Arts & Entertainment

A rare chance to see works by Caravaggio, the Billy the Kid of great Italian painters

Caravaggio's "Boy with a Basket of Fruit," about 1593-94
Ministero de Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo - Galleria Borghese

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KPCC Culture Correspondent Marc Haefele reviews "Caravaggio: Masterpieces from the Galleria Borghese," at the Getty Center through Feb. 18, 2018.

He was the Billy the Kid of great Italian painters, a lethal fugitive from justice for the last 4 years of his life, creating great art and making new enemies wherever he went.

Caravaggio was born in 1572 and died under mysterious circumstances in 1610. He lived and worked variously in Milan, Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily … usually doing the geographic to escape punishment over money, murder, and/or mayhem … even as he was becoming regarded as one of Italy’s foremost artists.

Chalk portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, circa 1621.
Chalk portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, circa 1621.
Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence

Caravaggio's introduction of a precise realism and extreme contrasts of light and shadow made him one of the most influential painters of all time. Future painters, from Ribera to Rembrandt and beyond, are his artistic creditors. It’s been said that without him, modern painting could not exist.

But until now, you couldn’t see any of his pictures in California. Now you can see three on loan to the Getty Center, where they glare out from their alcove at the museum’s own 17th century collection like 100-watt bulbs in a room full of candles.

Read Marc's review of the Walton Ford show at Gagosian Gallery, which closes in 2 weeks

The masterworks at the Getty represent the beginning, middle, and end of Caravaggio’s brief career. All were loaned by Rome’s Villa Borghese and Caravaggio Research Institute with the help of the Italian fashion firm FENDI and some Getty trustees.  

And they must be seen. The first, “Boy with a Basket of Fruit,” is a seductive, youthful marvel, the fruit dripping-ripe and super-realistic. The basket boy himself is just as alluring, with his canted smile and white linen shirt drawn down from his shoulders. “Come and get it,” he says.

Next is “St. Jerome,” a mid-career painting, and in strong contrast to the "Boy with the Basket," expresses a mature contentment and peace.

Caravaggio's "Saint Jerome," about 1605-6.
Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo - Galleria Borghese

An earlier Mannerist painter might have inserted watchful angels over and around the saint. Caravaggio’s Jerome’s companions are a skull on his worktable, and his precious books, so obviously his delight. With his age-shrunken bare arms, in his faded red robe, this studious Jerome is a saint without sanctification.

There is no hint here how far from saintly grace the painter himself had fallen, as he wandered with his sword through Rome, spoiling for a fight, biting the hands that fed him right off at the wrist. And killing a man in a brawl, allegedly over a bet on a tennis game, leaving himself on the run for his last years, when he created the last work at the Getty.

Caravaggio's "David with the Head of Goliath," about 1609-1610

The last of the three, “David with the Head of Goliath,” is a feast of light and shadow, fraught, say scholars, with deeper meanings. The face of Goliath is that of a tired, defeated Caravaggio. The picture is said to be an act of contrition toward the authorities who put a price on his head. A plea for forgiveness that did not arrive before his own short life was over.