Hunting Caravaggios in Rome

Paintings by the great masters were never meant to be viewed in art galleries. These institutions are a modern invention. Most of them were always destined for churches and the homes of rich patrons. Those with an overtly religious theme are best appreciated in their natural setting, much as looking at a tiger behind bars at the zoo is no substitute for seeing it in its native landscape.

This is especially true of Caravaggio, a painter whose anguished themes and pervasive shadows are perfectly suited to the gated chapels, iron candelabras and tortured figures of saints that pack Catholic churches on the Continent.

Cities like Rome are ideal hunting grounds for anyone seeking to encounter these exotic creatures in their natural habitat. Forget about paying an entry fee for the privilege of being herded around a sterile gallery, where a fleeting glimpse is all you can expect.

In the urban jungle of Rome, allow the crowds to carry you like flotsam downstream on the Orinoco towards the mighty Pantheon. Just as you drift past the Church of St Louis of the French on the left jump off the boat and head up the stone steps onto dry land. This church, completed in 1589, looks like just another ancient wall, its flaking stucco like the skin of one of Attenborough’s lizards, indistinguishable from the lichens and moulds of the surrounding forest.

As a result, the bristling selfie-sticks move on in search of bigger and more obvious game, whilst inside the church the gloom and silence remain undisturbed. As you pass through the tiny, nondescript doorway, the vast interior opens up like the inside of a Tardis, and it takes your eyes a good few seconds to adjust to the dim light and wonders within.

A few visitors cluster in a distant corner, phones and cameras pointed through the bars of one of the chapels, as if they’re at the zoo. But this is a zoo with a difference. The Contarelli Chapel is home to three magnificent paintings by Caravaggio which have hung here since they were first commissioned in 1599: ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew’, ‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’ and ‘The Inspiration of Saint Matthew’.

These are brooding, powerful works, as psychologically violent in their way as big cats in a jungle of deep shadows, full of barely suppressed violence and ready to pounce at the drop of a hat. The pervading gloom of the church is reflected in the shadows of the paintings and complements their startling energy. You don’t get this effect in any art gallery.

Caravaggios cannot be tamed. They can be removed from their context and put on general display, but they yearn for their candlelit chapels and sainted gloom. The humane thing to do is to leave them where they are. Let those who prefer their nature red in tooth and claw hack their way through the forests of the night to where they live and breathe in ancient cities like Rome.

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