The masters of capturing emotions

Edition 31 January, by Benjamin Roberts

Today, gazing at Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Narcissus (ca. 1600) feels a little bit like being a peeping tom. The life-like depiction of a young man engrossed in his own image must have been just as mesmerizing to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century viewers as to contemporary ones. With innocence and tenderness, the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610) captured his model marveling at his own beauty with innocent astonishment, and consequently made Narcissus quite human. In Rome of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, Caravaggio and his contemporary, the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), were avant-garde in humanizing traditionally negative archetypes. By adding drama, bravura and emotions, they revolutionized Western art with a style that later became known as the Baroque.

To celebrate the onset of the Baroque in Rome in the early seventeenth century, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum have co-organized the exhibition ‘Caravaggio-Bernini. Baroque in Rome’. First hosted in Vienna, the show will open in Amsterdam on 14 February and run until 7 June. It features more than 70 masterpiece painting and sculptures by Caravaggio, Bernini and their contemporaries. Many works are on loan from museums around the world for this special exhibition.

One of the highlights of emotion captured into marble is Bernini’s sculpture Medusa (ca. 1638-1640). The piece, on loan from Rome’s Musei Capitolini, is a 46 cm high head of the winged female monster. With venomous snakes spewing from her headdress, Medusa, according to Greek mythology, was said to turn anyone that looked at her face into stone. But in Bernini’s Medusa there is duality. While her headdress is frightening, on the other hand she is a beautiful woman, and her face is filled with anguish and fear. She is not only afraid of her own impending death, but also fears for the death of onlookers that should accidently gaze at her. An equally compelling display of emotional distress is shown in Caravaggio’s painting Boy Bitten by a Lizard (ca. 1597-1598), where the painter catches in a split second how a boy flinches as his finger is gnawed by a lizard. The portrait is full of ambiguity. While the boy’s face expresses pain and astonishment, his appearance reveals something else. With an almost erotic hint, the bushy-haired boy with a white flower behind his ear and half naked shoulder gapes at the viewer with an open mouth and drawn-up eyebrows. The viewer finds himself equally astonished, as if he has been caught viewing an intimate moment.

14 February-7 June 2020