Chasing Caravaggio

Our excuse for going to Rome was Caravaggio. He spent 14 years of his turbulent and dramatic career there, from 1592 to 1606, painting some two dozen works, many of them still to be found where they were first installed. He ranks among our top ten painters – our list includes Velazquez, Goya, Turner, Constable ­– and we were keen to take our fill. Even though we had allowed ourselves just five days we were able to taste so much more of Rome, a city we were discovering rather late in our lives.

Caravaggio’s Roman paintings include some of his most dramatic and visceral works. Among the most extraordinary settings are the trio painted for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesci, depicting three episodes in the life of St Francis: the moment Jesus called him to join his band of apostles; the vision of an angel as he writes his gospel; and the saint’s murder or martyrdom by an executioner wielding a sword (see image above). They show Caravaggio’s recasting of the traditions of religious portrayal, replacing misty veneration with down-to-earth depiction of characters drawn from everyday life.

The same is true of a second chapel setting of two scenes, the conversion and crucifixion of St Paul, housed in the Cerasi Chapel of the chrch of Santa Maria del Populo, both remarkable and iconoclastic in conveying moments of inspiration and death with breath-taking imagination and realism.

We spread our viewings over four days – and also managed to catch some of the most and least visited tourist attractions. After walking to the Spanish Steps from Galeria Borghese (five Caravaggios), we found them all but covered by a sea of visitors. Literally next door is the Keats Museum – where the romantic poet John Keats stayed for just three months before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 25 (his bust above). It is now a museum and memorial to both him and two other great English romantic poets, both with links to Rome: Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived there in 1820 and proposed that Keats should come to Italy in the hope of improving his health; and Lord Byron, who lived there in 1817.

We also braved the hordes to visit the Sistine Chapel, traipsing through halls and galleries to be disgorged under its ceiling. We sat at the side to catch our breath and our senses, and gradually Leonardo’s images took shape. First to attract you is the touching of fingers as God breathes life into Adam. As you settle back to ease the crick in your neck you begin to contemplate Michaelangelo’s monumental Last Judgment which fills the whole of the chapel’s altar wall, gradually disinterring the story and identifying those souls of are being cast into hell and the smaller number who are allowed to escape to heaven.

Monumental and breathtaking, it is almost beyond words. Almost overlooked among these profound creations are three scenes by Botticelli on the side walls, each exquisite and characteristic of the third genius to be savoured in this awe-inspiring space.

The Vatican Museum has another Caravaggio and in St Peter’s itself is Michelangelo’s intensely delicate Pieta, bringing you to close tears as you contemplate Mary cradling the body of Christ (image below).

We discovered another sculptor in Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini – admitting now that we had only bare knowledge of him before, even though he was as radical as Caravaggio in creating the new Baroque style of sculpture. His statues are everywhere, from the Spanish Steps to St Peter’s at the Vatican, and he was an architect too, designing St Peter’s Square itself. There is a dramatic pairing at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj (three Caravaggios), where his sculpture of Pope Innocent X sits in the same room as the renowned Velazquez portrait of the same man – yet another example of the artistic treasure-trove that Rome offers.

We ate well, of course, savouring the thin-pastry Roman pizzas, the pasticcerias and the gelateria, with their myriad flavours of home-made ice cream. And Rome would not have been Rome without a street demonstration: an enormous procession of climate change protestors, with the environmentalists at the front and a highly disciplined contingent of the Italian Communist Party, red flags to the fore, bringing up the rear (image below). Since it was the day of the one-million plus anti-Brexit march in London, with marched with them for a few steps in an expression of solidarity.

The next day we headed home, aware that we had barely scratched Rome’s surface, and vowing to return.

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