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Art and the City


A new exhibition in Vienna brings Caravaggio and Bernini together in a celebration of Baroque Rome.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1600/1601

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1600/1601, poplar, 90.5 x 116 cm.

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In the 17th century, Rome came into its own—again. The city, which was once the focal point of the Classical world, had made advances during the Renaissance but also suffered damage from attacks during the Reformation. Emerging from the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation, the popes of the Baroque era, beginning with Sixtus V (reigned 1585–90), wanted to rebuild Rome as a symbol of Catholic majesty. Backed by papal—and independent—patronage, the city saw major changes to its layout and architecture. Simultaneously, painting and sculpture thrived, and as many established artists flocked to Rome from elsewhere, others built their careers there from the ground up.

“Caravaggio and Bernini,” an exhibition running at The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna through January 19, showcases the two artists who epitomized Baroque Rome. It is the first exhibition to juxtapose the painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Though a generation apart, both artists spoke to the immediate desires of the city in the early 17th century and created work that marked major changes in Western art moving forward.

When Caravaggio left Milan for Rome in 1592, he desperately needed two things: money and a change of scene. The notoriously pugnacious artist left several quarrels and even a wounded police officer in his wake. He found work in the studio of Giuseppe Cesari, the favorite of Pope Clement VIII. There he did grunt work, but beautifully, painting flowers and fruit with astonishing realism. But in Rome at the turn of the 17th century, new churches and palazzi were being erected in seemingly record numbers and paintings were needed to fill them. The city, the church, and wealthy patrons were hungry for a style that could supplant Mannerism and speak to a new Rome. Caravaggio was able to secure a commission of paintings to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. When he unveiled these works in 1600—a series of paintings representing the life of Saint Matthew in which the light seemed to emanate from the light sources in the chapel—they caused a sensation and cemented his reputation in the city.

Caravaggio worked from live models, capturing the nuances of their appearance rather than employing the classical idealism popularized by the Michelangelo school of Renaissance painting. This practice lent a staggering naturalism to his figures. His use of heightened chiaroscuro, which became known as tenebrism, added a sense of intense drama, with lights and darks in stark, almost shocking contrast. The result wasn’t realism as much as a suspended reality—as if a pause button had been hit on a scene.


The Kunsthistorisches Museum holds the largest and most important collection of Caravaggio outside Italy, and the exhibition represents the artist with examples from its own cache as well as from significant collections in the artist’s native country. Highlights of the show include famed masterpieces such as Boy Bitten by a Lizard, the Portrait of a Maltese Knight Antonio Martelli, and David with the Head of Goliath. From the same year as the Contarelli Chapel commission is Narcissus, which comes to the show from the Barberini Gallerie Corsini Nazionali in Rome. The prevailing figure in Caravaggio’s work is an expressive, almost coquettish youth. In this work, this figure, seen peering at himself in a pool, his reflection mirrored in the bottom half of the composition as if on a playing card, is perfectly suited to a representation of Narcissus, the vain boy of Classical myth.

John the Baptist is the subject of at least eight paintings by Caravaggio. St John the Baptist (circa 1602), in the collection of Musei Capitolini in Rome, is a highlight of the exhibition. Here, Caravaggio paints John, the itinerant priest and cousin of Jesus in the Bible, as a smiling nude youth embracing a ram. Traditionally, John the Baptist is represented with a lamb, symbolizing the Lamb of God, but in this work the ram, which can symbolize lust or sacrifice, makes the image appear more pagan than Catholic. Caravaggio became known for imagery that challenged the traditional representations of Catholic art.

Bernini, though a trailblazer in his own right, was more of a traditionalist—and a consummate favorite of the city’s bigwigs. It is said that Pope Urban VIII told Bernini, “You are made for Rome, and Rome for you.” Though the sculptor was born in Naples in 1598, he moved to Rome in 1606 when his father, the Mannerist sculptor Pietro Bernini, received a papal commission to contribute a marble relief in the Cappella Paolina of Santa Maria Maggiore. Recognizing his talent early, Bernini’s father trained him from a young age. Several extant works dating to 1620–25 are thought to be collaborations between father and son—one in the Met, another in the Getty, and two others in private collections.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, was an early champion of Bernini’s. The sculptor made a splash with a series of works for Borghese’s villa, including Apollo and Daphne (1622–24). In the famed mythological work, which is still in the Galleria Borghese, Bernini represents the metamorphosis of flesh into arboreal matter in marble with softness and sensitivity. Bernini gained major papal commissions, which allowed him to leave his mark around the city and effectively create the signature look of Baroque Roman sculpture. In the Basilica of Saint Peter, he created a bronze baldacchino, or canopy, over the high altar for Urban VIII, the colonnades that frame the facade, and the decorative elements on the chair of Peter in the Basilica’s apse for Alexander VIII. He also designed the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, a bridge that crosses the Tiber River. His design featured 10 angels carrying the instruments of the Passion, though he only personally finished two of them. Bernini won the commission for the Fountain of Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona from Pope Innocent X, a major work that features an Egyptian obelisk towering above depictions of four river gods. He also designed the Fountain of the Triton and the Fountain of the Bees, commissions from Pope Urban VIII in the Piazza Barberini.

The show includes Bernini’s Cardinal Armand-Jean du Plessis, a bust in the collection of the Louvre, a model of the Elephant with Obelisk, and four small bronze heads in the collection of his heirs that have never before gone on public view. An early work, St. Sebastian, which was executed in 1617–18, comes to the show from a private collection. It features the Christian martyr leaning on a tree, his body pierced by arrows. Medusa (1638–40), one of Bernini’s most famous works, is on loan from the Musei Capitolini in Rome. In the bust of the gorgon, Bernini represents her with more sorrow than wrath, her hair alive with spindly snakes that seem full of venomous action. A terracotta model of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1647), from the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, also makes its way to the exhibition. In the original, which is in an elevated aedicule in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, Teresa of Ávila is depicted as overcome by religious ecstasy as the vision of an angel appears before her. The sculptural group is illuminated by natural light from a hidden window and gilded stucco rays. In the work, donor portraits of members of the Cornaro family are depicted in white marble in high relief, while the aedicule and other surrounding architectural features are in colored marbles.

Creating a fuller picture of Baroque Rome, the exhibition features other artists who rose to prominence during this time, including Nicolas Poussin, Mattia Preti, Guido Reni, Giuliano Finella, and Francesco Mochi. Of particular significance is Mary Magdalen by Artemisia Gentileschi, the only female painter who rose to significance in 17th-century Italy. The painting, which was rediscovered in 2011, is on public view for the first time.


By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2019

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