Caravaggio, Medusa, 1598-99

One of my students brought my attention to this recent article in the New York Times. The article highlights a new argument by Philip Sohm, an art historian at the University of Toronto. Sohm believes that people aren’t as interested in the Renaissance artist Michelangelo anymore – instead, people have shifted their interest to Caravaggio. Sohm has charted interest in Caravaggio and Michelangelo through the number of scholarly publications over the past fifty years, and the number of writings about Caravaggio have gradually overtaken those about Michelangelo. Sohm calls this new phenomenon “Caravaggiomania” – and as a Baroque scholar who loves Caravaggio, I think that term is awesome.

Sohm thinks that art history doctoral students are having difficulty finding new and innovative things to say about Michelangelo. I don’t doubt this is the case. Michelangelo and the Renaissance period have been beaten to death for centuries in terms of research – but I do think that new interpretations and fresh scholarship can still rise up in the 21st century. I just wonder where Renaissance scholarship can go for new and fresh ideas. I’ve been thinking about this quite recently, actually, ever since I read heidenkind’s post about her difficulty in finding great publications about Donatello.

Sohm’s Caravaggio argument is timely, particularly since this year celebrates the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death. There are a lot of huge celebrations and events taking place to honor Caravaggio this year, including a major exhibition that is currently on display at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. This exhibition is bringing together Caravaggio paintings from all over the world – you can see a list of the paintings at the bottom of this Italian website. Other events have also taken place in preparation for this show, such as the public restoration of Adoration of the Shepherds. How I wish that I could go to Rome and celebrate this summer!

Anyhow, because of these celebrations, there undoubtedly has been Caravaggiomania over the past couple of months and years. Here’s the question that I would pose to Sohm: How many publications and writings have occurred recently because of the preparations for this celebration? Is it possible that we will see a decline in Caravaggiomania next year, once all of the celebrations have ended?

  • Davidikus says:

    This is a very interesting issue. As I may have stated elsewhere, Raphael was long regarded as the greatest painter in Western tradition. Then probably Leonardo replaced him, then Michelangelo. In art history, as in other social sciences, scholarly questions arise, subject matters evolve based on who we are today, what issues we are faced with today.

    In this respect, it's interesting to see that Caravaggio, once seen as the forefather of all realist schools is now another Baroque artist. The term Baroque becomes even more wide-ranging everyday. People talk about Vouet or Le Brun as examples of "French classicising Baroque" – not a long time ago, this would have been an oxymoron. When pioneer works on the Baroque movement appeared, they all define Baroque against Classicism (inspired by the Italian Renaissance as well as the Greek and Romans, epitomised by Poussin and much of the 17C French school)! Rococo was seen as a return to Baroque after a period of Classicism in the arts, and Neo-Classicism as a return to… Classicism.

    Our perceptions of the past have shifted: the shifting of interests is a logical consequence. Or vice-versa?

  • e says:

    Well, I know my comment won't be up to par since I'm not in the know, but I did want to say that the post made me want to know more!

    I have been reading about Caravaggio for the last 20 minutes and, wow, what an interesting person! Seems like he had some serious anger issues. I think it's kind of fun that he had such a volatile personality (that's probably very weird). There's something so interesting about reading the personality and history of the artists, and how it plays into the art they did. I keep wondering if he did all of those beheading paintings so well because he'd seen that kind of stuff up close.

    Also, just by looking through his work on the internet, I think "Crucifixion of St. Peter" is pretty amazing and very powerful. I like that Peter isn't frail and it has a way of giving me a visual of what actually happened to Peter.

  • heidenkind says:

    I was just reading that article this morning! I don't think Caravaggio will ever really replace Michelangelo, but I do think that art historians don't find him very interesting at this point in time. Or at least I don't. Haha. 😛 I'm sure there's TONS of more research you could do with him, though.

    I was also reading an article about how scientists want to use DNA to find Caravaggio's body so they figure out how he died and whether or not he was murdered.

  • Rachsticle says:

    I think this might continue to be the case with more "popular" artists. I think and hope that scholarship will shift to more contemporary art.

  • M says:

    Great comments, everyone. I think Davidikus brings up some thought-provoking points about how the interests of today affect the perceptions of the past. It is interesting to compare the receptions and definitions of artists today, as compared to earlier time periods. I wonder what types of artist will be valued valued (or if any artists will be valued), once society completely pulls out of this postmodern phase.

    (And Davidikus, I also think it's interesting to look at how the term "baroque" has shifted. There is an article about the word "baroque" that I want to read – I have the citation information in a comment for this post. You may find it interesting.)

    e, I'm glad that you find Caravaggio so fascinating! I think everything about him is interesting – especially that he was able to create such devout and inspiring works of art, considering that he lived such a violent life. I like "The Crucifixion of St. Peter" too. I should do a post on that painting sometime – I think it has an even more powerful effect when you see that painting in its original location, decorating a small chapel inside a church.

    heidenkind, I just looked up that interesting article about Caravaggio and DNA. Crazy stuff! This is fodder for a new post, I think. 🙂

    Rachsticle, I also wonder how scholarship will shift in the upcoming years. Do you think that widespread interest in the contemporary art could happen soon? I think the general public latches onto Renaissance art because it is more approachable and understandable – and not all contemporary art is that way. I think that either people will need to become more educated about contemporary art (in order to appreciate it), or contemporary art will need to become more approachable. Like you said, though, it will be interesting to see what happens.

  • ippolita says:

    It appears you all enjoy Caravaggio's works and therefore you may enjoy two superb iPhone and iPad applications on the Caravaggio exhibit which was recently in Rome. They are available for download from the App store. They are called Caravaggiomania and are quite impressive for their high level of video content and extraordinary high quality image of the art works!! Furthermore within the application there is a map of Rome indicating where additional works by Caravaggio, not included in the Scuderie del quirinale exhibit because they were not to be moved. These additional works, as those in the exhibit, are commented upon, zoomable and viewable in great detail. These applications are a stunning display of beautiful art and a fun way to relive the exhibit or, if one has not gone, a great way to get a true taste of it… The links to the apps are:
    For iPhone:
    and for iPad:

    Hope you enjoy the great art!!

Email Subscription



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.