Todd Olson; Caravaggio\'s Pitiful Relics
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Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio; Contemporary Art, Preposterous History, (Chicago: 2001).
Todd P. Olson, 'Pitiful Relics : Caravaggio's Martyrdom of St. Matthew', Representations, Vol. 77, No.1 (Winter 2002), pp. 107-142.
Todd P. Olson, 'Forensic Medicine in Giulio Mancini's Art Criticism', Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, (2005), pp.83-98.
Todd P. Olson, Caravaggio's Pitiful Relics, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2014, 260 pages, hardback, ISBN: 9780300190137, $65.00
What more could there possibly be to say about the artist known as 'Caravaggio'? Art history's love affair with the artist since the middle of the twentieth century has generated an inundation of scholarship and commentary, not all of it written by art historians. This has ranged from sensationalist interpretations based on biographical speculation, to psychoanalytic readings of decapitation and castration and postmodern academic manoeuvres. While the diverse methodologies that have been enlisted to interpret Caravaggio's work have yielded productive insights, the lament has been that there has been too much of too little quality. For example, much criticism has perpetuated a mythologizing construction of Caravaggio, framing the artist as something of an 'enfant terribile' of early modern painting. Others have rested heavily on reading his work through binaries of 'sacred' and 'profane', or 'idealism' and 'naturalism'. These categories have been problematic in so far as they have overdetermined Caravaggio's work as the expression of the visual politics of the Counter-Reformation and or stylistic binaries used to categorise painting in Rome around 1600.
But it seems that the conversation between art history and Caravaggio is far from over. Todd Olson's long awaited monograph from Yale University Press has arrived in another flurry of published scholarship on the artist, alongside the critical anthology Caravaggio Reflections and Refractions edited by Lorenzo Pericolo and David M. Stone, also released in autumn 2014.
Olson, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California Berkeley is author of Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism and the Politics of Style (Yale University Press, 2002), and is familiar for introducing new perspectives to the field of Caravaggio studies; for example by framing the artist's work within the contextual material practices of archaeology and medical anatomy of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. His approach in Caravaggio's Pitiful Relics reflects a continuation of both this interest and the scholarly turn that has brought renewed focus to issues of materiality in art history and across the humanities. Olson posits Caravaggio's immediate environment - Rome c. 1600 - as a symbolic and material site, characterised by dirt, bones, blood-smeared relics, cadavers, and dilapidated ruins. It is from this environment of decaying matter that the book takes its title; 'pitiful living relics' being the name given to the downtrodden and abject bodies of the faithful who littered the city of Rome.
Central to Olson's argument is a notion of the 'contiguity' of material relations between the subject matter and actual physical matter of Caravaggio's images, and the material culture in which they were produced. A key strategy of the book's argument is the employment of theoretical literary models such as 'metonymy' and 'synecdoche' to convey what Olson defines as 'contiguity'. He justifies this approach as a means of putting pressure on the habitual use of the term metaphor, which relies on analogy between two things.
In such, Olson highlights how the contiguity between blood and paint, or between painted ground and the corpse, is negotiated through Caravaggio's paintings, at a moment when the materiality of objects and images themselves were under renegotiation in the wake of iconoclasm and the renewed insistence on the material culture of relics. In part this perhaps draws on Mieke Bal's semiotic analysis of the indexicality of blood and paint and how it conditions the act of seeing, but Olson's argument is both a timely and convincing detour from standard interpretations of Caravaggio's attentiveness to the materiality of the lowly and unidealised (dirty feet, rotting fruit, torn fabric) as a fulfilment of the aims of post-Tridentine image making and the artist's perceived commitment to cultures of pauperism and humility.
The first chapter, 'Cozenage', explores Caravaggio's early paintings of the 1590s in Rome such as the Cardsharps and Fortuneteller, and their appeal to patrons and collectors such as the Cardinal del Monte. Olson offers a re-reading of these works within a discourse of anxiety around the transgressive social archetypes that inhabit Caravaggio's 'genre' scenes such as the 'zingara'. Here he draws on the familiar ground of the Bakhtinian politics of the carnival, and how marginalised groups were received with a degree of illicit thrill as well as prompting fear over their contaminating potential.
The second chapter; 'Martyrdom', is an extension of Olson's 2002 article that broke new ground in its revisionist scholarship. Here he literally looks beneath the surface of Caravaggio's Martyrdom of St. Matthew, an image known for its violation of traditional Albertian models of istoria painting. Olson sees this as contiguous with other flashpoints of violation in early modern visual culture such as the martyred body that was a familiar subject for Counter-Reformation painting, or its inimical other violation, which was the Protestant destruction of materiality of Catholic images and material culture.
The third chapter, 'Defamation' focuses productively on how Caravaggio's notoriety was a socially constituted discourse in an honour society, and the issue of how material objects of paintings and drawings participated in this system. Olson particularly emphasises the role of Baglione's criticism in the building of Caravaggio's reputation. Olson also turns his critical lens to Giulio Mancini, another of Caravaggio's critics from whose works much interpretation has been unproblematically extracted, for example Mancini's role in perpetuating the here-say that the model for the Virgin in the controversial altarpiece 'Death of the Virgin' was modelled on a drowned prostitute from Rome's red-light district. This forms the basis of the appropriately entitled fourth chapter 'Corruption', and concluding chapter 'Fallout'. Here Olson returns to a close reading of Mancini's commentary on the painting of the cadaverous Virgin to suggest that the critic's involvement with forensic anatomy as a coroner at Santo Spirito, and subsequent familiarity with the sorts of marginalised bodies that were opened up in the pursuit of anatomical knowledge influenced his highly subjective reception of the painting. Some of this is familiar research territory for the author, but vitally new is his framing of the reception of the dead Virgin altarpiece amid the aesthetics of other virginal bodies in visual and material culture in Rome in the years around 1600, for example the disinterment of St. Cecilia, and the arrival of the relic of Teresa of Avila. Through this focus Olson draws parallels between the paradigmatic similarities in the treatment of pathological matter of dissected bodies with those 'processi' that determined the status of saintly bodies and their relic remains. It is now almost impossible to see the rejected 'Death of the Virgin' outside of this context of anatomical knowledge, and perhaps surprising that Olson has not made more of the visual contiguity between this painting and other visionings of anatomical medicine that have occupied scholars of the early modern period for some time.
Olson's book draws as much on researched historical material as it does on postmodern theories of the image, and it is for this that his more ambitious arguments are steadfastly anchored. The pages of Caravaggio's Pitiful Relics are highlighted with flashes of drama and poetry, with chapters often summed up through virtuoso conceits of writing and imagery. In this Olson may teeter close to being seduced by the dark arts of Caravaggio's mythology, but his study is based firmly in the world of matter, and it does little to detract from a thrilling piece of scholarship which deserves to reset and reappraise the reception of an overly canonised artist for both a scholarly and general readership.