Friday, February 3, 2012

The Madonna of Loreto: Caravaggio vs Carracci

One of the reasons to visit the Rome in the time of Caravaggio exhibit is the opportunity to study side by side two paintings of the same subject painted in the same city in the same year by two very different artists.

The subject is the Madonna of Loreto. According to legend, the Holy House, where the holy family lived and Christ spent his childhood, was miraculously transported from Nazareth to Loreto, Italy (with a brief stop over in Croatia) in the 13th century. A massive basilica was later built around the holy house, which is now the site of an important Christian shrine, a much visited pilgrimage site, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Self-Portrait, Annibale Carracci

Around 1605, both Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci (arguably the two most popular painters of the moment) were commissioned to paint Our Lady of Loreto. I can't imagine two more drastically different interpretations. Yet the truly interesting thing is just how much those two artists have in common, at least on paper.

Portrait of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Ottavio Leoni

They were born just over a decade apart. Both were born and first studied art in the north of Italy.  Both were inspired by the great Venetian masters, particularly Titian. Both arrived in the Rome in the 1590s, at the height of the Counter Reformation. Both artists rejected mannerism as artificial and opted instead to paint from life, recreating what they saw in nature, and both had a talent for the play of light and shadow called chiaroscuro.

Although to our eyes Caravaggio is clearly the more daring and innovative artist, Carracci was considered one of the most radical artists of his time, particularly in his early career. But with the strict regulations on artists in Rome under prudish Pope Clement VIII, Carracci became an expert at toeing the line. While Caravaggio was becoming more and more daring in his work (and having several paintings rejected by patrons in the process), Carracci was becoming the darling of the art world. Caravaggio famously painted life exactly as he saw it, whereas Carracci chose to capture the ideal world as naturally as possible. Two different approaches to naturalism.

Translation of the Holy House, Annibale Carracci, Sant'Onofrio Church, Rome

Annibale's Madonna of Loreto, more commonly called the Translation of the Holy House, is a classical, idealized interpretation of the miracle. You would have a hard time imagining the pope and his cronies being offended by this, and it certainly didn't go against any of the stringent rules in Cardinal Paleotti's On sacred and profane images, (the mandatory handbook for artists during the Counter Reformation). The glowing Madonna in blue is perched atop the flying house being crowned by angels as Baby Jesus pours water to relieve the souls in purgatory. Nothing could be more acceptable, graceful or pleasing to the eye.

But Caravaggio's Madonna di Loreto (also known as the Madonna of the Pilgrims), painted the exact same year, is something else entirely. As Peter Robb puts it in his engrossing M, the man who became Caravaggio, "a flying house with clouds, sunlight and angels around it and the Madonna on board--no way [Caravaggio] was doing that." Instead he chose to depict a young, beautiful Madonna holding an overly-large Christ on the doorstep of an ordinary house. Before them, two ragged pilgrims kneel in adoration. 

Madonna of Loreto, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Sant'Agostino Church, Rome

It caused an uproar right from the start, and it wasn't just the pilgrim's filthy feet in the viewer's face that people were talking about. One of Paleotti's rules was against depicting saints doing ordinary every day activities, as if that cheapened their holiness, so the Virgin as a housewife hanging out on her front porch was not OK. Even the pilgrims themselves were offensive, an all-too present reminder of their unpleasant existence en mass in an already crowded city. 

But much worse than that, the Madonna had been modelled by Lena Antognetti, a well-known courtesan frequented by many a cardinal. By using her, Caravaggio was blatantly disregarding the Council of Trent's ban on representing saints as recognizable living people, not to mention sexually attractive ones. But somehow, Caravaggio got away with it, which definitely didn't always happen. And the result? People the world over visit Sant'Agostino to see Caravaggio's version of the Madonna di Loreto; how many do the same for Carracci's at Sant'Onofrio? Caravaggio's courage to paint what he truly saw has made him one of the world's favorite artists.

Interestingly enough, while Caravaggio is by far the more popular artist today (with an average of four exhibits a year in any given city), it is Carracci who for hundreds of years after his death was considered the great Italian painter at the turn of the 17th century. Whereas Caravaggio was all but forgotten a mere 20 years after his death.  His popularity would not begin to rise again until well into the 20th century.

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3; 4: courtesy of Civita Press Office

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