Saturday, September 17th, 2011
Book Review: “Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome”
I recently had the pleasure of reading the new exhibition catalog, Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome. I’ve read this book with a great deal of personal interest – not only do I love Caravaggio, but I will be traveling to Texas later this year to see this historic exhibition! Many of you are probably aware that I highlighted some details from this catalog on a post at Three Pipe Problem – particularly information regarding the painting, Saint Augustine (c. 1600) which recently has been attributed to Caravaggio.
When opening this book for the first time, I was immediately struck by the beautiful images. This catalog is chock full of gorgeous, simply delicious color reproductions of paintings by Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti. There are numerous detail images for many of these paintings, too. The catalog also includes several dozen images that are not included in the actual exhibition, too. Honestly, I would own this book just for the reproductions themselves.
But praise for this catalog goes beyond the reproductions. This book also includes a lot of great essays about Caravaggio, written by prominent scholars like Sebastian Schütze, Francesca Cappelletti, and Michael Fried. That being said, though, this catalog isn’t for someone with just a casual interest in art history or Caravaggio. The essays are pretty dense, and some writers (I’m particularly thinking of Fried and Schütze) use art historical terms that would be unfamiliar to the casual reader.
The first half of the book is dedicated to essays about general history regarding Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti (even mentioning Caravaggio’s plate of artichokes that recently grabbed a bit of attention in the news). This section also includes a theoretical essay by Michael Fried. The essay is interesting (and, granted, is written in a slightly more approachable way than many of Fried’s other essays on similar topics of absorption and spectatorship), but it seems quite out-of-place with the other historical essays in the book.
The second part of the book is dedicated to thematic essays related to works in the exhibition. I loved this section of the book the most. The essays are generally organized by different types of subject matter: gypsies, cardsharps, musicians, saints, etc. It’s really fun. I was interested to learn that Caravaggio’s painting The Cardsharps has inspired more copies and variants than any other work by Caravaggio.1
In fact, themes of gambling (which expands to include dice players) and were popular among Caravaggio’s Roman followers. One popular subject matter for the Caravaggisti was The Denial of Saint Peter (as can be seen in Bartolomeo Manfredi’s work of c. 1616-18). These scenes were often expanded to include depictions of soldiers playing dice or cards. Interestingly, though, the Caravaggisti were not inspired by Caravaggio’s personal treatment of the subject; Caravaggio’s Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1609-10) includes only three half-figures. Instead, the Caravaggisti used Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) as a prototype for their Denial of Saint Peter scenes. One can see similarities in composition by comparing Manfredi and Caravaggio’s paintings, particularly since both works involve groups of men huddled around a table. In addition to these similarities, Nancy E. Edwards points out that “The Denial of Saint Peter and The Calling of Saint Matthew have similar subjects: an apostle’s response to Christ’s call of faith.”2
Anyhow, that interesting tidbit of information is just a taste of what is available in this great catalog. I would heartily recommend it to anyone that has a keen interest in Caravaggio or the Caravaggisti. I only have one small complain about the book itself: it needs to have an index! I know that it is not common for exhibition catalogs to have indexes, so I realize that this complaint is geared more toward a cultural standard than this particular book. However, I have noticed that exhibition catalogs are becoming increasingly more scholarly in their content. If museums want scholars to use their catalogs as an academic resource, more indexes need to start showing up in catalogs!
As I read Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome, I wrote down a makeshift index on the last page of my book copy (see above right), with some of the topics that are particularly interesting to me. If there was an index, I would be spared such effort…
1 Nancy E. Edwards, “The Cardsharps,” in Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, edited by David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 180.
2 Ibid., 199.
Thank you to H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem, Inbooks and Yale University Press for supplying the review copy.
I don't completely agree with you about the indices missing in Exhibition catalogs. Such works DO need indexes in ALL cases since these books are frequently cited in writing that concerns specific art works, when and where they were shown and who said what about them. It's not a cultural problem but an economic one; publishers save money by skipping this step. It's even less excusable in the age of computers because any desk top computer can generate a word list that the index creator can then pare down. One of my former mentors (Harvard, Berkeley Theological Seminary) used to thunder: "Books without an index should be MACHINE_GUNNED!!" (along with appropriate hand motions).
Cheers for the review M! I'm interested to know more about these 'historical essays' and how Fried's theoretical piece interacts with them. Great catalogues (and the exhibitions they represent) have a common thread through their disparate elements, is there anything like that in this catalog that links the historical pieces with Fried's theoretical exploration?
@Bob – it seems pretty slack for Yale Press to let this one out without an index – this detail alone woud decrease the allure of the volume to educators/researchers in particular, who need to track down specific items quickly.
You made an index?? That's awesome. You know, people get jobs writing indexes for books. 😉
Ha ha! Bob, I like what your former mentor used to say about books without an index. Yes, I do think that indexes are very important for these kind of books. And you bring up a good point: the lack of an index might be an economic decision more than a cultural one. That definitely is a motivating factor, probably for the publishers as much as the museums producing the catalogs.
I do think, though, that there wasn't as much of a need for indexes in exhibition catalogs that were produced several years ago. It seems like there used to be less scholarly interest in exhibition catalogs – they sometimes would include cursory information about an artist alongside fantastic reproductions from the exhibition. Today, though, I think that there is now more of a scholarly emphasis in many catalogs.
H Niyazi: Fried's essay focuses on a pictorial "system" developed by Caravaggisti painters. For example, he looks at how the Caravaggisti oriented figures in their canvases. In one section he points out how the depiction of a figure "largely from the rear" was a popular Caravaggesque motif. Then Fried explores how this "system" affects the relationship between the viewer and the painting.
Granted, there are some historical strains in the essay. For example, he says that "the invention of absorption as a pictorial resource took place in the 1590s largely, though not exclusively, in the art of Caravaggio" (p. 113). However, his essay is much less about history and more about art analysis and spectatorship. To give you a sense of contrast, the essay preceding the one by Fried relates documentation of Caravaggio's early followers from 17th century Roman parish registers. There is a stark contrast between the two essays!
If anything, I think Fried's essay fits better with the thematic essays that are in the second portion of the textbook. These essays lends themselves to more visual analysis and exploration. Perhaps that's why Fried's essay is located at the very end of the historical essays; I suppose it can act as a precursor to the thematic section.
heidenkind: Yeah, I made an index. What can I say? I'm a nerd. I often type notes on my computer while I read art historical texts, but this time I thought I'd keep the notes/index right inside my book copy.
Anyone/everyone: Bob was kind enough to set up a Google documents spreadsheet with the index information that I have started. If anyone would like to contribute (or have access to) the index, please send me an email. I realize that this is a new book and not many people have copies yet, so please realize that my invitation to look at the spreadsheet is a standing offer. Perhaps we can collaborate and create an index ourselves!
I love your use of the word "delicious" to describe the catalog! I'm sure it's appropriate, and your review made me hungry for more. Will we ever get tired of Caravaggio? It seems he gets more attention every year.
I also love the idea of an interactive index on Google docs. I've never used the program, but what a great resource for this kind of collaboration. Is it being used a lot in education now (asked the dinosaur)?