Special Topics
Caravaggio and the Death of Painting

Tisch G-026
F 1:00 - 4:00pm
3 Credit Lecture

The painter Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, is today one of the best known Italian artists of the early modern period and his turbulent life has been the subject of numerous popular biographies, films and novels. His paintings strike many viewers as uncommonly modern in their formal strategies as well as in their confrontational attitude toward the beholder's moral sensibilities. In his own time Caravaggio's pointedly naturalistic style and deliberately abject subject matter challenged the very definition of painting established in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. Even in lofty religious subjects his figures look like models taken from the streets, and their dramatic illumination looks more like the harsh visual effect of studio lighting than the carefully modulated chiaroscuro of traditional pictorial naturalism. Confronted by such pictures the French artist Nicholas Poussin was not alone in thinking that Caravaggio "came into the world to destroy painting." This course offers a survey of Caravaggio's work in Rome, Malta and Naples between the early 1590s and his untimely death in 1610, ranging from early still-lifes, genre subjects and mythological pictures to the major altarpieces of his maturity. As we shall see, the artist's hostility toward the Renaissance tradition reveals a commitment to its core principles as well as a profound engagement with the religious and literary culture of his time. Questions to be examined along the way include Caravaggio's unorthodox working methods; the street life of Rome circa 1600; the lyrical address of his musical and erotic subjects; his competition with Annibale Carracci in the Cerasi Chapel; the strangely powerful emptiness of the altarpieces in Malta; the artist's ongoing battle with the ghost of the other Michelangelo; and the thread of self-portraiture that runs through his oeuvre. The main reading for this course is Helen Langdon's Caravaggio, A Life (in softcover from Pimlico, ISBN 071266582X, or Westview, ISBN 0813337941). A substantial coursepack will include period writings in English translation and an array of recent scholarly studies.

Estimated cost of materials: $50 or more but less than $100. D. 3