Giving a horse’s ass: Carracci vs Caravaggio

Now, if you know me at all you’ll know that I cannot go more than a week without mentioning Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, or this quote:

“There was art before him [Caravaggio] and art after him, and they were not the same.” ~ Robert Hughes.

(I am nothing if not predictable.)

We are, of course, all aware of Caravaggio’s pervasive influence on visual artists from Rubens, Rembrandt and Velasquez through to Scorsese and Mapplethorpe; only this week I was ‘treated’ to an article on a MA graduate who had taken it upon herself to ‘re-imagine’ Caravaggio. (Don’t get me started. Such a cliché.) And anyone who does loves him has, at least to some degree, bought into that most romantic of ‘art’ myths, that of The Rebel (wonderfully sent up in the Tony Hancock film of the same name: my favourite ever art movie.)

Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio, 1600-01, 2300mm x 1750mm

Annibale Carracci, on the other hand, has long been consigned to Art History, but it should be remembered that in his time, and for decades after his death, he too was considered an innovator and a paradigm, someone to be admired and learnt from. So when the two artists were awarded the commissions for the decoration of the new Cerasi Chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo in 1600, it was something of a showdown, a Rumble in Rome, if you will:
“In the Blue corner! Beauty, idealisation, light, academic ‘rationality’, draughtsmanship, preparation, Euclidean! Seconded by Raphael , Michelangelo, Titian !
In the Red! Dirty feet, naturalism, gloom, peasant ‘superstition’, painting ‘alla prima’, fractal! No seconds!”
(Although Tintoretto may have been ringside, cheering him on.)

Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Carracci, 1600-01, 2450mm x 1550mm

Of course, Carracci won on a technicality. The altar-piece, the ‘purse’,’ went to him, the two side panels to Caravaggio.
But it was the latter who really landed the knock-out blow: can it possibly be a coincidence that the Conversion was hung to the right of the Assumption, so that that enormous horsey backside points directly towards it?
Maybe, but I don’t – won’t – think so. I love it too much.

Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Caravaggio: volatile, rambunctious, by all acounts a bit of a nob. Never the greatest painter, but arguably the greatest artist. You gotta love him. How can you not?


Caravaggio’s other painting in the Chapel is Crucifixion of St Peter:

Anyone with an interest in Caravaggio, or indeed art, should check out Andrew Graham-Dixon’s labour of love:

Finally, very nearly gratuitously and entirely for your entertainment, a clip from the masterpiece that is The Rebel