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Friday 5 November 2021

A Light in the Black

Paul Weller
Some notions are difficult to express in words. As writers, we wrestle with every syllable, casting around for just the right simile to conjure up the perfect image in the mind’s-eye of the reader, much like a fly-fisherman in his contrivance to hook a wily trout. For those like myself, whose output is generally focussed on science communication to a lay audience, this is a particularly pressing problem. A single misstep in the formulation of an analogy can lead to huge difficulty later on, as the analogies we employ are the foundation of the understanding of an idea. Get this wrong, even just a little, and it can lead to huge misunderstandings.

Of course, this isn’t a problem for somebody like me, just a tiny whisper in the wind in terms of breadth of influence. However, in the hands of somebody more broadly read, it can be massively problematic, and can lead to generations of people equating entropy with disorder.

Knowledge is chaotic – sensitive to initial conditions – meaning that a tiny difference in the expression of an idea can lead to colossal differences in understanding as more and more concepts are built on the foregoing foundation. If you understand entropy as disorder, for instance, this misunderstanding can lead to rejecting well-established scientific principles later on purely on the basis that they seem to defy entropy – not helped by ideologues seizing upon this conflation for their own ends. Once entropy is properly understood as the tendency of energy gradients downwards, all these misunderstandings dissolve.

Educators know this, and must not only check understanding as they go in order to circumvent such issues, but must also use easily-replaceable concepts early on so that their use as foundation for later, more accurate concepts can be seamless, ensuring that understanding progresses in a systematic manner, carefully constructed over the course of our formative experiences.

For millennia, naked ground apes have been trying to find ways to express themselves, motivated by wishing to accurately convey information or to shape the thoughts and deeds of others, whether for purposes noble or nefarious. In natural language, we have many devices for manipulating the impact of our expressions, many of which will be perfectly familiar to most, even while possibly not recognised.

The great orators of the past recognised a large number of devices, methods of generating tension, or sadness, or any number of complex emotional states. Probably the most common is the rhetorical triplet, known to writers as the ‘rule of three’, which we can see woven through much Western literature from Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici”, through Shakespeare’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” through the US Declaration of Independence’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (among others) to Barack Obama’s inaugural address “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America”.

This is just one example of many in literature and oratory. In music, we have another dimension still, and swathes of devices we can employ, many of which are expressed in the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s brilliant Hallelujah; “it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift…”*

The elucidation of such devices has led inexorably to careful manipulations of the way that people think, and to something that seems of late to have taken on a new face: propaganda.

We think of propaganda as something fairly new but, in reality, it’s been with us always. The grand architecture of the world’s ancient cities has but this one purpose. The great cathedrals and abbeys, ostensibly constructed as monuments to god, were really a means of cowing the masses, of showing power.

There’s one form that propaganda has taken over the millennia that is, after a considerable preamble, the thing I really want to talk about here.

For much of the history of Christianity, the vast majority of its adherents were illiterate or, at best, semi-literate. Even coming into the Renaissance, most Christians couldn’t read. More importantly, the ceremonies and services they attended – along with the bible – were all in Latin, a language that was restricted to the well-educated. Of course, the effect of this is that the proles have a difficult time getting a handle on precisely what it is they’re supposed to believe.

The church had a solution, though, never fear.

Cave paintings from Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc,
circa 33,000 BCE

Much of the history of art is unwritten. We do know that humans have been doing artistic rendering for at least 35,000 years, such as the breathtaking cave paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ard├Ęche in France, and in fact evidence has been found of even earlier art from our progenitors Homo erectus in the form of shell etchings from ~500,000 years ago.

My own interest in art began about 10,000 years ago, tied directly to my areas of interest in history, in the wall etchings of Newgrange in Ireland’s Boyne Valley and other neolithic sites, carefully positioned to catch the sunrise of the Winter Solstice and demonstrating an understanding of the cyclical nature of the heavens we’re oddly surprised to find in such ‘primitive’ cultures.

More modern representations have gone through many revolutions in thought, from the flat portraits of Holbein, through da Vinci’s solution to Vitruvius’ ancient problem of proportion, all the way through Turner, easily my personal favourite artist, and on to the modern greats. However, there’s one artist who made visual representation a visceral, fleshy, real experience, and who brought about a revolution in the depiction of light. Last year, I was lucky enough to see one of his originals up close for the first time.

The tiny nation of Malta, an archipelago resembling a couple of bits of ejecta, having fallen off Sicily after being kicked by Italy, has long been a bucket-list place for me. Steeped in the history of over 5,000 years, with megalithic and neolithic sites dotted all over the islands, and claimed to be the Melita on which Paul was shipwrecked in the Acts of the Apostles, Malta has played a strategic role in many events.

Following the loss of their base at Rhodes during the Ottoman siege of 1522, Malta was granted to the Order of St John. The order ruled Malta as a vassal state of the Kingdom of Sicily from 1530 until the late 18th century, when it was briefly occupied by the French until it became a British protectorate in 1800, eventually becoming a British colony in the Treaty of Paris in 1814.

The order of St John constructed a new capital at Valletta, replacing the old capital in the walled town of Medina, including the construction of a new church, now St John’s Co-Cathedral, completed in 1577, when it became the new conventual church of the order. In 1598, construction began on a new sacristy and oratory for the church. Once this was completed in 1604, attention turned to decorating the oratory. Enter a famous exile from Rome.

Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio was a hothead. Originally training in Milan until aged 21, and then leaving in a hurry for Rome after getting into one too many arguments, one of which resulted in the wounding of a police officer, this was to form something of a pattern for the young artist.

Detail from The Incredulity of St. Thomas, circa 1600
In one story, we hear of him attacking a waiter in a Rome eatery because the waiter couldn’t immediately tell him whether the artichokes were cooked in olive oil or butter. It’s especially notable that Caravaggio earned a reputation for such behaviour precisely because it was fairly common. To stand above the norm in this manner is a good indicator that he had far greater control over his brushes than his temper. For the most part, his status and the protection of his patrons shielded him from the consequences of his fiery disposition, but this wasn’t to last.

What Caravaggio did bring to Rome with him was a gritty realism that hadn’t been seen before. Not only did he paint from life without preliminary drawings, he also composed scenes that carried with them immediacy and motion, giving the impression of capturing an event while it was occurring, and far less stylised than had been seen previously. An excellent example of this can be seen in the detail from The Incredulity of St Thomas, in which we can see Thomas’ doubt being undermined in graphic detail, with the finger buried in the wound in Jesus’ side all the way up to the knuckle.

In Death of the Virgin, we see the unvarnished truth of mortality; bloated, green-tinged,  and entirely absent the biscuit-tin platitudinousness of earlier renditions of this scene. It’s rumoured that, for his model of the dead Madonna, Caravaggio used the corpse of a prostitute that had been found in the river, though it’s more likely that it was his mistress, also a prostitute.

Detail from Death of the Virgin, 1606

In the event, the painting, commissioned for the chapel of Santa Maria della Scala by papal lawyer Laerzio Cherubini, was rejected as a tasteless breach of decorum, and a replacement was sought. Lauded as one of his greatest works by Peter Paul Rubens, it was purchased on his recommendation by the Duke of Mantua. The duke’s collection was eventually sold to Charles I, whose father James I was given an allegorical treatment by Rubens on the ceiling of the banqueting hall at Whitehall, where Charles I was eventually to meet his own demise.

There’s a famous phrase that comes to us from theatre, quite possibly influenced by Italian theatre of the same period, known as ‘breaking the fourth wall’. Traditionally, the fourth wall was the front of the stage, named because it was a wall that the audience could see through but the cast could not. Breaking the fourth wall is any instance in which the cast can see through this wall to the audience, and generally refers to when a character speaks directly to the audience. I speculate that the earliest origins of this phenomenon can possibly be traced back to the introduction of the ‘harlequin’, a mischievous character that could be seen by the audience but not the characters in the play.

Detail from the Martyrdom of St. Matthew, 1600
Caravaggio found other means of doing this, of course, not having live characters who could talk to the audience. The first of these was by including audience members in the scene, often extending the scene to make room for them. In many of his paintings, he even included himself as an onlooker. We see him here, for example, in the background of The Martyrdom of St Matthew (one of a trilogy of works on this subject, which we’ll be coming back to shortly), looking over his shoulder on the way out of the frame. There were very few instances in which Caravaggio didn’t appear in his paintings in one way or the other, either as subject or as casual observer.

Where he really made great strides in breaking the fourth wall, though, was in his use of light. In particular, he developed a technique now known as ‘tenebrism’, which involved softening the hard lines between light and dark areas, with gradients. This allowed, among other things, for the artist to draw the eye to the key areas, ensuring that the propaganda hit its mark forcefully and unambiguously. A lovely example is The Calling of St Matthew. Note the role of the light source in this painting. We see it come from a source off to the right, picking out the halo and face of Jesus, and then the hand, continuing on in a hard beam, spreading but broken by the shutter on the window, which serves to further direct the beam on down to St Matthew’s face, where the beam diffuses to the point of termination.

Detail from The Calling of St. Matthew- circa 1600

My own introduction to Caravaggio came via the brilliant Power of Art, a BBC series and accompanying book by the inimitable Simon Schama, Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University. It took me several years and a few attempts to view one up close. One attempt was on a day trip to Paris, having driven from Dieppe in the morning. We arrived at the Louvre just after last entry, and haven’t made it back since.

When we were fishing around for a place to holiday with some friends in 2016, and trying to find somewhere that none of us had visited previously, Malta came up and was rapidly determined to fit the bill, not least because we all shared an interest in neolithic history. I had my eye on a single prize, though; the co-cathedral.

Much like myself, Caravaggio had arrived here via a slightly circuitous route. While I had only to endure the lunatic traffic of France’s fair capital, his endurance was that of the consequences of his legendary lack of self-control. Having been involved in a lethal brawl in Rome with one Ranuccio Tomassoni, possibly over a gambling debt and/or a tennis game, according to some reports, and finally unable to rely on the protection of his powerful patrons, he fled the city. He went first to the Colonna family estate, then on to Naples, where he again enjoyed some measure of success under the protection and patronage of Costanza Colonna Sforza, widow of Francesco Sforza. Caravaggio’s father had held a position in Sforza’s household, so he was known to the family. He painted several notable works in Naples before moving on to Malta with the help of Costanza’s son Fabrizio, a Knight in the Order of St John. It’s thought that he saw in this an opportunity to get back into the church’s good books and possibly secure for himself a pardon for Tomassoni’s murder. Alof da Wignacourt, Grand Master of the order, happy at having such an illustrious artist as official painter, inducted him into the order. It was during this time that he painted his largest work, which still resides in the oratory of the co-cathedral today.

The co-cathedral itself is a magnificent building, and a damning statement of power and wealth, opulent in the extreme, and redolent of the cheeto-in-chief’s idea of interior design. There’s gold everywhere you look, broken only by the paintings and the statuary. As a journeyman visitor of ecclesiastic buildings the world over, I found it the kind of ostentatiousness that one rarely encounters. It was every inch the kind of idolatry that the purported focus of the place would have railed against. It almost felt hypocritical to even take any photographs, so I restricted myself to snapping some of the more interesting statuary before moving directly to the reason for my visit, the oratory.

It was very crowded, even though we’d gone out of season and chosen to visit in the middle of the week. There was a steady stream of people on approach to the oratory, with the attendant hubbub of voices reminiscent of a flock of geese or a cocktail party. Then I entered the oratory, and the world fell away.

It’s difficult to describe the feeling. Gone were the people, the noise, the planet. All there was was the scene before me, around me, in me. The fourth wall disintegrated and I became part of the scene, transfixed and frozen in time.

The painting is colossal. At 3.7 x 5.2 metres, and far and away the largest of Caravaggio’s paintings, it fills the entire far wall opposite the entrance to the oratory. Aided by subdued lighting, I was immediately transported into the painting. I’d seen prints, of course, and wandered over high-resolution images on a high-definition screen, taking in all the details, but nothing prepares you for seeing it in the flesh. And I do mean flesh!

The story behind the scene in question is one that wouldn’t have been out of place in the court of Henry VIII. Herod, King of Galilee, had imprisoned John the Baptist after John had taken him to task for divorcing his wife, Phasaelis, and marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother. At the celebration of Herod’s birthday, Herodias’ daughter, Salome, danced for him, the famous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. Herod, smashed out of his skull, was so smitten with the dance that he promised her whatever she desired as reward. After consulting with her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, a fitting fate for the suffered slight.

The Beheading of John the Baptist, 1608

Everything so far discussed comes together in this scene, which takes place in a prison yard. The tenebrism that draws you in; the realism of the characters, such as the old woman, face in hands, horrified at the scene; the other prisoners craning and straining in the barred window to catch a glimpse of what’s going on, possibly contemplating their own fates; the ribs and musculature of the executioner; the artist’s signature – the only signature on any of his known works – scrawled in the blood gushing from John’s throat; the serving-girl, platter at the ready to receive the head. No photograph, no matter the resolution, can really do it justice.

I have no idea how long I stood there. I do know that at some point I moved from the back of the room up to the barrier, but I have no memory of doing so. Eventually, I was sufficiently jostled to turn away, leaden-legged and dazed, almost failing to notice the brilliant St Jerome Writing as I left the oratory.

I moved on to the gallery upstairs, filled with masterworks from many artists of which I now have no recollection, still completely smothered by what I’d just witnessed.

As it transpired, Caravaggio’s tenure in the Order of St John was fairly brief, his temper getting him into trouble yet again, resulting in the wounding of a knight and aristocrat and his imprisonment. He managed to escape, going first to Sicily, where he stayed for some nine months, and then back to Naples. In October of 1609, he was ambushed by some men thought to be in the employ of the order, perhaps even of the knight he’d wounded in Malta. He was quite badly disfigured in the altercation, and the word on the street in Rome was that he’d been killed.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist- 1609

He continued to paint, notably a rendition of Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, with his own head on the platter. He’s also thought to have painted his David with the Head of Goliath, again with his own severed head, which may have been sent to a powerful patron in Rome, Scipioni Borghese, famously the patron of sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini and nephew of the pope, the latter being the only person with the power to grant him a pardon.

After receiving encouraging news from Rome, Caravaggio set off on a ship Northwards to secure his pardon. On the way, so the story goes, the ship he was on made a stop in Port’ Ercole. For some reason, the ship left port without him, and he raced off over land trying to catch up with it. He fell ill, and died, at the age of thirty-six.

Recent research has tried to unpick the mystery, and a likely grave has been identified containing bones with high levels of lead. Lead salts were heavily used in the paints of his era, and in fact lead poisoning may have been the root cause of his death, as well as being a factor in his characteristic violent behaviour.

It’s difficult to express how Caravaggio changed the face of art, but his influence can be seen in all that followed. He marked the end of the high Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque. Entire movements came after dedicated to particular details of what he brought to art. In the event, it’s tempting to ponder, as it always is when somebody so talented dies at such an early age, what he would have achieved.

*For the uninitiated, chords (and notes) are numbered one to eight, with one being the root chord of the key, and chords are flavoured major and minor, denoted by the third note in the scale being natural (major) or flat (minor). In the case of Cohen’s secular hymn, the lyric describes perfectly what’s happening in the music at the time, with the lyric corresponding to the chord being played.

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