Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’
Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

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2.6 Caravaggio's sexuality

‘Caravaggio studies’ often provide good, and sometimes extreme, examples of the ways in which an artist's identity can be bound up in his work and vice versa. In the case of Caravaggio it is difficult to avoid assumptions about his sexual orientation in any modern study of his art. Bold statements sometimes presume that this is a resolved issue: he was, for example, ‘The one major painter of the late Cinquecento whose sexuality is otherwise freely expressed in his oevre’ (Saslow, 1986, p. 200). But what has consideration of Caravaggio's sexuality got to do with the interpretation of his paintings?

John Gash, in his review of Langdon's Caravaggio for the Burlington Magazine, noted that the book avoids entering into discussions of the artist's sexuality even though this has long been an element of his artistic personality.

… Langdon's strong resistance to any hint of homosexuality in Caravaggio's make-up is puzzling, for the early written tradition to that effect seems congruent with the evidence of some of the pictures. In the final analysis, what one misses in this biography is any attempt to plumb the recesses of Caravaggio's psyche and to build on the earlier psychoanalytical speculations of Rottgen and Hibbard – a difficult task admittedly, and one made more difficult within the narrative framework. But this is more than compensated for by the author's brilliant reconstruction of the many domains (material, cultural, and intellectual) of the world with which Caravaggio interacted, providing us with a rich and readily accessible array of information from which to make connections and draw our own conclusions.

(Gash, 2000, p. 310)

Alan Jenkins, reviewing the book for the Times Literary Supplement, makes similar observations about what he refers to as Langdon's ‘innocence’:

Her discussions of the pictures are sober and hugely informed, and her book is very fully and beautifully illustrated. But we miss the fine grain of Caravaggio's life and comings and goings, the blood and bone and sinew […] Langdon errs on the side of innocence. She places far too much trust in those variously unreliable witnesses, his first biographers, and seems primly determined to ignore the homoerotic or pederastic charge even of those pictures in which it is pre-eminent, and to deny Caravaggio himself his vulnerability to erotic entrancement by young boys.

(Jenkins, 1999, p. 14)

Gash identified Langdon's ‘narrative framework’ as a constraint to the consideration of Caravaggio's psyche. A close reading of part of Langdon's book will consider her approach to this difficult issue. Chapters 6 and 8 of Langdon's Caravaggio focus on some of the most problematic issues and images of Caravaggio's oeuvre.

Activity 10

In the conclusion to his book, Howard Hibbard suggests that Caravaggio's art is a product of his own idiosyncrasies. Thus, for example, he views the Victorious Cupid (Langdon Plate 16 – see the Web Gallery of Art at http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/c/caravagg/04/index.html) as ‘a preadolescent boy triumphing over the learned arts and sciences of Giustiniani and his kind, posing naughtily and exhibiting himself … a pagan, heterosexual symbol that has become a cliché into a boy of the streets and an object of pederastic interest’ (Hibbard, 1983, p. 157).

  1. How does Langdon account for these ‘idiosyncrasies’? Can you explain why she reaches the conclusion she does? (You will find Chapters 6 and 8 of Caravaggio most useful here.)

  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of her empirical methodology in this context?


Langdon dismisses more recent assumptions that the pictures in these chapters betray Caravaggio's sexual orientation as the kind of ‘colourful anecdote enjoyed by tourists’ (p. 220). She cannot allow for Caravaggio's homosexuality because her empirical method will not allow her to. For Caravaggio to be homosexual she would require evidence of the fact or act itself – of Caravaggio's homosexual behaviour. Evidence implicit in his art of a possible homosexual perspective, such that ‘queer theory’ today posits, is not sufficient for her method.

Langdon is not alone. Creighton E. Gilbert in his book, Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals, similarly picks piece by piece through the evidence contemporary with his practice. He concludes that, ‘we cannot be certain what the artist's personal sexual interests were, and it is also possible that, as a brilliant figure painter, he might have created imagery separate from his personal life’ (Gilbert, 1995, p. 191).

Caravaggio's Secrets (Bersani and Dutoit, 1998) includes an interpretation of the Capitoline St John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram) (see Colour Plate 2 below). Bersani and Dutoit's reading of a Caravaggio painting is very different from Langdon's historical, literary and artistic contextualisation. They call upon the audience/viewer to bring to bear a Freudian psychoanalytic schema in the interpretation of the painting.

Nudity here signifies very differently from the sense it projects in Victorious Cupid [Langdon Plate 16]. There the frontal pose, the well-lighted genitals, the centered pelvis, and the suggestive glimpse of Cupid's buttocks all encourage us to sexualize the gaze; the sexual nature of the message is confirmed by the prominence of the emblems of sexuality. In St John the Baptist with a Ram, the sexual nature of the enigmatic gaze is problematised by the comparative insignificance, pictorially speaking, of these same emblems. The only dead part of the painting is the youth's genitals and the shaded area of his body just above his genitals. Even the boy's spread legs have to be read less as an erotic provocation than as merely one in a series of fanlike structures opening outward, away from the youth's body. Three of these structures could also be read on a single vertical line, from the plant to the legs to the horns, a movement in which the most explicitly sexual element of the picture becomes a minor episode on the way.

And yet the provocative address, with the suggestion of a secret (what do the youth's smile and gaze mean or intend?), has by no means disappeared. The persistence of the enigma, and the shift in its sense, are both nicely figured in the ram's horns. Inwardly, they confine space and point to the youth's face, thus confirming his gaze and smile as the painting's narrative center. But in the outward spread, the horns de-narrativise the picture, extending the youth away from himself, connecting him, as the other fanlike structures do, to a realm of being he can't contain, where there are no borders or figures, no beginning or end. This, then, is the youth's secret, one not of interiority but rather of infinite extensibility, a secret of unrepresented and unrepresentable, ontological affinities. The fact that the smile, the look, and the pose that designate that secret continue to be identifiable as erotically provocative does, however, suggest the sublimation or the erotic signifier may be an eroticised re-experiencing of it. In psychoanalytic terms, the renewed research into the trauma of an enigmatic sexuality dissipates the hidden sexual content of the trauma while reasserting its sexual energy. Painting makes visible the sensual grounds of a metaphysical fantasy.

(Bersani and Dutoit, 1998, pp. 81–2)

Activity 11

Click to open Colour Plate 2 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   showing Caravaggio's St John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram),1602, oil on canvas, 132 x 97 cm, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: SCALA, Florence.

In what ways does Bersani and Dutoit's interpretation of Caravaggio's St John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram) differ from Helen Langdon's interpretation of Victorious Cupid (pp. 213–21)? What assumptions lie behind these different sorts of interpretation?


According to Bersani and Dutoit, it is not Caravaggio but his painting that is eroticised. This points up a problem for the Freudian interpretation: is the psychoanalysis of the work a substitute for the analysis of the artist? If it is then it requires a leap of faith to associate the contents of the artist's unconscious with the contents of the work. If it is not, then the legitimacy of psychoanalysing an inanimate object rather than a mind becomes an issue. However, by adding a third element into the interpretation of a work of art – the viewer – meaning becomes part of a dialogue, not between the artist and his art but between the artwork and the viewer. For Langdon even Symonds's 1649–50 notes are not a reliable source – they are no more than a ‘colourful anecdote’ (p. 220), though she accepts wholesale parts of other, later, ‘Lives’. The empirical evidence seems to be her main concern here. The reception of the painting beyond the artist's lifetime and immediate context is not relevant in this biographical context. But Langdon does provide an interpretation that calls on classical and Renaissance literature. It is a very high-minded interpretation, as against Bersani and Dutoit's more ‘get down and dirty’ interpretation. Where they see eroticisation and expression of sexuality, Langdon sees a mockery of man's highest aspirations while still recognizing the ‘disturbingly provocative’ (p. 213) nature of the work: Cupid ‘displays himself on the rumpled sheets of the bedroom, and both pose and expression are provocative, enticing… With one hand behind his back, he points suggestively to his buttocks, while displaying the softness of his thighs, and the V between his legs, to the spectator’ (p. 215). Her language at least recognises the erotic nature of the work.

Perhaps Caravaggio was homosexual. Perhaps modern readings of his art are better able to explore this difficult area of his work because modern art historians are better equipped with Freudian and psychoanalytic understanding of the development of human identity. Or perhaps modern interpretations are not better but only different because writing about art has as much of a history as art itself. Perhaps the main issue being explored in the problematic issue of Caravaggio's sexuality is not so much to do with the historical artist but how the modern world explores its own identity by imposing its priorities or dilemmas on the past. The increased popularity of Caravaggio's painting in recent years is undoubtedly due to interest in human sexuality, homosexuality, and gay culture and politics. As a result, contemporary interpretations of Caravaggio's art seem remarkably complex in comparison to older, more conventional ones. Langdon's interpretation seems very convincing and straightforward in this context. Because she insists on finding empirical evidence for her analysis of artworks, rooted in ‘contemporary’ sources, she cannot permit – or she avoids – a ‘queer’ reading of his pictures. The main point here is that it is easy to confuse the reclamation or reinterpretation of paintings by Caravaggio with the recovery of Caravaggio himself.

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