JACKI LYDEN, Host:
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Italian artist Caravaggio, believed by many art lovers to be the greatest painter of all time. Rome is hosting a major exhibition of his masterpieces. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on the original bad-boy artist.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Exhibition visitors are plunged into near-total darkness - only the canvases are lit. Claudia Palmira Acunto is admiring a young Bacchus, the god of wine.
M: I'm just marveling at the sensuality of the skin and the contrast of textures from the fruit to the wine to the fabric. It's chiaroscuro.
POGGIOLI: Art scholar Stefania Macioce points out the modernity of these works.
M: If you think of the age, 16th century, there is the same way to use the light like modern photography. It's fantastic.
POGGIOLI: Art historian Maurizio Calvesi says the artist rejected the uplifting Baroque style so dear to the church and plunged biblical narratives into the gloom and desperation of contemporary reality.
M: (Through translator) Caravaggio is the opposite of the Baroque, which glorifies wealth, luxury and the triumphant Catholic Church. He was deeply revolutionary; he brought the human aspect of God back to earth.
POGGIOLI: Visitor Cinzia Margotti is enthralled.
M: (Through translator) The church couldn't possibly like a Madonna like this one. Just look at her. She's real and beautiful but too free for the 16th century church.
POGGIOLI: Francine Prose, author of a book about Caravaggio, says his paintings reflected the violence of the times.
M: You know, beheadings were a kind of daily fact of life in Rome. For example, if you look at paintings of his, such as Judith and Holofernes or the Beheading of John the Baptist, which is in Malta, they are paintings of executions. His crucifixions, the deaths of the saints are executions, so he lived at a very violent time.
POGGIOLI: He too led a violent life. All that's known about him comes through judicial records of his many scuffles with the law. Sentenced to death in 1606 for murdering a man, he fled Rome.
T: to Naples, to Malta, to Sicily and back to Naples. His works got darker and more dramatic. He believed papal hit men were on his heels. He painted David with the head of Goliath, a delicate young man holds a severed head - Caravaggio's own self-portrait, a tormented mask of agony and horror.
POGGIOLI: He was pardoned, and he headed back to Rome. As one of his biographers wrote: bad luck did not abandon him.
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POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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