Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Naturalism and Libertinism in Seventeenth-Century Italian Painting
by Taschian, Helen, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2013, 289; 3612041
Abstract (Summary)

The work of Caravaggio, which was recognized as revolutionary in his own time and exerted a profound influence on seventeenth century painting all over Europe, has prompted a wide range of interpretations among modern art historians. Some, emphasizing the controversy generated by his religious pictures, have seen him as a daringly irreverent artist, while others have found his unidealized "naturalistic" style fundamentally well-suited to the spirit of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Some detect a boldly overt homoeroticism in many of his pictures, while others claim not to see it at all. Some understand him to have worked in an unprecedentedly direct, almost visceral way, while others emphasize his sympathy with new directions in the sciences or the intellectual sophistication with which he played his naturalistic style against the precedents of classical and earlier Renaissance art.

Caravaggio's difficult personality has also lent itself to different readings. Some see him as a sociopath, if not a psychopath, while others see him calculatedly performing the role of social rebel in a manner that looks forward to the self-consciously dissident posturings of modern artists. Some art-historians have been led to conclude that he had highly-developed non-conformist values and tendencies that could be described as "libertine" in at least some of the varied senses in which that word was used during his time.

The aim of this dissertation is to discuss the relation of Caravaggio's work and personal example to his immediate art-historical and cultural context, but also to trace their influence on an ever-more-disparate group of artists active in the seventeenth century in order to see whether his style, sometimes characterized as "Baroque Naturalism," actually implied a set of values beyond its efficacy as an artistic strategy, whether a commitment to it implied or was understood to imply a non-conformist or libertine orientation that might be a matter of deep conviction on the part of the artist or a position felt to be appropriate to certain themes or in certain contexts.

The first chapter examines Caravaggio himself, while the second discusses three artists—Giovanni Baglione, Orazio Gentileschi, and Guido Reni—who knew him personally and responded to his work as it burst so dramatically on the scene in the very first years of the century. The third chapter discussed three artists who were active shortly afterward, whose engagement with Caravaggio testifies to a wider field of influence: Valentin de Boulogne, Domenico Fetti, and Guido Cagnacci. The final chapter sets two very different artists—Salvator Rosa and Nicolas Poussin—side by side in order to expose both the radically different responses to Caravaggio's legacy and the diverse senses in which the word "libertine" must be understood.

While the evidence does seem to suggest that at least some artists utilized Caravaggesque naturalism in order to invoke a well-defined "alternative tradition," one that was understood to imply a certain range of values, very few committed themselves to his approach strictly or for very long. Poussin rejected it emphatically. Yet Poussin, too, deliberately positioned himself on the margins of the Roman art world in order to cultivate a distinctive approach to art, one that seems to have been consciously based on deeply-held philosophical convictions. The lesson seems to be that Caravaggio's example made it possible for later artists to develop strategies with which to express their dissent from the prevailing values and practices of their time, and that even if their work did not look like his, they were indebted to him.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Williams, Robert
Commitee: Gardner, Colin, Paul, Carole, Snyder, Jon
School: University of California, Santa Barbara
Department: Art History
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 75/06(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Art history
Keywords: Baroque theory, Early modern italian art, Historiography, Renaissance theory
Publication Number: 3612041
ISBN: 9781303731976
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