Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review : Beyond Caravaggio by Letizia Treves (National Gallery)

Book Review : Beyond Caravaggio by Letizia Treves (National Gallery)

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Bringing together exceptional works by Caravaggio and the Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish artists he inspired, ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ examines the international artistic phenomenon known as Caravaggism.

Both the exhibition currently at the National Gallery and this book sets out the argument that whilst most art historians have focused on Caravaggio’s life, little attention has been given to artist’s influence on contemporary artists within his own time and some of the generations of artists that followed.

The first part of the book attempts to place in context how Caravaggio like many artists was drawn to Rome in search of fame and fortune and how his particular style of painting attracted a considerable following soon after his first public commission from fellow artists, patrons and collectors.

The main author of the book, Letizia Treves provides evidence that Caravaggio’s early years in Rome were confined to working in other workshops until he began to develop his own particular style. Treves explains what attracted artists to the city ‘ In addition to the much coveted papal commissions, artists sought patronage from illustrious families and powerful cardinals, many of whom promoted their work and gave them lodgings in their palaces.’

Caravaggio’s early style developed into producing works depicting characters from the streets including musicians, cardsharps and fortune tellers. These pictures generated a small amount of interest, however it was the unveiling of Caravaggio’s first public commission in 1600 that caused a sensation and began a certain Caravaggio ‘mania’ that led to numerous commissions from distinguished patrons and great interest from other artists. Treves features a quote from Giovan Pietro Bellori who suggested that ‘the painters then in Rome were so taken by the novelty, and the younger ones especially flocked to him and praised him alone as the only true imitator of nature, looking upon his works as miracles.’ It was not only in Rome, over the next few years, Caravaggio gathered a number of Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish admirers  

Some painters began to imitate Caravaggio’s style almost immediately both in subject matter and in his dramatic use of light. Over the next twenty years, a number of artists including Gramatica, Cesso, Manfredi, Valentin, Tournier, Reni, Gentileschi and Baglione became known for being followers of Caravaggio or ‘Caravaggesques’, although as Treves comments these terms are unsatisfactory and misleading.

The chapter about Caravaggio and Britain provides an interesting insight into how Caravaggio and his followers work was considered over the centuries. Remarkably, one of Caravaggio’s earliest supporters in Britain was George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, favourite of James I and Charles I. Buckingham was unable to purchase an original Caravaggio but built up a collection that featured many of his followers. Others works from Caravaggio and his followers gradually made their way into Britain but usually by being included in collections bought by members of the aristocracy and wealthy landowners. One painting in particular illustrates this particular trail. In the chapter, A Scottish Connection, we follow how one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces, The Taking of Christ was sold from the once prestigious Roman Mattei family to a Scottish Country gentlemen by the name of William Hamilton Nisbet in 1802.

The book makes the very important point that Caravaggio’s sensational rise to success was matched by his rapid decline which led to his mysterious death in 1610. Without new work from the master, it was left to his followers to carry the torch. However by the mid 17th century, the style was considered unfashionable. Between the end of the 17th century and the early 20th century, there was little interest in Caravaggio and his followers. In Britain during the 19th and early part of the 20th century, well-known and influential critics John Ruskin and Roger Fry found it difficult to separate the artist from his violent lifestyle considering him vulgar and brutal.

One of the consequences of this lack of interest in Caravaggio and his followers was that paintings were often considered to have been painted by Caravaggio when in fact they were by artists who were using his particular style. Because of these difficulties, many major galleries even up to the late 20th century seemed unwilling to risk buying works at auctions, many of which ended up in the United States.

However the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition and the book offers a unique opportunity to discover a number of hidden art treasures from around the British Isles with the majority of the 49 paintings in the exhibition coming from museums, stately homes, castles, churches and private collections across Great Britain and Ireland.

The rest of the book explores many of these treasures in detail including Caraveggio’s The Supper at Emmaus, The Taking of Christ, and The National Gallery’s own Boy Bitten by a Lizard and other highlights including Cecco del Caravaggio’s A Musician, Bartolomeo Manfredi’s Fortune Teller and The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de la Tour.

This fascinating and important book, full of stunning illustrations provides plenty of evidence that the obsession with the dramatic and violent life of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio has obscured other elements especially his influence and legacy. There is no doubt that Caravaggio was a fascinating figure, who in his short artistic career developed an  original, natural and dramatic style of painting which was considered revolutionary and widely admired. However this book convincingly suggests that his legacy was broad and influenced many other great artists in generations to come including  Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velázquez.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information or to buy a copy, visit the National Gallery website here

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