(c. 1572-1610)




Whatever we may feel about Carracci’s methods, Caravaggio and his partisans certainly did not think highly of them. The two painters it is true, were on the best of terms – which was no easy matter in the case of Caravaggio, for he was of a wild and irascible temper, quick to take offence and even to run a dagger through a man. But his work was on different lines from Carracci’s. To be afraid of ugliness seemed to Caravaggio a contemptible weakness. What he wanted was truth. Truth as he saw it. He had no liking for classic models, nor any respect for “ideal beauty”. He wanted to do away with convention and to think about art fresh. Some people thought he was mainly out to shock the public; that he had no respect for any kind of beauty and tradition. He was one of the first painters at whom these accusations were leveled and the first whose outlook was summed up by his critics in a slogan: he was condemned as a “naturalist”. In point of fact, Caravaggio was far too great and serious an artist to fritter away his time to cause a sensation. While the critics argued, he was busy at work. And his work has lost nothing of its boldness in the three centuries and more since he did it. Consider his painting of St. Thomas, in the figure, the three apostles staring at Jesus, one of them poking his finger into the wound in His side, look unconventional enough. One can imagine that such a painting stuck devout people as being irreverent and even outrageous. They were accustomed to seeing the apostles as dignified figures draped in beautiful folds – here they looked like common labourers, with weathered faces and wrinkled brows. But, Caravaggio would have answered, they were old labourers, common people and the unseemly gesture of Doubting Thomas, the Bible is quite explicit about it. Jesus says to him: “Reach hither thy hand, and thrust it on my side: and be not faithless, but believing” (St John XX, 27). 



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Amor Vincit Omnia
c. 1601-02
Oil on canvas
75 1/4 x 58 1/4 in (191 x 148 cm)
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin




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Doubting Thomas

c. 1601-02
Oil on canvas
42 1/8 x 57 1/2 in.
Neues Palais,




Caravaggio’s “naturalism”, that is, his intention to copy nature faithfully, whether we think it ugly or beautiful, was perhaps more devout than Caracci’s emphasis on beauty. Caravaggio must have read the Bible again and again, and pondered its words. He was one of the great artists, like Giotto and Dürer before him, who wanted to see the holy events before his own eyes as if they been happening in his neighbour’s house.  And he did everything possible to make the figures of the ancient texts look more real and tangible. Even his way of handling light and shade helps to this end. His light does not make the body look graceful and soft: it is harsh and almost glaring in its contrast to deep shadows. But it makes the whole strange scene stand out with an uncompromising honesty which few of his contemporaries could appreciate, but which had a decisive effect on later artists.







Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio fell out of fashion in the nineteenth century, but have come into their own again. But the impulse they both gave to the art of painting can hardly be imagined. Both of them worked in Rome, and Rome, at the time, was the centre of the civilized world. Artists from all parts of Europe came there, took part in the discussions on painting, took sides in the quarrels of the cliques, studied the old masters, and returned to their native countries with tales of the latest “movements” – much as modern artists used to do with regard to Paris. According to their national traditions and temperaments, artists preferred one of other of the rival schools in Rome, and the greatest of them developed their own personal idiom from what they had learned of these foreign movements. Rome still remains the best vantage point from which to glance at the splendid panorama of painting in the countries adhering to Roman Catholicism.


(E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. Phaidon, London, 1995, Reprinted 1999). 



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Judith Beheading Holofernes

c. 1598
 Oil on canvas
56 3/4 x 76 3/4 in.
Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Antica, Roma