By at least one amusing new metric, Michelangelo’s unofficial 500-year run at the top of the Italian art charts has ended. Caravaggio, who somehow found time to paint when he wasn’t brawling, scandalizing pooh-bahs, chasing women (and men), murdering a tennis opponent with a dagger to the groin, fleeing police assassins or getting his face mutilated by one of his many enemies, has bumped him from his perch.
That’s according to an art historian at the University of Toronto, Philip Sohm. He has studied the number of writings (books, catalogs and scholarly papers) on both of them during the last 50 years. Mr. Sohm has found that Caravaggio has gradually, if unevenly, overtaken Michelangelo.
He has charts to prove it.
The change, most obvious since the mid-1980s, doesn’t exactly mean Michelangelo has dropped down the memory hole. To judge from the throngs still jamming the Sistine Chapel and lining up outside the Accademia in Florence to check out “David,” his popularity hasn’t dwindled much.
But, charts or no charts, Mr. Sohm has touched on something. Caravaggiomania, as he calls it, implies not just that art history doctoral students may finally be struggling to think up anything fresh to say about Michelangelo. It suggests that the whole classical tradition in which Michelangelo was steeped is becoming ever more foreign and therefore seemingly less germane, even to many educated people. His otherworldly muscle men, casting the damned into hell or straining to emerge from thick blocks of veined marble, aspired to an abstract and bygone ideal of the sublime, grounded in Renaissance rhetoric, which, for postwar generations, now belongs with the poetry of Alexander Pope or plays by Corneille as admirable but culturally remote splendors.