The two swindlers hustling a young man in the street in Caravaggio’s Cardsharps (Fig. 1) are a familiar scene that many of us have encountered in some dark alley or on the sidelines of a busy marketplace. It is a snapshot of reality.
It is not so much the realism of the details (such as the gloves with split fingers commonly used by cardsharps to feel marked cards) but the psychological interaction and features of the characters that we feel as true to our own experience. We can almost recognize these faces. They are like archetypes on the stage of life. The drama unfolds in a state of suspense between the thugs whose rugged and hardened faces stand in sharp contrast to the smooth and refined face of their victim, a well-bred young man whose comfortable and shielded life is mirrored on his soft features; he is naïve and trusting and his relaxed bearing offsets the agitated postures of the two swindlers. The tension presages tragedy. The boy’s venture into the streets of Rome will not end well. Not only is he about to loose his money but he will be lucky to get away with his life, for the blade ominously dangling in the front is a dramatic device analogous to the one described by Anton Chekhov (‘Chekhov’s gun’) — a weapon casually lying on a table or hung on the wall that is bound to fire before the play is over.
Caravaggio is not moralizing or preaching virtue. He does not even show sympathy for the boy. He was certainly not a precursor of Courbet or Daumier, a socially engaged artist and a friend of the poor and oppressed — a proto-socialist, as some have attempted to portray him. Nor was he like Filippo Neri, the priest much loved by the Roman poor who communicated with God on behalf of the sick and the downtrodden. The whores and drunks that appear in the guise of saints and martyrs in Caravaggios’s paintings were part of his own experience and life. (Fig. 2)
Selected from the urban poor of Rome, his characters were exactly what Jesus’ followers were like — plain people and sinners; as saints, they are as weak and perplexed as the ones they set out to save and as martyrs they are reluctant and scared. Consider St. Peter whom Caravaggio depicts as he is about to die a martyr for his God (Fig. 3). Instead of glory and divine ecstasy that he expected the illiterate fisherman realizes that he is alone. He looks around in terror but sees no one — even his executioners’ faces are obscured. There is only darkness; and as the last minutes of his life are passing Peter is starting to doubt. Is there salvation at the end of the road? Or was it all just a dream?
It’s a dog’s world. The boy who is about to loose his purse and possibly his life is like an antelope devoured by lions; we do not feel sorry for the creature for she is only part of the food chain. That is the natural order of things and God has no say here. But even if there is a God, Caravaggio is saying, he is not among us; we have to find him within. The fabulous tenebroso that enshrouds his religious figures speaks more than words ever could. If Caravaggio had been of different stock he would probably have blended into the art scene and disappeared into mediocrity. He would have developed an art of decorum following the ideals outlined by the Cavalier d’Arpino and promoted by the Accademia di San Luca; or perhaps even the rigorous and austere classicism of Nicolas Poussin. Like these acknowledged masters he would not have painted from life but from preconceived ideas, applying the time-honored principle of disegno to accentuate the intellectual underpinning of his art. His art would have displayed education but not passion.
Caravaggio was anything but contrived. What is his art but a mirror of life — a radical naturalism that horrified classicists and narrow-minded academics. The prudish Nicolas Poussin accused him of destroying the art of painting! In a way the Frenchman was right: Caravaggio did destroy painting as it was. He did away with the notion that good art has to follow elevated ideals and classical models: that it needs to have an intellectual underpinning and that it has to convey a message. Caravaggio did not make drawings; he captured directly from life and his paintings convey no symbolic or emblematic meaning. He was a realist in art as in life.
We discover this in a painting known as the Young Bacchus (Fig. 4); once again we see a snapshot of reality: this is not a rendition of Bacchus, but a portrait of a boy dressed up as the ancient god. The artist paints what is before him. And before him is an adolescent boy with a wreath on his head made up of leaves and grapes (which identify him as Bacchus). Caravaggio is not concerned with illusion. He depicts the actual playacting: the boy is wrapped in a sheet and he paints it as such, without transforming it into a toga; he even includes the filthy mattress on which the boy is sitting (no doubt one that was laying about in the studio).
In front is a basket filled with fruit, which is not fresh and appetizing as expected but rotten. Normally if this were the work of another artist I would have no doubt that this was a vanitas theme or a variant of this theme based on the memento mori; indeed, rotting fruit was often used to remind the viewer of the transience of life. But I don’t think Caravaggio cared for such banalities. He was just not the type who would convey moralistic or religious messages. Art historians and critics are notorious for their tendency to overinterpret. When they are unable to understand the art, they resort to finding meaning where there is none; or they turn to cultural issues. There is no hidden meaning or messages embedded in Caravaggio’s work, only sentiments and beliefs; his paintings mirrored his thoughts as they mirrored the world around him.
But we also cannot ignore the dramatic contrast between the youth’s immaculately pure and beautiful face and the rotten fruit. In contrast to the fertility and abundance that fruit normally symbolizes rotten fruit can be seen to reveal the corruption within; the rot hidden behind the mask of beauty and youth. This contrast reminds of Kurosawa’s Ran: “A serpent’s egg is white and pure. A bird’s is speckled and soiled”.
Then we notice in the wine the boy is offering us tiny bubbles forming around the edge. The wine is fermenting! We think of the customary symbolism of red wine as the blood of Jesus that signifies sacrifice and salvation; bad wine therefore must be the opposite — damnation! That is when we realize that the boy is tempting us. Alarmed by the thought, we visualize Bronzino’s hybrid girl-faced creature who lures us with a honeycomb and with her own sweet face while concealing her serpent tail and deadly sting. (Fig. 5) Her honeycomb is as poisonous as Bacchus’ wine and her pretty face is as deceitful as is his. She is a poetic allegory. But unlike Bronzino, painter and poet of the sophisticated Medici court, Caravaggio does not paint allegories or metaphors to convey religious or philosophical truths. His Bacchus is nothing else but the natural passion and temptation of life.
A parallel can be made with Caravaggio’s other Bacchus, commonly known as the Sick Bacchus, painted several years earlier (Fig. 6). This is a self-portrait. And again there is no pretense: this is not the god Bacchus but Caravaggio in the guise of Bacchus. He was actually sick when he painted himself — possibly with malaria, as suggested by his jaundiced appearance. But the fruit is fresh. Is this a mirror image of the other Bacchus and its opposite? A reflection in which the gruesome and suffering face conceals not corruption but nobility of spirit and purity of heart.
This is Caravaggio’s own expression of the complex relation between body and spirit. But make sure not to confuse this with moralizing! Caravaggio is indifferent. He is not guided by ideology or religion. He just records what he sees and as he sees it. But he records more than visible reality. He captures the human condition.
* This article was published in Natama 6 (2014)