A couple of years ago, Leslie and I finally had our first chance to visit Rome. A friend of ours knew somebody down there who was nice enough to let us house-sit for nine days while she was out of town. It wasn’t a lot of time for a city so rich in art and history, so we spent every hour of the day exploring it. We planned routes from site to site, museum to museum, making sure to cover as many different side streets as possible, on a mission to see as much of Rome as we physically could before we had to leave it. Our minds were boggled by all the layers upon layers of time, throughout which The Eternal City has remained culturally and architecturally relevant. We saw the ancient ruins of the Forum and the Colosseum, the Tiber-side “birthplace” of the city’s mythological founders Romulus and Remus, the homes of several Caesars, the Pantheon, and even a few newer curiosities, like the Vittoriano and the sites from some of our favorite Fellini films.
We were loving it all: the food, the weather, the buildings, the people. There was certainly no shortage of things to see in Rome, or ways to prioritize your exploration of the city. But for art lovers, the main event is generally held to be the Renaissance. The rebirth of all that had once been great in humanity, of art, architecture, and cultural refinement of all stripes. It was a widespread rediscovery of the great classical motifs that had languished in obscurity during the dark intervening centuries. This was when most of art history’s heavy hitters went to work, and Rome was one of the places where a lot of that work got done. The city exploded with the images, sculptures, and buildings of folks like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bramante, plying their trade with the support of exorbitant papal funding, if also sometimes under the accompanying constraints of papal ideology.
Leslie and I made sure to see all the greatest hits of Rome’s Renaissance art and architecture which (outside Florence, anyway) are largely considered the greatest hits of anything anywhere. I was disappointed to have to admit that a lot of what we saw left me a little bit cold, a phenomenon I attributed to my lack of education and my unrefined eye. But I had every hope, and every reason to expect, that I would finally be fully and officially blown away when we made our way to the mother-ship of Roman sightseeing: Vatican City.
The Vatican Museums are designed for maximum suspense, leading long lines of people on a structured voyage through everything else there is to see before finally delivering them onto the main attractions at the end. The layout took us through several buildings which housed an already impressive collection of art from virtually all genres and eras. We saw a Giotto, a Da Vinci, some classical sculpture, and even a modern collection featuring works by all the big names of the twentieth century. We made our way through increasingly ornate and seemingly narrowing hallways, which squeezed the crowd together as we neared the grand finale of the tour.
The second to last stop was a visit to the Raphael Rooms, featuring several of the superstar painter’s most celebrated frescoes including his famous The School of Athens. I must say I like The School of Athens; I really do. I even have a little print of it on the wall here next to my desk.
But standing in front of it that day, I realized that I liked it mostly for its narrative content. In it, Raphael pays tribute to a whole lineage of thought. He sends his massive thank you note to the philosophical tradition and includes everybody who could possibly deserve a nod or a wink down the years. It’s a bit like an Oscar speech, and if you liked the movie, then you’re happy to smile along fondly and keep clapping through all the names. But the painting itself? I have to be honest. All I could see were Easter-egg colors, flat light, lifeless, posed, formal, inhuman iconographic fairy-tale caricatures of important people. It felt stuffy, contrived, cartoony and dogmatic. And frankly, I’m glad that I don’t know enough about the technical work and the craft involved that I feel obliged to sit here praising it endlessly. I know it’s supposed to be a great achievement in perspective, but I have to say that the object Heraclitus is leaning on in the foreground looks a little bit wonky to me. I’m sure I sound like an uninformed asshole there, but at least I don’t sound like a parrot.
After the Raphael Rooms, we finally got funneled into the tight, twisting staircase ascending to what is often billed as the crown jewel of everythingness forever and ever, amen: The Sistine Chapel. There were hundreds of us, shoulder to shoulder, bumping and pressing, urgently whispering, heads jerking this way and that, eyes darting around in a panic. I could almost hear, in the muffled hum of the room, the collective mind thinking “Where’s the thing with the finger? I thought we were gonna see the thing with the finger!” and then, once their eyes found it, a mildly confused, “Oh… I guess I thought that part would be bigger.” Also among the frantic, silent thoughts murmuring through the hive mind: “And what about those two little cherubs we see on all the Valentine shit? Aren’t they around here somewhere?” I already knew the answer to this one, because I had looked it up a few days prior. Weirdly enough, although they do appear on postcards available all over the city, those famous little cupid babies don’t even reside in Rome. They are actually details from a Raphael painting that has lived in Dresden, Germany, for the last few hundred years.
The question that was going through my own head, as I stared bleary-eyed up at the world’s most famous ceiling, was: When do I feel something? I mean, other than the sheer immensity of the room, the elbows in my back, the kink in my neck, the longing for a fresh breeze and another plate of pasta. When do I feel something about the paintings? And then another question popped into my head, one that bothered me so much that I finally heard myself asking it out loud. “What’s up with all the fig leaves?” A nearby tour guide told us that they had been added after the fact, when the genitalia of the subjects were deemed distasteful by the Council of Trent. On top of whatever other connection I was failing to make with Michelangelo, it was additionally disheartening to consider that his work had actually been officially defaced to be made less human. It already didn’t feel very human to me anyway, and I was struggling to recognize something familiar within it. I didn’t have a personal relationship with the religious allegory or its commentary on the earthbound experience. I didn’t get any intuitive sense of the profound emotion that the great painter is said to have expressed in this work. I would love to say that I did, but for whatever combination of reasons I just honestly didn’t.
I can appreciate that these painters I didn’t respond to were nonetheless important innovators. I’m not trying to take away credit for the technical horizons they opened and explored. But now that those cats are out of the bag, their beginnings might be less intuitively impressive to the modern eye. Like special effects in early films. We can be told who the pioneers were, but that doesn’t make us melt when we look at their stuff. And it doesn’t mean that their stuff is still cutting edge. Still, we all stood there gaping helplessly up at that ceiling, preparing to tell our friends back home how awesome it obviously was, like a room full of people who had just seen Citizen Kane and were already trying to convince ourselves that we’d liked it a little bit more than we actually had. Because who would dare say that they had walked right up to the greatest thing on earth, looked square at it and just hadn’t given a shit? It would take a heathen, a ne’er-do-well, a veritable monster.
It is the problem constantly faced by anyone who is trying to elevate themselves from layman to autodidact. How to erect one’s own taste, and establish the confidence to defend one’s views, when we have been told so many times which things are indisputably great that we have lost the ability to use our own eyes and describe our own thoughts. So we accept without questioning, thus robbing ourselves of the very critical faculty that is fundamental to learning. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those anti-art, anti-intellectual schmucks who thinks that the accomplishments of great painters are unimportant. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I was frustrated by my Vatican experience. Because I had gone in with an open mind, hoping to actually learn something that would help me engage with this period of art in a new way. I’m someone who thinks everybody should see the celebrated works and learn as much as they can about them, in an effort to establish their own relationship to art history. But I didn’t feel like I was learning, engaging, or relating. I just felt like I had been jammed into a tight space with a lot of other cattle, given a few seconds to bow humbly before the great unexplained mystery, handed a pamphlet with a few patronizing details mentioned on it, and then shuffled quickly back out into the street about forty bucks lighter than when I’d come in. The experience wasn’t holy; it was wholly cynical.
In case you hadn’t picked up on it, I already kinda have a chip on my shoulder about the way people suck up the dogma that is foisted upon them, without ever questioning where it comes from. And in Rome, if you don’t have your skepticism handy, you can get fleeced for your entire belief system. The city is crawling with unregulated tourist traps and objects of unverified historical importance. Every church in Rome is the proud owner of some bullshit relic or another: The Holy Shoe Print, The Holy Shawl, The Holy Hole in the Holy Wall. We bravely visited all these things, with our minds as open as we could keep them, but it was hard to escape the notion that we were essentially wandering through Catholic Disneyland. One day, we went to visit the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the reputed resting place of St. Valentine, to pick up a souvenir for my friend Valentine back home. Of course they were eager to show us the actual skull of St. Valentine himself, and to sell us a commemorative postcard. It took a little bit of reading after we got home to discover that in fact nobody knows who St. Valentine even was, regardless of the reliquaries full of his alleged body parts that are proudly housed in churches all over the world.
Despite our doubts about the legitimacy of some of the things we’d seen, and despite my considering the greatest paintings of all time to be a total let-down, we did manage to keep our chins up and check off a few more of the requisite Rome activities. We took the photo on the Spanish Steps à la Roman Holiday, and stuck our hands into the Mouth of Truth; we paid a visit to Keats’s grave; we walked the length of the Via Appia Antica; we threw coins into the Trevi Fountain. And, undaunted by my lack of real connection to a lot of the art we were seeing, we also stuck to our plan of getting more educated about art history, and every day we hit a few more museums. I suppose I wanted to at least try to see everything I could, with my own eyes, in hopes that eventually a spark would fly, or an understanding would begin to take root. I felt that to give up on engaging artistically with this city would somehow signal a defeat, or a surrender, or an admittance of some profound lack. I didn’t want to slump down the hallways of greatness with my eyes on my shoes; I wanted to be set alight. I wanted a vision. I wanted an epiphany that would remind me why at some point I had thought it was so important to be an artist.
I remember the exact moment when it happened. We were at the Scuderie del Quirinale for a show of paintings by the Venetian Late Renaissance painter, Tintoretto. Some of it was ok, but a lot of it was the same old sleepy flying angels in pink robes. I was getting tired and losing focus, starting to wonder if I’d just overdosed on art and was no longer capable of being affected by any of it. But then came the event that permanently altered the course of my relationship with paintings. It was the completely arresting and awakening revelation I’d almost stopped hoping for. After hours per day, and days on end, of sleepwalking half-heartedly through room after room of these boring, naïve, gutless, candy-colored, blandly reverent Sunday-school pamphlet paintings, I turned a corner into what figured to be yet another room full of them, and there, on the far wall, was an image that attracted me like a gravity well. The walls on all sides went blurry and I was dragged across the room and up to this picture that was so alive it made me physically uneasy.
The painting, on loan there at the time, was Caravaggio’s John in the Wild, one of his series of depictions of a young John the Baptist on his own in the wilderness. A boy sat naked on a tree stump, offset by deep shadows, his skin imperfect, his expression unsure, seemingly trying to befriend a ram amidst a dark, terrifying thicket of forest. He was tensing to adjust himself from a reclined position, reacting to the presence of the animal with both a gentle curiosity and a mammalian readiness for potential danger. He was the peaceful young boy whose experiences in the wild were turning him into a man before our eyes. There was both innocence and fear, an intuitive trust of nature surrounded by the harrowing unknown menaces of the night. This Saint John was not floating across a two-dimensional picture plane in which everything was showered with the even, reassuring light of storybook redemption. This John was a defenseless adolescent, voyaging clumsily into a treacherous wilderness where the stakes were high and the terms were vague. This was some serious shit.
I was reminded of Chris Plytas, a photographer friend whose portraits I have always admired for their way of unearthing the primal and sensual core of their subjects, the borderline between beatific innocence and murderous animal rage. It occurred to me that maybe this sense of earthly gamble was what I’d been looking for, and part of what Chris was looking for, and what those Renaissance painters had been discouraged from looking for. And Caravaggio had found it. Leslie and I now had a mission for our few remaining days in Rome. We made a point of zig-zagging all over town, finding every Caravaggio that we could. We went to every museum, every mansion, every obscure little side-street church that was said to contain one of his works. Many of the paintings were set deeply into backgrounds of chasmic dark recess, and seeing them in poorly lit churches and cathedrals only added to the effect. But what was amazing about the Caravaggios is that they didn’t get swallowed up by that surrounding darkness. They grabbed us and wrestled us into that darkness with them. They forcibly seized our attention.
Every one of his paintings that we found was engaging. The characters populating them were at turns frightening, sexual, candid, sad, disarming, and occasionally even funny. They were at once both fleshy and ethereal, where so many of the characters on the walls of the Vatican had been neither. Caravaggio had a full palette of darkness and light, sex and death, blood and beauty, fear and magic. He was the real deal. He reached out into me and scared me. He touched me. He compelled me to invest in the stories that unfolded across his canvas. Partly because the roles in the stories he told were cast with the actual contemporary people of his time. People with street clothes and dirty fingernails, people with pain in their eyes and wrinkles in their skin, people readily familiar to the viewer who were being called upon to suffer and somehow conquer extraordinary spiritual conflicts.
His The Calling of Saint Matthew depicts the arrival of Jesus at what could be a barroom, where he recruits his apostle from among a group of men sitting around counting money at a card table. His Crucifixion of St. Peter invites us into the last moments of an old man, frail and afraid, suddenly not knowing how sure he is of his eternal rescue, as the labor of his execution is carried out by a few unremarkable, even disinterested workers. In one painting, he shows us a barefoot Mary, opening the door of her humble home to a pair of local beggars. In another, he has her holding a baby Jesus, complete with eyelashes, bellybutton, and genitals, as she crushes the head of a serpent underfoot. These all-too-human portrayals of religious figures would hardly have made for acceptable ceiling decoration for most of the 1500s. Not to mention some of his even darker forays into the human psyche. We must have spent a good hour surveying the complicated comportment of his Judith Beheading Holofernes, in which the subject seems simultaneously intrigued and disgusted by her gruesome task, but nevertheless carries it out with an undistracted coldness.
For Caravaggio these images were personal. They weren’t tired rehashings of stories that could only be told one way. They were investigations into meaning and human motivation, inhabited by real, breathing people who feared death and ate food. He was doing everything in his power to drag these lofty stories back down into real life and examine them for what they truly were, to determine their contemporary relevance or lack thereof. And his models were his friends, his lovers, his local butcher, his favorite prostitute. He implicated his personal life in the most sacred of narratives. Like he was swinging his own guts around by his intestines as a weapon against the obscene drudgery of religious censorship and the phony glorification of manufactured icons. He was a prototypical anti-establishment punk, like the Sid Vicious of Italian painting except that he actually knew how to play his instrument. And he made the paintings of the High Renaissance look like no more than well-crafted disco.
At the time that we saw these paintings, we had no idea of their context; but after we got home and did a bunch of research, it turned out that Caravaggio had indeed led a wave of rebellion against the conventions that had emerged from the ending Renaissance in the sixteenth century. We found out that among art historians he was largely noted for his rejection of a thing called “Mannerism,” which, upon learning the proper word for it, sounded every bit as square and lame as it had looked to me on the walls of the Vatican. In a throwaway line from her renowned essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag casually (and quite erroneously) referred to Caravaggio himself as a Mannerist; so I’m using my casual throwaway line to take a revenge shot at Sontag. More accurately, it was Caravaggio’s departure into “Naturalism” that proved to be a singular dividing line in art history and would play an important role in the birth of the Baroque.
This next period of art would embrace the contrast, the action, the intensity of earthly conflict and the capturing of the key dramatic moment. Among those born directly into Caravaggio’s chronological wake were bad-asses like Velazquez and Rembrandt, whose paintings still look fiercely mortal to this day. And the Rome that Caravaggio left behind would soon give rise to the prolific sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who populated the whole city with visceral scenes featuring flesh indented by ravenous fingernails, mouths agape with the physicality of torment, and perhaps most famously, his dangerously sexualized Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. After seeing what impact Caravaggio’s personal revolution had had, not just on me but on the very trajectory of art, I was not surprised to discover in Peter Robb’s engrossing biography that he was also fond of swaggering through the streets of Rome at night, with a sword on his hip, looking to call out and pick fights with his rivals. He also eventually ran out of luck, fell out of favor, and died young under mysterious circumstances while on the run from the law. But I guess sometimes that’s the price you pay for being ahead of your time.
A lot of great things happened in Renaissance Rome. The rediscovery of classical traditions and heritage awakened people to a new dawn of art, science and exploration. But for me, the greatest contribution of their painters was in laying down the groundwork, the atmosphere of craft, ambition, and competition, that would set the stage for the arrival of this guy. And when this guy came along, like Mozart, like Hendrix, like Bobby Fischer, he blew the lid off the entire house. We had emerged from a darkness, but once we were back in the light the questions were how we would control that light, how we would shade it, and where we should shine it.
Caravaggio balled up the light of the universe into his fist and hurled it straight into the darkest corners of our mortality, our animal nature, our fear and fragility, and our secret reserves of violence. He threw his light onto the hint of truth, wherever he might find it, and everything else he threw back into the dark. He also single-handedly turned me into someone who is interested in paintings. And in the process, he reminded me why I wanted to be an artist, and what it takes to be a good one. He inspired me to hold onto my swagger and keep fighting for my ideals, even when the wind is against me. Last year, when I was behind on the rent and I was offered a writing gig by some guys who had funding from the Vatican, I thought about John in the Wild, I rattled my sword, and I answered, “No.”