Caracciolo was by no means a mere imitator: he built on Caravaggio’s themes of naturalism and tenebrism and developed his own individual artistic language. The present Calling of Saint Matthew, for example, is dramatically Caravaggesque in style, yet Caracciolo has succeeded in making the subject entirely his own. Far from replicating Caravaggio’s celebrated painting in San Luigi dei Francesi, Caracciolo’s depiction of the subject is so markedly original that scholars have questioned whether the painting depicts a different subject altogether. When Wolfgang Prohaska published the canvas on the occasion of its exhibition in 2005 and later in 2011 (see Exhibited and Literature), he recorded the title as Christ Preaching to the Disciples. This speculation regarding the subject appears to have been shared, at least in part, by Gianni Papi who published it in 2006 under the traditional title followed by a question mark (see Literature). In representations of the Calling of Saint Matthew, Christ would typically be shown pointing to Saint Matthew, summoning the saint to follow him. Yet here, as Prohaska asserts, Christ does not point directly to an individual but gestures outwards in a “rhetorical” manner, engaging the viewer (W. Prohaska, 2011, op. cit.). Prohaska argues that “the ‘protagonist’ of the scene is clearly the money,” the coins being counted out on the table and the money pouch held self-consciously out of Christ’s view by the apostle (Ibid.). Prohaska reads the painting as representing Christ’s disapproval of riches, seeing wealth as a distraction from the path to grace. He proposes that the painting depicts an episode from the Gospels in which Christ encourages the apostles to adopt a life of poverty and modesty, such as Matthew 10:5, Luke 6:24 and 12:33, hence his alternative suggestion for the subject.
Opinions remain divided regarding the date of this painting, a difficulty enflamed by the lack of a firm chronological framework for the artist’s corpus. John Spike broadly suggests it to have been executed sometime in the decade preceding Caracciolo’s death in 1635 (J.T. Spike, op. cit.). Papi suggests an earlier dating, to 1622, placing it as contemporaneous to the artist’s masterpiece of 17th century painting, the Washing of the Feet, in the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, Naples (G. Papi, op. cit.; for Caracciolo’s Washing of the Feet, see S. Causa, 2000, op. cit., p. 193, no. A74, illustrated no.256). Both Stefano Causa and Prohaska, meanwhile, compare the painting to Caracciolo’s Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (fig. 1), a mature work thought to date after 1630 (W. Prohaska, op. cit.) The figures in both canvases share a monumental quality and stand before indistinct architectural forms, “in a space that is only defined by the plasticity of the figures themselves” (Ibid.).
This canvas can be traced back to the collection of Caracciolo’s greatest Genoese patrons, the Doria family (see Provenance). The Doria were aware of Caracciolo at least as early as 1610 when Marcantonio Doria received a letter from his procurator and correspondent in Naples, Lanfranco Massa. Massa wrote with news of progress on Marcantonio’s Saint Ursula commissioned from Caravaggio and also requested paintings by his “disciple” Caracciolo (S. Causa, 2000, op. cit.). From this date onward the artist’s renown spread beyond Naples and he began providing work for the Doria and several other Genoese patrons, visiting the city a number of times in the years between 1618 and 1624.
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