The Capitoline Museums


Rembrandt: ‘A Woman at her Toilet’, 1633, oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Canada.




The Caravaggio I had come to see has been replaced with this little Rembrandt from The National Gallery of Canada. Layer on layer of finely textured light pooled into the centre of a gloomy space, a room we presume.

A large woman holds her even larger stomach; pregnant and musing on the future? Or fat and remembering how she got that way? In the darkness another woman is combing her hair, the comb is just visible. The room could be huge, but is probably small, behind them on what is probably a bed, jewels glint, echoing the fineness of her clothing, the red cloak and the jewelled slipper.

Layers of soft, reticent Northern light in a private room, no male presence. The two women are in a space that dust must lie, layered in generations, thin sediments of human skin, strata of stories of the people that made up that dust.

The Rembrandt, in a an inspired piece of curatorship, was paired with another


Caravaggio: 'Saint John the Baptist ', 1602. Oil on Canvas. Capitoline Museums, Rome.

A bronzed boy, who has played in the sun, jumped into rivers in the Italian August sun, holds a horned ram. He has turned back, half smiling at the viewer. He is sitting on a ledge covered, not with the ratty animals skins of the desert, but a fine fur, white and red cloth match that quality and set of the boys own naked skin.

The body is (slightly) oddly articulated which makes it resemble a central trunk of muscle. There is little doubt what this boy is prepared to do for the man who could pay for it. The bright light, clear and strong, and the naked form it shows are not evidence of the light of god, nor is the nudity evidence of the divinity of man in it’s ideal form.  The composition strips away the sacerdotal form that covers Michelangelo’s Ignudi, although the arrangement of the boy is similar.

This is Southern sensuality and corrupt pleasure, strong, immediate, male and thrust right up to the picture plane. None of Rembrandt’s delicacy, women absorbed in domestic activity and the aching slowness of cobwebbed light layered down over what might seem like a geological time scale.