Baroque Mastery at the Rijksmuseum

The Crowning with Thorns, c. 1603, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum Inv. no. 307)
It’s a style intended to evoke — and elicit — emotion.

The Wuhan Flu might keep us from Rome, but the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition “Caravaggio/Bernini: Baroque in Rome” is a rarefied substitute. What? We can’t go to Amsterdam, either? Well, enjoy this primer on Baroque style and spirit from the safety of your bunker. The show’s a wonderful travelogue, a history lesson, and an aesthetic banquet, too.

The English word “baroque” comes from the French for “irregularly shaped” and initially referred to pearls that weren’t round but bulged as if a soul inside were trying to escape. Nobody in Rome in the 1600s called Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) or Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) Baroque artists It’s a term slapped onto a broad movement years later by art historians wanting to define the revolution in aesthetics that began in Rome around that time. These two artists introduced a spectacular aesthetic vocabulary charged with drama, bravura, vigor. “Baroque” first had legs defining a style in the 18th century, when the critic Goethe used it. The art of Rome around 1600 embraced what Goethe called “the nuance of the bizarre,” and before long “baroque” was the catchier, all-purpose term. It’s art showing the soul as it moves with emotion — anger, sorrow, joy, desire, pity, and love.

“Caravaggio/Bernini” isn’t a treasures show, though some very great paintings and sculptures are in it. Caravaggio’s “The Crowning with Thorns,” from 1603, is one of half a dozen works in the show by this outsized rake and game changer. The Rijksmuseum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna did the show together, and that’s a partnership with borrowing power. The Vienna museum is rich in work by Caravaggio, and that made for a good foundation.

It’s the mocking of Jesus during the Passion, a cruel, petty, violent moment. Figures emerge from the darkness with startling immediacy. There was an art elite then, keepers of the flame and boosters of the old style we call Mannerism. That’s an art of elegance. Figures are elongated, light is clear and even, and the presentation so refined, cool, and aloof you can easily forget to pray. Pontormo, Bronzino, and Rosso Fiorentino are Italian Mannerists a generation or two older than Caravaggio.

The critics disparaged Caravaggio’s use of models he found on the street rather than ideals in his head. Muscles, sinews, and bones work convincingly. Jesus is exposed but at the same time withdrawn, his eyes open but his mind doing its best to flee the anguish and humiliation. The scene is painfully explicit. Every tactic — deep shadows and contrasting brights, tools of torture, close cropping, brute faces — is meant to move the viewer. All of this makes for Baroque style.

The exhibition is organized by themes or characteristics. There are separate galleries for wonderment, vivacity, love, motion, jest, and horror. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a brilliant way to illuminate a complex, opaque art-history term. The curators are clearly gifted teachers.

Narcissus, Rome, c. 1600, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Canvas. (Gallerie Nazionali d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini Inv. no. 1569; gift of Vasilij Bogdanovič Khvoschinskij, 1916 Photo: Gallerie Nazionali d’Arte Antica – Bibliotheca Hertziana, Max Planck Institute for Art History/Enrico Fontolan)

Caravaggio’s “Narcissus,” from 1600, is the star of the gallery on wonderment. The blade Narcissus is young and handsome but heartless. He rejects all amorous advances. We all know the type. A flirt and a tease, self-involved, but he never puts out. Nemesis takes note. She’s the goddess of retribution. She punishes hubris. Gosh, she must work overtime. She condemns him to exquisitely painful wonderment. He falls in love with his own image, reflected in a placid pool. He caresses it initially but drowns trying to embrace it.

Medusa, Rome 1638–40, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Marble with traces of original patina. (Rome, Musei Capitolini, Palazzo dei Conservatori Inv. no. MC 1166 © Pinacoteca Capitolina. Foto: Andrea Jemolo)

“Narcissus” shares the introductory gallery with Bernini’s “Medusa,” from 1638. For Medusa, every day is a bad hair day — her locks were snakes and, besides, she was so ugly that anyone who looked at her turned to stone. She was a neighborhood menace, and wouldn’t take to a quarantine. The hero Perseus evaded her fatal powers by approaching her while she slept, her likeness reflected on the polished metal of his shield, and off with her head. Both sculpture and painting depict wonderment — Medusa can’t believe she’s dead, and Narcissus is besotted — but evoke wonderment, or amazement, or astonishment in the viewer, who confronts two very extreme personality types.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1610, by Carlo Saraceni. (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)

There’s gorgeous art at every turn, and art I’ve never seen before. The gallery on Baroque horror made me think that every day’s Friday the 13th, Walmart ran out of chainsaws, and that kid Damian from The Omen missed his meds. Headless Goliath and Holofernes are aplenty, but in Carlo Saraceni’s “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” from 1610, Judith’s arresting beauty and imperceptible smile give the scene an emotional jolt. Holofernes’s face is frozen in a death cry. Judith’s maid is helping her stuff the head in a sack. She’s holding the bottom with her hands and keeping the top open with her mouth. She looks at her mistress, riveted by her “sang-froid.”

Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy, Rome or Venice, c. 1620/25 or c. 1630/35, by Artemisia Gentileschi. Canvas. (Private European collection. Photo: Saint Louis Art Museum)

Visions, ecstasies, and raptures often figure in Baroque style. Around 1600, the upheaval of the Reformation seemed to have settled, with the Counter-Reformation prescribing new ways to evoke Christian feeling. The vision, part ecstatic, part supernatural, was the highest degree of revelation from God. St. Francis and St. Teresa of Avila are there in force, but Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy,” from the 1620s, was simply beautiful and impressive. It’s a completely new interpretation of Mary. She’s not repenting her naughty past. She’s not meditating. She’s overwhelmingly contented and slack with peace. Her dress slips over her shoulder, a tip of the hat to her former profession, and her skin glows. There are no religious props and no tears. She seems lit from within.

St. Sebastian Thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, 1612, by Ludovico Carracci. Oil on canvas. (J. Paul Getty Museum)

Baroque art is animated — not that Raphael’s “Virgin and Child” pictures or Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling aren’t, but the velocity is different. In the Baroque era, putti cavort, gold glitters, and scenes not only are choreographed but move. Paintings are narrative-focused. Michelangelo’s iconic scene of God on a flight path giving life to Adam conveys movement, but it’s the movement of mountains, and there’s no suggestion that there are any further frames in the clip. Ludovico Carracci’s “St. Sebastian Thrown into the Cloaca Maxima,” from 1612, is, like Artemisia’s, a new take. Sebastian is normally depicted as a static figure pierced with arrows. Here, there’s a bit of Caravaggio’s lighting to suggest drama and stealth, since the body was dumped into Rome’s main sewer trench at night. Its physicality is amazing — there are lots of unusual poses — and Sebastian does teach us lessons in faith but also in gravity.

Portrait of Giovanni Batista Agucchi, c. 1610, by Domenichino. Oil on canvas. (York City Art Gallery)

The show is a thrill, but I have to say I liked the portrait — or vivacity — gallery the most. The heads stay on the torsos, for one thing. Portraiture before 1600 veers toward iconography and status. There’s plenty of personality, to be sure, but it’s subordinated to “Who am I?” and “What am I?” rather than the more complex “I’m thinking this or that” or “I’m baring my soul.” Baroque is the age where the “speaking likeness” is introduced, and Bernini does it best in marble. His subjects have torque, expressions, and open mouths. Domenichino’s (1581–1641) portrait of Giovanni Batista Agucchi, from around 1610, shows a vivacious, engaged figure, his expression concentrated and tense. He’s demanding our attention. It’s small, 24 by 18 inches, but its informality and intensity give him presence.

The gallery on love pushes the point — I saw the Titian show on his Metamorphoses six-footers from 1551, and they’re very sexy. Caravaggio turns up the temperature on carnal feeling, though, and Baroque artists do seem to recruit from LA Fitness. But love is love, and it is ageless and invites all styles. The gallery on jest is ineffective, and I think that’s why the curators made it so small and put it at the end of the show, where people are tired, hungry, powder-room-inclined, or lusting after nude Bacchus tea towels in the shop. It’s a difficult theme in any event. Conveying another era’s sense of humor is almost impossible.

I didn’t like two aspects of the show’s design. The lighting makes the galleries, which are new, look tired. Paintings are displayed against pastel panels placed against white walls. A bad choice, and a candidate for Baroque horror. Pale yellow and pinks make the pictures look like black holes.

The scholarship in the catalogue is superb. The essays are loosely connected to the themes of the show, but meaty. They convey a sense of Rome in 1600, moving through the reigns of four popes and their courts. Artists were practiced, passionate networkers. They had to be, since popes and cardinals were prime patrons as well as competitive, jealous ones. The first chapter of the book calls Rome “the navel of the world” — not flattering, as it suggests an entire culture of narcissism, but I take the overall point. The church avoided what could have been a fatal Reformation fusillade. Rome was an immensely rich city around 1600 and in a building boom. New churches and palaces needed decorating. Each papacy did more than trigger musical chairs. It enriched a new crop of people from the provinces having family ties with whoever was pope. This stimulated patronage, too.

Operation Night Watch (Photo: Rijksmuseum)

While at the Rijksmuseum, I visited Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” from 1642. It’s a big, rambunctious painting and the star of the Dutch Baroque. It crackles with energy. Rembrandt never left Holland, but he knew Italian art. The Dutch Caravaggisti, the colony of Dutch artists working in Rome from, say, 1600 to 1620, brought Italian style, mostly lighting, pathos, and carnality, but Dutch brown is the color of choice and Dutch art still privileges the cow and the cloud. “The Night Watch” is under restoration now, but displayed in a big, room-size glass box showing the conservators at work. It’s an overdue cleaning. People love seeing conservators at work, though I wonder why, since they work slower than a tortoise moves, dealing as they do with one centimeter at a time. Still, kudos to the Rijksmuseum for keeping the painting visible.

* * *

I’m home in Vermont and quarantined, since I’d been in the U.K. and the Netherlands in the days before the travel ban. The customs process at JFK was smooth: The agents took my temperature and sent me on my way. From touchdown on the tarmac to slamming a cab’s door, it took less than an hour. The good people at the airport could not have been nicer or more professional.

I feel fine and I’m not worried about my health, as I followed my doctor’s advice, used good sense, and always wash my hands. To lather and rinse for 20 seconds, by the way, humming the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a good trick. Nothing’s open, and we own a big piece of property. Our dog is berserk with happiness at getting so many long walks in the woods.

In Arlington, the home of Grandma Moses, Norman Rockwell, and the Green Mountain Boys, many of my friends and neighbors are old, and everyone wants to keep them safe. The impact of all the closings on museums and galleries will be immense, especially for hourly workers, guards, and support staff. Exhibition openings have been postponed, art movement stopped, and spring fundraisers canceled.

It’s an unprecedented financial and logistical quagmire. Insofar as museums are concerned, I hope the big, rich museums and the NEA show leadership and initiative in easing what I’d call a crisis, and I think very few things present the peril or gravity to call them a crisis. If the federal government hauls out the printing press for museums, I hope relief is targeted first and foremost to museums that are earned-income-sensitive. The big places can take a hit, but many small institutions can’t.

 

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