Monday, 19 August 2013

Caravaggio at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

I was through at the Edinburgh Festival on Saturday to take in some of the Fringe action.

First up it was an early morning dip into the murky depths of the dark world of the painter Caravaggio, in Castration on a Tennis Court at the Symposium Hall.  This was a tale full to bursting with pimps, priests, prostitutes and painting, presented in an engagingly effortless, chatty and endlessly knowledgeable style by TV art historian and cerebral hottie Andrew Graham-Dixon.

He's the chap was on BBC4 recently, riding a bicycle whilst doing a piece to camera about the Dutch Golden Age.  What a guy.  Here's his oddly radioactive picture from his website, as he illuminates every corner of our cultural darkness.

(Apparently, according to his website, you can actually hire him, for your own private tour.  You can even take him abroad.  Or get him to give you advice in order to make the 'right aesthetic and financial choices'. I wonder how much he costs...?)

And now here was AGD in Edinburgh, the real thing, straight from the late-night recesses of our television screens, hopping onto the stage armed merely with his book and a cup of coffee, and nary a lecture note or a lecturn in sight (nor any strange radioactive rays). 

He launched into a story about the reaction of Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones) on seeing Ottavio Leoni's drawing of the 25 year old Caravaggio.  Here it is.

"He looks like a bad boy!" rasps AGD, doing Keef, "If he were alive now, he'd be a Rolling Stone!"  He likes doing an impersonation or two, does AGD.

Now, one of the key people who helped AGD's research for his book Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane was none other than the Papal Devil's Advocate (for there is such a job description), a chap called Sandro. He's the guy who dishes the dirt on any prospective saints by trawling for trash in the Vatican Archives.  For the last 32 years, he has spent his lunch hours going through several million records in the Archives on his own personal quest, in the hope of finding rubies in the dust - namely papers which mention Caravaggio.  

So far, he's found a couple of hundred, which must mean a hit rate of about one new document coming to light every six weeks.  Just enough to keep you searching.  The things which have come to light include an inventory made by Caravaggio's landlady in Rome, detailing the contents of his room - his swords and daggers, his chamber pot, his 12 books - but not the titles of the 12 books.  Chinks of light in the darkness, and the eternal frustration of the ommissions.  She also noted that he'd messed up the room by knocking a hole in the ceiling - the possible secret of the dramatic lighting effects of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro...?

AGD has effortless fluid command of the myriads of names, dates and details, and the skill and energy to tell a tale.  This story is one of darkness, passions, violence, danger, and the rule of the street.  Life as a painter on the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries in Rome was survival of the fittest in the gutters, gritty, brutal and tough.  And yet a painter's job was to communicate the vision of the light of heaven from the very midst of all this profane darkness, to bring religion to the masses by picturing the divine.  No wonder Caravaggio's work was full of darkness and light, and the chiaroscuro of contrasts and contradictions; death and life, opulence and poverty, the sacred and the profane.

The brutality and brevity of life hit Caravaggio from a very young age.  When Bubonic plague swept through Milan in 1576, his family lost nearly every male member.  Father, uncle, grandfather - all were gone in days. Before Caravaggio was six years old, all his male role models were wiped out, and the dead were piled up in the streets.  

No wonder when he painted a self-portrait, it was like this.

Caravaggio, Medusa (Oil on wood) 1590, Uffizi
Here he is portayed as the Medusa, painted onto a curved shield, which has a handle across the back so you can hold it.  AGD acted out the scene.  In the legend, Perseus is going to slay the snake-headed monster Medusa.   If he looks at her, he will be turned to stone, so he has the shiny round shield on his arm and can see the Medusa's image reflected in it.   He reverses into the fray, sword flailing, and cuts off her head.  As it flies through the air leaving streams of blood,  in the last 12 seconds of consciousness Medusa can see her own death reflected in the polished surface of the shield. 
It wasn't the last time Caravaggio would paint himself beheaded.  By the time he was painting these sort of images, he had already seen much more brutal horrors right on the streets. Plague.  Fights.  Executions.

No wonder Caravaggio's art was all about 'making it real'.  Real people.  Real poverty.  Real dirt.  Real miracles.  Miracles that are there for those who can see, not heralded by flights of angels. He used prostitutes as models (and was probably a pimp himself).  In fact, here his model for the Virgin Mary was a drowned prostitute pulled from the Tiber.

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin (1606, Louvre)

The swollen body of the Madonna proved to be such a stumbling block for the church of Santa Maria della Scala who commissioned The Death of the Virgin, that it was rejected.  Thus it eventually ended up hung in an appallingly lit long corridor in the Louvre.

Caravaggio's colours were the colours of earth, made from actual earths and clays, not the expensive colours of church-controlled lapis lazuli. Thus he painted the Madonna in a red dress, not a blue one, as was the tradition. 

His paintings are like film sets, like modern installations, using the real light flowing through the three dimensional space of the architecture of the churches in which the paintings were sited to become the divine light in the two dimensional paintings.  The space within the paintings references the space in which we stand when we are looking at them (which is why it is so important to see the work in situ). Filmmaker Martin Scorcese compared 16th century Rome to Hollywood, with winning of a commission for an altarpiece being like getting the rights to make a movie.  

In Caravaggio's blockbusters, which had the common masses of pilgrims buzzing round them like flies, he creates characters that people can actually identify with, that they might meet on the street. Thus, dirty-footed Saint Matthew is fallable and semi-literate, 

Caravaggio, St Matthew and the Angel (1602, destroyed)

Saint Peter takes a huge amount of human effort to kill, 

Caravaggio, Martyrdom of Saint Peter (Santa Maria del Popolo 1600)

Saul becomes like a newborn baby lying in the manger as he falls from his horse, 

and the Virgin Mary's ascension into heaven is suggested not by cherubs, but by a void, filled with an impersceptible breath, a heat, the wave of a curtain in the back room of a house, leaving behind her heavy, swollen body sagging on the bed. People looking at the painting would recognise death when they saw it, as they would have seen it as a matter of course in their lives, and they would certainly recognise it here.  This is mortal death, plain to see.  

But the spiritual, the miracle, is there if you look carefully enough.  Because, says Caravaggio,  that's how it is in real life.  The divine isn't about cherubs and gold and the trappings of religion.  It's right down in the grime, it's real, it's happening all around, you're breathing it in, it's something real and alive and vital and everyday.

Similarly, there are signs of the miracle of the risen Christ in the Supper at Emmaus - but only if you can see them.

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus (1602, National Gallery London)

It's all in the shadows.  The shadow behind Christ forms a halo, the fruit basked teetering on the edge of the table (between life and death) casts not the shape of the fruit, but the tail of a fish - the ixthus.

And the arguments!  You wouldn't want to have been a waiter in Caravaggio's Rome - one waiter was assaulted by an artist for daring to serve a meringue that was too crunchy.  Or was it not crunchy enough?  And Caravaggio got into trouble for smashing a plate into the face of a waiter who brought him a dish of buttered artichokes rather than ones dressed with olive oil.

The fact that Caravaggio got into a fight over a buttered artichoke was no arty-joke.  Sorry...

However, as AGD explained, there was a logic to Caravaggio's anger (and he was a man full of energy and anger and passion). In this case,  the waiter was actually making a racial slur by insinuating that fine Roman olive oil was not worth wasting on butter-sloshing northerners like Caravaggio (Lombardians being famous for their love of lashings of butter and cheese).  So Caravaggio smacked him in the face, gashing it open and knocking out teeth.  You don't like my face?  Well, no-ones going to like yours much once I've finished with it.

And now onto the subject of the whole talk - namely that castration on a tennis court.  Caravaggio was never, it seems, beaten when it came to one-on-one fighting with a sword.  And in this case, he killed man, on a tennis court -  Ranuccio Tomassoni.  Not that they were actually playing tennis, as AGD acted out for us, sweeping back his floppily unruly fringe once again in a gesture that annoyed my follically-challenged lecture companion.  No, you could be put to death for holding a duel.  Instead, this was a smokescreen - hold a game of tennis and pretend that a fight broke out, that it was a crime of passion.  Oh, those hot-headed Italians.  We squeaked in our comedy squeaky seats in excitement.

Caravaggio, it seems, was aiming for Tomassoni's groin, with the aim to castrate him, in an act of revenge appropriate to the nature of their dispute.  However, in the split second that it took for the sword to pierce Tomassoni's groin, the course of Caravaggio's life was changed forever, and its downward spiral had begun.  For the blade pierced the femoral artery, and the man bled out in seconds.  According to accounts, the tennis court was awash with blood, fountains of it all over the place in shocking torrents, covering the onlookers; he was dead in moments.

By this time, we'd been going for an hour and twenty minutes, and the janitor was getting agitated about the next show coming on - so there we pretty much stopped.  Not that there isn't about another 30 years worth of material (probably) which could seemlessly issue like unstoppable streams of silk from the lips of the prodigiously elephantine-memoried Mr Graham-Dixon.


Here he is afterwards, signing my copy of A Life Sacred and Profane whilst I burbled some complete and utter total nonsense. 

Hey ho - never meet your idols, eh?

Later the same day, I met Rick Wakeman, and did pretty much the same thing.

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