It is 400 years since the death of Michelangelo Merisi (1571–1610), known to us by the name of the town in which he was raised: Caravaggio. He lived fast, and he died young — a brawler of volcanic temper, he was repeatedly arrested for going about armed; a habitue of Rome’s underworld of gambling and prostitution, he fled the center of the art world in 1606 after killing a rival. He left behind him a small oeuvre of world-altering paintings. His 1600 trilogy on the life of Saint Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome remain as astonishing an announcement as exists in the history of art. Each contains the sort of flourishes that characterize the most bravura performers in paint — the chiaroscuro of the Calling, the angel’s acrobat-like descent to inspire the evangelist, the floor vanishing in the Martyrdom. Here is the birth of the Baroque. Crowds gather each day to jostle outside the tiny chapel to the despair of the sacristan. But it wasn’t always so. Before Roberto Longhi’s 1951 exhibition in Milan, Caravaggio was utterly unknown to the general public. His return to prominence has been as meteoric as was his life.
Rome, with 20 major canvases permanently on view in its churches and family collections, is the place to see his paintings. Even more so now as the Scuderie del Quirinale is host to the largest Caravaggio show ever collected — 24 paintings on view until June 13. What’s as notable is that the Quirinale show includes only works absolutely agreed to be by Caravaggio. For there are numerous lost paintings and as many copies to be debated — that a Taking of Christ was discovered in 1994 in the refectory of a Jesuit college in Dublin further encourages the hope of curators and dealers. Yet the Dublin painting is emblematic of the battles, for neither science nor connoisseurship can settle which of three versions (Rome, Ireland, and Odessa) is the original. The paintings and the painter arouse arguments at every turn.
Sebastian Schutze brings order to this minefield of interpretation in Caravaggio: Complete Work. But his excellence is overshadowed by the book’s sumptuousness. It is gorgeous: 10 pounds, 30 by 40 inches, with large plates of remarkable quality. These are the best color reproductions of Caravaggio’s work yet made and browsing them is joy. Schutze begins by acknowledging that we know little about Michelangelo Merisi — no drawings survive nor any letters, and the two short contemporary biographies are posthumous and antagonistic where not gossipy. He relates the painter’s life in four short, judicious essays that begin with the paintings. They are analyzed and placed in context amongst the other artists at work during these years, and the illustrations are profuse. Schutze closes with a 60-page catalogue of Caravaggios: 67 works he feels are surely autograph (as well as the numerous copies) and 22 that remain arguing points. In the dense field of Caravaggist studies, Schutze’s book is the ideal starting point. It’s the next best thing to walking into San Luigi dei Francesi.