Planning a visit to Rome can be challenging. There is something to see at each turn; no street lacks history, and even forgotten little churches can hide masterpieces inside their walls. Knowing this, it is normal to feel lost while planning a visit to the Italian capital. Therefore, it can be helpful to focus on a single artist while visiting Rome. Among the artists who lived in Rome, Caravaggio was one of the most prominent. The master of chiaroscuro made Rome his home for most of his artistic life. This series of articles will help you map an itinerary of Rome following the churches and museums that host Caravaggio’s artworks.
We start with the Church of St. Louis of the French. This Baroque-style Roman Catholic Church is located near Piazza Navona and was completed in 1589 by architects Giacomo della Porta (designer) and Domenico Fontana (builder). In 1518, Cardinal Giulio di Giuliano de Medici (later Pope Clement VII) commissioned the Church for the French community in Rome. On the façade, we see Pierre Lestache’s statues of Charlemagne, St. Louis, St. Clothilde, and St. Jeanne of Valois welcoming all visitors to the Church and celebrating French national history. Artists Domenichino, Plautilla Bricci, Guido Reni, and Cavalier d’Arpino decorated the interior with frescos and paintings, while Charles-Joseph Natoire painted the ceiling.
Once you enter the Church, you will find the Contarelli Chapel. Here, there are three stunning canvases that Caravaggio completed between 1599 and 1602: The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (on the right), The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (in the center, above the altar) and The Calling of St Matthew (on the left). With these three works, Caravaggio juxtaposes the dark interior of a Roman church and the lighting of the chapel to create a decorative cycle that catches the viewer’s attention in a masterful contrast of light and darkness.
The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew is a violent scene. The canvas shows the moment a soldier, sent by the wicked king of Ethiopia, kills Saint Matthew the Evangelist. The scene occurs inside a church and resembles a theatre play, capturing the viewer’s attention. The central figure is the half-naked soldier. Armed with the sword that just killed Saint Matthew, the executor is the most illuminated character of the scene as if chosen as the central character. Saint Matthew lies on the floor, his arms open. He is dying with blood on his clothes, but no fear is on his face. Around them, worshippers react with horror, and some try to flee the scene. Within the crowd, Caravaggio paints himself as a figure in the background on the left-center side of the canvas. From above, an angel hands Matthew the palm of martyrdom. The divine creature is elegant, composed, and refined. The angel above creates a contrast to the chaos below. The presence of the angel indicates that this is not a tragic slaughter but a victory of sainthood over evil.
The Inspiration of Saint Matthew shows only two subjects: Saint Matthew and an angel. The angel flies in the aerial sphere. He is sublime, perfect, and enveloped in rippled white sheets. From above, he comes to dictate the Gospel to Saint Matthew, and from below, Saint Matthew runs to his desk to write it. The man is old and wise. With a serious face, he looks at and listens to the divine messenger. Still, Caravaggio depicts a human Matthew: the saint’s posture is not composed like canonized saints in earlier paintings. For instance, we can see the saint’s bare feet. The light comes from above and illuminates only the two subjects and the desk while the background is completely dark. In this painting, we witness humankind, represented by Saint Matthew, collaborating with God, represented by the angel.
Finally, The Calling of Saint Matthew depicts a scene from the Gospel of Matthew 9:9: “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, ‘Follow me,’ and Matthew rose and followed Him.” However, Caravaggio masterfully adds drama and humanity to the scene with his painting. On the right, Jesus and Saint Peter enter the room of what could very well be a tavern. Jesus points at (the not-yet saint) Matthew, a tax collector. Matthew (the bearded man) sits on the left of the canvas alongside other tax collectors who do not even notice Jesus. Jesus and Saint Peter dress in modest robes while Matthew and the others dress as Caravaggio’s contemporary would dress. This detail adds a careful touch of modernity to the story and makes the scene more relatable to any viewer from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. On the upper part of the canvas, a beam of light enters the room, dramatically illuminating the people on the scene. This light is nothing less than a divine glow that depicts a moment of spiritual awakening. However, unlike the story in the scripture, Matthew does not immediately get up to follow Jesus. In Caravaggio’s depiction, Matthew has a very human moment of hesitation. He remains seated, looking stunned, and points at himself as if to ask, “Are you talking to me?”
Caravaggio drew clear inspirations from his predecessors while painting the subjects of this cycle; Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titan are some clear influences. However, as we can see in the Church of Saint Louis of the French, Caravaggio stands apart for two reasons. First, his painted subjects are relatable. They show human traits such as fear, bad posture, and doubt; and their expressions are vivid and realistic. Second, his use of chiaroscuro gives his art a sense of life and high drama. This humanity and unique use of light enhances an almost intimate emotional intensity to Caravaggio’s paintings. Caravaggio achieved this as he worked with live models and painted them as they were (showing flaws and defects) rather than following the canonized rule set by the Church. Those three paintings are significant in the story of Caravaggio, as they composed the first major public commission he received. The three canvases were successful and cemented Caravaggio’s reputation as a master artist. Therefore, they make for a perfect first stop on this tour.
The Church is open Monday to Friday from 9:30-12:45 and 14:30-18:30, on Saturday from 9:30-12:15 and 14:30-18:45, and on Sunday from 11:30-12:45 and 14:30-18:45. Admission to the Church is free. The Church is closed on the first Wednesday of the month. Phone number: +39 06 688271. Website: https://saintlouis-rome.net/horaires-visite-opening-hours/