Street Works

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Street Works

Napoleon Street
Saturday, October 25, 2008.
Yesterday evening In Napoleon Street, we enjoyed a meal at Van's Café and shared a glass of Three Little Pigs wine to celebrate the thirty-third anniversary of the Saturday night we met in London. And this afternoon, Joelle took me to see a movie about the painter Caravaggio. The fruit in bowls on Caravaggio's dining tables are spotted and spoiled. Pilgrims' feet are dirty and Caravaggio's Madonnas wear the likeness of prostitutes. Despite the gritty naturalism, his paintings are theatrical with the chiaroscuro and drama of a high definition TV. Caravaggio's realism and fusion of the sacred and the profane had critics. Nevertheless, his paintings created audiences and enjoyed the patronage of the counter-reformation Catholic Church. In three weeks we will be a day from Rome and in 5 weeks we will be in London. The last time I visited Rome was July 1975.

The Deposition from the Cross
November 17 (Lunedi)

Caravaggio's The Deposition from the Cross is in room XII of the Vatican Museum. It looks like a photograph of a scene from a play. John and Nicodemus lower Christ's body onto a slab of polystyrene like stone. Behind John and Nicodemus is a tableau of the Madonna and the two Maries, then a void of dark brown and black. The viewer is not amongst the theatres' audience. Instead the viewer of the painting is in the wings, where a stagehand or nervous opening night director might stand, out of sight. Unexpectedly, Nicodemus looks at the viewer. He's losing his grip on Christ's legs and he's forgotten his lines. The foreshortened perspective of Caravaggio's Deposition places the viewer at the distance of the disengaged spectator like the photographer looking through a zoom lens. Voyeuristically the audience watches transfixed by Nicodemus' moment of panic.

Madonna di Loreto (Sant'Agostino)

A few street corners from Piazza Vavorona is Sant'Agostino. This will be the first time we see a Caravaggio painting in the church for which it was commissioned. Rome's smaller 15th century churches are so beautiful. Bare footed the Madonna di Loreto stands in the doorway of a Roman house with its travertine mouldings. The doorway looks like stage scenery. On a charcoal wall are painted sketchy white lines testament to the crumbling decay of a poor district. Awkwardly, the Madonna displays a naked and weighty Jesus for two kneeling and raggedy pilgrims. Pilgrims wore no shoes and so feet are soiled. The Madonna bears the same features as the women of Burne-Jones. Dark hair, a Greek sculpture profile, a strong neck, a clearly defined eyebrow that looks like it meets the other, a pronounced and rounded full jaw and chin, and Elvis Presley's mouth. The Madonna exhausted is about to swoon.

Calling of Saint Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesci)

In nearby San Luigi dei Francesci, a group of men, some wearing fancy plumed hats and flashy striped blouses like a jockey's, sit around a table gambling, or perhaps Matthew is collecting tax. One man is hunched over counting money. The poses adopted by the two young plumed hat - wearing men are of a studied and disinterested nonchalance. In contrast, two standing and deadly earnest men, dressed in biblical clothes address the group. One is Jesus the other Peter. They point at an incredulous Matthew. A beam of light shines into the seated men's eyes. Jesus and Peter are shadowy and mysterious silhouettes. Matthew's days of hanging around with fancy young men are over.

Saint Matthew and the Angel (San Luigi dei Francesci)

The viewer of Saint Matthew and the Angel is seated in the front row of a theatre and looking up at the stage. A hovering angel dictates the gospel to Saint Matthew beginning with Christ's genealogy. Caravaggio's angels are precocious adolescents. They aren't the angels of Yahweh's Old Testament who destroyed civilisations with swords of mass destruction. As Saint Matthew transcribes his gospel the stool he leans on has one leg tottering over the edge of the stage. He will surely topple off. Caravaggio's Saint Matthew is about to tumble onto someone's lap sitting in the front row?

Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesci)

Caravaggio's commission requested Saint Matthew murdered celebrating Mass in a temple like setting. Though Caravaggio's Martyrdom resembles more a brawl in a sauna with three of the bodies in the busy scene naked, except for mini robes tied around waists. One of the semi naked bodies, a youth wearing a headband, is the sword wielding assassin. Saint Matthew has been stabbed at least once. The on-lookers' faces witnessing the violence are shocked, except for one at the very back of the scene; the face of Caravaggio. While there is anguish on Caravaggio's face there is also resignation. Caravaggio is not shocked by the murder of Saint Matthew, the head banded assassin is not an Ethiopian soldier, he is a Caravaggio angel.

The Conversion of Saint Paul and Crucifixion of Saint Peter
(Santa Maria del Popolo)

Santa Maria del Popolo at the northern end of Piazza di Popolo houses Caravaggio's Conversion of Saint Paul and Crucifixion of Saint Peter. Both paintings have only a few pictorial elements but the sense of space in both is claustrophobic. A farm horse steps warily in the congestion of Saint Paul's conversion and an executioner has to stoop to fit within the frame of Saint Peter's crucifixion. The crucifixion scene is lit by one light source whereas the conversion scene uses more complex lighting. Strong but diffuse light comes from the right of the conversion frame lighting evenly the flank of the horse yet is well forward and misses the right, out-stretched arm of Saint Paul. The light directly above Saint Paul accords with The Living Bible's account of the scene in Acts 9:3 "a brilliant light from heaven spotted down upon him!" However, Caravaggio's spotlight on Saint Paul is not brilliant, but more strong, diffused stage lighting, whereas the biblical light was so bright that Paul was blinded for three days. Caravaggio's differing lighting directions and strengths, and sufficient fill light to illuminate shadows, produces a hyper real illusion of modelling and form. Portrait photographers know Caravaggio's use of sidelight, and overhead butterfly light, as Rembrandt lighting. And the backgrounds of both paintings are like the rolls of paper found in the photographer's studio that hang behind the subjects then curve and run along the floor towards the camera. With use, the paper buckles and ripples. Rather than paper, Caravaggio used fabric. You can see the folds. The sumptuous lighting reveals the nails that pin Saint Peter's feet aren't driven far enough into the cross to be secured. And Saint Peter looks anxiously at his nailed left hand. There is no blood! Nor do his feet bleed. Is he already dead? Is this a dream? Or just a rehearsal?

The Sacrifice of Isaac
November 23 (Domenica)

The Uffizi's enigmatic blonde gazing at the viewer, in Botticelli's Primavera, I think her name is Flora, looks like Cate Blanchett. A Wikepedia down load claims that Renaissance blondes bleached their hair in urine.

Bob Dylan sings;

"Ah God said to Abraham kill me a son
Abe said man you must be putting me on
God said no, Abe said what
God said you can do what you want Abe
But the next time you see me comin' you better run
Well Abe said where do you want this killing done
God said around Highway 61"

When I first heard Bob Dylan's 1965 Highway 61 Revisited, it was a revelation, a motorcycle ride of harmonicas and electric guitars and surreal images and dream narratives and biblical visions. The lyrics didn't always make sense. What made sense was the spellbinding logic of rhyme and rhythm. It was poetry with a beat, played by a band flying somewhere I'd never been before. On Highway 61, Dylan's transformation, that began with Bringing It All Back Home, from the folk singing, freight train riding Oakie, to Rock n Roll star; was made complete.

The colours of Caravaggio's The Sacrifice of Isaac are more sombre than the other paintings I've seen. Perhaps the others were cleaned, or perhaps it's the dim lighting in the room, or perhaps that's how it was painted. Sombre. It's a sombre business, God ordering a father to kill his son. This painting has a background. The hilly terrain, Cyprus trees, chateau and other buildings, say Rome rather than the desert of Canaan. (Although it looks like the painted background of a 19th century photographer's studio.) An angel grips Abraham's knife wielding wrist, and points to the surrogate sacrificial ram. Isaac's eyes confused and terrified, plead to the viewer. What a powerful rendering of terror. The viewer can do nothing. The eyes of the ram don't leave the finger-pointing angel.

The Annunciation
November 29 (Samedi)

Caravaggio's The Annunciation, is in gallery 8, of Nancy's Musee des Beaux - Arts.
Mary's head is bowed, an angel, face hidden in the dark canvas, points tentatively towards her. The angel wrapped sensually in cloth from the best of shops is Baroque, silent Mary in profile is Gothic. Medieval faith had Mary impregnated by a beam of light. Her solitude fills the room.

Supper at Emmaus (The National Gallery)

The National Gallery, London. In room 34 are the three Caravaggio paintings. Boy bitten by a lizard. Supper at Emmaus and Salome with the head of Saint John the Baptist. Supper at Emmaus is such a beautiful painting. A risen and chubby faced Christ, shares a meal with two raggedy disciples. Christ sits in the same Rembrandt lighting as the Conversion of Saint Paul. The moment pictured, is the instant the disciples recognise the transformed Jesus. In a few seconds, he will vanish. A French speaking tour guide points at the bowl of fruit, perched precariously by Caravaggio on the edge of the table about to spill onto the floor of room 34 of the National Gallery.

Salome with the head of Saint John the Baptist (The National Gallery)

John the Baptist's head is rendered with large, loose, rough brush strokes. The flesh transforms into waxy flakes of paint. Salome's face is painted smoothly, seamlessly, with no brush marks. Salome does not look at her prize, John's head. Instead she is distracted, and gazes out to the left of the frame towards the floor. Her expression is of annoyance and disdain. Perhaps incongruous, given the grotesque, severed head lumped onto the platter she clutches. It's as if the cat, has just coughed up a fresh fur ball onto her new carpet.

Kevin Ballantine