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Caravaggio (1571-1610)  
 
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Caravaggio's brand of realism was extended by his experiments with light and darkness to represent psychological drama: the moment in a card game when sharpsters cheat, the slyness of a gypsy fortune teller stealing the ring of the young man whose palm she reads, or the surprise and pain on the face of a boy being bitten by a lizard.

In The Calling of Saint Matthew, Jesus is almost obscured in the bustle of the tax gatherer's quotidian existence, suggesting how difficult it is for anyone to hear the word of God.

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The hindquarters of the horse from which the saint has fallen dominate the tableau of The Conversion of Saint Paul, forcing the viewer to make sense of the convoluted and confusing scene, even as the blinded disciple is depicted as straining to understand the immensity of what is happening to him.

The psychological realism matches the physical drama of Judith Beheading Holofernes, in which the determined crone who glowers over the straining girl's shoulder, ready to wrap the severed head in a bag, appears as much to be a hard-working, emotionally-hardened servant as an implacable, avenging Fate.

Caravaggio's Sexual Energy

Most disturbing to many of Caravaggio's viewers is the sexual, primarily homoerotic, energy that radiates from his canvases. The adolescent males whose tight musculature and radiant skin tones are so lovingly rendered in his paintings bespeak Caravaggio's fascination with the ragazzi di vita--those adolescent street boys, none of them handsome in the classical sense, who radiate a sexual energy that Caravaggio takes to be the very energy of life.

Unlike Pier Paolo Pasolini's later reworking of the type, there is nothing ominous attached to the viewer's engagement with Caravaggio's boys, who transgress--not through danger--but through unbridled sensual joy.

Victorious Amor, for example, depicts full-frontally a nude pre-pubescent boy who rises from his couch to gaze directly at the viewer, engaging him in sexual exuberance and maybe even mischief. The picture offers such a powerful homoerotic invitation that its initial owner kept it secured behind a green velvet drapery in his gallery, drawing the curtain only for select viewers.

Homoerotic celebration and homosexual tension dominate Caravaggio's religious scenes as well. In Caravaggio's several representations of St. John the Baptist in the wilderness, for example, the figure is invariably a naked, post-pubescent boy who gazes directly at the viewer, engaging him in a way that is anything but ascetic.

Similarly, the rapture depicted in The Ecstasy of Saint Francis is as much sexual as it is spiritual, the saint (to whom Caravaggio gave the features of his patron, the pleasure-loving Cardinal del Monte, a reputed ) reclining in the arms of a nearly naked teenaged male angel.

Conversely, The Sacrifice of Isaac is rendered from such an angle that the boy, forcibly bent over a stone altar by a knife-wielding patriarch and crying out in fear and pain, appears more the victim of homosexual rape than the willing victim that, as a type of the self-sacrificing Christ, he was traditionally represented as being.

Finally, in the most famous of his several variations on the theme of David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio painted his assistant and probable lover, Francesco Boneri, as David and himself as the decapitated giant, making the painting a somber meditation upon a deeply personal frustration.

Caravaggio's Sexuality

The painter's sexuality remains a contested issue in portions of Caravaggio criticism. Creighton Gilbert, for example, argues that all of the supposedly homoerotic traits of Caravaggio's paintings can be explained by inherited traditions. And biographer Helen Langdon expresses difficulty accepting the tradition that Caravaggio slept with Boneri, the servant boy who modeled for Victorious Amor, when the painter was also reputedly involved with female prostitutes.

Langdon apparently assumes that it was impossible for a man of Caravaggio's passion to be sexually involved with a woman even though primarily involved with other men, or for a man primarily attracted to pubescent and barely post-pubescent boys to bond emotionally with an intelligent courtesan. Such arguments are poorly informed about the history and psychology of sexuality.

In the absence of clear biographical evidence concerning Caravaggio's sexuality, the decisive evidence must be his work. The female body is rarely eroticized in Caravaggio's paintings, whereas the male body invariably is. Teenaged boys and young men are represented with luscious curls, vibrant skin tones, and muscular legs and buttocks; their gaze directly engages the (presumably male) viewer.

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