Landmark Caravaggio exhibition shows rough and fleshy 17th century Rome

Saint John the Baptist (Youth With a Ram), Michelangelo Merisi, da Caravaggio
Saint John the Baptist (Youth With a Ram), Michelangelo Merisi, da Caravaggio © Roma, Sovrintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali

'Caravaggio in Rome: Friends and Foes' at the Jacquemart-André Musuem in central Paris offers a rare opportunity to become intimate with ten or so of the works of one of the greatest European masters of his time.


Jacquemart-André Museum curator Pierre Curie and Italian curator Francesca Cappelletti have pulled off quite a stunt in the museum world for the delight of more than 100,000 visitors so far, and still queuing.

The works of Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, are few and far between – and mostly guarded preciously by the Italian museums where they are among the crowd-pullers in Rome, Ferrara or Cremona. Four are found in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

From the artist's arrival in Rome in 1592 until 1606, when he was forced to flee after fatally injuring a rival, Caravaggio, left his mark on his contemporaries. He honed the chiaro-scuro technique, which adds astonishing sensuality to every texture.

He was not only a brillant artist, but he was what we would call 'a bad boy'

Pierre Curie

Close-up Caravaggio

In the cosy exhibition rooms of Nelly Jacquemart-André's former home on Boulevard Haussman, crowd control is effective enough to enable each visitor to get very close to the large-scale paintings, and to ponder such masterpieces as Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy of 1606 (Private Collection, authenticated in 2014), believed to have been painted after he had fatally wounded Tommassino Ranucio, and had taken refuge under his long-time guardians, the Colonna family.

This work, or the one used for the exhibition poster image, The Young Saint John the Baptist with a Ram of 1602 (Museo Capitolini, Rome), a completely naked youth cuddling a fully-grown ram, or The Cardsharps (1594, Kimbell Collection, Fort Worth, Texas, USA), or The Lute Player (1595-1596), a dreamy picture of a musician and of bounty, featuring bright coloured flowers and fruit, give an insight into Caravaggio's Seicento world.

"The lute player" by Caravaggio at the Jacquemart André Museum in Paris.
"The lute player" by Caravaggio at the Jacquemart André Museum in Paris.

Caravaggio was unafraid of spilling blood on and off the canvas, and with a keen sense of drama, heightened by the skillful modelling of human flesh, facial expression and fabric, as in the Judith Decapitating Holofernes (circa 1600). Strips of bright red spurt unrealistically from the severed head as a magnificently velvety crimson curtain billows above the scene.

However, being a so-called 'bad-boy' doesn't rule out religious interest. Like his contemporaries, some of whose works feature in the Paris exhibition, Caravaggio treated a range of Old and New Testament subjects commissioned by churches, the rich and the powerful. Ecce Uomo, where a Caravaggio lookalike appears on the left of Jesus, owned by the Musei di Strada Nuova in Genoa, posing as Pontius Pilate, as well as Saint Francis, Saint Lawrence and Saint Jerome which you can compare with Orazio Gentileschi's later, Caravaggio-inspired version in the exhibition.

The exhibition runs until 28 January 2019.

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