I remember dawn breaking behind the ancient walls of Rome when I finally entered the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. That day I had been walking for hours in a frantic search for as many Caravaggios as I could get my eyes on. My mission had proven to be quite successful, starting at the Villa Borghese, my first encounter with the works of Michelangelo Merisi had been even more striking than I had anticipated.
This was my final stop. As with most memories and dreams, the actual architecture of the building is now a chaotic maze of pillars and golden baroque adornments that spin shapeless in my mind, one thing is for sure, it was a beautiful place. There is an added weight to Roman stone, perhaps its millenarian history or the infamy behind every great character. Inside, the smell was that of any other church, musk and dust riding the obligatory vacuum of vast areas of adoration. The visitors, unlike in the Vatican or most ruin sites, were scarce and silent. Vowing down a bit, I moved down the left hall searching for the Contarelli Chapel. The area was very small and as dark as Caravaggio's backgrounds. I stood in front of it as though I was looking into an infinite abyss. As my eyes adjusted to darkness, I noticed or perhaps I should say felt a series of ghosts pasted on each wall, quietly witnessing the stillness of their own immortality.
There were about five people standing next to me, all tourists, all staring into the dark chapel, which was inaccessible to its grounds but wide open to the viewers. My hand dived into my pocked and I pulled out a now discontinued Italian coin. Looking back, the entire scene could have worked as a performance due to the nature of everyone's state of hypnosis. Were these people trying to obtain the true feel of Caravaggio or were they just too cheap to pay for a few minutes of light? Quietly I glided towards the coin machine that temporarily turns the lights on in Italian churches and deposited my coin.
The sudden burst of light froze halfway to the back wall as I experienced the closest thing to the Stendahl syndrome. To my left within the high sealing chapel: The Calling of St. Matthew, on the center his inspiration and to the right, as a culmination of events, The Martyrdom.
Rome, last days of the 16th. century. Cardenal Matteu Contreil has long passed away. Despite having left funds for the decoration of the Contarelli chapel, little has been done to it other than an over decorated dome fresco by Cavalier D'Arpino. Soon a commemorative visit from France will visit the church, embarrassment is assured. D'Arpino, who at one time employed Caravaggio, is really not available, he is too busy doing other commissions. Cardenal Francesco del Monte steps in to promote his protegee, a troublesome young artist by the name of Michelangelo Merisi. He is from the Town of Caravaggio and has been staying at Del Monte's private villa, working on several commissions for him and his friends. Del Monte has pulled enough strings to get Caravaggio the job, it will be finished by the year 1600...
The Calling. Christ has just summoned a man named Matthew to follow him and so he does. We find ourselves staring inside in a large room with a table were five men are busy counting money. Christ's hand reaches out from the shadows and points to Matthew, a tax collector. Besides a masterful technique, Caravaggio's genius lies in his daring of breaking the traditional laws of painting; his models are everyday people, friends and lovers; he has gotten rid of unnecessary over decoration and has assumed that those who followed Christ were poor and therefor the soles of their feet would be dirty and their garments torn. The common beggar and the prostitute are invited to take place in his work; true to life, true to biblical tales. This doesn't resonate well with the church but who could deny his gift.
The action is frozen, the man has been summoned, surprise and disbelief pours out of the clash of two worlds; those enamored with earthly things and those bound for a spiritual journey that will end up in tears.
Another coin for more light...
At the center of the chapel, a man in orange garments looks up over his left shoulder. Suspended in mid air, right above, an angel descends upon him, unfolding from a white garment that in this sea of shadows resembles a large white flower; a towering whirlpool of white cloth. Though we can't hear the angel speak, we can tell he keeps count of ideas and the message like any other human, with his hands and fingers. Matthew is so convinced of what the angel says, he doesn't even notice his stool is about to fall from the painting! A little joke Caravaggio plays on all of us. A stool suspended in eternal fall, the instant retained.
I have given yet another coin from my hard earned money to a small country that owns the largest collection of art in human history. To my right the Martyrdom hangs in full blown drama. A light smashes in from an invisible source and shapes the muscles of an angry young man holding a sword. The scorso of his right arm and the tension on his left suggest an imminent burst of violence, a measurement of distance before the fatal blow. Bellow him and restrained by the young swordsman's hand, Matthew lays helpless, his journey has taken him to that instant, his sacrifice will be rewarded with a final taste of blood and pain before he is dragged into the abyss that beckons from the pit bellow. Some onlookers are shocked as shocked are all humans when confronted with unexpected violence. Others watch silent, almost to the point of distraction, perhaps disbelief or simply apathy. A man impressed by the sight raises his hands, tormented by the ghastly scene. Giovanni Batista, Caravaggio's friend and model screams a silent scream as he turns away. And the others, those who sat at the table with Matthew, why do the flee the scene? One of them in particular, the one at the far left, the coward Caravaggio, a fleeing self portrait, what is he truly running from? Religion, violence, faith, his own crimes? We will never know. An angel desperately tries to help Matthew, he is not the same angel as the Inspiration, this one is of a lesser kind, a small worker of a mostly cruel god. I doubt the hand will reach salvation, the sword with all its might will slash into Matthew, like a comic book, we reach the end of our story, no more coins for the box, lights out, an annoying parishioner tells me it's time for Romans to take over the church and I must leave.
I exit into the city's darkness, fleeing the violent scene as Caravaggio did 410 years ago in that very place.