Caravaggio’s striking style, Rome, Italy

Rome in the 17th century would attract, apart from the expected pilgrims of Saint Peter’ s, artists, priests and the princes of Europe, an entire society of people living on the fringe elements who Caravaggio saw, dealt with and, finally, used in his paintings. It was not the first time such themes were dealt with in Art, but they served a didactic purpose and were drawn to illustrate a type of behaviour that was to be avoided. Caravaggio was not trying to teach anyone. He painted what he saw in his superb, naturalistic way, and the freedom he expressed, which went completely away from the norm of ideal beauty as expressed by Raphael, appealed to the educated élite of collectors and, in this way, the card-sharks and gypsies entered Roman collections and were hung next to paintings depicting historic heroes.

Card Sharks  by Caravaggio at the Louvre, Paris

Card Sharks by Caravaggio at the Louvre, Paris

“For example, his model, a woman known as Madalena Antonietti, was of low virtue,” an Art professor once told me. 

We had made an appointment one morning to see the churches that contained Caravaggio’s works.  There are three churches in Rome containing his work: Santa Maria del Popolo in the square of the same name; San Luigi dei Francesi near the Pantheon; and Sant’ Agostino between the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona.

I loved going on themed walks such as these, and I especially loved to walk with this professor as he is never in a rush and always chivalrous. Hearing a scooter turning the corner behind us, he will gently push me to the side of the road and, with our backs plastered to the wall, we allow the scooter to pass by. Otherwise, Rome cannot be walked. This is what he said to me about Caravaggio’s Madalena, of low virtue:

“He did not hesitate to depict her as the Madonna of the Pilgrims.”

Whether Caravaggio hesitated or not is no matter to us as the painting is considered a masterpiece, and I must encourage you to go and see it.  It is in the church of Sant’ Agostino, near the Pantheon. I remember the first time I saw it. I was surprised to see the image of the kneeling pilgrim in the foreground of the painting, whose backside is featured first and foremost, and not much attention is paid to the Madonna initially, who also scandalized the monks because of the positioning of her naked feet, which made her appear to be dancing...

An excerpt from the book: Feeling ROME

Madonna di Loreto  by Caravaggio, Rome

Madonna di Loreto by Caravaggio, Rome

Barbara Athanassiadis