Cooling Down with Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew” at San Luigi Dei Francesi Church in Rome

It is blisteringly hot in Rome and yesterday I had to stop by the French bookstore to pick up a book for my daughter to study this summer.  The French book store is in the historic center next to the French Church, San Luigi dei Francesi and as I stepped out of the store and onto the steamy cobblestones I realized I needed some cool air and a Caravaggio hit.

Italians don’t believe in air conditioning and they even think fans will give them the feared “colpo di aria” (air blow) that others have written about, but Rome has one easy solution, its ubiquitous churches.  When one is hot and melting on a Roman sidewalk, it is usually no more than 50 meters to some church where one can slip inside and enjoy the dark, the quiet and the cool air while sitting on a wooden pew.  And if you are lucky you may get a church with paintings from some of the best painters in the history of the world to boot.  And it is all for free.

But back to Caravaggio… I periodically get a boost of inspiration from this passionate, baroque bad-boy of painters who brought realism into religious painting.

So yesterday I stepped into the cool dark of the San Luigi Dei Francesi Church and headed for one of my favorite Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew.”

“The Calling of St. Matthew” is Caravaggio’s rendering of the story from the Gospel of Matthew, “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, “Follow me,” and Matthew rose and followed him.”

What is so special about Caravaggio is that he made his paintings realistic so they appealed to the common man (and woman, like me).  He used street urchins, drunkards and derelicts,  old hags, lowly prostitutes and seductive courtesans to serve as his models.  Whereas so many of his predecessors made religious subjects look perfect, he made them real.  While others (Raphael, Botticelli, Antonello di Messina) made blond, beautiful Madonnas gazing at chubby, blue-eyed babies, Caravaggio painted barefoot, busty courtesans with dirty toenails (See my Blog Post on Caravaggio’s Women).  Caravaggio’s children are mischievous waifs or pompous, spoiled children of noble families.

On top of his realism he added his own trademark Chiaroscuro—the dramatic contrast of light and shadow- to emphasize elements of his paintings.

So as I gaze up at “The Calling of St. Matthew” I try to take it all in and figure out what it means.  Caravaggio was an arrogant, swash-buckling artist who was quick to get into street fights and had frequent run-in’s with the law.  He eventually had to flee Rome after killing a man.  But his talent was undeniable and Caravaggio knew where the money was coming from – the Catholic Church.  To satisfy his Roman patrons, Caravaggio had to depict religious scenes, so he did it in his own way, and it worked.

In “The Calling of St. Matthew”, Caravaggio shows Jesus and Peter arriving in the tax collector’s counting house to get Levi (who later becomes Matthew).  On the right side of the painting one sees Jesus and Peter in bare feet and wearing old cloaks, clothing appropriate with their historic time period.  All the others in the painting are clearly from Caravaggio’s period (1571 -1610).

Jesus points a finger at Matthew presumably telling him “Follow me”.  Jesus’ hand is a nod to Italy’s Renaissance genius Michelangelo.  The hand copies the hand of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as he receives life from God.

God giving life to Adam in Michelangelo’s “Creation” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

It is almost as if the hand of Christ is casting the light across the room and illuminating the gloomy, earthly, crash money counters and tax collectors.

There is some question about who is Levi or Matthew.  Most art historians say it is the man with the beard who is pointing.  They say he is pointing at himself and saying “who me?”  When I look at the painting I see it differently (as have others).  I think the man who is pointing is indicating the curved, dark figure at the end of the table who has his grubby hands on the coins.  I think the bearded man is saying, “Him?  You want Him?  That greasy, money-grubbing guy?”

But I am no art historian, I am just spouting my opinion as a casual observer.

Perhaps it is because I am a mother, that my favorite figure in the painting is the boy in the middle.  He seems to me to be the spoiled rich boy caught up in the grime of the counting house and suddenly illuminated by the presence of Christ.

Close of boy in Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew”

I love his little red nose and puckered lips, the frilly blouse with velvet stripes and plume in his hat, the soft chubby fingers in contrast with the dirty, wrinkled hands of the money counter.  He is attempting to look self-assured and cocky, with his elbow resting on the shoulder of the man next to him, but his eyes show insecurity and doubt. He’s the innocent child stuck in the middle, which way will he go?

That boy reminds me of some boys in another favorite Caravaggio – “The Cardsharps”, but more on that in another post.

Work is calling and I have to zip back out into the steamy heat and head over to the office.

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Post in: Italiano

Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

9 Comments

  1. Lucie
    2012/06/30

    Thanks a lot for this wonderful story. I will look now to the paintings with a different view and also watch the details.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/01

      Thank you Lucie. I just like to give my impressions of these paintings, but I am not an art historian so I may be missing a lot.

      Reply
  2. jwthomas
    2012/06/30

    Love your forrays into art. I’m impressed with your insight. It make me study the painting (pictures of) to see what I see. Thanks a wonderful trip to another realm on a Saturday morning.

    PJ

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/01

      Thank you! Next time you’re in Rome I will take you by there myself.

      Reply
  3. Alan
    2012/06/30

    Caravaggio and Turner – my two favorite artists because of the magical, and very different ways they depict light. Brightened my day :-)

    Reply
  4. Cara
    2012/07/01

    We’re packing for Rome right now, and have noted the soaring temperatures – the weather app shows 100° F (38° C) today and 97° F (36° C) tomorrow! I laughed out loud at the colpo d’aria! A colpo d’aria could bring upon “la cervicale,” of course! I spent 10 years in Rome and never did figure out exactly what “la cervicale” is. My Italian husband swears it is the worst ailment imaginable, though. Over time I’ve seen my Italian in-laws gradually become more open to air conditioning. When we were there in the 1990s, it was avoided at all costs. Then, sometime in the early 2000s wall-mounted a/c units began showing up in people’s houses. However, it was used sparingly and if an elderly person or a baby were anywhere in sight, it was turned off. On more recent visits, we found the air turned on more often, and as long as babies were not in direct line of the air stream, all was good. Given the ‘affa’ in Rome lately, I am hoping that we’ll find an even more open attitude to a/c. If not, we’ll just drop into a lot of churches!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/03

      Cara– thank you for your comment. So you too know about the dreaded “colpo di aria” and the famous “cervicale”. Unbelievable. It is terribly hot here and as I sit writing this reply to your comment I have a fan blasting me at max speed. My Italian husband is sitting at the other end of the table working on his computer far away from the line of fire of any such dangerous instruments. I do hope you have time to drop into a cool church and see a stunning Caravaggio.

      Reply
  5. Bonnie Melielo
    2012/07/03

    Love your posts!! Had to comment on the “colpo di aria” and “cervicale”. :-) Growing up in New Jersey my nonna and mamma drilled into us – “Never sit in a draft you will get a cold in your back”. We went to school through the 3rd week of June, having to wear dresses which were frequently made of nylon. Thankfully the building was made of brick!! My mother was famous for walking out of a restaurant if the air conditioning was “too high” translate to “on”. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. My husband always comments on how bundled up the babies are in Italia when we visit. He doesn’t even bring a jacket as we always travel there in May. Our Italian friends have commented to him on this fact, but chalk it up to the fact that we are “Alaskans”. :-)
    Bonnie

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/03

      Thank you for your comment Bonnie. I really need to dedicate a post to the “colpo di aria” and the “cervicale”, and the Italian fear of air conditioners and ice cubes. I think I may need to move to Alaska just to cool down after sweating out all these summers in Rome!

      Reply

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