Boom baby! The exhibit opens, first thing, with Caravaggio’s Salome offering you the Head of John the Baptist. The kind of in-your-face, what-are-you-going to do art that made Caravaggio popular in counter-Reform art centers all through Europe.
This work was probably painted in 1609 while Caravaggio was in Naples, hoping to receive a pardon for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni 3 years earlier. Three tightly knit figures—Salome, a servant and the executioner—all contemplate the head of John the Baptist, resting on a platter and in uncomfortable proximity of the viewer.
Caravaggio omits the oft-painted sensuality of Salome; she is a plain girl who engages you, the viewer directly, while the other two gaze at the severed head with its peaceful expression. The deed is done, Herodias’ rage is spent, the adrenaline of murder has subsided, and now the three culprits look upon what they have done to the holy prophet. Caravaggio’s signature supernatural light illuminates Salome before coming to rest on the head of the Baptist, perhaps a hint of repentance in the young girl after her capitulation to her mother’s misdeeds.
This work, probably painted for the head of the order of Malta after Caravaggio had been stripped of his membership in the order, is just the tip of the iceberg of the treasures in this masterfully curated show. There are only 60 works, all of which are well placed and in a peaceful space that allows you to savor the genius of Velasquez, Ribera, Charles Le Brun, Guido Reni and Bernini, as well as encounter geniuses who do not dominate art history books, but have beautiful works to offer. The exhibition celebrates the truly Catholic collection of the Spanish kings, dedicated to the proclamation of Truth through beauty and willing to sponsor anyone who shared this ideal.
The Caravaggio room contains a dazzling array of works – an inlaid gilt tabernacle from Florentine opificio di pietre dure, a costly container to underscore the preciousness of sacraments in the post-reformation era.
Alongside Caravaggio is a female painter, Fede Galizia, who together with Lavinia Fontana, Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi, formed part of the prestigious royal Spanish collection. Although close in age and from the same hometown as Caravaggio, Galizia’s Judith and Holofernes eschews the violence of Caravaggio to present an elegant, poised Judith more suited to courtly tastes. Federico Barocci, Counter Reform superstar, completes the room with the dazzling colors and striking immediacy of the Calling of Sts Andrew and Peter.
The next room celebrates the Bolognesi artists prized by the Spanish Royal house. King Philip IV was introduced to this great bastion of counter reformation painting through the family of Bolognese Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi. A sublime Simone Cantarini painting on alabaster recalls the influence of Annibale Carracci’s Pietà, and it is amazing to see Guido Reni’s 1621 reboot of Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul. At first glance, it seems completely different with the war horse and the bright background, but closer inspections reveals that Reni was deeply impressed by Caravaggio’s substitution of light for the figure of Christ and his representation of the internal nature of conversion.
Caravaggio’s two visits to Spanish-controlled Naples left an indelible mark on the history of Spanish art especially on one of the first faithful followers of his naturalist style, Jusepe de Ribera, who probably met Caravaggio as a 15-year-old in Rome. His works are striking, and this exhibit offers a chance to appreciate this prolific painter. From the remarkably realistic sheep in Laban and his Flock to the full-on emotion of his late ecstatic images, Ribera is riveting, especially in the tenebrous setting of the show. You can feel the intensity of Spanish devotion in his works, the land of the powerful and often bloody processions, the passion for doctrine that brought about the inquisition, the Marian devotion that kept alive the Immaculate Conception, even when the Church had hesitated. Indeed, the only thing really lacking in the show is one of the hundreds of images of the Immaculate Conception commissioned for the Spanish crown in the 17th century.
There is much, much more, but in the interest of brevity (too late!) I will note one more work in the collection. Following the itinerary of the exhibit, the visitor climbs a spiral stair and encounters a breathtakingly lovely crucified Christ by Bernini. Made of gently burnished bronze, the figure glows in the distance calling viewers to it. I remained in the doorway for a good 10 minutes, watching, and when I could drag my eyes away from the exquisites modeled figure, I noticed how long people lingered before it, came back to it, went and got friends and gathered under it. This is what great art should do.
Let yourself be amazed and bowled over by color, theater, devotion, passion and beauty in this great exhibit, and then head out for a refreshing aperitivo at Madre, the caffe/bistro/restaurant in Via IV Novembre — a delightful day for all the senses.