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

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3 Interpreting works of art within and outwith biography

3.1 Three interpretative methods

If the work of art has an existence beyond that of its maker, what are the limits of interpretation? This is a huge question, and possible limits and methods of interpretation are continually being propounded within the discipline. Helen Langdon chose to set Caravaggio's art within his life, with all the associations connected to the artist's biography. This course will look at ways in which the work of art can be interpreted within and outwith references to the artist who created that work.

If David Carrier's (1991) view that paintings should not be interpreted in humanistic terms, that is, with reference to the ‘mental state of the artist’ is correct, what alternatives are there? (Bersani and Dutoit (1998) provide one alternative model in which the viewer with a Freudian conceptual schema is introduced into the equation.)

In this section then, you will consider the relative merits of three interpretative methods applied to Caravaggio's work:

  • historical/cultural context (Langdon), which relies on empirical evidence and observation from the artist's immediate contemporary vicinity;

  • style/formalism (Freedberg), which sets Caravaggio's painting in a broader visual context;

  • subject/iconography (Rudolph and Ostrow), which questions the meaning of a single artwork, according to its subject.

If the work of art has its own life beyond the narrow remit of the artist then several other methods of interpretation are available. How, for example, does Caravaggio's work relate to the art produced before and after him? Langdon writes that, ‘In the middle years of the century … art was dull, and many painters limped haltingly along in the shadow of the divine Michelangelo’ (Langdon, p. 51). It was only when the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel was unveiled and then considered that Michelangelo's ‘godlike creativity’ lost its attraction.

Michelangelo is a pivotal figure in the definitions of Renaissance art, partly due to the efforts of Vasari who idealised him. (Questioning and debating Michelangelo's status is a feature of current ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Early Modern’ studies.) Traditionally, the Renaissance period is defined as a reawakening of awareness of the significance of classical antiquity and human potential. The High Renaissance represents its culmination in figures such as Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo. But what happens after the High Renaissance?

Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Artists (1550 and 1558) on the assumption that the great Michelangelo had perfected art. According to Vasari, under the shadow of Michelangelo Italian artists rooted their art in ‘nature’ – nature perfected by the artist's intervention and study of antique models. Ernst Gombrich explains some of the implications of Michelangelo's shadow for subsequent artists:

The main historiographic pattern which classical antiquity bequeathed to the Western tradition is that of progress towards an ideal of perfection. The advantage of this pattern in giving coherence to the history of art was demonstrated by Aristotle for the story of Greek tragedy, by Cicero for the rise of oratory and, of course, by Pliny for the rise of painting and sculpture. For the late-born critic, however, the pattern had a grave drawback. It lies in the nature of this conception of the gradual unfolding of an ideal that it must come to a stop once perfection is reached. Within the pattern the subsequent story can only be one of decline – which may be bewailed in general terms but hardly chronicled as an epic of individuals each making his contribution to this dismal story. There is only one way in which a great individual or group can be introduced into this post-classical sequence: by recourse to a second historiographic pattern of even more mythical origin, the idea of rescue and restoration, the return of the golden age through some beneficent agency.

Clearly the only way to describe the history of art after Michelangelo was either in terms of decline and corruption or in terms of some new miraculous rescue … In the great new upsurge of painting in Rome a generation after Michelangelo's death, Caravaggio is cast in the role of the seducer and Carracci as the restorer of the arts to a new dignity.

(Gombrich, 1966, pp. 100–1)

‘Decline’ after renaissance has been associated with both the Mannerist and Baroque styles which label the subsequent periods (Mannerism c.1510–20 to 1600; Baroque 1600–1750). In the following extract consider how one particular author, S.J. Freedberg in his book Circa 1600 (1983), tried to define Caravaggio's role in Rome in terms of these style labels. Freedberg's book is more strictly academic than Helen Langdon's. It consists of three lectures which were presented to an academic audience in the USA in 1980. In the following extract about the St John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram) (below), now in the Capitoline Gallery in Rome, Freedberg treats Caravaggio's painting quite differently from Langdon.

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

No other image of this moment in Italian painting makes so powerful an assault upon our sensibilities as Caravaggio's St John the Baptist with a Ram … A work of his early maturity, about 1602, it stands in an extreme degree for what, in the context of the recent past as well as Caravaggio's contemporary world, was radical and inventive in his art…

The past reigning style of Mannerism offers its characteristic conception of the theme of the young Baptist in a painting by Agnolo Bronzino … Bronzino's nude [Plate 1] has a sharply defined verity of description in the parts of its anatomy; however, opposite to Caravaggio's nude, Bronzino's whole figure gives the effect not of actuality but of artifice. The very model Bronzino has chosen, to begin with, affirms his remove from ordinary reality; he is a high-bred youth, of fine and classicizing feature and, from all his evident power of body, no less fine and classicising anatomical form. Bronzino has defined that form by graphic means conjoined with the means of plastic modelling, as if he meant to recreate for us less a body of palpable flesh than the image of a sculpture… We are each moment made more aware of the operation in Bronzino's image of a complicated apparatus of intellect …

In the art of Caravaggio's great near-contemporary, Annibale Caracci, intellection and idealisation remain prime operative powers … Even when, as in a study for one of the Ignudi [Plate 2], Annibale immediately confronts the model, his notation of what he looks at, for all its texture and aliveness, is from the beginning conditioned by a measure of intellectual arranging and idealization. What we may call ‘realism’ … is a basis and a starting point in Annibale's creative process, but in his mature art it is never its main end…

Caravaggio's apprehension of the model's presence seems unimpeded in the least degree by any intervention of the intellect or by those conventions of aesthetic or of ethic that the intellect invents …

Caravaggio's process of maturing was, as we have already noticed, not only an internal one … By the century's turn Caravaggio's new way had acquired the character of an aggression against his context of contemporary art and even more against the sources in the Cinquecento past of the present's persistent habit of idealism, conspicuous, for a prime example, in the art of Annibale Caracci [Plate 3]. There are deliberate episodes, of which the Baptist is the most explicit, of aggression toward the great deities of sixteenth-century painting, Michelangelo in particular. A deliberate translation into realist prose of overt classical sources on the sacred Sistine Ceiling … [Plate 4] the Baptist is not just anti-ideal; it is a derisive irony, and in a sense a blasphemy, which intends an effect of sacrilege and shock – to which its contemporary audience would have been more susceptible than we.

(Freedberg, 1983, pp. 52–3 and 59)

Click to view Agnolo Bronzino's St John the Baptist, 1550–5, oil on wood, 120 x 92 cm. Galleria Borghese, Rome. Photo: SCALA, Florence.

Click to view Annibale Carracci's Model Study for an Ignudo of the Farnese Gallery, c.1595, pencil on paper, Louvre Paris. © RMN Photo: Gérard Blot.

Click to view Annibale Carracci's Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, 1595-1605, full fresco, Palazzo Farnese Gallery, Rome. Photo: SCALA, Florence.

Click to view Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling (detail), Ignudo (male nude on left above the Erythræan Sibyl), 1508-12, fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican. Photo: SCALA, Florence.

Freedberg clearly sets out to show how Caravaggio's art differed from that of the Mannerist painters. In terms of the pattern of rise–decline–rise suggested by Gombrich, Caravaggio had to be ‘radical’ and ‘new’. He is also confirming what Caravaggio's early biographers wrote about his so-called naturalism. They too tried to explain Caravaggio's art in relation to a larger framework of the Mannerist ‘movement’ which fits the chronology between the High Renaissance ‘perfection’ of Michelangelo and Raphael and the reflowering of the arts in the so-called Baroque age in reaction to the ambiguity of the Mannerists. Langdon considers this Mannerist context in Chapter 3, in particular on pages 51–2.

Activity 13

You can find more details about the constructions and associations of these style labels – Renaissance, High Renaissance, Mannerist (or Late Renaissance), Baroque – in the Grove Dictionary of Art online at http://www.groveart.com.

  1. Do you think Caravaggio is a High Renaissance, Mannerist or a Baroque painter?

  2. How does Langdon's use of style labels and art historical periods compare with Freedberg's? You might compare her analysis of the same picture, the Capitoline St John which comes up in several places in the book.


  1. Caravaggio clearly occupies a transitional period in art history and history. There are a number of reasons for associating Caravaggio with the Mannerists. The convention of the artist as a melancholic outsider has been identified. What evidence there is further places Caravaggio, and therefore his art, outside the norm. He ‘fits’ as the kind of outsider Gombrich identified as necessary to the post-Renaissance, post-Michelangelo rebirth of art. At the same time, features of Caravaggio's painting seem more Baroque, for their emphasis on effect as opposed to content.

  2. Langdon avoids use of style labels and instead seems to prefer historical periods. Caravaggio's work is located within the ecclesiastical and cultural phenomenon of the Counter-Reformation. Art is not separated from its historical context. Because her focus is primarily on the artist rather than on the painting, she uses the Capitoline St John as evidence to make more general points about Caravaggio, his models and literary sources for example.

John the Baptist is one of the patron saints and a national symbol of Florence so he is a popular subject for artists working in the Florentine tradition. The domination of Florentine art is one of the reasons that Freedberg can compare a painting of John the Baptist by Bronzino (see above), a Florentine, with Caravaggio's Capitoline St John, because by implication, the subject of Caravaggio's painting is given a Florentine complexion. Caravaggio never worked in Florence but if he is to be associated with the canon he must be attached somehow to the Florentine tradition (which Vasari largely constructed).

To make Caravaggio appropriate to his comparison with the Mannerist Florentine Bronzino, Freedberg focuses on the treatment of the male nude and its varying degrees of artifice – a typically Mannerist feature. He then emphasises the ‘effect of sacrilege and shock’ which Caravaggio creates by referring back to Michelangelo but which seems more like Baroque intent. Caravaggio is, nevertheless, clearly an outsider to any movement, although he can be associated with both Mannerist and Baroque style.

Both Langdon and Freedberg refer to the Capitoline St John as being St John the Baptist. Identification of this particular saint contributes to their argument: Freedberg to fit Caravaggio into the Florentine tradition, and Langdon using it to identify the patron (p. 230). Moreover, the forward momentum of biography does not allow Langdon to stop to consider paintings in much detail beyond their relevance to the artist's life.

But what if this painting were not St John at all? This leads to another way of interpreting pictures outwith biography; iconography which concentrates on the subject of the picture. In the November 2001 volume of Art History there is an article by Conrad Rudolph and Steven F. Ostrow, ‘Isaac Laughing: Caravaggio, non-traditional imagery and traditional identification’ (see plates below). You can find Art History online at the Open Libr@ry.

Click to view Colour Plate 2, Caravaggio's St John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram),1602, oil on canvas, 132 x 97 cm, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: SCALA, Florence.

Click to view Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac, c.1603, oil on canvas, 104 x 135 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Photo: SCALA, Florence.

Activity 14

Of these three very different ways of interpreting paintings – historical/cultural context (Langdon), style/formalism (Freedberg), subject/iconography (Rudolph and Ostrow) – consider why you find some more convincing than others.


Inevitably, the methods applied to the analysis of works of art depend on the objectives of the interpreter. Similarly, one method will result in different interpretations compared to any other. It is important to ask how a work of art is interpreted, and why it is so, to understand the conclusions reached.

The footnotes to Langdon's Caravaggio refer to a myriad of other debates that surround Caravaggio's paintings, who or what he was painting, for whom, when and why. (The commission and subject of the paintings for the Contarelli Chapel is a good example of this. See, for example, footnote 28 in Chapter 9, or footnote 40 in Chapter 7, and Puttfarken, 1998.) The very different priorities of Langdon's Caravaggio do not allow her to enter into most of these debates other than as extended footnotes.

Although they are very different, each of these three interpretative strategies relies on understanding Caravaggio's art in his contemporary context. Caravaggio himself is more or less present as a historical player choosing to paint how and what he did because of his patrons’ wishes, his artistic context, or the wider literary or cultural context.

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