Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 4, 2009
John F. Moffitt Caravaggio in Context: Learned Naturalism and Renaissance Humanism Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2004. 268 pp.; 22 b/w ills. Paper $49.95 (0786419598)

Caravaggio is most often represented as a hot-headed painter who preferred the seedy side of Rome—its bars, street brawls, and prostitutes—to the refined life of his wealthy patrons. Thus, one might be tempted to assume that the artist was vehemently opposed to all that was intellectual, especially the stuffy classicism of Rome’s humanist circle. This popular perception of the artist sets up two interesting dichotomies, one that pits naturalism against classicism and another claiming that a painter who had a weakness for violence and promiscuity could not also have interests in literary or theoretical matters. John Moffitt takes issue with these generalizations by arguing that Caravaggio was not only familiar with the sophisticated tastes of his humanist patrons, but embraced their aesthetic ideals to satisfy their discriminating eye, earn lasting fame, and win impressive commissions. For Caravaggio, the appropriation of tropes from classical and humanist literature was not merely a personal choice, it was a professional necessity.

Moffitt notes that according to current views of the artist’s personality, “the hot-tempered Caravaggio should have been the last painter one might have considered a learned ‘humanist artist,’ especially so since he was mostly recognized by his contemporaries as being an obdurate ‘realist’ a Naturalista” (6–7). Claiming that “naturalist” and “humanist” are mutually exclusive terms is not a new idea, however; this idea can be found as early as the seventeenth century. Early biographers such as Giovanni Pietro Bellori did not perceive Caravaggio’s gritty naturalism to be a legitimate painting style, but rather an outward manifestation of his melancholic temperament—a dark, rough painting style befitting a dark, troubled mind. Although the artist biographies in Bellori’s Le vite de’ pittori, scultori ed architetti moderni (1672) were biased to support his preference for classicizing painting styles, his accounts of artists’ lives were generally taken as fact and went largely unquestioned until fairly recently. Thus, Caravaggio’s troubled personality became the standard explanation for his dramatic tenebrism, and naturalism was proclaimed an unacceptable painting style for Rome’s sophisticated humanist circle. Moffitt aims to set the record straight.

By surveying literature and pictorial examples from both classical and humanist sources, Moffitt carefully presents his case and lets the evidence speak for itself. Rather than employing “trendy academic ‘theories,’” the author places Caravaggesque naturalism within its proper context, the humanist world of Rome—the circle of Caravaggio’s patrons (5). Through extensive visual and literary analysis, the author shows that Renaissance humanism readily embraced naturalism as an expressive genre because it had been a respected mode of artistic expression in the classical world. Moffitt proposes that “not only did Caravaggio intend to emulate those exemplaria Graeca with his ‘nocturnal’ art, indeed, he meant even to ‘surpass’ the works of the Ancients. . . . Caravaggio actually set out to compete individually with the artistic achievement of ancient painters celebrated for their virtuosic feats of imitatio” (10).

To place Caravaggio within the context of the humanist circle in Rome, Moffitt explores the circumstances and persons involved in the artist’s early commissions, of which many had quasi-mythological themes. Due to the patrons’ strong influence on painters during this period, the author attributes Caravaggio’s unusual interpretation of these classical themes more to the patron’s particular taste than to the painter’s rejection of the “typical” classical model. Moffitt asserts that our modern conception of “classical” is misleading, for its meaning was much broader during the artist’s lifetime. The book explores the interpretation of the “classical” among the social circle of the artist’s most influential early patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a man of letters who was interested in science, literature, emblematics, and artistic symbolism. Because Caravaggio lived and painted in Del Monte’s household, the young artist had frequent exposure to current humanist thought. In addition, Caravaggio had a personal friendship with Giambattista Marino, who was considered by his contemporaries to be the most learned poet of his day. The fact that Marino wrote four poems dedicated to Caravaggio’s Narcissus (ca. 1597) demonstrates that the artist’s work resonated with the taste of a well-respected humanist and suggests that Caravaggio was better educated than previously portrayed.

In the first chapter, “The Forgotten Historical Background of Caravaggio’s ‘Dark Style,’” sixteenth- and seventeenth-century treatises on painting that discuss lighting techniques and their classical forerunners are examined to show that positive references to the utilization of light effects and strong shadows in paintings from the ancient Greeks and Romans through both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance would have been known, if not directly by Caravaggio, at least by the artist’s patrons. Although during the Counter-Reformation it was most common for light and shadow metaphors to use the former to represent goodness and the latter to represent evil and ignorance, another metaphor gaining popularity around 1600 viewed darkness in a more positive way. Saint John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul” described a realm, a place of profound darkness, in which God’s presence worked miracles. Contemporary writings on art reflected this renewed interest in the symbolism of light effects and encouraged artists to use techniques from science and optics to systematically study how light reflected, refracted, and cast shadows. This experimentation, in turn, would allow the artist to render surfaces textures more accurately—more naturalistically.

Moffitt explores the growing interest in genre painting in the second chapter, “Caravaggio’s Gypsy Cheats: Naturalism as a Contemporary ‘Low-Life’ Subject.” Here, “naturalism” is more broadly defined to include not only the artist’s execution of the subject but the narrative content of the work as well. Moffitt again finds parallels to this naturalistic approach in ancient literature, specifically the satirical writings of Philostratus and Pliny. Moffitt claims that, in the tradition of these ancient satires, Caravaggio’s frequent depiction of “low-life” subjects was a direct criticism of contemporary culture’s abuses and vices. Citing the artist’s gypsy paintings as a primary example, the author explores changing attitudes toward the gypsy throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to find clues pertaining to their meaning and reception. Caravaggio so carefully captured their dress and habits that his paintings could be considered anthropological documentation of a population that was in the forefront of a current urban controversy.

In the following chapters, “A Humble ‘Basket of Fruit” by Caravaggio and the ‘Xenia’ Tradition” and “Emblematic Naturalism and the Revived Prestige of ‘Low Life’ Subjects,” Moffitt again searches for ancient sources for classical prototypes. Moffitt cites the classical “xenia” tradition mentioned by Philostratus, who described it as the custom of exchanging small still-life paintings—a gift-giving tradition adopted by Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal del Monte. The latter chapter continues the still-life theme, but focuses on those that are embedded in narrative paintings such as the Supper at Emmaus (ca. 1601). This painting’s naturalistically rendered still life, simple setting, and “low-life” characters make the viewer feel as if she or he is witnessing the scene in person. While it is well known that Caravaggio utilized both naturalism and symbolism to effectively communicate a profound biblical message, Moffitt suggests the painter took the same approach for his secular paintings. Caravaggio utilized a similar blend of naturalism and symbolism drawn from ancient literature that was popular with the humanist circle in Rome.

Moffitt continues to explore Caravaggio’s vaguely “classical” works in the fifth chapter, “The Humanist Sources of a ‘Sickly Bacchus’ and a ‘Narcissus’ by Caravaggio.” These paintings were considered “vulgar” not because they depict poor city folk, but due to their seductive nature. It has been suggested that these boys “tricked out in vaguely antique costumes” are portraits of the youths who reportedly dressed in costume to attend Del Monte’s risqué parties (110). The author suggests that a more complete explanation can be found in Del Monte’s humanist interests, specifically in the Bacchus-like character described in Philostratus’s Imagines. During the Renaissance, such Bacchus images (found in texts, treatises, and emblem books) were often allusions to artists being intoxicated by divine inspiration. Moffitt then presents similar textual and pictorial evidence from classical and Renaissance sources to identify the source for Caravaggio’s handling of the subject of Narcissus, the painting lauded by humanist poet Marino.

After establishing connections between Caravaggio’s paintings and the symbolism of Renaissance emblematics, Moffitt continues his exploration of pictorial/verbal puzzles in the next chapter, “Caravaggio’s Emblematic ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard.’” Although the author follows a similar approach in order to identify prototypes for the unusual subject of this painting, its seductive nature leads him into an extensive discussion of homosexual themes in classical and humanist art and literature. Thus, Moffitt adds new evidence to the continuing debate concerning Caravaggio’s and Cardinal del Monte’s sexual orientation. Discussion of Caravaggio’s “seductive youths” continues in the next chapter, “Caravaggio’s Emblematic and Gender-Bending ‘Lute Player’ as ‘Bassus,’” with the focus on an easily overlooked detail in the foreground, a book inscribed with the curious title “Bassus.” The identification of just what, or rather who, Bassus was serves as the hinge-pin for Moffitt’s extensive discussion of classical and seicento thoughts on homosexuality. These writings were occasionally illustrated with emblematic images, which the author analyzes to reveal commonalities with Caravaggio’s paintings. Moffitt’s findings suggest that although Caravaggio may have indeed been gay, the androgynous appearance and seductive nature of the sitters was more indicative of the interests of his humanist patron, Cardinal del Monte.

In the last chapter, “Caravaggio’s ‘Learned Naturalism’ and Contemporary Science in an Age of Marvels,” Moffitt changes direction again by focusing on the nascent “new science,” which based its knowledge on a direct observation of natural phenomena, and its possible influence on Caravaggio’s naturalism. Although Caravaggio’s biographers sharply criticized the “vulgar” qualities of his work, they could not ignore his “exceptional mimetic abilities,” which seemed to breathe life into the canvas (191). Such impressive feats of illusionism and verisimilitude were only possible with careful observation of nature. Prototypes of these naturalistically painted marvels can be found in the classical writings of Pliny, Philostratus, and Callistratus, which were read by Renaissance humanists and cited in painting treatises known to Caravaggio and his patrons.

Moffitt is not alone in suggesting that Caravaggio was more culturally astute than previously believed. Prominent scholars such as Elizabeth Cropper, Avigdor Posèq, Luigi Salerno, David Stone, Charles Dempsey, and John Varriano have shown that Caravaggio consciously created his artistic persona and was sensitive to the particular tastes of his humanist patrons, his personal friends, and the general public. Caravaggio’s naturalism was as much about skillfully rendering surface textures as it was about describing the rich culture around him—the theater, music, literature, and people that he encountered in the streets. Moffitt’s text is an important contribution to Caravaggio studies.

While I agree with the author that a few recent texts seem to be more historical fiction than fact, the author’s general condemnation of the current state of the field and use of terms such as “trendy academic” and “‘theoretical’ perversities” may be heavy handed and a bit distracting (5, 205). There are sufficient examples of recent research supported by both skillful integration of sound “evidence” and thoughtfully applied theory to prove that such generalizations are perhaps unwarranted. Yet, Moffitt’s central claims are quite convincing thanks to the ample literary and pictorial evidence he presents. Caravaggio was a painter who through his careful selection of form and content created a unique painting style that blended naturalism and learned content, thereby creating a “naturalismo colto, that is a ‘learned (or assiduously cultivated) naturalism’” (165). Moffitt reminds us that it was not enough to be skilled in striking illusionistic tricks; one had to make a “reference to a standard literary topos” (generally an allusion to either a classical or Christian source) to be considered an excellent painter (202). Caravaggio in Context shows us that Caravaggio was up to the challenge.

Kathy Johnston-Keane
PhD Candidate, Department of History of Art and Archaeology, University of Pittsburgh