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One of the most startling and salutary shocks ever administered to fashionable art is the work of Caravaggio in the last few years of the 16th century. In about 1593 he arrives, at the age of twenty, in a Rome which is still attracted to the esoteric niceties of mannerism.

The young man soon introduces two invigorating new elements in his paintings: a use of composition and light which gives the viewer an immediate sense of drama; and an intense realism, endowing the characters in a scene with the believable attributes of ordinary people.

These qualities are evident in the Supper at Emmaus in London's National Gallery. A single raking light, characteristic of Caravaggio, causes a strong contrast between bright details and dark shadows - as in any interior lit by a lantern. The two disciples are very ordinary travellers sitting down to a meal. As one of them recognizes Jesus, he flings his arms wide in a gesture which almost bursts out of the canvas towards us.

This degree of ordinary reality is not to everyone's taste in a religious subject. When Caravaggio delivers a commissioned painting in 1602, showing St Matthew writing his gospel, it is rejected by the outraged priests in charge of the church of San Luigi in Rome.

The painting is a masterpiece (destroyed alas in Berlin in 1945), but it is easy to understand why the priests dislike it. St Matthew has bare feet (with a big toe jutting disturbingly towards us) and he is clearly a simple man, struggling with the difficult gospel words as a youthful angel stands beside him to guide his hand across the page.

It is a profoundly touching image, and one which brings a religious moment very close to us. But priests prefer something more respectful. Caravaggio duly obliges with the painting now to be seen in the church. The composition remains intensely dramatic, but the angel is now flying in the air as angels do (even if he does cheekily count off the generations of Christ's ancestors on his fingers).

In a turbulent life (he has to flee from Rome in 1606 after killing a man in a brawl after a tennis match), Caravaggio continues to bring religion close to home in this direct way. In more than one great painting the pilgrims kneeling to the Virgin thrust the dirty soles of their bare feet right in the viewer's face.

In the long run the church prefers the drama of Caravaggio's compositions, and his powerful use of light and dark, to the peasant realism of his detail. The preferred style of the 17th century becomes the Baroque. This more full-blown exaltation of religious sentiment borrows much from Caravaggio - but not the gritty detail.

Rome and Bologna: 1595-1639

While Rome remains the centre of Italian art during the 17th century, there is a strong influence from the school of Bologna headed by the Carracci family of painters. In 1595 Annibale Carracci is invited to Rome by a cardinal in the powerful Farnese family. He is given the task of painting the ceiling of the banqueting hall in the Farnese palace. The magnificent result is completed by 1604. Carracci's theme is classical (the loves of the gods, from Ovid's Metamorphoses), and so is his style - with echoes of both Raphael and Michelangelo.

This link between Bologna and Rome introduces a creative balance between classical and Baroque tendencies in 17th century Italian art.

The Bolognese artists (in particular Guido Reni, who inherits the mantle of Annibale Carracci as the leading painter of the school) tend to retain a classical purity of line and composition. The artists of Rome incline more towards the theatricality of a fully Baroque style.

The most spectacular expression of Roman baroque is the great ceiling painted for the Barberini palace in 1633-9 by Pietro da Cortona. In earlier Roman ceilings, such as Michelangelo's for the Sistine chapel or Carracci's for the Farnese palace, the figures remain obediently within their allotted architectural compartments. In the Barberini ceiling they are less restrained.

Cortona's figures seem to soar upwards, from the trompe-l'oeil continuation of the walls, like a flock of startled birds. The sense of profusion and energy in this triumphal celebration is overwhelming. Officially the triumph is that of Divine Providence, but by a fortunate coincidence both divine providence and the Barberini family (one of whom is now pope as Urban VIII) have bees as their emblem. The design makes it evident that the real triumph is that of the Barberini.

But this is a private palace. In public this ecstatic Roman style is more appropriately put to the service of the Catholic Reformation - and nowhere more so than in the sculptures of Bernini.

Bernini and baroque Rome: 17th century

In the transformation of Rome into a baroque city, no one plays a part comparable to that of the sculptor and architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. In 1629 he is appointed architect to St Peter's, the creation of which has given a new excitement and dignity to the ancient city. Over the next forty years he provides magnificent features to impress the arriving pilgrims.

The first, completed in 1633, is the vast bronze canopy held up by four twisting columns (profusely decorated with the Barberini bees, for the pope at the time is Urban VIII). This structure, known as the Baldacchino, is at the very heart of the church - above the tomb of St Peter and below the dome.

The Baldacchino rises above an altar at which only the pope conducts mass. Visible between the columns, from the point of view of the congregation, is Bernini's other dramatic contribution to the interior of St Peter's. This is a golden tableau, a piece of pure theatre, above the altar at the far end of the church. Its central feature is the papal throne of St Peter, held aloft among the clouds.

Sculpted golden rays stream up from St Peter's throne towards heaven. In an extra dimension to the illusion they are joined by real rays of golden light, shining from the afternoon sun through an amber window in which the holy dove spreads his wings. This glorious blend of sculpture and architecture is achieved between 1657 and 1666.

Bernini can be seen in even more emotional and theatrical vein in his superb ensemble in the Cornaro chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria. The subject is the mystical ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila, following her own account of being pierced by the arrow of divine love. The saint, in a flutter of white marble robes, swoons as a jubilant winged boy prepares to plunge an arrow into her heart. Real light from a hidden window combines with sculpted rays to illuminate the scene from above.

In a final theatrical touch, in this most histrionic of religious masterpieces, sculpted members of the Cornaro family watch the scene from boxes to either side.

The Cornaro chapel is completed in 1652. The previous year Bernini has unveiled the most spectacular of Rome's many fountains. There are others by him in the city (in the Piazza di Spagna and the Piazza Barberini), but this one in the Piazza Navona outdoes them all.

The design of the Fountain of the Four Rivers is Bernini's but most of the carving - including the figures of the four river gods - is done by others from his preparatory models. From the shock of its central concept (heavy obelisk on top of hollow rock) to its lively and often surprising details, this is a worthy secular counterpart to Bernini's Christian contribution in the shaping of baroque Rome.

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