Is there anything that wouldn’t be improved by a dash of Caravaggio? No, apparently. In recent years Caravaggiomania has ripped and roared across the art world, reaching explosive proportions in 2010, the 400th anniversary of the Italian Baroque artist’s death. One exhibition in Rome drew more than 5,000 visitors daily and kept its doors open around the clock in the days before it closed. Marketers splash Caravaggio’s name on everything, sometimes plausibly (for example, a “Caravaggio” canvas and painter’s easel), but at times less so (Caravaggio-branded eyeglasses and Caravaggio “velvet effect decorative stucco”). And, of course, there is a Caravaggio iPhone app.
Art historian Richard E. Spear writes that Caravaggiomania was preceded by a period of increased scholarly interest beginning in the middle of the 20th century that has now spread to mass audiences. This, in Spear’s opinion, is “positive,” but he is not impressed with the reasons behind the public’s adoration.
To begin with, many people confuse interest in Caravaggio’s compelling life story with interest in his art. Michelangelo Merisi (his birth name) was born into poverty in northern Italy in 1571. He murdered a rival in Rome, was imprisoned in Malta, escaped, took refuge in Sicily, and died in 1610 while making his way back to Rome in hopes of winning a papal pardon. His sexuality, education, and religious beliefs all remain subjects of speculation. Spear says that our culture “fetishizes” biography, and that it’s typical that artists who rise to star status have interesting backgrounds.
Though Caravaggio’s biography could draw crowds on its own, the “immediate and easy” nature of his work also plays a role. “This is not to imply that Caravaggio’s work fails to reward sustained looking, which surely it does, or that it appeals only to the populace or the 100 million who communicate in tweets,” Spears contends. The artist employs dramatic lighting and framing to lend a mystical quality to his human subjects, imbuing his paintings (about 60 exist that are definitively attributed to him) with a cinematic quality. Vittorio Storaro, a celebrated cinematographer, called Caravaggio “a great filmmaker.” Director Martin Scorsese says that Caravaggio’s work has been influencing filmmakers since the late 1960s.
Spear believes that Caravaggiomania will fade, as fads do—there’s just no telling when. Until that time, the masses can enjoy their Caravaggio T-shirts, key chains, and art exhibitions.