The topic of this month’s ArtSmart Roundtable is artists. You may know that I usually write about the Italian Renaissance, and this time I’m sticking with Italy but fast-forwarding at least 100 years to the master painter Caravaggio. I want to share what I think is the best place to see his work, where it really makes an impact: the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
Going to a church to see paintings may not sound like everyone’s idea of a good time, but there are advantages to this. One, seeing great art takes minutes rather than hours at a museum; second, churches are usually not crowded; and most important, seeing art in the place where it was originally intended gives you a more authentic experience. You see the art the way that people saw it from the day it was installed, not as a tourist attraction but instead as a real part of their lives.
As I have mentioned before, Italy suffers from its tourism. It is the #1 tourist destination in the world, and most of those tourists visit Venice, Florence, and Rome. While these cities’ biggest attractions deserve their fame, fighting the crowds and witnessing Rome’s long and rich history with hundreds of other people in your space is not the way to spend your entire trip. Get a bit off the beaten path with lesser-known historic sites.
Caravaggio, 1573-1610, is worth knowing for three main reasons: his dramatic use of chiaroscuro (or depicting strong contrasts between light and dark), his unusual personal life (he killed a man in a fight, escaped, then died a few years later), and his influence on the Baroque style of painting. The way that he used light and dark to create mood was severe; this technique of keeping some areas of a painting dark and using almost a spotlight effect of strong light is known as tenebrism.
You can see about a third of the work of Caravaggio in Rome in museums and churches. My favorite way to experience the power of his work is to skip the museums and instead see three of his paintings at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi: The Best Place to See Caravaggio in Rome
This church may look simple from the outside due to its Renaissance-style facade, but that subdued design hides the flamboyant 18th-century interior.
Don’t pay attention to all the Baroque details for now…just make your way to the Contarelli Chapel and see the three Caravaggio works that line the walls. All of them date from 1599-1602 and feature St. Matthew.
Starting on the left side, The Calling of St. Matthew depicts the very moment when Christ chooses Matthew to follow him. Instead of the familiar imagery of angels from Renaissance art, Caravaggio used light to depict the importance of the moment and its connection to something holy. The naturalism that Caravaggio became known for is apparent here–notice the incredible way in which the contrasts between shadows and light give the figures three-dimensionality and how each person has a unique face.
In the middle is The Inspiration, also known as Matthew and the Angel.
This is my favorite of the three paintings. Here we see St. Matthew receiving inspiration from an angel, who has swooped down and surprised Matthew while he is busy writing. We can sense the surprise not only in Matthew’s face, but also because of the way his stool appears to be ready to fall over into our space. The entire scene is dark except for the figures that boldly stand out against the black background. The flowing drapery and colors of Matthew’s robes add beauty to the scene.
We can see how this canvas was meant to be placed in this chapel. Instead of seeing the painting on wall in a museum, its original place gives us a sense of how the painting was meant to relate to the space around it and serve the purpose of providing religious imagery for the patron.
The third image is The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Its position opposite of The Calling of Matthew reflects the full circle of his life as a saint. Caravaggio used the technique of tenebrism mentioned above to focus the viewer on the most important part of the scene–the moment before the executioner uses the sword.
By the way, Caravaggio painted the man in the back left, behind the executioner, as a self portrait.
Caravaggio’s work is dramatic and beautiful at the same time. Seeing them in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi gives you a feeling for how the art was meant to be part of the space and connects it to the role of the all-important patrons of the time. While seeing art in a museum is wonderful, experiencing it in its original location is definitely worth your time.
Where have you seen painting that’s not in a museum? Have you seen Caravaggio’s paintings in person?
Check out this month’s other ArtSmart posts about artists:
The Optical Illusion of Guarino Guarini from A Sense of Place
The Art of Édouard Manet, Pioneer of Modernism from Eurotravelogue
Hieronymus Bosch: Morality and Monsters from Daydream Tourist
Chagall Tapestries at Mission Hill Winery. from The Wanderful Traveler
The visual enigmas of Rene Magritte from Culture Tripper