graham-Dixon has gleaned from them.
As Megiser notes, the island encompassed two utterly distinct societies. ‘Malta Africana’ and ‘Malta Europeana’. The world of the indigenous islanders had remained unchanged for centuries. Its people were dark-skinned, spoke a language incomprehensible to Europeans and lived in humble settlements much like the tribal villages of nearby coastal Africa. Cosmopolitan Valletta was utterly different, a flammable blend of extreme Christian piety, simmering military aggression and barely contained sexual dissipation.
I am fascinated by this duality, but there is no more to be found here about it. George Sandys was an English traveler — quoted liberally throughout the volume, and his descriptions of Malta are fascinating. But I have found those, and will read them as they look amazing.
It is not known where Caravaggio lived during his time on the island. Prospective knights on their first tours of duty were given accommodation in the auberge belonging to their particular Langue, or country. Altogether there were eight Langues, of Italy, Provence, Auvergne, England, France, Aragon, Castille and Germany.
Langue meaning language more like? Because Italy was not yet a country, nor was France or Germany in the shape we know them.But Caravaggio probably lodged with the Colonnas anyway, they were the only one’s who knew he was there and of his plans to become a knight — this was not brokered until the winter of 1607.
To become a knight he painted… there is the incredible Beheading of St John
I get to see this. So exciting, Caravaggio’s largest altar-piece still sitting in the place for which it was painted.
The novices of the Order of St John [of whom Caravaggio was one] listened to sermons and received instruction in the oratory for which Caravaggio’s painting was destined. The place was both a school for the martyrs of the future and a burial ground for the martyrs of the past — the bones of the knights who had died at the Great Siege were interred beneath its stone-flagged floor. … Caravaggio’s altarpiece was designed to make sure that they [the novices] could be under no illusions about what that might mean.
Not that I am at all keen on martyrs, particularly not crusaders. But nor, I think, was Caravaggio. He did, however, paint a wonderful portrait of Alof da Wignacourt (c1607-1608), the Master of the Knights. Caravaggio was pretty determined to get a knighthood, and this was a man of fairly absolute power.
And yet Caravaggio still ensures that his page rather steals the show. He still rebels I think.
While there he became friends (if that is possible to guess at) with WIgnacourt’s secretary Francesco Dell’Antella. Graham-Dixon notes he was a gifted draughtsman and produced a detailed drawing of Valletta — which I have found. This is the ‘Map of the medieval town of Valletta, with Senglea and Vitoriosa at the Great Port. Map of Malta and Gozo’ from [BOISSAT, Pierre de / BOSIO, Giacomo]. Histoire des Chevaliers de l’Orde de S. Jean de Hierusalem, contenant leur admirable Institution & Police…, Paris, Jacques d’Allin, MDCLIX [=1659].
To return to Caravaggio. Alof de Wignacourt loved his paintings to such a degree he gave him (and this is Graham-Dixon quoting Bellori)
as a reward, besides the honour of the Cross, the Grand Master put a gold chain around Caravaggio’s neck and made him a gift of two slaves…
‘Finally,’ Graham-Dixon writes, ‘Caravaggio had got his own gold chain.’ I forgot to mention the animosity raised in Rome when a rival received such a chain — the one about whom the scurrilous verses had been written.
There is no context given for the slaves. Slavery remains only part of the background throughout, which kills me.
Still, Caravaggio got his Knighthood, with approval of the Pope. He was thus above the law for the murder he had committed, could return to Rome with new rank. Graham-Dixon notes that in this whole scheme to elevate himself, perhaps Caravaggio had not realised that as a knight, he had to have Wignacourt’s permission to leave Malta. A permission unlikely to be granted for some time, if ever — in Wignacourt’s petition to the Pope to be allowed to confer the knighthood, he noted the purpose of it was ‘to keep’ Caravaggio. Ominous.
Graham-Dixon argues the dawning realisation that he was trapped, as much as his unruly habits, explains the end of Caravaggio’s time on Malta.
The ceremony on the ‘feast of the Decollato’ where the unveiling of The Beheading of St John was to take place was a complete disaster — Caravaggio was not present. He was in prison for kicking down the door of the church’s organist, Fra Prospero Coppini, with several others, leaving the organist severely wounded. On top of that
The musicians were unhappy about their pay and most of them went on strike, so that on the feast day itself neither Vespers nor the solemn Mass was sung in the oratory before Caravaggio’s picture.
I confess, of everything that went wrong, only the strike was unexpected to me. I confess I find the existence of musicians willing to strike in Valletta absolutely extraordinary — and a happy fact. The rest though…
Carvaggio escaped from prison. Fled Malta. Was stripped of his knighthood in December of 1608. Graham-Dixon gives an illustration from Wolfgang Kilian of the mid-seventeenth century as an example of what this ceremony might have looked like in the very same oratory of St John where his painting sat (look, you can see it there in the background!):
This happened in Caravaggio’s absence of course.
He, in the meanwhile, had fled to Sicily, meeting up with an old friend and painter Mario Minnitti (also the model for Boy Bitten by a Lizard and others) and traveling through Southern Italy. Caravaggio believed he was being followed, and that his life was in danger. His routes were most circuitous.
In 1608 he painted the Burial of St Lucy in Syracuse
And the Raising of St Lazarus in Messina. Graham-Dixon notes that the Lazzari family had originally wanted a picture whose proposed title would have been ‘The Madonna, St John the Baptist and Other Saints, but Caravaggio negotiated with them to paint this instead.
In Rome at the height of the Renaissance it had not been unknown for a famous artist to alter the terms of a commission. Michelangelo had famously plucked up the courage … But in the provincial artistic milieu of Messina, Caravaggio’s assertion of independence was still being talked about a hundred years later.
In 1609, also in Messina, the wonderful Adoration of the Shepards.
By September of 1609 he had returned to Naples, and the protection once again of the Colonnas, both Bellori and Baglione mention the enemies chasing him. Graham-Dixon argues that this return to the Colonna fold means that both his patrons had forgiven him for his escapades on Malta, but also that they had negotiated a truce with the knights there.
His fear was well-founded, he was severely wounded in an attempt on his life as he emerged from the Cerriglio — a rather famous brothel, his face disfigured — sfregiato, an injury inflicted to avenge an insult to reputation. Probably by Rodomonte Roero, the Conte della Vezza, who had indeed, almost certainly, been tracking him.
Caravaggio never really recovered. In Naples he painted the Martyrdom of St Ursula (1610), thought to be his last picture.
He traveled to Rome, with either a pardon in hand or on its way, and the lack of clarity surrounding his death seems characteristic of most of his life. He was arrested when he disembarked from his boat at Palo, a fort manned by the Spanish. Something went wrong and he was arrested, thus his belongings and the three paintings he had brought with him made the rest of the boat’s journey to the Porto Ecole. Bellori has him running from Palo to Porto Ecole and dying on his arrival from heat and exhaustion — but it was days on foot between the two.
He did die in Porto Ecole, however, of fever, in July of 1610. Then the feeding frenzy was on over the paintings he had left behind him.
This is one, an uncommissioned painting of melancholy treating a subject he had painted several times before. To me it embodies both his queerness (which I know I don’t look at enough here) and his regret and suffering.
A life that as I say, troubles me and sits with me.
Writing this I found that there is a show on at The National Gallery, Beyond Caravaggio, and I am looking forward to seeing it immensely. Graham-Dixon notes only a few of his influences — Ribera and Zurbaran in particular, through his work in Naples. Another wonderful story about the Madonna of the Rosary, which was brought to Antwerp through a joint effort spearheaded by Rubens, and involving Bruegel, Van Bael and Cooymans. But of course, I will be seeing more about this…
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.
It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.
A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.
He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:
Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.
This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.
As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.
Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:
Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…
Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.
After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts, apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.
One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)
It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches — like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.
More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:
We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.
Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.
A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:
Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.
Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes
The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.
Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.
Here she is again as St Catharine of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.
There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.
Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.
This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):
Another one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)
Graham-Dixon writes that:
The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.
The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:
In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.
Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.
When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.
It was very different from the rising countercurrent of
a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.
Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).
Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:
They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.
It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.
Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.
WWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.
The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:
His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).
And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.
It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate…
That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):
By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.
Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.
On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.
The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:
The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.
That, actually, was just funny.
More on the particularities of the papal state.
Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.
Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:
There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …
Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:
Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.
They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.
It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints.
This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.
No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.
Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:
…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.
Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.
And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:
I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.
He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.
It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.
Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.
Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.
This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:
…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.
A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.
And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.
Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:
Pictures such as the Seven Acts and TheFlagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.
But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.
Camillo Sitte’s The Art of Building Cities is one of the acknowledged cornerstones of the whole edifice of books I really love about architecture and public space. This translation is from 1945, but the book itself was originally published in Vienna in 1889. Fin de siecle Vienna in the middle of its drive towards modernity, this is a curiously ambivalent book that looks to the past in order to reimagine an urban future. But it does try to look forward, and though not everyone reads it that way, this is from Eliel Saarinen prefatory note:
Simultaneously with this understanding of such organic town pattern, and subsequently to a great extent as a logical consequence of it … there became laid an equally strong groundwork for such an understanding of architecture that even the architectural style-form must express contemporary conditions, and no other conditions. (iii)
This is essentially a look at what works about older cities, and it connects patterns in architecture and planning with patterns of social life. So it has half the equation I think is needed. The other half is how architecture and planning in turn shapes social life in the dialectic that Henri Lefebvre would explore among others. Sitte argues that the changes in the city reflect the changes in social life — in medieval times much of life led on the street, because interiors cold, damp, uncomfortable. From the introduction by Ralph Walker:
The growing number of comforts within the modern shelter had, one by one, eliminated the desire for pageantry in the space outside. The underlying idea of the forum and the plaza, through out the ages the focal points of classical and medieval cities, took on less social and political meaning. (vii)
But on to Camillo Sitte himself. In the introduction he quotes Artistotle’s summary: ‘A city should be built to give its inhabitants security and happiness.’ Sitte continues
The science of the technician will not suffice to accomplish this. We need, in addition, the talent of the artist. (1)
From his words you would know the world has already entered the time of professional planners, architects, what Sitte calls hygienists. He doesn’t argue that they are not needed, but rather that they need to rethink their approach and incorporate, as he says, the artist.
Perhaps this study will permit us to find the means of satisfying the three principal requirements of practical city building: to rid the modern systems of blocks and regularly aligned houses; to save as much as possible of that which remains from ancient cities; and in our creation to approach more closely the ideal of the ancient models. (2)
Difference between then and now, I wish, as I say he had thought through more of the corollary.
Public squares, or plazas, were then of prime necessity, for they were theaters for the principal scenes of public life, which today take place in closed halls. (2)
But I like playing with this very different understanding of space that he sees existing in past and present:
In brief, the place of the forum in cities corresponds to that of the principal room of a house. It is to the city, so to speak, the principal hall… (5)
This is just lovely.
The interior temples and monuments are the stone myths of the greek people. The highest poetry and thought are embodied in them. (7)
The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the details of public spaces, groupings of building and streets that work. In many ways the chapter headings summarise very nicely Sitte’s arguments.
I: The relationship Between Buildings, Monuments and Public Squares
This highlights again the importance of the public square in community life, and contrasts the squares that work well from the past with those that don’t from his present:
The fundamental difference between the procedures of former times and those of today rests in the fact that we constantly seek the largest space for each little statue. Thus we diminish the effect … instead of augmenting it … (11-12)
II: Open Centers of Public Places
This explores the many examples of monuments and fountains that sit not at the centre of the square, or in way of its foot traffic, but off to one side. This also applies to churches — which I confess I find quite odd as I am so used to them sitting in open space in the US and UK. Like Gordon Cullen, though not nearly as explicitly, he is always thinking how people move through space, how they encounter buildings and the public places that surround them. He looks at both stone and emptiness and the way one relates to the other.
Buildings built in this way ‘acquire a double worth’. even without being surrounding by a void they offer up different views and compositions. (18)
Being written in 1889, this already feels as though it is part of the past, but this is the period when our present is forming — this critique is all too familiar:
This rage for isolating everything is truly a modern sickness. R. Baumeister in his manual on city building even raises this to the status of a working principle. He writes, ‘Old buildings ought to be preserved, but we must, so to speak, peel them and preserve them.” The object of this, then, is that by the transformation of surroundings the old buildings should be led to the midst of public places and in the axes of streets. This procedure is used everywhere and with special satisfaction in treating ancient city portals. it is indeed a fine thing to have an isolated city gateway around which we may stroll instead of passing under its arches! (19)
Peel them and preserve them — no better way to describe what has been done to too much architecture that should instead be living and peacefully subsiding.
III: The Enclosed Character of the Public Square
Such a simple rule, one so ignored so often in modern building.
‘The old plazas produce a collective harmonious effect because they are uniformly enclosed…In fact, the public square owes its name to this characteristic in an expanse at the center if a city. (20)
He looks at how it is enclosed, how street enter into it:
Careful study shows that there are many advantages to an arrangement of street openings in the form of turbine arms. (21)
It looks clear in the drawing, I think of the great wonderful squares of Prague or Krakow and agree with him on avoiding busy cross sections at each corner.
IV: The Form and Expanse of Public Squares
He looks at two forms of square — those that are deep and those wide. They set off different building types, deep plazas are better facing a church of slender form, city halls require broader, more expansive ones.
… The height of the principal building, measured from the ground to the cornice, should be in proportion to the dimension of the public square measured perpendicularly in the direction of the principal facade. (27)
I love this, can’t wait to wander some of the cities he describes in this way:
It is truly a delight for the sensitive observer to analyze such a plan and to find the explanation for its wonderful effect, Like all true works of art it continually reveals new beauties and further reason for admiring the methods and resourcefulness of the ancient city builders. (26)
V: The Irregularity of Ancient Public Squares
The opposite to today’s grids, but Sitte hardly needs to point that out, nor that this is due to their gradual historical development, but this is an important point:
Everyone knows from personal experience that these disruptions in symmetry are not unsightly. On the contrary, they arouse our interest as much as they appear natural, and preserve a picturesque character. Few people, however, understand why irregularity can avoid giving an unpleasant appearance. We must study a map to understand it. (30)
Always we turn to Italy — Padua, Verona, Florence, Palermo. To give you a taste of the many maps that fill the book:
VI: Groups of Public Squares
The groupings of squares! To an American this is a wonderful extravagance indeed, also wonderful to move from one enclosed, irregular square to another as my European wanderings can attest.
There is such an expanse of beauty here that no painter has ever conceived an architectural background more perfect than its setting. No theater ever created a more sublime tableau than the spectacle to be enjoyed at Venice. It is truly the seat of a great power, a power of spirit, of art, and of industry which has gathered the treasures of the world upon its vessels… (37)
VII: Arrangement of Public Squares in Northern Europe
The difference he notes, which I had noted already, was that in Northern Europe churches tend to sit more separately — usually because they have been surrounded by graveyards. (Where was everyone buried in this Italian cities of stone I wonder?) Yet these small churches that form the fabric of the city or town are still generally not fully centered in a square, rather they often set to one side. There is, however, often a large plaza in front to set off the facade. Still, they are approached in various ways that creates interest, surprise, wonder.
Sitte doesn’t simply look to the ancient, he likes too the Baroque arrangement of squares, the way that
… art came to control vistas of the great three-sided plazas, churches, palaces, formal gardens, sumptuous approaches to important buildings, as well as nature’s masterpieces. (50)
This would include the Plaza of the Palazzo Pitti at Florence, that of the Capitol at Rome. Thus:
The development of Baroque style differs from the history of earlier styles in that it did not evolve gradually. On the contrary, like modern styles, it came full panoplied from the drawing board as an invention. We cannot, therefore, attribute the banality of modern planning to the fact that it has precisely the same kind of origin. We insist, simply, that the straight line and geometrical patterns should not be made the aims of our planning. (51)
The Baroque is the idea of a theatre-type perspective…he gives the example of Würzburg Residence:
Every modern university or group of public buildings laid out around large and small open spaces generally follows some variant of the Würzburg Residence plan — a large court or yard at the center with smaller courts at either side. (51)
Looking at the picture I though god damn, it’s so true.
VIII: The Artless and Prosaic Character of Modern City Planning
Open space that should serve everyone actually belongs to the engineer and hygienist. All of the art forms in town building have disappeared one by one so that we have scarcely a memory of them left. (53)
IX: Modern Systems
Ah, the grid. He writes here at the beginning of the grid. It’s funny looking back, that actually it got much worse than the grid, comparing New York for example, to the suburbs.
These systems accomplish nothing except a standardization of street patterns. They are purely mechanical in conception. They reduce the street system to a mere traffic utility, never serving the purposes of art. They make no appeal to the sense of perception, for we can see their features only on a map. (59)
He looks at street patterns and traffic — traffic! Ah, 1889, this was just the beginning, but this kind of diagram is also very familiar.
X: Modern Limitations on Art in City Planning
What I like most is that actually this is not just a nostalgic looking backwards, though I wouldn’t fault that too much given the delight that these old city spaces bring and the importance of thinking through just why. Sitte writes:
Many of the old structural forms are simply out of the question for modern builders. While that may disturb the sentimental, it should not plunge them into a sterile nostalgia. Decorative construction without vital function is but temporary and of questionable value. Time makes inexorable changes in community life, and these changes alter the original significance of architectural forms. (69)
But now more and more, we see how architectural forms result from community life…
Great population increases in our modern capitals, more than anything else, have shattered the old forms. With the growth of a city its streets widen and its buildings grow taller and bulkier.
Written before the first skyscraper mind.
Intense human concentration has meant intense increase in land value, and neither the individual nor the city government can escape the consequences. Subdivision and street opening have proceeded apace, Street after street has been cut through old districts, giving birth to more and more city blocks. (69)
This economic understanding of development was unexpected, I’m not sure why though. Still, it is almost uncanny to see the way that Sitte foresaw the architectural and planning future.
High land costs encourage greater intensity of land use, and this, in turn, supports certain structural forms. Modern lot plotting tends to exalt the cube motif in architecture. (70)
XI: Improved Modern Systems
So looking to his future, our present which is one Sitte did his best to prevent and I appreciate that, he writes:
Our study has already indicated the obvious need for innovations to overcome the effects of the ill-famed rectangular system. (74)
I’m almost glad he didn’t know there would be worse. He didn’t see bureaucratic and state planning as the answer — though private planning wasn’t the answer either.
Personal ambition, artistic individuality, and enthusiasm for work of one’s own responsibility are factors that do not fit into public administration. In fact, they are incompatible with official discipline. (82)
Sitte foresaw the great wind corridors of our modern times as well:
While it is possible for a pedestrian to stroll without discomfort in the old inner city, he is immediately enveloped in clouds of dust when he steps into a modern part of the City. Open plazas, where street openings draw in wind from every direction (like the new City Hall Plaza of Vienna) feature beautiful wind spirals throughout the year… (87)
I haven’t yet been to Budapest and Vienna, but Sitte upholds the first, describing Budapest:
where stand the finest and most greatly admired urban areas along the Danube, where the river is made a magnificent feature of the City itself. Sooner or later, the Danube can have an equally fine effect on Vienna. … Should, then, a gradual slum development be permitted in the meantime? Should not the senseless and immensely costly rectangular system be abandoned? (85)
He really hates rectangles.
XII: Artistic Principles in City Planning — An Illustration
Again Vienna, always back to Vienna, it was his city after all. But there is much to think on for all cities.