A brush with Caravaggio and Raphael

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The Church of St Louis of the French, built between 1550 and 1568, is a rather nondescript building just around the corner from the Pantheon. I would have completely missed it had my guide not mentioned in passing that it contains three Caravaggio paintings in situ.

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In London a few years ago I had to book a week in advance to see a touring Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery. The crowd was kept moving and it was a case of ‘been there, done that’ rather than being able to linger over the canvases as one should. All the luvvies were agog about it at the time on TV and radio, although they of course enjoyed private viewings.

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And yet here in Rome I could just wander in and see these masterpieces in their natural setting. It was like looking at exotic animals in the wild rather than in a zoo, and there was no frenetic advertising either. It was a rare pleasure. He’s one of my favourite artists and as luck would have it I’d just finished reading ‘Caravaggio – A Life Sacred and Profane’ by Andrew Graham-Dixon’, which incidentally I can highly recommend.

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In the nearby Pantheon is the tomb of Raphael. His body was brought here immediately after his death at the age of 37 in 1520, making him almost as young as Mozart and putting the rest of us to shame in terms of achievements in brief life spans. Luther was at that time attacking the Pope over his excessive and pretty vulgar and shameless sale of indulgences to raise money for the rebuilding of St Peter’s. Leo X had as it happens put Raphael in charge of the building works.

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Cardinal Membo wrote Raphael’s epitaph:

Here lies Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died feared that she herself would die.

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