Rome, Nov 18, 2009


The aim of this short text is to highlight some aspects of  the way a city communicates – a particular city – and how the passing of time and the movement through space will change the message communicated.

Does the city communicate a message or does it tell a story? A message is clear and succinct, a story is open to interpretation by the reader or listener. In this text, it tells a story in the form of a walk around the city, which is Rome and the guide is the artist Michelangelo Merisi detto il Caravaggio (1571-1610), henceforth called only Caravaggio.


Caravaggio is everywhere in Rome and in the Autumn of 2009 he is more visible than ever. He has a running mate this season, the British painter Francis Bacon (1909-1982). At the Galleria Borghese an exhibit is presented, pairing the two artists. A superficial examination of the artists’ private lives might suggest connections between the two. However, the life of Caravaggio is shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows exactly how he lived, what he said, what he wrote. There are no sketches from his hand, no notes saved. Instead the person communicated to the present is largely based on two biographies written on him after his death. The first one was written by  a contemporary competitor of Caravaggio’s, Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643), who ”ultimately sought to relativize Caravaggio’s importance to Roman painting around 1600.” (Schütze, p17). The second was written by the art critic Giovan Pietro Bellori (1613-1696) who saw Caravaggio not as part of the classicist tradition, which at the time of writing was the highest ideal, but more of an anomaly who should rather be forgotten (ibid).

The picture of Caravaggio as a rebellious, violent man, problably homosexual, a murderer, of little education and socializing mostly with criminals and prostitutes has been proven to be untrue by present day art historians (Caravaggio Bacon, p 55-57). But it is a story that has grown stronger over the years, even though it has been disproved. The paradox here is that the lie has helped to promote the artist Caravaggio. His reputation as all the things above has created a name for him in the 21t century. He is an artist for our times, even though the story told about him is not the correct one. Not only were his paintings ahead of his time, the story told about him to defame him in his own time, has helped him reach a wider audience today. The fabricated story of Caravaggio links him to Francis Bacon, who did prefer the company of society’s rejects, of small-time criminals. Also Bacon, as opposed to Caravaggio was homosexual. (Caravaggio Bacon p52-53.)

The Caravaggio Bacon exhibition is the best publicized event in Rome in November, 2009. There are posters all over town promoting it. Nothing ambiguous about this message. Go and see the exhibition, say the posters on every corner, it will be spectacular.

You have to buy your ticket in advance, or wait for uncollected tickets just before each showing. Visitors are let in in groups at certain fixed times, every other hour. You are not allowed to stay more than two hours. This time limit uses a variation of one of Robert B Cialdini’s six weapons of influence. In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini explains that there are six main ways of persuading somebody to do something. One way of reaching yes is the Scarcity principle. If we think somethink is scarce, we will automatically want it more. The use of time-limits, for example, has proven very succesful, where time is the comodity that is scarce and may soon end: Offer valid only today, or answer within five days to receive special gift… By telling the visitors they can only stay two hours, they will probably stay longer than if there was no time-limit. Subconsciously they will think they need to spend, literally spend, all of their alloted time at the exhibition, because once the two hours are over, you’re out and you can’t come back (or so it feels).

Bacon and Caravaggio dominate the gallery, but other pieces of art also call for attention and communicate with their works. Like Bernini’s statue of David, which portrays him just at the moment the stone leaves his sling to hit Goliath in the head. The look on David’s face – made in the image of the sculptor himself – shows power and determination. Not far away is Caravaggio’s painted version of the same event. He has chosen a moment after the fight, when David victorious presents Goliath’s cut-off head. David looks bewildered, hesitant, not at all sure of himself, a frame of mind quite the oposite from Bernini’s David. The head of Goliath is made in the image of Caravaggio. Bernini put his face on the victor, Caravaggio on the loser. This is a good example of Caravaggio’s way of working. Even when he was commissioned to paint certain motifs, he still found ways to make them personal. Frequently he chooses to portray the moment just after the climax of a certain situation. More on this later. And sometimes he puts himself in his paintings, always as a victim. The slain Goliath, the sickly Baccus, the impotent bystander watching the assassination of Saint Ursula.

One feature of the street life in Rome, even more prominent than the advertisments for the Bacon Caravaggio exhibition, and not bound by season, is the presence of black men trying to sell fake designer bags. They set up shop right in the street. One minute they are there, peddling their goods, the next, they are gone, scared away by the rumour of police on their way. Who are these men (and they are always men)?

In the far corner of Piazza del Popolo lies the small church Sta Maria del Popolo. Inside there are two Caravaggios, The Martyrdom of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul. Today only Martyrdom is in the church. Conversion of St Paul is on loan to the Galleria Borghese. This painting again shows Caravaggio’s tendency to find a different angle, a new slant on a well-known motif. The painting depicts the story of Saul the Jewish persecutor of Christians, being struck by the light of God,  converting him into Christianity and eventually making him Saint Paul.  Artists working with this story most often show the moment when a rod of lightning strikes Saul, but Caravaggio trusts his audience, knowing they already know the story. He shows us the moment after Saul has been struck down, when he lies blinded, almost being trampled by his startled horse.

Three black men are crossing the piazza at a brisk pace, walking in the direction of Via del Corso. They are carrying black plastic bags over their shoulders.

The epicentre of touristic attraction in Rome seems to be where Via Condotti meets Via del Corso. A beggar monk with a long beard, dressed in a coarse robe and carrying a man-sized cross stands right in the intersection with his hand out, begging for money. Off to the side some kids breakdance, hoping their busking will give them some money. Close to them are the three black men from Piazza del Popolo. Now they are trying to sell bags, mostly ladies’ handbags, Gucci fakes. People ignore all three propositions, the beggar, the buskers and the bag-sellers. But in a city the size of Rome with the great influx of tourists, there are enough kind or gullible people to make it worthwile to ask for money in the street.

Further down Via del Corso police have secured a part of the sidewalk. A black limousine is parked outside a jewellry-store. A crowd has gathered, trying to look into the shop. The man shopping for diamonds inside is non other than Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe. His wife, a notorious shopper, is not with him. She has a history of getting in trouble with the media. Mugabe has been in Rome for a three-day conference on world famine, organzied by the UN. Normally Robert Mugabe is barred from travelling in EU countries, but official UN meetings are exempted. He has been in Rome before, both for the UN meeting on famine and shopping for luxury goods and diamonds. An hour ago he was in a meeting with Ban Ki- moon, José Manuel Barroso, Pope Benedictus and other world leaders, discussing how to stop the famine spreding in Africa and other third world countries. Now he is shopping for diamonds. Clearly, Robert Mugabe does not act according to the Christian  maxim of ”Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.” His actions are doubly ironic. Not only does he let his own people starve while he leads a life in luxury, the diamonds he is buying at this moment could very well come from Zimbawian diamond mines, expropriated by Mugabe and his wife from legitimate businesses. Raw diamonds out of Zimbabwe, cut diamonds in to the Mugabe treasure chest.

They are less than one hundred meters from each other, part of the source of the problem and part of the result of the same problem. Famine plague many countries in Africa. There are no jobs to be found, in places there is hardly a working economy. The leadership has failed its people. Robert Mugabe is the best example of this failure. He liberated his country, but over the course of time power has corrupted him to the extent that he tears his own country apart for his own personal gain.

Desperate for survival and a chance to earn money, people leave the extreme poverty of their home towns of Africa and embark on a dangerous journey north. Many die on the way, on the trek across the Saharan desert, on overcrowdred boats in the Mediterranean. They rather risk their lives coming to Europe than wither away in their home countries (To Europe or Die Trying, BBC). Many end up in Europes border countries, like Italy and Greece. The only jobs they can find here are illegal, of course, like selling bags in the street for shady businesses specialising in marketing illegal brand copies.


Further down the road, just off Via del Corso, is Piazza Montecitorio. Here lies Palazzo Montecitorio,  which houses the Chamber of Deputies, a part of the Italian Parliament. In a shop-window-like window in the Palazzo, just a few steps from Via del Corso a painting of Caravaggio’s is on display. It is The Adoration of the Sheperds. It is badly deteriorated but it is being restored. The public can follow the restoration process on guided tours or from the street, through the window. The restoration will be completed for the celebrations of Caravaggio’s death, 400 years ago, in 1610. This painting speaks volumes about the ups and downs of Caravaggio’s reputation during the centuries after his demise. Immediately after his death, competitors tried to belittle his importance and artistic competence. Later his name fell into obscurity, knowledge of which paintings were actually his was lost and some paintings were destroyed or damaged through neglect. But during the twentieth century he gained in recognition and now, at the start of the twenty-first century Caravaggio’s audience has finally reached the place he occupied four hundred years ago. Now a damaged painting is put on display at the heart of power, in the center of Rome, in the middle of the house of Parliament. It is hard to think of a higher mark of respect than this.

At the Galleria Doria Pamphilj several hundred paintings are on display, in eighteen rooms. They hang closely together on the walls from floor to ceiling. It is hard to make out the individual painting, the first impression is more of a collection of guilded frames than that of an art exhibition.  But two artists are treated differently and given more space. In a chamber with room for no more than two or three people, hangs Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocenzo X. It is considered one of the masterpeices of painted portraits. It was a favourite of Francis Bacon’s and he even made his own version of it. Several versions. During his career he made at least fifty paintings of the papal portrait, one of which is included at the Caravaggio Bacon exhibition at Galleria Borghese. Although Bacon visited Rome, he never went to see this painting in person, he never stood in this alcove experiencing the power of Velazquez’s vision. (Caravaggio Bacon, p 190.) Possibly he feared that his own artistic vision would be clouded by Velazquez’s genius. Bacon preferred the postcard-version of the portrait, which he could use to create something of his own.

In one of the largest rooms in the Palazzo, the paintings are hung with more care. On one wall hang two Caravaggios, Mary Magdalene and Rest during the flight to Egypt. The light seems to be wrong, or the paintings are hung too high, because it is difficult to look at them without catching the reflexion of the light in the canvas. Still, the way these painting are hung shows the visitors that they are special, the works of Caravaggio are placed a bit higher than other paintings, closer to the sky, out of reach for mere mortals.


At the end of Via del Corso lies Palazzo Venezia. Nowadays it is best known as Mussolini’s headquarters, and the building with the balcony where he held some of his speeches. Today the Palazzo is a museum and currently, on November 18, 2009 there is an exhibition called Il Potere e la Grazia – I Santi Patroni d’Europa. This is a theme exhibition on the art history of the Patron Saints of Europe. Great care has been taken to present the paintings and artefacts as well as possible. Several paintings are on loan from other museums around the world. The exhibition tells a coherent story, structured chronologically. In comparison, the presentation of the art at Galleria Doria Pamhilj seems haphazard.

Caravaggio’s contribution is Saint John the Baptist, on loan from Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. At Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Caravaggio’s paintings took center stage and spoke to the visitors in a lone voice. Here at Palazzo Venetia, Caravaggio and his Saint John the Baptist are part of a choir that sings in harmony, conveying the story of the history of Patron Saints of Europe very efficiently.

Standing outside the church San Luigi dei Francesi – located close to Piazza Navona – presents the beholder with an unexpected art experience. The building doesn’t look itself today. It is dressed in white tarpaulins from head to toe. One expects a sign somewhere explaining this is a new installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, but that isn’t the case. The church is being renovated and the builders have erected the scaffolding and tarpaulins very artistically. Christo would have been proud.

Certain shards of information seem to hit and stick to people more than others. The works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude are known to a vast number of people,  most of whom are not that interested in art. But finding themselves outside this church they would probably also make the connection between the scaffolded church and Christo’s best-known work, the wrapping of the German Reichstag.

Inside the church there are two Caravaggios, The Calling of Saint Matthew and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. The latter is not here today, being on loan to Galleria Borghese.

In Calling, we see Matthew and his friends dressed in clothes of the 17th century, Jesus is dressed in clothes of the first century. He points towards Matthew, holding his hand the same way God holds his hand in Michelangelo’s painting at the Sistene Chapel. Jesus is 1600 years out of place. It places an idea in modern viewers, the people who are standing here today on this Wednesday in November. What if Jesus returned today? What would he look like? How would he feel? Bill Hicks made a joke once about Jesus. He said something like, ”A lot of people wear crosses. Do you think when Jesus comes back, he ever wants to see a cross? It’s kind of like going up to Jackie Onassis with a pendant with a rifle on it”.


Walking up Via Veneto, towards our starting point at Villa Borghese, our feet are tired. It has been a long day. What have the world leaders decided to do about world famine? How many Gucci bags have been sold by African guerilla sellers in the streets? How much did Robert Mugabe spend at the jewellers? How many people stayed the whole two hours at Galleria Borghese? What would Caravaggio do if he lived today?

Questions tumble over each other in the information overload that comes automatically walking and experiencing a city of Rome’s cultural density.

A large group of people are coming down Via Veneto at a quick pace. They are many, the sidewalk can’t contain them all. Pedestrians going in the opposite direction are pushed into the street. There they stand, bewildered as the cars honk at them and at least a hundred people wearing traditional white bedouin robes pass by on the sidewalk. The bedouins are surrounded by men in ordinary clothes, some with earpieces, signalling they are some sort of security personel. They are the ones doing the pushing of pedestrians.

Somewhere in the white-clad crowd is Muammar Khadaffi, Libya’s leader for the past thirty years. Formerly he was known as Colonel Khadaffi and considered a terrorist by the west, now he is a friend, especially of Italy, who have worked out an agreement regarding illegal aliens. Libya has built detaining camps in Libya and try to stop as many African migrants as possible before they reach the shores of Italy. And the ones who get caught at sea are also sent to Libya. The European problem is moved outside the EU. In exchange for this a trade agreement has been signed, making Libya and Italy close trading partners. No wonder Muammar Khadaffi and a hundred of his closest friends seem happy today on the last day of the Famine summit. They have reason to celebrate an improved relationship with Italy (To Europe or die trying, BBC 2009).


Using the city of Rome as canvas and letting the memory of Caravaggio guide the paint-brush, a big picture has been projected. In it we see how the legacy of colonialism still hurts and kills countries, people and individuals. In it we see how mutual goals in world politics create strange bedfellows. In it we also see that the artist who was nobody yesterday is turned into the proud symbol of a whole nation today. The signs we project and infuse with meaning today  will probably signal something completely different tomorrow.

Books cited

Coliva, Anna & Peppiatt, Michael (editors): Caravaggio Bacon, Federico Motta Editore, 2009.

Schültze, Sebastian: The Complete Caravaggio, Taschen, 2009

Bonus article from The Times: Khadaffi invites 500 women in Rome to inform them on Islam

3 svar till “Rome, Nov 18, 2009”

  1. Gull 6 mars, 2010 den 11:09 f m #

    Så bra, så geomtänkt, så elegant strukturerad, så mycket att tänka på, efteråt. (Jag har önskat en Caravaggiobiografi i födelsedagspresent… )

  2. Åse Innes-Ker 10 mars, 2010 den 10:13 f m #

    Excellent! Jag lägger upp den på vår LUVIT sida.


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