I often joke that I prefer the artists I study to be dead, because when you discover that you don’t quite like the person, your appreciation for their work can be seriously lessened: it is hard to separate the person from the work. Take Caravaggio, an artist whose work never ceases to move me and who I love teaching—and who is the perfect illustration of why I prefer my artists to be dead. His life reads like a series of police reports as he was constantly getting in trouble. Born in 1571 in Caravaggio, a farming community east of Milan, Michelangelo Merisi first trained in Milan but soon made his way to Rome, where he eventually secured the patronage of important collectors. While in the papal city, he was repeatedly in trouble with the authorities for carrying weapons without a permit, for engaging in fights, and for many other violent outbursts (my favorite one involving a plate of artichokes not cooked to his liking that he hurled at a waiter), culminating in stabbing to death one Ranuccio Tommasoni after a game of “pallacorda” (the ancestor of tennis) on 28 May 1606. Condemned to death, Caravaggio fled Rome and started four peripatetic years that took him down the Italian peninsula to Naples and eventually to Malta (with, along the way, more violent episodes and troubles with the authorities). In Malta, he was made knight of Saint John in recognition for his services to the order, but after yet another brawl and imprisonment, he fled to Sicily and was expelled from the knights of Malta. He died in 1610 as he was travelling back to Rome where his friends had been working to have him pardoned. Not only was he someone with serious anger management issues, but violence features prominently in his work, with a recurrence of depictions involving beheading, suggesting that this form of death held particular resonance for him. Two paintings offer evidence of the artist’s profound—and literal—identification with the subject matter. In David Holding the Head of Goliath, which dates to the year he died and which was intended for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, in hopes that he would assist in obtaining a pardon, a poignantly introspective David holds the giant’s head that bears the painter’s own features. The young Israelite extends his arm towards the viewer, projecting the head of Goliath/Michelangelo, right into the beholder’s world, blood dripping from the severed neck, the mouth frozen in a final scream.
Caravaggio made a similar (and perhaps even more unsettling) statement when he signed his name with the blood that trickles down from the neck of Saint John the Baptist (this is the only surviving work signed by his hand). Usually, painters represent the aftermath of the execution with the Baptist’s head held in a large platter, the reward for Salome’s scandalous dance before Herod (at times, the lifeless and headless body is included in the depiction). When the beheading itself is represented, we see the saint kneeling while an executioner lifts a sword, about to strike. Here on the contrary, the saint appears still alive as he lays on the ground, his hands tied behind his back, just like a sacrificial lamb. The henchman simultaneously grabs the saint’s hair and presses his head on the ground as he pulls a knife from a holder on the back of his belt to finish severing the head. Note that the sword with which he struck the saint’s neck, lays on the ground.
What exactly did Caravaggio mean by signing his name in the blood shed by a saint and by giving his features to the monstrous Goliath, the Philistine defeated by the young David, who, according to the Gospels, was an ancestor of Christ? We probably will never know. But this obsession with violent death and the way it is reflected in his art endlessly fuels our curiosity and inspires artists (as the beautiful movie by Derek Jarman shows).
Would I have gotten along with Michelangelo Merisi? Probably not. Would my enjoyment of his art be altered and diminished? Most certainly. And the same goes for so many other artists—dead or alive. I can’t resist mentioning here one more: Albrecht Dürer, an insufferably pretentious narcissist, whose self-portrait painted in 1500 could easily be mistaken for an image of Jesus Christ. Dürer, who was prone to melancholic brooding (Erwin Panofsky famously argued that his Melancholia I engraving should be understood as a “spiritual self-portrait”), squarely fits into the enduring myth of the “tormented genius” (although written over half a century ago, Margot and Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists remains an excellent survey).
Return Ticket to the Past?
In the case of artists whose works I study in my scholarship, I would not hesitate to take the risk of disliking them as individuals. For instance, when I was researching the frescoes that Giovanni Canavesio painted in the last decades of the 15th century in several rural chapels in southern France and northern Italy, I often dreamt of traveling back in time to meet the artist and ask him the questions I was struggling to answer. To start with, the exact conditions of the commission of Canavesio’s most extensive fresco cycle in the pilgrimage sanctuary of Notre-Dame des Fontaines in La Brigue, remain unclear. And why, in the Passion cycle he painted for this site, did he confer such importance to Judas Iscariot? What exactly prompted him to have the traitor play a role second only to Jesus?
Scholars knew that Canavesio, like many other artists of his time, had used engravings as sources for entire compositions or for details. The comparative study I conducted revealed what prints he drew from, to what extent, and how he adapted his borrowings. Although I could establish with certainty that Canavesio had used two sets of engravings (the Large Passion by the German Israhel van Meckenem and an anonymous series created in the Lower Rhine valley or in the Low Countries), the question of additional graphic sources remained open. Similarly, while the comparison of Canavesio’s four Passion cycles allowed me to determine when he started drawing from these engravings, I was left with more questions. Why did he choose these particular prints? Did he own them and if that was the case, how and where did he acquire them? If not, where did he consult them? Did he expect his audience to recognize that he was drawing from these graphic sources? And what was the purpose for these visual quotations? For this and for many other areas that I analyzed, it seemed that the deeper my scrutiny took me, more questions came up; many of which are still unanswered.
I fantasized that time travel to the days preceding the 12th of October 1492, when Canavesio completed La Brigue’s frescoes, would allow me to interview the artist and ask him all these questions. I even considered the logistics for this impossible temporal expedition. Although I felt quite confident that my knowledge of medieval French and Italian would allow me to communicate with the artist and his patrons, I would invariably reach a point in which the reality of the olfactive world of the late 15th century would make me abandon the whole scenario and rush back to our remarkably and mercifully inodorous 21st century. Still, the exercise made me aware of the fact that, as Florens Deuchler, my professor of medieval art history at the University of Geneva, would say, we deal with ruins: so much is forever lost.
But then, what if the practice of art history meant asking and grappling with questions that could never be completely answered? In fact, this was one of the most memorable lessons I learned from another of my professors in Geneva, Roger Dragonetti, who once recounted how a student had earned the top grade analyzing a literary text by only asking questions. I never forgot this anecdote, which I constantly mention to my students as I stress the fundamental importance of what we call “research questions,” further insisting that it is impossible to formulate a thesis before having done one’s research! As I keep telling them that the best motivation for scholarly inquiry is curiosity, I encourage them to choose a topic they want to know more about, or, better still, something they would like to understand.
The Past is a Foreign Country
As I write these words—for writing is a way of thinking—it occurs to me that as one comes up with research questions, one is in fact anticipating and entering into a conversation—or an interview!—with the artist, the patron, the audience (intended and real), and previous scholars. Rather than pure science fiction, my dream of time travel might be a meaningful metaphor for after all, as H.P. Hartley famously quipped, “[t]he past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”! It can thus serve as a reminder (and perhaps also a warning) to not project our own contemporary values onto past cultures but instead, to strive to understand them and their art on their own terms.
I would venture and suggest that what makes these works interesting is that we will never be able to fully understand them. Take Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo: the Holy Family might occupy much of the circular panel, but what exactly is going on behind Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus? Why is the young Saint John the Baptist in a ditch? Who are those five naked figures once referred to by Leo Steinberg as “the boys at the back”? Steinberg went on to suggest that they are wingless angels but, despite my profound admiration for the late art historian, I am not convinced and his idea is but a theory among many. We might scratch our heads and keep wondering about this panel’s “backstory”—literally!—but in so doing, Michelangelo has captured our attention.
Doesn’t Lorenzo Lotto’s Annunciation give you pause and make you see with fresh eyes one of the most frequently represented scenes in Western Art? Lotto’s rendition is not only, like so many of his paintings, highly original, but also quite funny. Earlier this fall, as I was showing this painting in a course on Renaissance art, I couldn’t refrain from adopting the poses and gestures of the different protagonists: the Virgin Mary, who seems quizzical and perhaps even non-committal, Gabriel who, having just landed, kneels on a burly leg and raises his arm in a gesture both muscular and off-handish, and God the Father who seems about to take a dive into Mary’s room. And what about the cat who arches his back and scrams from the archangel? (When I mimicked the scene, I had to hiss!). Did my playful tableau vivant help the students’ understanding of this picture? Probably not; but as a result of considering what makes this such an unusual rendition, we can better understand both the iconographic conventions and how Lotto departs from them. Of course, here as well, we could fantasize about traveling to the 1530s so we could ask Lotto what on earth he was thinking (I believe he was a nice guy, by the way).
I would go as far as to suggest that the whole point of Bronzino’s famous Allegory with Venus and Cupid is to remain opaque, giving us the sense that this complex and erotic painting once participated in a sophisticated and rarefied courtly culture utterly distant from ours (it is believed that Cosimo I de’ Medici sent it as a gift to King Francis I of France). We see Cupid French-kissing his mother Venus while fondling her breast, surrounded by a myriad of figures and motifs. Some are recognizable, like Father Time who draws a curtain and unveils the strange scene, others mysterious, like the disturbing hybrid figure with the lovely face of a young girl, whose body ends in a serpent tail with the hind legs of a lion, and who holds in each of her (reversed) hands a honeycomb and a scorpion. Scholars agree that themes of fraudulence and illicit love play a role and that there might even be an allusion to syphilis (see the article by Simona Cohen), but the exact meaning of the painting continues to resist elucidation.
That we will never be able to travel back in time to meet and interview artists and finally get definitive answers is probably a good thing. As we continue to have to face, to borrow from the title of a song by Placebo, “The Never-Ending Why,” we will keep looking, searching, and coming up with the questions we would like to ask these dead artists. In so doing, and in keeping with the Latin etymology of the word, we will remain fascinated, under the spell of art.
Cohen, Simona. “The Ambivalent Scorpio in Bronzino’s London Allegory.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 135.1574 (2000): 171–88.
Hartley, L.P. The Go-Between. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953.
Jarman, Derek. Caravaggio. 1986.
Panofsky, Erwin. Albrecht Dürer. Princeton University Press, 1943.
Plesch, Véronique. Painter and Priest: Giovanni Canavesio’s Visual Rhetoric and the Passion Cycle at La Brigue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.
Steinberg, Leo. “Concerning the Doni Tondo: The Boys at the Back.” 82nd Annual Conference of the College Art Association February 18 February 1994.
Image at top: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1610, oil on canvas, 49 x 40 in., Galleria Borghese, Rome (photo: work in the public domain via Wikimedia).