NEW YORK — In his heyday he was hailed as the best painter in the capital of art, Rome. But he was always in trouble.
When he executed big church commissions he painted revered saints and holy figures as if they were crude peasants and scruffy street people. Ecclesiastical minions found the pictures brutal and vulgar and regularly rejected them. His loyalists were refined private collectors and fellow artists. The cognoscentti were titillated by his irreverence when he recast a figure from Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling as a seductive combination of cupid and pre-pubescent male Lolita.
Artists were awed by a provincial youth who made complex dramatic scenes appear without so much as first drawing on the canvas. Even they, however, must have been dismayed at his brawling and brushes with the law. In 1606, he fell into a petty quarrel over a tennis match with one Ranuccio Tommasoni and murdered the hapless fellow. For the rest of his brief life he was on the run.
He continued to be lionized as he painted in Naples, Sicily and Palermo. Such was his talent and charm that he was made a knight of the Order of Malta. Such were his ways that he was unknighted and jailed almost immediately. When he returned to Rome believing he had been cleared, he was once again tossed in the slammer. Upon release, he wandered the river bank where he contracted malaria and died July 18, 1610. He was just 39 years old. After this brief moment of glory and pain, his reputation went into an eclipse that lasted nearly 2 1/2 centuries.
His name was Michelangelo Merisi. But he was known as Caravaggio after the provincial Lombard town where he was born in 1571. Today the name kindles reverence in the hearts of all those nurtured on the doctrinaire modernist version of art history. It was not always thus. Not long after Caravaggio's death, reigning classicists accused him of "unforgivable breaches of decorum." An 18th-Century ranking of 57 leading artists topped by Peter Paul Rubens put Caravaggio fifth from the last. Even 19th-Century romantics who should have been attracted to his energy and individualism were put off by his apparent lack of ethical goodness. The critic John Ruskin put Caravaggio among "the worshipers of the depraved."
It was not until 1905 that the pioneer modernist critic Roger Fry began Caravaggio's redemption by declaring, "He was in many senses the first modern artist, the first to proceed not by evolution, but by revolution."
Caravaggio was cast in the same mold as the poet Jacques Villon. He was the creative outlaw, the Bohemian anti-saint who is permitted to cheat, seduce and steal as long as he serves the higher law of creativity. It is a curious, dark and unwritten aesthetic cannon which nonetheless has played a signal role in our times with their conventional service and secret attraction to an absolutist ego and lawlessness.
Caravaggio's shade has not simply colored the work of hyper-realist artists from Courbet to Duane Hanson, it has touched the mystique of everybody from Picasso to Mick Jagger, the Hell's Angels and the films of Sam Peckinpah. It is a curious and contradictory mixture; a moralizing love of the poor and downtrodden, an irreverent iconoclasm that jeers at convention and a tainted neurosis that is at once exquisitely sensitive and lumpishly violent.
Yet, despite its crucial if somewhat repellent place in our cultural ethos, the Caravaggio syndrome did not formulate into a major exhibition until 1951 when Caravaggio and the "Caravaggeschi" appeared in Milan. Even more surprising is the fact that there never has been a major Caravaggio exhibition in this country, at least not until now. Just opened at the Metropolitan Museum is "The Age of Caravaggio." Its cast of 101 paintings constitutes a capital event, although only 41 pictures are even supposed to be by the master and only about half a dozen of those are among his trademark works.
We do not, for example, see the famous "Entombment" from the Vatican, "The Death of the Virgin" from the Louvre or even the renowned "Still Life With a Basket of Fruit," which was supposed to be on hand but was withdrawn at the last minute by its guardians at Milan's Picacoteca Ambrosiana. Well, never mind. Nobody can complain of a show that includes the androgynous "Bacchus," two famous renditions of "The Supper at Emmaus" and the tragic late-period masterpiece "The Flagilatin."
The show is an event that will reward pilgrimages by the faithful, although they would be well advised to wait until closer to its closing April 14. At the moment, the weather in New York is charitably described as filthy. Later, the show moves on to Naples. It will definitely not come to Los Angeles.