In the current climate where #metoo and #blacklivesmatter seem to be heralding real change there are some interesting debates about historic artworks; either because they represent people or events that are now seen as offensive or because the behaviour of their creators has been equally unacceptable. Consequently we have seen calls for Confederate statues to be removed or destroyed (watch out Mt Rushmore), a memorial to a conscientious objector taken down, complaints about paedophilia to the Met in NY, a Manchester gallery see-sawing over whether to display a painting of naked nymphs, a some sexually active buildings planned to neighbour the Louvre given a firm “non” in Paris. Acclaimed work by Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey is now viewed very differently, but should we be able to separate the artist from their work; or see historic events as milestones in our journey to who and where we are?
Perhaps the greatest concern with this and so many debates today is that the clamour for change is stoked by social media where arguments snowball as a result of knee jerk outrage rather than any considered judgement.
One of the largest open spaces in Rome, is the Piazza del Popolo, and though it was originally named after the poplar trees around the area in modern Italian it means People’s Square, and now that it has been pedestrianised it would be the ideal place for public gatherings, or in the current climate would that run the risk of becoming a mob? This was until the 19th century the site of public executions. Italy has recently begun to suffer from populist politics too with racial attacks in a country that has long been more tolerant than many European neighbours.
Most people who visit the Piazza notice the twin churches that flank the opening of Via del Corso, the Rameses II obelisk and Egyptian styled fountains at the heart, and the steps that lead to the house and gardens of the Villa Borghese. The city gateway at the north of the space, the Porta del Popolo is quite anonymous by comparison, but even this has more impact than the church that adjoins it. I wonder what proportion of the popolo venture through the door? They should.
There are a multitude of reasons to do so; a chapel designed by Raphael, a scattering of Bernini sculptures, and a macabre moment or two, but for this photographer there is one draw that will always overshadow the others.
The altar in the Cerasi Chapel features a work by Carracci, a promising painter of his day but it is rendered invisible by the pieces on either side by another up and comer; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s realism and use of light and shade were surely precursors for every dramatic photograph.
His work here demonstrates another aspect of his character; both works proffer a backside to his rival. This is relatively subtle in The Crucifixion of St Peter, and the saint’s legs and feet are the attention grabbers; old, dirty and anything but idealised.
Turn to the Conversion of St Paul and there’s no doubt that he’s showing the horse’s arse to his rival. So Caravaggio was irrepressibly cheeky (excuse the pun), but his disregard for authority went much further. Gambling, fighting, an illegitimate child and eventually murder featured on his charge sheet.