The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.

‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

The human being is a well-oiled machine, but it has flaws.

One of them affects that concept as ethereal and mysterious as the soul. Psychology, some call it. If we stick to the latter, the problems of the human psyche are practically endless.

Vanity, for example, would not fall within that group of problems; however, it can be a double-edged sword. Greek mythology taught us this danger through the myth of Narcissus.

The myth

In the Hellenic mythological narrative, we are presented with a very proud and insensitive young man in its cosmogony. A guy who keeps rejecting suitors so that sooner or later, the divine punishment had to come for such a braggart.

Narcissus was not going to be an exception.

Among his many suitors who took a good cut was Aminias; the poor man loved Narcissus deeply, but that did not prevent him from rejecting him in nasty manners and with malice. Among these taunts, he gives him a sword, with which the same Aminias will commit suicide in front of the house of Narcissus himself (did he think anything else was going to happen?). While the suitor was dying, he had time to beg the goddess Nemesis to give him an exemplary chastisement Narcissus, making him suffer the suffering of unrequited love in his flesh. Having launched the supplication, Aminias died.

As expected, Narcissus spent enough of that death in front of his house. The guy continued with his business until, one day, he came to a pond.

He saw his own reflection in its waters, falling in love with it. Intoxicated by this attraction, he did not realize that he saw himself. He leaned towards the water’s surface to kiss that attractive young man, recognizing the tremendous deception.

At that moment, shocked by the discovery, he fell into the water and drowned. Saddened by this pitiful spectacle, the gods decided that his body would become a flower, the daffodil we all know.

The painting

Knowing the myth, we can better understand Caravaggio’s painting, which shows us the moment in which Narcissus is engrossed contemplating his reflection in the pond water.

When contemplating the painting, we can make a mythological reading (what it tells the story of Narcissus, the specific passage of the myth that shows us and that is clear) and another more allegorical reading, the messages that the artist wanted to convey through this representation.

We see in the upper part the real character, who looks down on his aquatic antagonist. Two parts divide the work, an upper and a lower one, that is opposed both in presentation and composition.

Above (the real Narcissus), we see the well-defined light in the arms, neck, and face and some flashes here and there. On the contrary, the lower part (the reflection) is very dark, with a very attenuated image that transmits fragility, which seems to foreshadow the fatal outcome of the myth.

The figure of Narcissus, the luminous one, has his left hand coming out of the frame, and we do not see the tips of his fingers; the lower reflection as well, but also part of his back disappears from the painting beyond the margins.

This technique enlarges the figure of the protagonist and promotes the sensation of proximity. A very distant anteroom to the three dimensions, of which there are many other examples throughout the History of Art.

It is as if we could almost reach out and touch Narcissus.

This technique was prevalent in Caravaggio, who liked his paintings to create an impact. Spontaneity and closeness are two common aspects of his works. He wanted the viewer to feel that the characters were about to fall at his feet.

If we look at the painting again, and as mentioned before, we can see that the reflection of Narcissus is somewhat different. It seems older and worn out. In the shoulder canvas, we can appreciate Caravaggio’s mastery in playing with lighting in his works. The ability to put darkness into light was a revolution in his time, so much so that this technique ended up having its name: tenebrism.

Detail of ‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by CaravaggioYear. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. Image source Wikipedia

Some interpret this luminous contra-position between the upper and lower parts as the visualization of the Ego confronting one’s self-consciousness.

Some even venture to theorize that Narcissus can be read as an explanation of Caravaggio’s psyche, a man of great vanity.

Focusing on the reflection again, we can consider it as that dark place we all have and where aspects such as excessive self-contemplation or selfishness nest.

Above is the conscious, luminous, beautiful, and evident self; below is the egocentric subconscious, which is what we want to hide and which is the shadow of any human being.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Sibyl Went from Sketch to Finished Painting

A tiny section of the Sistine Chapel masterpiece explored

Detail of ‘Studies for The Libyan Sibyl’ (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US.

When you step into the Sistine Chapel, it’s like stepping into an immense jewellery box. The rectangular space, some 40 metres long, is an overwhelming arena to enter.

The first thing visitors tend to notice is the array of frescos that adorn the walls, painted by the likes of Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio — made in the 1480s when Michelangelo was still a child.

Up until the recent cleaning and restoration work completed in 1999, the true intensity of the painted frescoes was not fully understood by modern audiences. Centuries of candle soot had cloaked the walls and ceiling with a layer of dirt. When this layer was removed, the full vibrancy of the chapel decoration was revealed. Most especially, Michelangelo’s unrivalled ceiling cycle.

Sistine Chapel ceiling (from 1508 until 1512) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Michelangelo’s commission

Michelangelo was an Italian artist who grew up in Florence and quickly established himself as a supremely talented sculptor with the house of Medici. Apprenticed under the Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s rise to prominence was crowned when in 1504 he carved the mighty statue of David, now housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.

Michelangelo caught the attention of Pope Julius II and was called to Rome in 1505. His initial project in Rome was to work on the tomb of the Pope, who was already planning his grand commemorative mausoleum. It was during his work on the tomb that Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — which at that time was painted blue and dotted with golden stars.

The technical process of creating the ceiling frescoes for the Sistine chapel began with the artist developing his thoughts in sketch form. The small-scale studies were essentially about working through and narrowing down ideas, which considering the size and complexity of the finished work, was an imperative step in the planning process.

Studies for The Libyan Sibyl (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US

The sketches later developed into full-figure studies, and these were then converted into full-scale cartoons. These one-to-one images were transferred onto the wet plaster, probably using a technique known as “pouncing” where the outline of the image is pricked with a pin and charcoal dust dabbed through the pinholes to leave the tracing of the cartoon on the plaster. In later sections of the ceiling, Michelangelo used a more direct method of incising or cutting through the cartoon to leave a physical mark in the wet plaster.

For the lunettes (the semi-circular corners), it is believed that Michelangelo worked without transferring any cartoons but rather painted directly from his sketches — an unprecedented and remarkable feat given the fresco medium and the intricate nature of the final image.

The ceiling

The wider ceiling image shows the story of Genesis split into nine panels, from The Separation of Light from Darkness, through to The Creation of Adam, and culminating in The Great Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah. All of these panels are oriented towards the priest at the altar, who of course would often have been the Pope.

Sistine Chapel ceiling with The Libyan Sibyl highlighted (from 1508 until 1512) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

This central section of the ceiling is part of a broader narrative that is designed to express the salvation offered by God through Jesus. Around the outer edges of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted sibyls and prophets who predicted the coming of Christ, whilst the lunettes in each of the four corners show Biblical scenes associated with the salvation of Israel.

The physical working conditions that Michelangelo worked under were intensely difficult. Scaffolding was erected at nearly 25 metres in height, with all the associated carrying of materials up ladders or hoisting them via pulleys.

Michelangelo painted in a standing position which necessitated a constant tilting of the head backwards. And since the ceiling was painted in fresco it was essential to work fast: the freshly plastered area had to be painted during the course of one day before the plaster dried.

One of the qualities of fresco is that it must be painted with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again.

This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear designs — all of which contributed to the resulting feel of Michelangelo’s compelling imagery.

The Libyan Sibyl

Michelangelo’s sketch for the Libyan Sibyl is one of the best surviving drawings from the artist’s preparatory process.

The drawing, made largely in red chalk, shows the torso of the figure shown from behind. Notice how Michelangelo has drawn her as a nude — probably based on a real-life male model — and only clothed her in the final painting. The muscular definition of the sibyl’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are twisted allow Michelangelo to fully delineate the robust structure of the human body.

Left: Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US. Image source The Met. Right: The Libyan Sibyl (c.1511) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. 395 × 380 cm. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Notice too the attention placed on the toes of the sibyl’s left foot: Michelangelo worked through multiple studies of these weight-bearing toes to get the action just right. The meaning is not a symbolic one but all about the display of the human body through a coiled contrappostoposture — not unlike a dancer expressing physical agility and strength through a difficult pose.

The finished image of the Libyan Sibyl appears in one of the pendentives — the curved triangles of the vaulting — as part of the series of twelve figures who prophesied a coming Messiah. She is clothed except for her muscular shoulders and arms, and wears an elaborately braided coiffure.

The term “sibyl” comes from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. The Libyan Sibyl is a depiction of Phemonoe, the priestess of the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon, an oracle located in the Libyan desert at Siwa Oasis, once connected with ancient Egypt.

Detail from ‘Studies for the Libyan Sibyl’ (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US.

The classical world was inhabited by many sibyls, with the Libyan Sibyl being one of the most important for foretelling the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.”

The Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is depicted with deliberate grandiosity, holding a serpentine pose whilst stepping down from her throne. She holds an enormous book of prophecy which she is about to open up before us, or else close shut. With her clothes finished in shades of vibrant yellow, peach and green, she stands as one of the most visually striking and emblematic sections of the whole Sistine Chapel decoration.

The Libyan Sibyl (c.1511) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. 395 × 380 cm. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Given the difficult working conditions, and the fact that Michelangelo was so close up to his subject — which was to be viewed from nearly 25 metres below — the final painting is a remarkable accomplishment of artist planning, vision and technique.

Small wonder then that the Sistine Chapel has inspired so many admirers, including the following praise from the German writer Goethe: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”





Promenade en Gondole

Une Breve Histoire de la Republique de Venise, ou “Les Croates de la Serenissime”

En 1571, la formidable victoire maritime de Lépante, contre les Ottomans, illustre la suprématie maritime de Venise. Le début du déclin de la Sérénissime est proche

Venise est entrée au contact de nombreux peuples au cours de son histoire. Tandis que la République sérénissime étendait sa domination et déployait ses talents militaires et marchands, elle se faisait d’abord admirer par ses nouveaux sujets, auxquels elle accordait sa protection. 
Elle était toujours prête à combattre l’injustice et l’oppression dans la mesure où n’étaient pas desservis ses intérêts hégémoniques. Mais, cela commença plutôt mal…

Au Xe siècle, pour s’assurer l’accès des bouches du Pô en même temps que le monopole du sel, le doge Pietro II fit mettre à sac Comacchio et déporter les populations vivant dans ces marécages. 
En l’an mil commencèrent les expéditions sur le littoral dalmate, afin d’obtenir le contrôle de l’Adriatique tout entière. Zara, Ossero, Vaglia et bien d’autres villes furent conquises. Les forces vénitiennes avaient à lutter à la fois contre les Croates et contre les Slaves, qui avaient envahi les Balkans. 
Au fleuve Narenta, les habitants de la ville romaine de Narona pratiquaient la piraterie et le trafic d’esclaves. Les Vénitiens étaient leurs meilleurs clients. À leur contact, les pillards découvrirent que le commerce était tout de même plus avantageux. Vers la fin du XIe siècle, après la conquête des îles de Curzola et de Lagosta, les côtes dalmates étaient entièrement sous la protection de Venise.

La percée vers l’Orient

Vers cette époque, les Vénitiens eurent à lutter contre les seigneurs normands qui s’étaient installés en Méditerranée. Ils s’allièrent donc avec les Byzantins, leurs rivaux, pour libérer l’île de Corfou et de Durazzo (Duras). Venise obtint alors de pouvoir commercer librement sur tous les territoires contrôlés par Byzance. 
En 1122–1124, les Vénitiens soumirent la ville de Tyr et les comptoirs byzantins de l’Égée et de l’Adriatique. Vers le milieu du siècle, ils renforcèrent leurs liens avec les peuples de l’Istrie. Pola, Parenzo, Rovigno furent contraintes d’accepter une protection militaire et maritime contre les débordements des Hongrois. Cette protection obligatoire se transforma rapidement en soumission des terres environnantes et, finalement, le doge fut reconnu comme le seul maître.

La colonisation de la Crète

Vis-à-vis des Grecs, Venise pratiquait un double jeu, maniant tour à tour les pressions diplomatiques et les actes de piraterie. En 1204, la ville du lion de Saint-Marc profita de la quatrième croisade pour enlever Zara aux Hongrois. Les forces chrétiennes détournées de leur but prirent Constantinople cette année-là. De ses prestations de service, la République maritime reçut pour salaire deux îles de la mer Egée, la Morée et l’Eubée puis, en 1207, l’île de Crète. Elle s’assurait ainsi les routes de l’Asie mineure.

Cependant, une chose était d’occuper Candie, et une autre de tenir la Crète tout entière. La grandeur de l’île dépassait sans doute les possibilités militaires de Venise. Durant l’occupation, soulèvements et guerillas se succédèrent. Ce fut la première fois — l’intérêt territorial prévalant sur l’aspect stratégique — que la Sérénissime entreprit une véritable « vénitisation » d’une colonie.

Le gouvernement et l’administration de la Crète étaient aux mains de grandes familles vénitiennes exclusivement. Dispersés, les colons ne parvinrent jamais à trouver un terrain d’entente avec les colonisés. Sauf peut-être contre Venise elle-même, dans la révolte de 1363, fomentée par un chef de village crétois et appuyée par les colons : les Venier, les Gradenigo, les Molin… Confiée à un Pisani (Vettero), la répression fut terrible. Les Crétois furent écrasés par Pietro Morosini.

Par les célèbres voyages de Marco Polo et de sa famille, les Vénitiens entrèrent en contact avec les nations d’Extrême-Orient. Ils développèrent des échanges diplomatiques et commerciaux avec les Persans, comme avec les Mongols et les Chinois.

Les guerres avec Gênes

À partir de 1308, et de la guerre contre Ferrare, on note un durcissement des rapports entre Venise et ses voisines : Padoue, Vérone et surtout Gênes. C’est l’époque où Trévise souhaite et obtient le protectorat de la République. La guerre contre Gênes fut sanglante et très coûteuse. Elle fut à l’origine de la peste (1347–1348) qui décima la population vénitienne. Une situation désastreuse s’instaura. Pour survivre, Venise dut s’allier avec d’autres peuples, comme les Catalans, et faire appel à ses sujets dalmates, grecs ou albanais pour renforcer ses armées.

Au cours de la troisième guerre contre les Génois, la coalition vénéto-catalane remporta une victoire navale dans les eaux d’Alghero (1353), bientôt suivie d’une cuisante défaite à Porto Longo (1354). 
La menace la plus précise survint en 1379. Les Padouans, sous les ordres de Carraresi, apportèrent leur soutien aux Génois et attaquèrent Chioggia, à proximité de Venise. Jamais la Sérénissime n’avait été aussi menacée. 
L’offensive fut cependant stoppée, grâce à la cohésion des habitants de la cité, groupés autour du doge Andrea Contarini. Les Vénitiens parvinrent à séparer les armées de Gênes et de Padoue et, par mer, portèrent la dévastation dans les comptoirs génois de la mer Égée. Ils allèrent jusqu’à Beyrouth. En 1381, Gênes signa la paix grâce aux bons offices du comte de Savoie.

La dernière décennie du XIVe siècle et les deux premières du XVe furent marquées par une expansion de Venise en direction de la terre ferme. Corfou fut acquise des Angevins de Naples en 1386. Venise fut en relation marchande avec la plupart des peuples du nord de l’Europe : Flamands, Français, Allemands… Cependant, l’expansion territoriale du début du XVe siècle finit par inquiéter les principales puissances : France, Espagne, Empire germanique, Papauté… Contre Venise se noua la ligue de Cambrai, dont Venise vint à bout par son habileté diplomatique (1508).

La menace turque et la victoire de Lépante

En 1571, la formidable victoire maritime de Lépante, contre les Ottomans, illustre la suprématie maritime de Venise. Cependant, le début du déclin de la Sérénissime est proche

Aux XVe et XVIe siècles, les Turcs ne cessèrent d’être une terrible menace. Pour les arrêter, Venise n’eut pas d’autre recours que de s’allier avec les Hongrois — ses ennemis “héréditaires”, pourtant. Une campagne commune en Dalmatie donna le Frioul aux Vénitiens. La Sérénissime favorisait la constitution d’un État vénitien de la terre ferme. Un peu partout, dans son empire, Venise était au contact des Ottomans. De 1424 (prise de Salonique) à 1571 (bataille de Lépante), les deux mondes semblèrent s’équilibrer.

Bien qu’elle fut, au premier chef, victorieuse de la grande bataille navale de Lépante, Venise commença dès lors à décliner. C’est que le pouvoir ottoman, pour faire rentrer ses lourds impôts, favorisait les initiatives commerciales de ses “sujets”. 
La concurrence des marchands grecs, turcs, renégats chrétiens, arméniens, arabes, barbaresques, ragusiens ou juifs était extrêmemet dure et les Vénitiens en pâtirent très vite. Pour les peuples levantins, l’arrivée de la protection ottomane était une sorte de revanche. Le sultan les vengeait de l’arrogance proverbiale des marchands de Venise.

De la mer à la terre : une ville et ses communautés

La puissance maritime perdue, Venise devint une nation terrienne. L’arrogance se tourna désormais contre les paysans de la terre ferme. Dans la cité, depuis des siècles, un modus vivendiavait fixé les rapports entre les diverses communautés. La plus nombreuse était celle des Grecs, composée de marins et de savants exilés. Ceux-ci avaient apporté à Venise leurs connaissances et leur culture. Les “intellectuels” du patriciat vénitien (ou du clergé) n’ignoraient rien de la langue d’Homère ou de la philosophie de Platon. De nombreux ouvrages étaient ainsi conservés dans les plus fameuses bibliothèques — c’est ainsi qu’ils furent sauvés.

Les Turcs eurent leur quartier — le “Fondaco dei Turchi” –, ainsi que les Allemands, les “Tedeschi”. C’est par ces derniers, émigrés de Mayence après la dispersion des ateliers, que Venise découvrit l’imprimerie.

Les Esclavons, orignaires de Slavonie, donnèrent leur nom au quai devant la place Saint-Marc. Ils vivaient de trafics divers et du métier de soldat.

On trouvait aussi à Venise des Arméniens et des Juifs du Levant, qui donnèrent son nom à l’île de la Judecca. Les Juifs eurent un grand rôle dans les domaines de la philosophie, de la théologie et de la médecine, toutes sciences enseignées à l’université. Le premier livre en hébreu fut imprimé non loin du cœur de Venise…

De la création du ghetto au bannissement des Juifs

Au XVIe siècle, Venise eut une attitude des plus ambiguës envers les communautés qui vivaient dans la cité. Il s’agissait pour elle de contrôler tout en protégeant… Un bon exemple de l’expression de cette double volonté est la conduite adoptée vis-à-vis des Juifs. Les autorités de Venise distinguaient trois sortes de Juifs : les “Allemands”, les Levantins et les Ponantins. Les Levantins, originaires de Constantinople, de “Romanie” ou de Crète, bénéficiaient des droits réservés aux étrangers — en particulier le droit de pratiquer le commerce international.

Pour les “Allemands” et les “Italiens” — réfugiés originaires d’autres régions de la péninsule –, le traitement était très dur. C’est à leur intention que fut créé le “ghetto”. Il leur était interdit de prendre part au commerce international. Les seules activités tolérées étaient l’usure… et le métier de chiffonnier.

La nuit et à l’occasion des fêtes, les portes du ghetto étaient fermées. Rares, cependant, furent les violences physiques. Les réactions antisémites survinrent avec l’arrivée des marranes d’Espagne et du Portugal. 
Leur rôle dans les villes d’Alexandrie, de Raguse, d’Ancône ou à Ferrare, quand ils disputèrent, grâce aux Turcs, la suprématie commerciale aux marchands de Venise, fut à l’origine de leur bannissement vers la fin du XVIe siècle. L’un d’entre ces marranes, Joseph Nassi, était même devenu le grand argentier du sultan. On l’accusa d’être l’instigateur de l’occupation de Chypre par les Ottomans.

Le XVIIIe, siècle du crépuscule

Une nouvelle menace se faisait jour par le nord-est : l’Autriche. Venise devait la combattre en 1617, durant la guerre de Gradisca, quand les Habsbourg armèrent les Uscocchi (les peuples de Bosnie et de Dalmatie) qui, après la signature de la paix, préférèrent la protection de Vienne à celle de Venise.

Au tout début du XVIIIe siècle, Venise fut définitivement chassée de la mer Égée : la Crète fut perdue en 1669 et le Péloponèse (la Morée) en 1718.

En 1797, Bonaparte met un point final aux mille ans d’indépendance de Venise et, en 1866, la cité rejoint le tout nouveau royaume d’Italie.

Venice Ghetto-The Importance of the Venice Ghetto in Jewish Studies

The Importance of the Venice Ghetto for Modern Jewish Studies

The Venice Ghetto serves as the starting point from which to address questions of modern Jewish spaces — for it is a turning point in Jewish and western history. It is a site that has stereotyped and simultaneously helped the Jews to articulate a multicultural communal identity: once sequestered in the Ghetto at its founding in 1516 the Jews had to negotiate their new identity as they took on modern and paradoxical roles in Jewish and European culture.

“In the city without being of it”

The establishment of the Venice Ghetto brought Jews into the modern city while isolating them on one of its islands, and thereby imprinting them with the experience of exile. In order to permit Jews to live within the city (unlike the Spanish who converted, killed, and/or expelled the Jews in 1492) the Venetian government created a sequestered habitat, a city within a city, allowing Jews significant autonomy under surveillance. Now the Jews could be in the city without being of it. The difficulties of exile came along with the creation of the iconic Venice Ghetto as a Jewish address: this new tension defined the modern landscape.

Thus the urban Jewish experience comes to embody a series of paradoxes. The Venetians included the Jews in the commerce of the city as the Ghetto gates were open for business throughout the day, but the water-gates — the doors to the canals — were walled up, barring access to the primary Venetian mode of communication at night. The ability to lend money (think Shylock), with strictly regulated interest rates, made Jews central to the success of the city’s economic activity.

Despite this crucial function in trade, the Jews were excluded from participating directly in many aspects of the city. They could not join the Guilds; the Jews could build synagogues as long as they did not open to the street. They could bake bread for their own use (including Challah, the Sabbath and Holiday loaves), but were forbidden to sell bread to Christians. Not satisfied with simply limiting mobility, the Ghetto’s exterior windows were walled up in order to prevent Jews, whose gaze was thought to be polluting, from looking upon their Christian neighbors. [Katz, “The Ghetto and the Gaze…”] And the Jews had to negotiate the right to residence in Venice just about every five years, for which privilege they had to make an ever larger “contribution” to the government: thus they lived in a regulated state of “inclusive exclusion.”

These conditions and contradictions imposed by the Venice Ghetto, were replicated and intensified in the ghettos established across Italy and Europe and lasted to the end of the nineteenth century — the era of Emancipation — when these Ghettos were abolished and urban renewal erased their traces in most cities.

Jews & the Modern City

The contradictions of Ghetto life still define the relationship of Jews to the modern city and the paradoxical situation of the Venice Ghetto still characterizes central aspects of the modern Jewish urban experience: inclusive/exclusive, inside/outside, valued/disdained, controlled/autonomous.

Long after urban renewal at the turn of the twentieth century pulled down the Ghetto gates, its psychological and sociological impact persists. Even in the most obviously unfettered Jewish communities, in countries with broad guarantees of religious and civic protection, the relationship between Jews and the modern city is still marked by the dynamic tension inherent in the contradictions of this modern exilic situation.

Much modern Jewish writing includes an implied history of Jewish urban life. In such accounts — wonderful tales each in its own right — the historic ghetto experience hovers in the psyches of characters and narrators, reinforced by the constraints of the Ghetto and the shtetl and their histories of oppression and pogroms. These stories tell us what it is to be modern: they reveal the lure of assimilation as well as the fierce loyalty of Jews who refuse to abandon traditional habits, even as they devise new ways of living.

No wonder the modern city has not become a melting pot. As Jews question whether exile is still the Jewish condition — whether the modern city has become a diasporic Jewish homeland, or if and to what extent the founding of the Jewish State in 1948 has indeed changed Jewish history — urban Jewish writing maps the contradictions, paradoxical histories, and possibilities of modernity.

Expanding notions of “the Ghetto” in Jewish culture

The Ghetto has been both historic place and symbolic location in Jewish History.

Israel Zangwill extended the significance of the word, calling the Ghetto “the law” of Jewish immigrant life in London in 1892, bringing the term to refer from pre-Emancipation Venice to the more general situation of modern Jewish life. Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto.

As both place and symbol, the Ghetto took on a new life at the end of the nineteenth century, leading, for example, to its use by Abraham Cahan in 1896 in “Yekl, a Tale of the New York Ghetto,” and by Hutchins Hapgood to explore Jewish life on the lower east side in his 1908 The Spirit of the Ghetto. In American cities, “ghetto” began to refer to crowded ethnic communities, and, later, under the Nazis to sites of “attritional extermination” which they established. Today the word has negative and positive connotations, both worth considering.

Ghetto as Liminal Space

From a spatial perspective, Jewish history, presents a paradox: on the one hand, the confinement of the ghetto, and on the other, the dispersion of the diaspora. And then many kinds of in-between — liminal spaces — that have been improvised since Jews built their first synagogues in the ancient world. That tendency to improvise creatively, to make a virtue of necessity, is one of the great themes of Jewish history, nowhere more evident at the dawn of modernity than the Venice Ghetto.

As in the Venice Ghetto, the constricting experience of sequestration has been tensed against the expansive possibilities of the metropolis. In his 1896 collection, Israel Zangwill underlines how the ghetto experience leads individuals to imagine alternative possibilities; he calls them “dreamers” of the Ghetto.[6] His dialectical prose reminds us that the Venice Ghetto was a paradigmatic moment in Jewish and Western history with implications that unfolded over the next century, leading to Zionism, Bundism, and an imagined New York City where, in the words of Lenny Bruce, everyone in the metropolis is Jewish. It is a phrase that points to the Jewish love affair with the city.

As my father used to say, die Stadtluft macht Frei — the city air makes you free, as it offers the luftmensch of the shtetl the opportunities of the metropolis.

The meanings of the Venice Ghetto thus hover over our conversation, as we focus on the relationship of liminal spaces and Jewish identity in many contemporary and historic situations and writings. Our discussions begin from an understanding of how contemporary globalization brings into focus the relationship between identity and spatial location, and highlights new and cross-cutting transnational allegiances.

Caravaggio’s Paintings In the Churches of Rome

Where to see the Baroque artist’s masterpieces in their original locations

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Not all art was made to be bought and sold. Some works of art were made for specific locations, where they were designed to live for decades and centuries. Such artworks are especially interesting because they occupy a very real space, and therefore, can be read within an architectural and social setting.

One such case is the art of Caravaggio, who made some of his best work for several churches in Rome, works that still hang in their original locations.

Caravaggio had an important relationship with the city of Rome: he moved there from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years, established his considerable reputation with a number of prominent commissions. These works were on public view and were made to communicate directly with church-goers of the 17th century.

It is worth remembering that the electric lighting that now illuminates these paintings creates a different sort of scene than in Caravaggio’s day. In the early 17th century, the minimal natural light from the church windows and doorways would have been supplemented by the flickering light of oil lamps and candle flame.

San Luigi dei Francesi

One of the first major commissions Caravaggio received was in 1599, to decorate a chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, a church not far from the Piazza Navona. The chapel was dedicated to St Matthew, and Caravaggio initially painted two scenes from the saint’s life: The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, both completed in around 1600.

There was also a third painting, commissioned after Caravaggio had completed the first pair and the patron was happy. The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel was rejected, and subsequently removed from the church — it was later destroyed during WWII — but the second version was accepted. Otherwise known as The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, the painting still hangs in the church today, and is for me one of the great paintings of the Baroque period.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The image of St Matthew gives us the apostle in the act of writing. Matthew is the traditional author of the first gospel, and so paintings often show him in a study or at a writing desk. As one of the evangelists, he is usually accompanied by his traditional attribute, a winged figure resembling an angel.

Detail of ’The Inspiration of Saint Matthew’ (1602) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Caravaggio’s painting follows this model: the angel can be seen dictating or providing inspiration as Matthew writes.

Caravaggio also does a great deal more with the subject. He provides a setting that is both abstract and ambiguous (set against a dark background) whilst at the same time building up a scene full of real textures, fabrics and expressions. Despite having no definite setting, there is nothing other-worldly about the image; rather, it is close-at-hand and tangible.

Matthew and the angel are in an intimate exchange. And the gentle curve that moves through composition of the painting, from the sweeping lines of the angel’s robes through Matthews body and his outstretched leg, gives the work a perfect internal unity.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

S. Maria del Popolo

At around the same time, Caravaggio was asked to work on paintings for the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, a church on the northern side of Piazza del Popolo.

Two works can be found in the Cerasi Chapel of the Basilica: The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601) and The Conversion of St Paul (1601).

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter is an especially arresting painting. Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles and one of the closest to Christ. He was the brother of Andrew and a fisherman of Galilee. After Christ’s crucifixion, Peter led the apostles in spreading the word of the gospel, and in Rome established one of the first Christian communities.

His own crucifixion came at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero in A.D. 64. At Peter’s request, he was crucified upside down as he didn’t believe he was worthy enough to be killed in the same manner as Jesus.

Detail of ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Peter’ (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Caravaggio’s depiction is notable for several reasons. The physicality of the moment is remarkably vivid: one need only examine the three workers who are raising the cross, each of them occupied by a different task, to understand that this is no idealised account, but a cruel act of real men on another human being. One man hoists a rope; another bears the weight of the wooden structure in his hand; the third stoops to press his back into the cross to help raise it, also holding a shovel in his hand to dig the hole for the stake.

All three workers are are shown with the marks of toil and industry. Their feet are blackened with dust and their hands and arms pulse with raised veins.

Detail of ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Peter’ (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Peter himself is shown in a state of distress combined with disbelief, as he his hoisted backwards on the cross. The very moment depicted emphasises his vulnerability: he is an old man in a loin cloth, frightened by the prospect of his last few moments alive. It was Caravaggio’s ability to bring out the psychological drama of a scene, and to make it so graphically present, that won him many admirers — and critics too.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio, in the Cerasi Chapel of the Basilica. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Basilica di Sant’Agostino

Caravaggio’s realistic style draw criticism because he was so willing to forgo idealisation, even when the scenes were traditional subjects of veneration.

There is no better example of this than the Madonna di Loreto (Pilgrim’s Madonna), completed around 1605 for the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, a Renaissance church near Piazza Navona. The painting is located in the Cavalletti Chapel of the church and shows the the Madonna and Child being visited by two pilgrims, who kneel in prayer before them.

Madonna di Loreto (c.1604–1606) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Basilica of Sant’ Agostino, Rome

Caravaggio has painted Mary in a naturalistic pose, that of a mother bearing the weight of her child on her hip. It is a much less glorified posture — clearly drawn from real life — than the Renaissance tradition had previously established, with Mary tending to hold the child as he were weightless.

Mary is stood in a simple doorway on a stone step; the wall beside her is cracked and flaking. All of the figures have bear feet. The only suggestion that this is a sacred scene is the faint elliptical halo above Mary’s head.

Later critics would claim that Caravaggio made a disrespectful and indecent treatment of the subject. And yet, it remained a popular image for the church-goers, perhaps because the rustic details gives the painting something of a pastoral quality, raising the act of faith as displayed by the destitute pilgrims to the level of pure devotion.

Madonna di Loreto (c.1604–1606) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Basilica of Sant’ Agostino, Rome