“Caravaggio & Bernini: the discovery of emotions” at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna: installation view (all images courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)

VIENNA — All that remains of the greatness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is the tremendous architectural swagger of Vienna, its former imperial capital, and if you were to point out one building in the city which seems to embody that cast of mind, you would be likely to opt for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which presides over the Museums Quarter in its old center, and is mirror-imaged by the Museum of Natural History facing it across Maria-Theresien-Platz.

The name of Kaiser Franz-Joseph I is displayed in gilded lettering above the main entrance, and the date of the building itself (in Roman numerals, of course): 1891. Less than 30 years later, that empire had vanished, buried beneath the insupportable burden of its own contradictions, as if 600 years of Habsburg domination — even in the great 17th-century portraits by Velasquez, we see how inbred, lantern-jawed, and sickly-looking they were becoming — had scarcely existed at all.

Inside the building, you reach its main picture galleries by climbing a steep marble staircase of an almost ridiculous degree of pomp and outflungness, which then, coming to rest at a landing, fans out into a double of itself, almost causing you to rear back in amazement. At the top of that staircase, you come upon a grandiose marble group by Canova, showing off Theseus cudgeling the centaur to death. It was commissioned by Napoleon. Franz Joseph snapped it up decades after his fall. What better a symbol of imperial might?

And what better location could there possibly be than this one to show off a phenomenon from another great European country at the beginning of the 17th century? This was when — thanks to two extraordinary talents, one a painter from Milan called Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), and the other a sculptor born in Naples called Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) — the Age of the Baroque burst into life.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” (c.1597/98), canvas, 65.8 × 49.5 cm; Florence, Fondazione di Studi die Storia dell’Arte Roberto Longhi, © Florence, Fondazione Roberto Longhi

Caravaggio & Bernini: The Discovery of Emotions features some of the artists’ greatest works, but also charts their influence on others. And that influence proved to be powerful and enduring. Caravaggistas spread across Europe like termites. And so we could call this exhibition a battle of the swaggerers, the pomp of a very eclectic brand of Viennese historicism facing off against the theatrical push and preen of two great Italians.

What we notice from the start, as promised by the exhibition’s subtitle, is how much naked feeling is being expressed. Emotion bubbles on the surface, everywhere. The cooly restrained serenity of classicism is dead in a ditch.

From almost the beginning, Caravaggio, that man who arrived in Rome in the 1590s, is completely outrageous. Whom did he think were his principal patrons? Churchmen, of course. Did they care that he depicted John the Baptist in an extraordinary painting, circa 1602, as a carefree, lascivious, curly-haired boy with the cheekiest of grins imaginable?

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “Saint John the Baptist” (c.1602), canvas, 129 × 95 cm; Rome, Musei Capitolini, Pinacoteca Capitolina, © Sovrintendenza Capitolina, Musei Capitolini – Pinacoteca Capitolina,

In the Bible, John wears a rough garment of camel hair, which suggests the kind of uncomfortable scratchiness that might easily go hand in hand with self-flagellation and self-mortification. Nothing so homespun or humdrum for Caravaggio’s saintly boy. His gorgeous naked body appears to be sprawled across the finest fur in the land, and he seems to be loving every minute of it as he shows off his dear little penis.

What amazes about Caravaggio is that his paintings so often seem to come at us like wild things, almost leaping out of the picture frame in their zestful determination to engage the onlooker. Gaze meets gaze. Painting almost yearns to become three-dimensional. Likewise, much of the sculpture in this show appears to be aspiring to the condition of painting, in order perhaps to prove that it is neither still nor monumental, but agitated and writhing.

How often Bernini shows us lips half-parted, suggesting that movement is in the offing. See his portrait bust of Cardinal Richelieu, how asymmetrical the hair is. These works of art exist for us to want them. Cool and detached appraisal is simply not possible.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini “Cardinal Armand-Jean du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu
Rome” (1640–41), Carrara marble, height: 83 cm (including pedestal); Paris, Musée du Louvre, © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski

And the interiors of these great, low-lit picture galleries, with their soaring, gorgeous, vaulted ceilings and broken pediments above every coffered door, each presided over by a portrait bust in a niche, are perfectly luscious settings for such displays of passion, subterfuge, histrionics, and untrammeled wildness.

The aftermath of the confrontation between David and Goliath, though in fact a painting by Caravaggio (c.1600/01), is like a piece of standing sculpture, pushing beyond its surface so that the intensity of its feelings is given sufficient space to breathe.

We are sucked into a scene of pure horror. As so often with Caravaggio, the image appears almost too large for its frame. The painter does not render David’s whole body, cropping it just below the waste to maximize the theatrical effect.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “David with the Head of Goliath” (c.1600/1601),
poplar, 90.5 × 116 cm; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, © KHM-Museumsverband

David’s sling has gone, replaced by a sword which looks poised to swing all over again. The boy – he looks scarcely more than a boy — holds out the ghastly head, huge, still splashing blood, mouth agape.

The whole scene emerges from darkness. The light source is mysterious. There is great beauty here — as with Saint John the Baptist, David is a handsome boy in the bloom of his youth, flaunting the muscularity of his arm and shoulder, the pale rose tint of his cheek – and there is also much horror. Our response is suspended between disgust and and sheer admiration.

Bernini made his sculpture of Saint Sebastian (1617) when he was just 19 years old and still working in his father’s studio. As with Caravaggio, Bernini’s great skill lies in how he can, seemingly at a stroke, refresh a familiar theme, overturn convention.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Saint Sebastian” (1617), marble, height: 98.8 cm; private collection, on loan to Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, © photo: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Sebastian is most often depicted peppered with arrows. Not so here. Bernini shows great restraint — there are just two or three, and they are off-center. The saint lies back, slumped in utter vulnerability. What we concentrate upon is the way the body spreads into the surrounding space, how subtle shadows define the modeling of ribs and torso.

Later on we see four small grotesque gilded heads, mouths agape, baying in mockery, mounted on the reconstructed frame of the roof of a carriage. Whose? Bernini’s. As they sat on each of the four corners of the roof of his personal carriage, he would travel from place to place in Rome, appraising the work of lesser artists, letting the heads mock their meager achievements of his inferiors.

No one has ever pretended that these two men were saints. But they were hardly worse than the cardinals with their spilling purses. The excesses of empire were easily matched by the excesses of Catholicism.

Caravaggio & Bernini: the discovery of emotions continues at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (Maria-Theresien-Platz, Vienna, Austria) through January 19, 2020. Travel to Vienna and hotel accommodations were provided by the museum.

The accompanying book is published by Prestel in association with the Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, (£45.00/$60 hardback).

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...