Watching death at work

Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath.

Is it compassion, or sorrow, or repulsion we see in the heavy glance that brave David casts on the severed head of Goliath in Caravaggio's painting David with the Head of Goliath (1610), on show in the exhibition "Caravaggio Bacon" at the Borghese Gallery in Rome? This is one of the last paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Italian master who will be celebrated across the world in 2010, 400 years after his death.

Caravaggio reads the biblical episode in which the young hero triumphs over Goliath, and thereby saves Israel from the Philistines, through the lens of his own travails. The artist, who was notorious for his fiery temper, murdered a man while playing a game in Rome and was forced to flee south to avoid the death sentence placed upon him by the Pope. From that moment on, Caravaggio lived on the run, an existence that came to an end only with his abrupt death, in mysterious circumstances, on the way back to Rome, where he was to receive at last a pardon from Paolo V. We see in the painting, in the head of a desperate sinner gripped by the firm hand of the executioner, the face of the agonised painter himself.

Most likely created to accompany the artist's plea for a papal pardon, this canvas is almost a moving statement of repentance, as well as a poignant farewell. Caravaggio identifies himself with Goliath, evil and darkness, while the near-naked David, a prefiguration of Christ, represents grace, light and the justice to which the painter is preparing to submit. It can also be read as a double portrait, in which the artist's conscience contemplates with pity its dark counterpart. The legend "Humilitas Occidit Superbiam" on David's gleaming sword gives the picture an explicit symbolic and moral significance.

A similarly profound sense of death and despair suffuses many of Caravaggio's late works -- The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, for instance, or the terrifying Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Indeed, the artist was deeply familiar with death throughout his life: from his direct experience of the plague in Milan, through the early loss of his parents, to the public executions he would have witnessed (the philosopher Giordano Bruno, for example, was burned at the stake in 1600).

This acquaintance with death is what links Caravaggio's work most closely with the twisting and tortured human forms in the paintings of Francis Bacon, whose centenary fell in 2009. It was a good idea of the curators of the Roman exhibition to place these two artists in juxtaposition.

The open mouth of Caravaggio's dead Goliath is all the more sinister and dramatic when seen alongside Bacon's Head VI (1949), where a ghostly shape emerges from the untreated canvas. Standing in front of Caravaggio's Goliath, it is disquieting to recall one of Bacon's favourite quotations, the words of Jean Cocteau, who wrote: "Each day in the mirror I watch death at work."

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Leader: Mark Carney — a rock star banker feels the heat

Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith.

On 24 June, the day after the EU referendum, the United Kingdom resembled a leaderless state. David Cameron promptly resigned as prime minister after his humiliating defeat. His closest ally, George Osborne, retreated to the safety and silence of the Treasury. Labour descended into open warfare; meanwhile, the leaders of the Leave campaign appeared terrified by the challenge confronting them and were already plotting and scheming against one another.

The government had not planned for Brexit, and so one of the few remaining sources of authority was the independent Bank of England. Its Canadian governor, the former Goldman Sachs banker Mark Carney, provided calm by announcing that Threadneedle Street had performed “extensive contingency planning” and would not “hesitate to take additional measures”. A month later, the Bank cut interest rates to a ­record low of 0.25 per cent and announced an additional £60bn of quantitative easing (QE). Both measures helped to avert the threat of an immediate recession by stimulating growth and employment.

Since then the Bank of England governor, who this week gave evidence on monetary policy to the economic affairs committee at the House of Lords, has become a favoured target of Brexiteers and former politicians. Michael Gove has compared Mr Carney to a vainglorious Chinese emperor and chided him for his lack of “humility”. William Hague has accused the Bank of having “lost the plot” and has questioned its future independence. Nigel Lawson has called for Mr Carney to resign, declaring that he has “behaved disgracefully”.

At no point since the Bank achieved independence under the New Labour government in 1997 has it attracted such opprobrium. For politicians faced with the risk, and the reality, of economic instability, Mr Carney and his colleagues are an easy target. However, they are the wrong one.

The consequences of loose monetary policy are not wholly benign. Ultra-low rates and QE have widened inequality by enriching asset-holders, while punishing savers. Yet the economy’s sustained weakness as well as poor productivity have necessitated such action. As Mr Osborne consistently recognised when he was chancellor, monetary activism was the inevitable corollary of fiscal conservatism. Without the Bank’s interventionism, government austerity would have had even harsher consequences.

The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly taken the opportunity to “reset” fiscal policy. He has abandoned Mr Osborne’s absurd target of seeking to achieve a budget surplus by 2020 and has promised new infrastructure investment in his Autumn Statement on 23 November.

After years of over-reliance on monetary stimulus, a rebalancing is, in our view, necessary. Squeezed living standards (inflation is forecast to reach 3 per cent next year, given the collapse in the value of sterling) and anaemic growth are best addressed through government action rather than a premature rise in interest rates. Though UK gilt yields have risen in recent weeks, borrowing costs remain at near-record lows. Mr Hammond should not hesitate to borrow to invest, as Keynesians have long argued.

The Bank of England is far from infallible, of course. In recent years, its growth and employment forecasts have proved overly pessimistic. Mr Carney’s immediate predecessor, Mervyn King, was too slow to cut rates at the start of the financial crisis and was ill-prepared for the recession that followed. Central bankers across the developed world, most notably the former Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan, have too often been treated as seers beyond criticism. Their reputations have suffered as a consequence.

Yet the principle of central bank independence remains one worthy of defence. Labour’s 1997 decision ended the manipulation of interest rates by opportunistic politicians and enhanced economic stability. Although the Bank’s mandate is determined by ministers, it must be free to set monetary policy without fear of interference. The challenge of delivering Brexit is the greatest any British government has faced since 1945. Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith on this epic task.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage