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A Curator on Caravaggio

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It’s hard to find anyone these days who doesn’t love Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus, on loan to the Art Institute from the National Gallery, London, until January 31, 2010. Simply put, it’s got everything you could ask for from a painting by this hot-tempered maestro: dramatic contrasts of light and dark, an unrelentingly realistic portrayal of Christ and two disciples and an inn keeper, and exaggerated foreshortening that pulls the viewer into the picture. We can also assume that its original owner, Ciriaco Mattei—a nobleman with one of the greatest art collections in papal Rome at the turn of the seventeenth century—was similarly enchanted by it, since paid a princely sum for the picture in 1601, while at the same time providing Caravaggio with a studio in his grand palazzo.

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And yet, even in his own day, Caravaggio had his share of detractors, including Giovanni Baglione, who briefly had his own “Caravaggesque” phase, as witnessed by his Ecstasy of Saint Francis from 1601, now in the Art Institute’s collection and currently hanging in the same gallery as The Supper at Emmaus. However, Baglione’s artistic homage ended abruptly around 1603, when he sued Caravaggio for libel, claiming that the defendant had penned vulgar poems defaming his art. Giovanni Pietro Bellori, in his Life of Caravaggio, published in 1672, criticized The Supper in particular for three breaches in decorum. One, the innkeeper serves Christ while wearing a hat. Two, Christ appears beardless. And three, the fruit pictured in the basket was not “in season,” considering that the scene would be taking place in spring. In fact, Caravaggio might have been pleased that his image had shocked some viewers; he was clearly pushing the boundaries of art in his day.

As a member of the curatorial team for the installation of The Supper at Emmaus here at the museum, I have even been shocked by it, but for different reasons. Although I had expected that it would look tremendous alongside our wonderful Caravaggesque pictures by Baglione (mentioned above), Cecco, and Manfredi, I was completely unprepared for the true effect it would have in Gallery 211. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I find it electrifies these selections from our international baroque collection. For this reason, it’s really gratifying to see the reactions it provokes from our visitors.

I’ll leave you with one particularly moving anecdote: on the first day it went on view to the public, we had a long line at the museum’s entrance when we opened the doors in the morning. The first in line was an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair who said that he wanted to be the first one in the gallery to see the picture because he could no longer travel, and therefore thought he’d never be able to see it again in person in his lifetime.

Christina Nielsen, Assistant Curator for Medieval Art

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.The Supper at Emmaus, 1601. The National Gallery of London, Presented by the Honorable George Vernon, 1839, NG172.

Giovanni Baglione. The Ecstasy of Saint Francis, 1601. Bequest of Suzette Morton Davidson.