Caravaggio

(Not about language, but about art and sexuality.)

For the people I send cards to every day, I recently got the postcard book Hidden Love: Art and Homosexuality (Prestel Publishing, 2003), with 30 images, most old friends, among them Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (a.k.a. Amor Victorious; c. 1601-02), showing a beaming Cupid (well, a young man billed, not very convincingly, as Cupid) vanquishing the instruments of both war and peace (oh, the musical instruments!) — a surprising and delightful image. A reproduction:

The sexuality of Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi) has been the topic of piles of writing. Apparently, the record suggests that he had occasional sex with other men, though there’s no clear indication that this amounted to a preference on his part, and of course it didn’t constitute a social identity. (Meanwhile, he brawled, aggressively, and in his art cut a fine line between exalting Christian images and offending the Church.)

What’s less arguable is his appreciation of male personas and bodies; there’s a fair literature on homoeroticism in Caravaggio’s paintings, and this strikes me as right on the mark. Amor is a centerpiece.

[Long digression. I reproduce Amor here, rather than in my X blog, with some trepidation, since WordPress nixes naughty bits. But I’m hoping that it gets past the censors on the basis of its simultaneously being Great Art and depicting a child. (You can show, without sanction, Michelangelo’s scupture of David, with his penis prominently in it, and you can show anybody’s depictions of the naked Christ child and of naked cherubs.)

Yes, it’s all a bit weird. I chafed at having to move Jack Balas’s artworks to my X blog because there were penises in them. And, yes, I understand the problem that you create if you ban naughty bits unless they’re Great Art or Devoutly Christian or depictions of children: where to draw the line? When are the naughty bits actionably offensive, and when are they admirable Art?

I would, of course, prefer that bodies, male or female, be matter-of-factly visible in art of all kinds. End of digression.]

In any case, Amor strikes lots of people as homoerotic, but not in a sledgehammer way. It’s all subtextual, as we say in the academy.

So it is with several other Caravaggios, in particular his Boy With a Basket of Fruit (c. 1593) and his Bacchino Malato (a.k.a. Young Sick Bacchus — in fact, a self-portrait; c. 1593-94):

The homoeroticism of BoyBasket (as I like to think of it) was amped up by Derek Jarman in his fevered film Caravaggio:

In BoyBasket, Caravaggio’s attention seems equally on the boy and on the voluptuous basket of fruit (maybe even more on the fruit), a complexity that makes the painting especially rich. Notice that the Jarman image is centrally about the boy; he’s much hotter, more sensuous, than Caravaggio’s boy. But the basket has now become a fashion accessory, and to my mind that’s a loss. (There’s nothing wrong with flat-out sexiness — remember, I’m a fan of gay porn, an appreciator of the utilitarian sexual arts, but I’m not an aesthetic simpleton.)

[BoyBasket is, by the way, a resource for horticultural scholars, since it depicts many plant varieties from 400+ years ago in exquisite detail (right down to a plant disease). References in written works to plants (and creatures) are usually by common names, which are notoriously hard to associate with particular species and varieties. (Similarly for food names. Worse, in the domain of food there’s no neutral or “scientific” taxonomy and nomenclature to look to.) Detailed verbal descriptions, when we have them, help (especially if they provide details of smell or taste or feel), but an observant and skilled artist can give a lot more.]

4 Responses to “Caravaggio”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Arne Adolfsen on Facebook, a reference to stories about the recent exhibition in Rome of newly … uncovered police archives stuff on Caravaggio… link.

  2. Caravaggio meets Seiwert « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] up on my Caravaggio posting (which looked at Amor Vincit Omnia, Boy With a Basket of Fruit, and Bacchino Malato as instances of […]

  3. Labor omnia vincit « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] word order, in the title of Caravaggio’s Cupid painting, Amor Vincit Omnia (illustrated here); and in translations into various languages in the titles of songs, books, movies, and so […]

  4. Surrealists | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the homoeroticism of Caravaggio, see this posting. One of the Caravaggio David […]

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