Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio arrived in Naples in 1606 on the run having killed a young man in a brawl in Rome. His fame and radicalism as an artist preceded him and he was quickly commissioned by a group of young, charity-minded noblemen for work at the Pio Monte della Misericordia church in the Centro Storico. The local worthies originally wanted a depiction of the Seven Works of Mercy — seven different acts of kindness from the Gospel of Matthew — on seven separate panels around the church. What they got was a single composition unlike any other painted before: a deeply religious painting embedded in a grim Naples alley scene, the combined figures emerging from the darkness.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654) was the daughter of a painter, a close friend of Caravaggio. At the age of 18 she was raped by a painter associate of her father and, after a notorious trial, this experience unsurprisingly influenced her own work.
In the same year as the end of her rapist’s trial she started work on the picture Judith and Holofernes. On face value, it shows Judith, a rich widow, decapitating the drunk Assyrian general Holofernes with the assistance of her maid. Caravaggio had painted the same scene before Artemisia and you can see his influence, especially in the harsh light, the facial features and the frozen movement.
But look closely at this shocking painting.
As Napoli UnPlugged explains, seven young male and female actors bring 21 pictures of the Master alive through the use of their bodies, some fabric and a few household objects. Set to music, a single beam recreates Merisi’s mastery of light and dark with the actors freezing their movement at a single moment as if in a picture frame.
If it sounds a bit arty, when we saw this back in February we were struck by the combination of awesome location, the simplicity of the idea and the skill with which it is executed by the young cast.
If you miss this weekend, the show will be back in June.
Photo: Young Sick Bacchus (one of the tableaux).