Paint it black

On the run from a death sentence, Caravaggio found a deeper, more urgent voice and produced painting

Dying at the age of 38, Caravaggio left the world with a tantalising sense of what might have been. But his achievement does not seem incomplete. Far from it: the National Gallery's overwhelming survey of his final years feels satisfyingly fulfilled. Not that the mood is at all optimistic. The painter's ever-darkening vision becomes clear in the very first room of the show, where one version of The Supper at Emmaus is contrasted with another completed five years later.

The first canvas, executed in 1601, is a bravura display of Caravaggio's prowess. It seizes on the drama of Christ's appearance to the apostles on Easter Day. One of them grips the sides of his chair, as if reacting to a seismic convulsion. Another apostle throws both his arms outwards, so that his left hand appears to invade our space. In the later version, however, this cataclysmic dynamism is replaced by an air of deep foreboding. The apostles' gestures are hesitant; they look depressed rather than elated. A haggard woman appears especially downcast as she waits to serve a rack of lamb, which sits, a sacrificial offering, on the kind of platter that Caravaggio soon used to carry John the Baptist's severed head. And blackness smothers a surprising amount of the picture surface, making us feel that the whole scene is about to be engulfed by eternal night.

Caravaggio probably painted this dejected image soon after fleeing Rome in 1606. He had killed an opponent in a duel. With a capital sentence on his head, he would never return to the city where his precocious flair had provoked indignant opposition and won such enthusiastic patronage. The work in this show is the art produced by a man on the run. Moving nervously from Naples to Malta and Sicily, he may well have suspected that time was running out fast. He had only four more years to live, and the prevailing tenor of his late work suggests that he felt under a permanent sentence of death. He returned, time and again, to a relentless obsession with mortality.

There is no evidence that Caravaggio felt guilty about killing Ranuccio Tomassoni. He must have suffered from a terrible sense of calamity, however. Most of his finest paintings from this period are concerned with brutality, suffering and extinction. St Andrew, crucified for two days, wins over the crowd with the eloquence of his preaching. The people attempt to help him down from the cross, but Andrew is so determined to die that everyone becomes miraculously paralysed.

Caravaggio cannot have shared this death wish. His final paintings are, by a paradox, charged with a vitality so strong that the brush marks grow looser, wilder and far more emotionally expressive than in his earlier canvases. Traces of workshop assistance are rare. To have attained so much during these four years, he must have worked fast. And the canvases are daringly simplified, casting off extraneous detail in order to concentrate on visceral essence alone.

The pervasive darkness helped Caravaggio to achieve this overriding aim. By shrouding an immense painting of the Flagellation in penumbral gloom, he was able to spotlight the interaction between the figures who fascinated him. They are caught up in the violence of the moment before whipping begins. Tying Christ to a column, his assailants yell while they pull his hair and kick him into submission. Jesus staggers under the force of their animal blows. Like a brilliant cinematographer, Caravaggio made the martyr's blanched and beaten flesh gleam in the light. His pallor intensified, he looks irreversibly sickly.

At every turn, we are dazed by the impact of chiaroscuro. In some paintings, it has the ferocity of flash photography. In others, the artist's involvement with extremes of light and dark is less invasive. A macabre image called Sleeping Cupid has a more restful effect on our eyes, even though the solitary figure is surrounded by inky night. He could simply be resting, and uses a quiver bristling with darts as a makeshift pillow while resting his left hand on a bow. Yet he might be ailing, or even dead, given the funereal character of the blackness above him. Caravaggio was now in a mood to find melancholy in the most consoling subjects.

Take The Adoration of the Shepherds, a monumental canvas painted for a church in Messina. Dispensing with the array of worshippers who so often surge into nativity scenes, Caravaggio focused on three astounded peasants and Joseph. They kneel and gaze at the weary Virgin clutching her baby on an uncomfortable litter of straw. The men are alive with wonder, but at the same time full of consternation and sadness. Seeing the Christ child lying in such a vulnerable state, the shepherds appear to foresee the anguish of his martyrdom. The well-worn horizontal and vertical planks making up the wall of the rudimentary stable bear an ominous resemblance to the wooden cross.

Far more figures are included in The Raising of Lazarus, an even taller painting executed for the high altar of the Padri Crociferi in Messina. But Caravaggio made sure that all the animated onlookers reacting to Lazarus's miraculous emergence are confined to the lower half. Above them, the entire upper half of the picture is little more than a dark, mysteriously smoky emptiness, which cannot distract us from the momentous drama engendered by Christ's outstretched finger. He points straight at the corpse, commanding it to regain life. And Lazarus obliges, flinging his naked arms out in wild, sideways thrusts. Nothing could be more expressive of jolting, electric energy, leaping through limbs long since interred in the cold earth.

Lazarus's head still hangs down loosely, as though in thrall to death. But Martha presses her cheek against his, willing him to be kindled by the warmth of her loving flesh. His limp legs, one lying across the other, retain the inert position they must have occupied under the ground. Next to them, however, a bearded man pulls up the heavy gravestone. He gazes back at an astonishing burst of supernatural light, as do two of his companions. Yet the men clustered excitedly around Christ all stare across at Lazarus, gaping at the corpse's reawakening. Caravaggio's ability to convey the potency of light here becomes wholly spellbinding. Its brightness dances over Lazarus's emaciated body and flares, above all, on the arm that gestures defiantly at a broken skull just below his fingertips.

Although it is the outright masterpiece of the exhibition, The Raising of Lazarus is untypical given the hope it seeks to arouse. The remorseless emphasis on obliteration returns with the final painting, in which David holds up the severed head of Goliath like a gruesome trophy. Widely identified as the artist's last self-portrait, the vanquished warrior frowns with gaping mouth as blood splashes down from his butchered neck. Prophesying the imminence of his own death, Caravaggio may well be yelling in protest at all the years he will lose. And even the triumphant David, with a phallic sword shooting up from his groin, looks regretful as he gazes down at this enraged, inconsolable victim.

"Caravaggio: the final years" is at the National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) until 22 May

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The Bling Bling List

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture