Friday, June 3, 2016

The mysterious power of Caravaggio

Caravaggio: the Martyrdom of St. Ursula (ca. 1610).

I have a curious story to tell about this painting by Caravaggio. A few years ago, I was in Naples for a meeting on waste management. I was taking a walk in town and I stumbled into the announcement of a special exhibition of a newly discovered Caravaggio painting. I went inside, and there it was: the martyrdom of St. Ursula, seen in public perhaps for the first time after that Caravaggio had painted it, probably just before his death, in 1610.

At that time, I was already a Caravaggio lover, not yet a Caravaggio addict, as I am now. But seeing that painting was a big step forward in that direction. And you never know what effects Caravaggio can have on you; really, it is stuff so powerful that it can shock you, or make you weep, or maybe it can push you through a multi-dimensional gate that takes you directly to the planet Tralfamadore.

What happened to me on that occasion was not as spectacular as taking me to a remote planet, but weird nevertheless. That afternoon, I took a train to Rome where I had been invited to give a talk at the convention of the Italian Radical Party. I duly spoke to the audience and, afterward, the speakers were invited for dinner, together with some politicians. We sat at a large, round table and I found myself seated near an old lady. We chatted a little and the conversation moved to Caravaggio and to the painting I had seen just that morning. It turned out that the old lady, too, was a Caravaggio lover: we are a community of addicts. She was very interested in this recently re-discovered painting; the martyrdom of St. Ursula.

In the meantime, the conversation had been going on at the table, with people engaged in some deep political discussion about I don't remember what. At some point, someone turned to me and asked me: "but, Ugo, what's your opinion?" and then he asked me what I thought of some current political event. I turned in his direction and I said, "I don't know; we were discussing the martyrdom of St. Ursula."

There was a moment of silence at the table with people looking at me, frozen. Then, they shook their heads and they restarted their political discussion, probably denying to themselves that they had heard what I had said.

I have never been invited again to another political convention; I don't know if it is because of this story, probably not. Anyway, it shows how the mysterious power of Caravaggio can appear in many forms.

About the painting itself, the martyrdom of St. Ursula, I will write another post. 

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