Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Courtesans, Caravaggio, and Connections

The great Italian painter, Caravaggio, is known for his rock star personality to the Roman public and going through money like toilet paper.  I have always overlooked him and thought that he was unimportant, especially when compared to the great geniuses who came before him, such as Michelangelo or Raphael. Why would a man who used dirty people from the street as models for religious icons get recognition? I found out why when I recently took a Context Travel walk in Rome, called Caravaggio’s Mean Streets. Our docent, Lauren Golden, a British art history PhD who resembles JK Rowling, was a walking encyclopedia who clearly laid it all out the table like she was serving a five course Italian dinner.  

Photo credit: David Marks
Our first stop, the Church of Sant’Agostino, was the only church in Rome where courtesans (ladies of the night) could attend mass each Sunday and repent for their sins! One of these courtesans even became famous as Caravaggio’s muse and lover. As soon as we stepped inside the church, I was immersed into a world where I could visualize the courtesans sitting in their designated pews in the front of the church so they would not distract the men.If they had sat in the back of the church then there was fear that the men would constantly turn around in their seats to gawk at their beautiful faces. I understood how the courtesans would feel trying to repent like everyone else, only to repeat their sins the next day in order to survive. The main thing that caught my eye in this church, however, was the painting, Madonna di Loreto, and how it contained the same model for Mary as in his painting, Dei Palafrenieri, located in the Borghese art gallery. I imagined the model courtesan attending this church and seeing herself in the painting and feeling quite empowered…or embarrassed. What must it have been like, seeing yourself on the church walls every Sunday morning? She must have been of some importance to Caravaggio if he used her twice. I wonder if she loved him - or felt adored or used by him?   

As we walked up to the painting, the church guard quickly turned off the lights on the painting in hopes of receiving offerings to the church - the painting was muted by darkness. In his dark green jacket and stressed face, he asked for donations with his eyes as if he were barely containing his annoyance for cheap tourists.  As soon as a new group would walk up, he would turn off the light so that they would not be able to see the painting in all of its glory unless an offering was made! I could not get a good picture or appreciate it for more than 2 minutes at a time. I wonder if church guards back then haggled for donations to keep the paintings illuminated by candlelight.

Photo credit: Myriah Catalano
My perspective and appreciation for Caravaggio grew at our next stop, where we analyzed the Saint Matthew series at San Luigi dei Francesi church. The immense, powerful trio of paintings reminded me of this show I used to watch as a little girl, called “Out of the Box.” In that show, the characters jumped into pictures. I, too, felt as if I could  jump into Caravaggio’s life as I stared in wonder at these paintings. The first piece is called The Calling of St. Matthew.  The painting truly makes the viewer wonder if Caravaggio used his personal experience in gambling halls to show the debt collecting of Matthew’s profession. The painting is so lifelike, I could smell the dingy air in the room, and feel the tension of Jesus asking Matthew to join his Apostles. I sensed the protective instinct of the boy reaching for his sword to defend Matthew from supposed thieves. I could detect as if Matthew was about to look up and question everything he has ever done with his life. I imagined him struggling with being a greedy tax collector. His head is bowed in the painting, as if questioning his life, thinking, am I a bad person? Do I need to change?

          This painting reminded me of times when I realized that I had done something wrong and started questioning everything that I had ever stood for and done.  Surprisingly, Caravaggio turned on a whole new light for me, as if he were the haughty church guard who had just collected a donation. He painted his life and real people in his works, to connect the paintings to how people on the streets coming in would associate themselves with the pictures. The people would see the dirtiness of Madonna di Loreto’s feet and the grimy haggard way of the pilgrims. They jumped inside them, just like I did - and I am not even a particularly religious person.

           Caravaggio touched the little faith I had in his artistic capabilities and my own religious beliefs, and I could intertwine his personal experiences with mine. With his realistic paintings, he knew how to reach the church’s main audience, no matter how offended the church got. Caravaggio told you his life story, and someone else’s - through his paintings, and that is why I could relate to him. I could relate to him since he shows real life and situations in his paintings.  Each piece throws me back into things I see in my own modern community where one wrong look can still mean a problem as it did in the 1600’s - Caravaggio captured that. It was as if the foggiest cloud dissipated from in front of my eyes, and I saw what he was trying to say. I am grateful that Context Travel gave me the tools and context in which to begin to appreciate this master painter.  

-Myriah Catalano


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