‘Caravaggiomania’ in The Burlington Magazine, part II: 1903-1951

by Noti Klagka

 This blog focuses on articles published on Caravaggio in The Burlington Magazine before the 1951 Milan exhibition organized by Roberto Longhi, which transformed Caravaggio studies. As illustrated in the previous blog, during the second half of the twentieth century, the Burlington contributed much to the shaping of Caravaggio’s oeuvre by paying close attention to attribution matters. Yet, there has not been much reflection on the interpretation of his style, which had merely been perceived following Longhi’s interpretation as ‘naturalistic’. On the contrary, during the first half of the twentieth century, Burlington contributors were less focused on attribution and deeply concerned with matters of style, endeavouring to describe and interpret Caravaggio’s unique canvases.

caravaggio1The study of Caravaggio at the time was still very much a niche interest. Between 1903 and 1951, only eleven articles in the Burlington were dedicated to this artist, and most of them merely contained secondary references to the artist’s work. The only article devoted exclusively to Caravaggio was written by Hermann Voss in 1927. Voss attempted a new attribution of a female portrait to the artist (illustrated left). This unconvincing choice is indicative of the still developing situation of Caravaggio scholarship at the time.[1]

Two very interesting examples of how the artist’s style was perceived were published in the 1920s:

* Carlo Gamba’s commentary on the Seicento and Settecento exhibition in Florence was published in August 1922, this being the first article with a substantial reference to Caravaggio. [2] Caravaggio, according to Gamba, chose his models from amongst ‘the common people’, thus creating ‘naturalism’.[3] Caravaggio also ‘creates the style known as tenebroso by studying the effects of twilight and reflections in the tavern’.[4] Gamba made an effort to comprehend this ‘realistic’ – as he also called it – style in relation to Brescian artists and Lotto as well as within the context of earlier Italian artists, relating Caravaggio to Leonardo, Giorgione and Michelangelo’s work.[5]

* Two months later, Roger Fry included in his ‘Settecentismo’ [sic], [6] a libel against the immediacy and cinematic qualities of Caravaggio’s style which represented for Fry a populist type of art, deprived of effort and real artistic value. [7] ‘In fact’, claims Fry, ‘the Italian artists of the seventeenth century invented the modern popular picture, invented the view of art which culminates in the drama of the cinematograph’. [8] In a sense, Fry, by following the artist’s seventeenth century biographers, foreshadowed Longhi’s reception albeit from a negative point of view.

The most interesting interpretation, however, was published in 1940:

* This third example represents one of the most accurate perceptions of the artist’s style and was written by the Hungarian émigré art historian Frederick Antal (1887–1954) in his article ‘Reflections on Classicism and Romanticism’.[9] Antal’s language was the epitome of formalism, but his analysis illustrated the coexistence of naturalism and classicism in Caravaggio’s art without depriving it from its novelty.

Antal saw in Caravaggio the precursor of Géricault.

As he wrote, Caravaggio ‘led the style of the ‘Stanza dEliodoro’ towards a forceful, precise classicism, based on a pronounced naturalism without vagueness-even if moderate baroque elements coexist in it as in the late Raphael himself. Caravaggio laid more emphasis than Raphael on the vehemence of movements, on the variety of expressions; departed further from a centralised composition; above all, his glaring light strongly contrasting with a deep shade moulded the figures and stressed their solidity and reality, indicated clearly the spatial relations and held the composition together All these elements were used by Géricault […]. And to Gericault at this given moment probably no artist of the past was so necessary as Caravaggio with his luminous classicism and naturalism, in its own day, militantly progressive.’[10]

JEAN_LOUIS_THÉODORE_GÉRICAULT_-_La_Balsa_de_la_Medusa_(Museo_del_Louvre,_1818-19).jpgWhile Gamba was somehow vague in describing Caravaggio’s sources and Fry anticipated Longhi’s interpretation, Antal’s description was based on subtle and sophisticated observations and, crucially for this writer, did not completely disregard the classicist elements still apparent in Caravaggio’s work.

the_martyrdom_of_saint_matthew-caravaggio_c-_1599-1600There is no doubt that the writings of Longhi have contributed immensely to the recognition and appreciation of Caravaggio’s work. Longhi’s interpretation of Caravaggio focused almost exclusively on the modernity of his paintings and compared him to the nineteenth century realists, such as Courbet.

Longhi described Caravaggio’s style as ‘antimitico’,[11]senza soggetto’,[12]anti-soggetto’,[13] or his paintings as ‘tranche de vie in senso moderno’.[14] These references to modernity boosted his popularity by choosing to emphasise and praise the exact characteristics of his style that were severely criticised by his seventeenth century biographers. Thanks to Longhi, Caravaggio achieved an unprecedented level of appreciation among twentieth century viewers, also due to his newly acquired status of a revolutionary painter who acted against the artistic establishment of his time.

At the same time, the classicist elements of his work were disregarded by his post-1951 scholarship. The term ‘naturalism’ has become obligatory and synonymous to Caravaggio’s legacy. As a result, contemporary scholars often feel a justified confusion in front of his idealised genre scenes or the aesthetic brilliance of his carefully composed religious scenes, which are certainly greatly indebted to the High Renaissance painters.

NK, January 2017


[1] H. Voss, ‘An Unknown Early Work by Caravaggio’, The Burlington Magazine 51(October 1927), pp.180-187.

[2] C. Gamba, ‘The Seicento and Settecento Exhibition in Florence’, The Burlington Magazine 41 (August 1922), pp.64-75

[3] Gamba, p. 69.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gamba, p. 64.

[6] R. Fry, ‘Settecentismo’, The Burlington Magazine 41 (October 1922), pp. 158-168.

[7] See N. Klagka, ‘Sense and sensibility: Roger Fry on Caravaggio and Futurism’, The Burlington Index Blog, February 2013.

[8] Fry, p. 158.

[9] F. Antal, ‘Reflections on Classicism and Romanticism IV’, The Burlington Magazine 77 (December 1940), pp.188-192.

[10] Antal, p. 192.

[11] R. Longhi, ‘Introduction’, Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi, Exhibition catalogue, Milan, April-June 1951, Sansoni, Florence, 1951, p.xx.

[12] Longhi, p. xxi.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

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