Speaking of Alberto Angela: is prime-time disclosure too fictional?

A reflection on Alberto Angela's popular programs: they are a great product, but what if certain details were less emphasized or less romanticized?

To begin to reread Alberto Angela ’s unprecedented program on Caravaggio, Tonight with Caravaggio, one could start from the mere numerical data, which speak, as usual, of a great triumph: on Wednesday, December 16, his program was the most watched program in prime time, with 3 million 212,000 viewers who guaranteed a 14.1 percent share for the in-depth study on Michelangelo Merisi. The keys to the success of Alberto Angela’s TV popularization have been examined at length: The clarity and accessibility of the texts, the lavish and hypersaturated photography, the seriousness of the team’s work, the revisiting in a more modern and winking key of Piero Angela’s style, the politeness, affability, calmness andloveliness of the presenter, the almost confidential and colloquial tone that Angela iunior manages to establish with his audience, the ability to have created an iconic and immediately recognizable presence, made of a calm, relaxed, paced and didactic speech and a theatrical mimicry almost to excess.

Alberto Angela is thus an admirable popularizer of science, who enjoys a wide and well-deserved popularity, and who is probably able to make any topic exciting and compelling, even without making use of such gimmicks as immersive reconstructions of paintings, simply with his presence, his style and his storytelling. Of course, Angela has also been heavily criticized since his broadcasts are not sheltered from mistakes (and Tonight with Caravaggio is no exception in this regard), but that is not the point: no one is immune and exempt from mistakes, and those who do popularize happen to make mistakes. In the face of broadcasts such as the in-depth study on Caravaggio, the issues that should be thought about (and these are essential problems, the basis of good scientific popularization) are others, mainly two: emphasizations and clichés.

Emphasizations of certain traits of an artist’s personality, or of certain elements of his work, are risks that one runs into when one wants to make a popular product appealing to a wide audience: they are used, essentially, with the intention of making listeners or readers more passionate about the product being proposed. One trait of Caravaggio’s work is emphasized when, for example, in order to explain why the Madonna of the Palafrenieri was rejected, one sticks to a single source (whether it is implausible in the presence of others matters little), namely Bellori, who justifies the initial failure of the painting on the basis that the painter portrayed “in it vilely the Virgin with the naked infant Jesus,” while keeping silent about others that instead provide different and more credible though less intriguing reasons (the disagreements between the Compagnia dei Palafrenieri and the Fabbrica di San Pietro around the jus patronage of the altar to which the Madonna was destined). No mistake is made in pointing out that certain paintings may indeed have caused an uproar (of the Madonna of the Pilgrims it is Baglione himself who points out that “by ’popolani ne fu fu fu estremo schiamazzo.” and it is nonetheless interesting to note how Caravaggio’s rival painter emphasizes that it was the “commoners” who were surprised), but surely, by emphasizing an episode, one could end up distorting one’s knowledge of an artist and the context in which he worked. One could go on and on: one emphasizes a hypothesis that wants Caravaggio to have been a soldier in Hungary when one comes to the conclusion that, according to “someone” (without, however, saying who), the painter was a “Rambo” poorly integrated into society, one emphasizes theidea that Caravaggio may have remade the canvases in the Cerasi Chapel after taking some cues from Carracci’sAssumption when one invents from scratch that the Lombard felt surpassed by the beauty of the work of theEmilian, one emphasizes the shaky conjecture that Caravaggio may have witnessed the execution of Beatrice Cenci (no evidence exists) when one even goes so far as to establish that that macabre scene would have remained “so imprinted on Caravaggio’s mind” that it would also find a place in future paintings with decapitated subjects, a tale with romanticized accents is proposed when the commoner Maddalena Antognetti is associated with Roman prostitution circles on the basis of a misreading of a source, and so on.

Un fotogramma della trasmissione Stanotte con Caravaggio, con Alberto Angela
A still from the program Tonight with Caravaggio, with Alberto Angela

Wanting to break a lance in favor of Alberto Angela, it could be argued that Caravaggesque studies constitute a very slippery terrain, with an endless bibliography, constantly and continuously updated, where there is no shortage of friction between scholars either, and can therefore prove to be an extremely difficult subject to popularize, although the assumption may sound like a paradox. But regardless of the scientific context of reference, can a popularization program intended for an audience of three million viewers nonetheless produce exaggerations in order to make the “plot” of the story more juicy? I think one can then basically agree that similar gimmicks are a kind of entry level of culture and therefore succeed in bringing the public closer to culture, and I think no one can question this merit. Probably a great many who, until Wednesday evening, did not know where the Contarelli Chapel was, will have promised themselves to make a visit to San Luigi dei Francesi, many others will have been spurred to visit the Borghese Gallery, still others will already be planning a tour to discover the works of Caravaggio in Naples, and so on. Some will say that Tonight with Caravaggio is better than many trashy programs: even without risking comparisons, it can certainly be said that it is good that, in the prime time of Italy’s first television network, Caravaggio is being talked about. However, will there be alternative ways to emphasize in order to make the narrative more compelling while remaining faithful to the data provided by scientific advice (especially since Alberto Angela’s editorial staff can count on authoritative names in the scientific community, such as that of Rossella Vodret in the case of the program on Caravaggio)?

The other element mentioned is that of the perpetuation of clichés: it will be worth remembering that one of the first twentieth-century texts on Caravaggio was not the work of an art historian, but of a physiologist, Mariano Luigi Patrizi, who in 1921 printed an essay on the Milanese painter entitled Un pittore criminale. Almost exactly one hundred years have passed since the publication of that volume, but it seems that Caravaggio must still be presented to the public as, precisely, a “criminal painter,” unable to shake off the clichés about his violent temperament, his difficult temperament, and his paintings as a product of his character, although these are, of course, aspects of Caravaggio’s existence and even art that are anything but secondary. Perhaps the general public needs popular science programs that exceed in biography and anecdote in order to become interested in the subject? I don’t think so: it would then be more profitable, useful and exciting to watch a film about the artist. Nor do I think Alberto Angela finds it difficult to be engaging even without delving too deeply into novel-like details about an artist’s life: perhaps, simply, it is because the canvas of Caravaggesque popularization has become so solidified that it is difficult to deviate from the sort of canon that forms the backbone of all popularized production on the artist and that places more emphasis on his past than on his works, or motivates his works on the basis of his past.

These areproblems inherent in the very nature of the popular product, which by definition seeks to address a wide audience and tries to do so in a usually very limited amount of time (in this case, the two hours of a prime time television broadcast), which in any case is always less, or more concentrated, than that of an academic lecture. One of the great merits of Alberto Angela’s programs lies precisely in his ability to avoid a magisterial tone: a relevant merit, because it is one of the fundamental keys to stimulating the public’s curiosity, in turn one of the main objectives of science popularization. But can the paradigm that in order to reach a wide audience, one must necessarily emphasize or propose clichés be revised ? There is no shortage of good examples: thinking of television and remaining in Italy, one could mention the series Signorie also produced by Rai, or wanting to look at the online one could take a cue from initiatives such as the popularization videos of the Palazzi dei Rolli in Genoa or the video-pills of an excellent up-and-comer such as Jacopo Veneziani. The real challenge of science popularization (or that wants to put itself forward as such), and not only that of Alberto Angela (think, for example, of the many initiatives born on the web during the months of the pandemic), the main difficulty, is precisely that of maintaining unchanged the ability to grip the public without renouncing a less romanticized narrative, but more adherent to the historical fact. A problem of balance, in short, rather than superficiality: can, therefore, an equally light and appealing, but more balanced, narrative really make less audience?

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