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The Baroque Underworld: Vice and Destitution in Rome

Muse du Petit Palais


Muse des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
Avenue Winston Churchill, Paris
February 24th - May 24th, 2015

Wine and drunken excess is omnipresent, along with its accompanying decadent
behavior: insult, turbulence, transgression, sacrilege and provocation. But just how
clear a picture of louche inebriation can black paint? That is a reoccurring query at The
Baroque Underworld: Vice and Destitution in Rome, a strikingly bawdy exhibition of
dark Baroque sleaze.
Curated by Francesca Cappelletti, Annick Lemoine and Christophe Leribault it focuses
on the worldly wayward school of post-Caravaggio chiaroscuro painters, along with
indelicate works by the Bamboccianti. It is an exhibition of seventy mostly black
paintings, created in Rome in the first half of the seventeenth century, that make
besotted use of dramatic lighting. Aptly enough, to further heighten the drama and
sensuality of the work, the paintings are set within Pier Luigi Pizzis lush but languid
operatic-like scenography, some of it based on the engraver Giovanni Battista Faldas
views of Rome.
The paintings evoke the ferocity of the Roman underworld with its sexual brashness,
violence, obscene gestures, mockery, gambling dens, drinkers and whores in
dispositions with the cool splendor of the papal palace. French artists who worshiped at
this altar of Caravaggio included Valentin de Boulogne, Simon Vouet, Nicolas
Tournier, and Claude Lorrain. Artists from Northern Europe included Pieter Van Laer,
Gerrit van Honthorst, and Jan Miel; and from the South, Bartolomeo Manfredi,
Lanfranco, Salvator Rosa and Jusepe de Ribera.

But the visitor is first greeted with a tour de force: truncated marble male genitalia
situated at eye level. Wham! Vino veritas! It seems to be relaxing between the spayed
legs of a robust naked male marble statue known as the Barberini Faun (or more
descriptively known as the Drunken Satyr) dug up in an archaeological excavation in
1628 and once in the collection of the Pope.

Barberini Faun from the Glyptothek, Munich (photo from Wikipedia)

One then turns left for a dose of dark Dionysus in a gallery called The breath of Bacchus
where I discovered a tender little drawing depicting a nymph and a satyr sleeping off
their excesses. Then encountered are three very black chiaroscuro paintings about the
pagan god Bacchus, Romes version of Dionysus, god of fertility, nature, abundance, joy

and wine. These included the accomplished Bartolomeo Manfredis Bacchus and
Drinker (1622). Qualities of both blackness and light (headedness) literally (and
metaphorically) pervade this work.

Bartolomeo Manfredi, Bacchus and Drinker (1621) Oil on canvas, 132 x 96 cm Rome, Galleria Nazionale di Arte
Antica in Palazzo Barberini Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per
il Pollo Museale della citt di Roma

Yet I quickly sensed a psychic strain in myself. On one hand, Bacchus signifies joyful
generative sunny warmth and light-footed frolicking, and on the other, the gloomy
Caravaggioesque blackness that surrounds these figures exudes a potent obstinate aura of
paradoxical invisibility. These black or dark shadow zones of intermediacy I associate
with night and with what is hidden, like the darkness of the womb where life stirs,
hovering between materiality and the ethereal.
The dominant black palate works perfectly well with calm pensive portraits, such as

Giovanni Lanfrancos natty "Young Naked Man on a Bed with Cat (1620-1622) and
Simon Vouets chic Woman Playing Guitar (circa 1618-1620), but as a style for
inebriated excess I found it wanting. There is nothing darkly pensive about the
immoderation of Bacchus in the sense of presenting some gloomy transferable
experience. So the black environments for most of these figures I found creepy and
forced. In fact it tarnished slightly my permanent love of the power of Baroque darkness.

Giovanni Lanfranco, Young Naked Man on a Bed with Cat (1620-1622) Oil on canvas, 113 x 160 cm, England
Private Collection

Simon Vouet, Woman Playing Guitar (circa 1618-1620) Oil on canvas, 107 x 75 cm Private collection. Rome,
collection of the Marquese Patrizi Naro Chigi Montoro

But perhaps darkness was the alchemist door to the Roman slum netherworld in which
vice, paucity and every kind of overindulgence flourished. An excess that reflected the
factual bohemian life led by European painters of the time in Rome, most notably that of
the Bentvueghels (birds of a feather). They were a group of young male artists mainly
from Holland who gathered together in Rome around 1620 and swore allegiance to
Bacchus.
Adopting certain Dionysian rites of sordid immoderation both in and outside of their

paintings, they reveled in occultism and various intemperate vices, spending their time in
brothels and taverns. To join the group these artists had to go through precarious
Bacchanalian initiation rites teeming with black magic; performing occult acts that
indulged in censured activities that celebrated spells and enchantments.
The paintings exude an almost brawling Punk aesthetic mixed with dark magic
melancholy. This is nicely illustrated with Salvator Rosas Witches at their Incantations
(1646) where some kinky magical spells are being cast below a man hanged from a
withered tree. Also by Dutchman Roeland van Laers hilarious painting of debauched
syphilitic drunkards The Bentvueghels in a Roman Tavern (1626-1628) and Pieter
Boddingh van Laers crazed Self-portrait in a Magic Scene (circa 1638-1639) where he
depicts himself as a stunned sorcerer of some sophistication.

Salvator Rosa, Witches at their Incantations (1646) oil on canvas, 72.5 x 132.5 cm,The National Gallery London
The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1984

Roeland van Laer, The Bentvueghels in a Roman Tavern (1626-1628) Oil on canvas, 88,5 x 147,5 cm Roma
Capitale, Sovrintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali, Museo di Roma

Pieter Boddingh van Laer, Self-portrait in a Magic Scene (circa 1638-1639) oil on canvas, 78,8 x 112,8 cm
Courtesy The Leiden Collection, New York.

Appropriately darkness really takes over at the end of the show with a group of
empathic paintings of poverty from the dark side of the Eternal City, ones tinged with
depressing melancholy. Such as with the poignant painting by Jusepe de Riberas
Beggar (1612) and Simon Vouets Gypsy With a Baby (1625). Gone are the tipsy
rascals, high whores, teasing transvestites and magical rogues. This is solemn deep
work by artists who spent their everyday lives in close proximity to the poor, the
marginalized and the criminal milieu that was poetic for some. The underworld of
poetic misery and marginalization became a theme for them, if not their actual
experience of life.
So in the end we are left looking into the black of the blues. That crow black that is so
appropriate to our intuitions of sadness and mourning. That all-engulfing poor black that
bathes things in absence by evaporating nuances of shadow and light within the postCaravaggio underworld. That deep gloomy black that seems just passable for showing the
nothing-to-seeness of austere poverty, flushed out against diminished
foreground/background distinctions. Drowning the eye in self-negating ambiguousness.
In the end, we are left looking into the black of the blues that crow black associated
with sadness and mourning. That all-engulfing black that evaporates nuances of shadow
and light within the post-Caravaggio underworld. That deep, gloomy black through
which we can just barely make out austere portraits of poverty, flushed out against
diminished foreground/background distinctions. In the end, we are left with the black
backdrop for downtrodden figures. But also with the sense that our eye has abandoned
itself to that black abyss of infinite space - deprived of Bacchuss sunny and joyful spirit.

Joseph Nechvatal