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The Theatricality of Caravaggio

Like the Cathedra Petri (“Throne of Saint Peter“) by Bernini, which illuminates with opulence and glory a humble chair believed to have been used by the Prince of the Apostles, so does the light of God’s presence burst into a humble Roman tavern in Caravaggio’s “The Calling of Saint Matthew.”

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Cathedra Petri, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican, Rome (Wikipedia)

While Bernini’s light is richer and more sumptuous, Caravaggio’s is no less theatrical. We must not forget that we are in an era of the revival of theatre, long neglected in the previous centuries. One of the most interesting examples is Claudio Monteverdi’s beautiful “Orfeo.” Etymologically, the word “theatre” comes from Greek and means “to watch, to be a spectator.” Theatre has more to do with vision than with words. The action must be seen, not told. Similarly, in Caravaggio, the characters are always in action. It is true that the movements are paralysed, but only in the culminating moment of the action. Caravaggio’s work is always composed to achieve this theatrical effect and to involve the viewer. As on the stage, every object becomes a character: the coins on the table, the poor clothes of Christ and Peter, the elegant hats of Matthew’s companions, the light that guides actions and emotions. The result, as mentioned earlier, is the direct involvement of the viewer. For a person from the 17th century, looking at “The Calling of Saint Matthew” must have been like stepping into a tavern in the Rome of that time. This viewer of the past recognised in the painting Rome and its inhabitants.

Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600, Rome, San Luigi dei Francesi

The difference between this viewer and us is also this. Leaving aside the symbolic details that may escape us at first glance (for example, the presence of Peter between Christ and the figures on the left, signifying the importance of the Church’s mediation between man and God in a turbulent era like the Counter-Reformation), looking at this work, we can no longer recognise ourselves in the characters and the space. They belong to the time and space of late 16th and early 17th century Rome. Let’s use another comparison from the theatre. For us, it would be like watching a Shakespeare play as it was staged in our time: we would watch it with admiration and emotion, but we would certainly perceive the temporal distance between the Elizabethan age and ours. The mise-en-scène also serves this purpose: to always make theatre present and current. And this is precisely the role that the history of art must fulfil for the visual arts.

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