Caravaggio – Bernini EARLY BAROQUE IN ROME at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum

Cian Lorenzo Bernini, Medusa, Rome 1638 – 1640, Musei Capitolini, Palazzo dei Conservatori Photo by Andrea Jemolo courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

At the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, its exhibition on early Baroque in Rome recently opened. Caravaggio – Bernini; Early Baroque in Rome focuses on the start of Baroque in the eternal city. Even now, the names of Caravaggio and Bernini attract attention – and museum visitors.

Caravaggio and his paintings influenced not just contemporaries in other countries. His works influenced later generations including a group of Dutch artists now known as the Utrecht Caravaggionists, as well as important artists like Rembrandt. Bernini’s sculptures had a similar revolutionary impact and lasting effect on statues, tombs and other art.

Not that this exhibition solely contains works by Caravaggio and Bernini. It also contains paintings and sculptures by their contemporaries. All works grouped around themes; with a corridor between the main and remaining rooms in this exhibition. Unfortunately, the corridor is interpreted by many visitors as the end of this exhibition – ensuring they miss the last important themes and important works of art.

On entering, the sculpture which is this exhibition’s poster image causes visitors to stop and gaze. Here is Bernini’s Medusa, created around 1634 – 1640. Her head is already cut off, but she still seems to scream, while ringlets of “hair” still seem to move and hiss. Bernini carved the Gorgon who could turn people into stone, out of marble.

Interestingly, Caravaggio painted a similar head which is unfortunately not in this exhibition. But near Bernini’s Medusa hangs a work by Caravaggio on another Greek curse. His Narcissus dates from around 1600 and shows Narcissus, totally absorbed in looking at his reflection. His hand touches his mirrored one and soon – we know – he will lean over to kiss his reflection and drown.

Both profane works are displayed in the space dedicated to “Meraviglia & Stupore”. This is the first of the exhibition’s nine themes. The next one is “Orrore & Terribilità”. Here was a painting which surprised me. On looking at the scene showing “Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes”, it strongly reminded me of Artemissia Gentileschi? Wrong: the painting is by her father.

Artemissia Gentileschi is one of the few if not the only female artist in this exhibition – but only represented by one work. Her Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy is displayed in the second part of the exhibition. The Kunsthistorische Museum and Rijksmuseum may rapture in their catalogue “this work offers a completely original interpretation of a popular 17th-century subject”?

I was not impressed. For stunning works by Artemissia Gentileschi one likely has to travel to London between 4th of April and 26th of July 2020. There, the National Gallery offers a dedicated exhibition, containing Artemissia Gentileschi’s best and most famous works.

In fact, despite the Rijksmuseum displaying well-known works by Caravaggio and contemporaries, the paintings disapointed me. Mind, others harped about these, so you may too. But Rome, the Eternal City, of course had many rich patrons who belonged to the clergy. So here are a lot of works showing these patrons or religious scenes. In combination with Baroque, with its appeal to emotions, think suffering, saints, blood, gore. 

On the other hand, works by Bernini, Mochi, Finelli and other sculptors impress. Sure, plenty busts of cardinals, but also aristocrats as well as Greek influence. Take the buste of Richelieu and the one of Thomas Baker. One stark and rigid; the other dazzling with its marble lace and swirling hair.

Of course there are putti, mainly in the “Scherzo” rooms. But there are also statues which started as Greek ones or Roman replicas of Greek statues. The cute work “Young Satyr with Theatrical Mask of Silenus” for instance, received a new pair of legs, a left arm, pointed ears and a right hand poking through the mask by Allesandro Algardi.

But on coming on this and similar restored works, one nears the end of this exhibition. By then, French, Flemish, Dutch and other artists visiting Rome, were becoming familiar with the early Baroque. They would ensure, this important style would influence and change art in their own countries.  Kate    25th February 2020

Caravaggio – Bernini EARLY BAROQUE IN ROME runs at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum until 7th June.