Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (called Battistello) was the most important Neapolitan-born painter of the first three decades of the seventeenth century and a key figure in the pan-European movement of Caravaggism. Much of what is known about his career comes from Bernardo de Dominici’s history of Neapolitan art, although recent scholarship has clarified and expanded upon that early source (B. de Dominici, Vite de’ pittori, scultori, ed architetti napoletani
, Naples, vol. 1, 1742, pp. 273–89). Although he learned his craft under Belisario Corenzio (1558–1643), who worked in the late-Mannerist style that dominated Naples in the late sixteenth century, at a young age Caracciolo probably saw Caravaggio’s work firsthand, as he may have accompanied Corenzio to Rome around 1600. Caracciolo responded quickly to the presence of Caravaggio, who worked in Naples on two occasions (1606–7 and 1609–10) and proved especially receptive to Caravaggio’s bold and direct manner, embracing the artist’s naturalism and dramatic tenebrism, with its dominant black and gray palette. His Immaculate Conception with Saints Dominic and Francis of Paola
(Santa Maria della Stella) of 1607, is a direct response to Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy
, while his Liberation of Saint Peter
in the Pio Monte della Misericordia incorporates the same helmet that appears in Caravaggio’s Denial of Saint Peter
(The Met, 1997.167
). Yet, far from making imitations of Caravaggio’s work, Caracciolo used it as a point of departure, producing novel and highly original compositions with eloquent narrative structures reflecting a sympathy with late Mannerist art. Unlike Caravaggio he painted in fresco as well as in oil on canvas and received prestigious commissions for large pictorial cycles from the leading religious establishments. Especially notable is his extensive work in the Certosa di San Martino, in Naples, carried out in day-lit, light colors (the chapels of the Assumption, 1623–26, and of S. Gennaro, ca. 1631–33). Also in San Martino is his enormous canvas of 1622 showing Christ washing the feet of the disciples—one of the masterpieces of Neapolitan painting. Caracciolo’s activity extended well beyond his native city. In the mid- and late teens he traveled to Rome, where he studied the work of Annibale Carracci in the Palazzo Farnese and met Giovanni Lanfranco. Later in his career, Caracciolo collaborated with Lanfranco on several projects in Naples. Caracciolo also visited Florence and Genoa, where, in 1618, he frescoed a casino for Marcantonio Doria, who had been a patron of Caravaggio when he was working in Naples.The Picture:
The subject, though sometimes disputed, must derive from the Gospel of Matthew (9:9): "As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, 'Follow Me.' So he arose and followed Him." The composition is divided into equal parts by the brightly lit face of a youth, who is interrupted from counting coins on a table. Christ, with the figure of a bearded Peter behind him, looks over to Saint Matthew, who holds a full money bag in his left hand, a function of his occupation as a tax collector. X-rays reveal that the gesture was originally more strongly directed to Matthew but was changed by the artist to engage the viewer in Christ’s proposition to the future apostle. The head of a hooded man, in half shadow, gazes downward behind him.
The calling of Saint Matthew became popular in the seventeenth century as a direct result of Caravaggio’s celebrated painting in the Contarelli Chapel of the French national church in Rome, San Luigi dei Francesi. However, whereas many of Caravaggio’s followers imitated the dramatic light and Christ’s unforgettably clear and direct gesture in their depictions of this scene, Caracciolo chose a very different and original path, by inventing a composition that binds the figures and the abstract architecture together to convey the narrative drama. The accordion-like bends of the fictive architecture provide a measured structure to the dramatic event that unfolds before it. The painting is a textbook example of one of the innovative formats of Italian seventeenth-century painting in which cropped figures, in three-quarter length, are framed in tight horizontal compositions. This close-up view, akin to a modern cinematic still, draws the viewer into the pictorial composition through physical proximity and a dramatic use of gesture and expression. In Caracciolo’s Calling of Saint Matthew
, the beholder is drawn into a web of glances and gestures that invites him/her to take part and participate in the narrative.Comparisons of Style and Date:
The Met’s picture is usually dated to the late 1620s. Two of Caracciolo’s paintings offer pertinent comparisons of style. Perhaps slightly earlier, the Saints Cosmas and Damian
in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, explores the same manner of lighting and modeling the figures, employing a similar use of rhetorical gesture with an analogous spatial dynamic of figures around a table. In the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne
, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, the space is "defined by the plasticity of the figures themselves." (Prohaska 2009, p. 28) The Vienna painting probably dates to the 1630s.
Stephan Wolohojian 2017