Rule-breaker for the ages: why Caravaggio is our screen age’s art superstar

<span>Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott) wonders at Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Seven Acts of Mercy in the Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples.</span><span>Photograph: Netflix</span>
Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott) wonders at Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Seven Acts of Mercy in the Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples.Photograph: Netflix

“Do you like Caravaggio?” asks wealthy Dickie Greenleaf of his enigmatic new friend, Tom Ripley, early in the current Netflix drama based on Patricia Highsmith’s famous thriller, The Talented Mr Ripley. The query is a sort of test, and about more than simply class. It is intended as a measure of character, of soul. For Greenleaf, the playboy son of an American shipping magnate on a permanent holiday on the Amalfi coast, the answer could function as a key, unlocking a world of shared culture and tastes.

Questions about Caravaggio are also being asked in London as the National Gallery opens its doors on a show that examines artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s last work, displayed in Britain for the first time in 20 years. His 1610 masterpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, has been lent by a gallery in Naples and is a large, shadowy study of violence and religious fervour.

In preparation for the show, British art critics dusted off their most heightened vocabulary to hail the great baroque ’n’ roll star of art once more. “It’s hypnotic,” wrote the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones last week, urging theatregoers to go to look at its static drama for free, instead of paying out for West End tickets. They can also stare at Caravaggio himself, who stands on one side of the figure of the saint, in the last self-portrait he painted months before he died at 38. This is, after all, the guy who changed it all by introducing emotional intensity and identifiable humanity into the business of representing biblical stories.

“It is hard for us now to realise just how different his work is from what came before,” says National Gallery curator Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, explaining how Caravaggio spurned the artistic tradition of creating beautiful objects above all else. “He is the opposite. Even when we come upon these images without the level of religious knowledge usual then, they can communicate. One of his innovations was realism, you see real people with goitres and wrinkles. He even painted the well-known city prostitutes.”

What drove this stark new vision? Whitlum-Cooper speculates it was the artist’s childhood in Milan, a city ravaged by plague and ruled by the idiosyncratic Cardinal Borromeo: “There is the sense of the need to feel; for things to be real, even to self-inflict acts of contrition. It’s intense.”

His artistic freedom, she suspects, also sprang from a lack of any formal training as an apprentice in an artist’s studio. “He didn’t even learn how to paint frescoes when he had signed up to do it. And there’s no evidence of sketches under the paint. He seems to have applied paint directly, with real bravura.”

That ‘cinematic’ lighting has made Caravaggio a superstar in the screen age

Jonathan Jones, the Guardian

Caravaggio’s repeated appearances in the new Ripley series, in scenes in Naples and, later, Rome, is no mere geographical coincidence. As Jones comments looking at Saint Ursula: “That ‘cinematic’ lighting has made Caravaggio a superstar in the screen age.” The artist’s celebrated chiaroscuro has fascinated photographers and film-makers for decades: in fact, it started from almost the first moment it became possible to play around with real light, with electric bulbs and projectors, rather than paint.

“There’s something about how he crops and frames the image. We see it as a cinematic language now,” adds Whitlum-Cooper. “The size of the canvas too means the viewer almost completes the image; almost takes part.”

Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of the 2010 book, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, thinks the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini was the first to ape the look on screen. “Then Martin Scorsese, of course. When he was making Mean Streets he used to go along to the Met to study the Caravaggio. He designed the film around its framing, by starting a scene in the middle of the action; usually with someone doing something atrocious, like torturing someone.” Scorsese told him he was instantly taken by the work, explaining: “Initially I related to them because of the moment he chose to illuminate in the story. The Conversion of St Paul, Judith Beheading Holofernes: he was choosing a moment that was not the absolute moment of the beginning of the action … He would have been a great film-maker, there’s no doubt about it.”

For Graham-Dixon it is not just the light and shade, but the immediacy that still inspires directors. “Perspective had become incredibly tedious for artists. It meant the loss of any sense of what you were supposed to be looking at, like a school photograph. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro sabotaged perspective and let him emphasise a detail. If he thought, ‘I only want to show the tear on her face catching the light,’ well, chiaroscuro allowed him to do that. This is the lightning strike he delivered on the art world.”

And the cinematic legacy goes beyond camerawork. The artist’s life has also been tackled on screen. Derek Jarman’s 1986 film, Caravaggio, played up his transgressions, while the 2022 Italian arthouse biopic, Caravaggio’s Shadow, focused on the censorship of his art. Graham-Dixon’s own book has just been bought up by an American film company, he adds.

The exhibition at the National includes the gallery’s own late Caravaggio, Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist. Beheadings were a favourite theme. Towards the end of the Ripley series a museum guide in the Galleria Borghese is overheard describing an equally bloodthirsty painting, David with the Head of Goliath. “Caravaggio links the murderer and victim by portraying David as compassionate in the way he gazes at the severed head,” the tourists are told, as Ripley, by now a murderer himself, listens in.

Steven Zaillian’s ravishing black-and-white adaptation makes much of the extraordinary life of the painter, who was on the run for a murder, like Highsmith’s “talented” anti-hero, played by Andrew Scott. In a 350-year flashback in the final episode Zaillian actually evokes the ghost of the artist – picturing him hiding from the Knights of St John as they track him down, just as Ripley dodges the police. “That little parallel I thought was interesting,” the director has said.

In Naples Ripley is also taken to see a Caravaggio that has hung in the Pio Monte della Misericordia for more than four centuries in an episode, Seven Mercies, that takes its title from the painting. In the background of this work two men can be seen preparing a body for burial. Ripley learns it was painted a year after the artist himself was accused of murder in Rome. Caravaggio, probably vilified for homosexuality, then dropped by his patrons and struggling to pay bills, soon began a downward spiral that picked up pace once his face was disfigured in a knife attack outside a Neapolitan inn. He had already been sentenced to death for killing Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1606 in a row after a game of tennis. The outlaw fled to Naples, while Ripley heads for Rome under an assumed identity. Once there the killer visits the San Luigi dei Francesi, home to three Caravaggios, one of which depicts an assassin brandishing a sword.

Ripley and the wayward Caravaggio share a grim glamour and this is an uncomfortable fact for Whitlum-Cooper: “The way we fetishise the violence is problematic. It is not felt for women or Black men who may have committed crimes. So we have tried to counterbalance that in the show with an emphasis on the story of Saint Ursula.”

Related: The Last Caravaggio review – an unmissable and murderously dark finale

Caravaggio’s final artistic impulse was to give the full treatment to an early Christian princess from Britain who was said to have travelled to marry a pagan prince, according to a mysterious religious text, The Golden Legend. Ursula’s accompanying 11,000 virgins were then slain at Cologne, but not before “the chief of the huns” had offered the princess his hand in marriage. When she turned him down he shot her with an arrow. The painting shows the lethal act in closeup, life-like scale.

“There was a lot of resistance to Caravaggio’s style. He was on the losing side of a religious struggle about whether the church is for the poor or should be controlled by the rich,” says Graham-Dixon. “The clergy didn’t want paintings suggesting that religion was for the masses. They wanted the old style of paintings, where the Virgin Mary looks like the Queen of Heaven, not like some poor woman in a night refuge.”

Before Caravaggio’s death in southern Tuscany when, still on the run, he probably succumbed to malaria, his creative influence had already been felt in Naples and in Sicily, which were Spanish possessions at the time. This is how his great effect on European art, and then on film, was seeded, thinks Graham-Dixon: “No one was rooting for him back then, except all the other artists who couldn’t get his work out of their heads.”