“Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him. And the art of Delacroix,Courbet and Manet would have been utterly different”. Roberto Longhi
When I woke up and looked around and it became clear to me that my travels in time continue. The first thing I noticed in the time and space I’ve landed in was the finest example of the Mannerism architecture,the still unfinished but already spectacular walls of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
‘Benventui a Roma’ – I said to myself smiling, with the heart full of high hopes for another great adventure.I was aware of the quite risky situation in Italy at the end of 16th century in the politically and spiritually tumultuous times where the Catholic church was trying to regroup after the Protestant Reformation.
Carvaggio, ‘Musicians’, 1595, The Metropolitan Museum Of Art (MET), New York
When I investigated carefully at the clothes I was wearing- it become obvious to me that my travel in time turned me to a gypsy girl that spends her days and nights at the busy and dangerous streets of Baroque Era Rome.Still remembering my last adventures I had no doubt that it was just a matter of minutes till I’ll meet another great artist. From what happened next I learned that the one I one I was supposed to meet was Caravaggio – pioneer of the Italian Baroque style, a very controversial persona who revolutionized the world of art. I suspected one thing – that the artist must be in a great need for a new a model for one of his next, big paintings.
Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Detroit Museum Of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
When the master approached me me I was still busy with looking for another generous dandy whom I could tell his future. When I stood face to face with Caravaggio, from the way he spoke to me I figured out that there is no way I could run away.Hearing his proposal – ‘the deal you cannot throw away’, I just answered obediently – ‘Certo Segnore’, knowing that in this ‘unequal fight’ I will have to go wherever the artist wanted me to go and do whatever he wanted me to do.
Caravaggio, ‘Portrait of a Courtesan’, Keiser Friedrich Museum, Destroyed in 1945
On our way to the atelier I had enough time to contemplate on the masters preference for painting from life instead of from copies and drawings made from older masterpieces.In fact the Mannerism artists of Caravaggio’s day who were classically-trained did not approve of his preference and even made jokes about his extravagant and rebellious attitude toward art. The one thing I knew for sure was that it was essential to the painter to have a ‘real muse’ made of blood and bones.I was quite thrilled when I realized that it is going to be me who’ll represent ‘the nature’ that the master was going to study from.
I drew this conclusion as I knew that the artist was deeply convinced that art instead of a didactic fiction should represent a real life.
When I entered the specious place with big windows I have seen the outlines of a famous painting that today the world knows as ‘The Fortune Teller’ – a masterpiece that hangs in in Paris, France, The Louvre.
Caravaggio, ‘The Fortune Teller’, 1597, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
The artist must have noticed my excitement and how I stared at everything since I entered the atelier.The truth was that I couldn’t stop myself from touching the surface of the amazing ornaments on the furniture.Normally I’m never that impetuous and I really don’t know what came over me. My quite odd behavior made Caravaggio think that the only thing that a gypsy girl like me could be really interested in was a robbery.
-‘Listen carefully young lady’- he said in a tone that does not tolerate any opposition- ‘If you steal anything from here, you will be immediately taken to prison and sentenced.’ So there is just one rule over here,’NO TRICKS. Capisce?’
-Yes, I understand, Sir.- I answered quickly feeling deeply ashamed.
So, using the modern vocabulary, ‘the terms and conditions’of our cooperation were mutually agreed and accepted.But then, suddenly the strangest thought crossed my mind.I knew that if something goes wrong nothing will stop Caravaggio from killing me. I wasn’t in a very safe position since the the Italian painter I was dealing with was the only major artist with a serious criminal record. His tempestuous character led him to an actual murder over a wager on a tennis match. So I knew that posing for Caravaggio, making him angry was similar to risking life. Socially, the genius painter was a belligerent, rude, violent. At the same time, however, his ability to depict religious scenes with an unprecedented approachability and the most human of feelings and sentiment provided invaluable inspiration for artists. There is no doubt that the life-like models set Caravaggio’s paintings apart from all the masters that preceded him.The technique that the master used was equally theatrical with tense compositions, masterly foreshortening,and dramatic lightening with vivid contrasts of light and shade called chiaroscuro.
Caravaggio, ‘Cardsharps’, 1594, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas
Astonishingly enough, I knew that there was just one way to ‘ease the situation’.I knew very well that the artist possessed a meticulous attention to naturalistic detail and this is exactly what I wanted to play on.
-‘Sir’- I started with an enthusiastic yet very kind and polite voice -‘ What if the gypsy girl that you’re painting now in the scene was indeed using tricks, but then only on canvas, for the sake of art?’
-‘What do you mean?’ – he asked, seemingly intrigued by what he has just heard.
-‘Haven’t you just told me, that I shall use no tricks? Well, I know that what you’re really interested in is presenting the ‘ human nature’. What if I start slowly removing the golden ring from the poor and unaware dandys hand?Wouldn’t that be the brilliant way to present the truth about all Gypsy Girls ?
-Excellent idea – said master clapping his hands – Simply, excellent – he repeated, closing his eyes for a while – like he wanted to check my idea, creating the composition in his mind first before transferring it into a canvas.
This is how I contributed to just another manifesto of Carvaggios naturalism.’The devil is in the details’ – I thought, feeling gloriously happy with the fact that I just ‘sold’ the artist his own idea. I was the smart and vulpine girl he wanted me to be.The only conclusion, the lesson from my meeting with the genius artist was as follow -‘When In Rome, do as Romes do’.