Why is this show so bad?

No, that's wrong. "The World of Caravaggio" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has more than 30 Caravaggios -- it couldn't possibly be bad. Any show including his Uffizi "Bacchus," or his "Supper at Emmaus" from the National Gallery, London, or his Naples "Flagellation," or his shameless Berlin cupid, is, by definition, grand.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) ranks with, and is the bridge between, Raphael and Rembrandt. He was passionate, original, hugely influential. His vivid, moving figures, some impudent, some pious, all lit as if by lightning, changed the history of art.

His "David with the Head of Goliath" from Rome's Borghese Gallery, his "Judith and Holofernes" from the Palazzo Barberini, his "Boy Bitten by a Lizard" (private collection, London) and his Thyssen "Saint Catherine of Alexandria" will never again be seen together in this country. This is a once-in-a-lifetime show.

And still it disappoints. It shouldn't, but it does.

It had everything going for it. It was assembled by skilled scholars, by Sir John Pope-Hennessy, consultative chairman of the museum's department of European Paintings and curator Keith R. Christiansen. With the help of Prof. Mina Gregori, they produced a thoroughly researched, thoroughly illustrated 367-page catalogue. They had plenty of money. Their show cost $500,000. (The National Endowment for the Humanities put up $250,000; FMR, the glossy magazine of Franco Maria Ricci, and the museum's Real Estate Council together provided an additional $200,000; and an anonymous donor provided $50,000 more.)

Their show should thrill the viewer, and, eventually, it does. But before it thrills, it dulls.

It is padded, from the start, with questionable or damaged or unnecessary pictures. Not all its "Caravaggios" were painted by the master. Its spirit is pedantic, its installation backwards and its theses unconvincing. It is as if the Metropolitan -- sick of being charged with mounting oversimple, overglitzy "blockbuster" exhibits -- decided it would rush off in the opposite direction. This show is clogged with footnotes. It feels as if it were designed for specialists -- and too bad for the rest of us.

Big shows are exhausting. You can only see so much before your eyes begin to tire and attention flags. What makes this 100-picture show especially exhausting is that it starts confusingly. The unsuspecting viewer is expected to examine 60 various paintings, many second-rate, before he is allowed so much as a glimpse of a single Caravaggio.

On and on the viewer plods, through three galleries, through five. Then -- suddenly -- the trumpets blare. It is as if the show had switched from mono into stereo, from dimness to bright light. Caravaggio at last! But by then it is too late.

If this exhibit were a novel, it wouldn't have a plot. If it were an article, it wouldn't have a lead.

Those who go see it should pay heed to Frank Stella. That extraordinary painter -- a time-toughened New Yorker bold enough to stare down glowering museum guards -- recently proffered the following advice in The New York Times:

"Skip the first 60 paintings introducing 'The Age of Caravaggio,' " wrote Stella, "and go directly to the Caravaggios themselves. Then do the Caravaggios quickly, following the Metropolitan's chronological order. When your reach the end of the exhibit, ignore the guard, the bookstore and the post cards, and start working your way back until you reach his earliest work once again. Now relax, stretch your calf muscles . . . Do a few deep knee bends. You are ready to start again going through the Caravaggios. When you reach the end of the exhibition this time, you are free to leave . . ."

The first room of the Metropolitan's exhibit is devoted to the paintings of some of Caravaggio's Northern Italian predecessors. The second contains paintings by slightly older painters who worked, as he did, in Milan. The third and fourth are filled with various works by his contemporaries. The fifth is devoted to his followers.

This exhibition struggles to put Caravaggio in context. That is its chief flaw.

No context can explain him. He burst upon the scene like some exploding comet. Almost nothing in older Italian art -- and nothing in the first two-thirds of this exhibit -- suggests he is to come.

He appeared in Rome -- and conquered. Almost single-handedly he overthrew the Mannerist fashion -- intentionally unreal, contorted and affected -- that had ruled Roman painting since the death of Michelangelo in 1564. Caravaggio was a realist. Refusing to idealize, he painted from live models. And he made them look like life. The astonished disciple -- who rises from his chair at the vision of the Christ in "The Supper at Emmaus" -- does not wear a halo or luxurious robes. He has, as any poor man might, a gaping, tattered hole in the sleeve of his green jacket. Caravaggio's figures do not belong to heaven, or to some perfect past. His red-cheeked Bacchus, flushed by drink, wears dirt under his fingernails and a catamite's dull pout.

Something cool, and coolly ordered, ruled the art of the high Renaissance. The 15th-century masters, in love with perspective, made their black-and-white floor tiles march off into the distance in absolute obedience to the laws of mathematics. But Caravaggio did not paint that way. His volumes are not counted out, his spaces are not measured. His figures are instead apprehended whole -- as if belonging to the sphere of space that has been wrapped around them. Caravaggio was a rebel, a fearless avant-gardist. He did not yearn for sweetness or the harmonies of heaven. Unafraid of lust, of harsh anger, sudden violence, he peered into the dark.

The freedom of his brush, his use of light and shadow, and his willingness to paint the life he witnessed in the street staggered his contemporaries. How can one explain the miraculous appearance of so original a master?

Imagine, if you can, a "context" exhibit that attempts to explain the innovations of the young Picasso by displaying older pictures he might have seen in Malaga. That is the sort of mission attempted by this show.

As a young man in Milan in the 1580s, Caravaggio was apprenticed to one Simone Peterzano, one of whose large paintings is on view. Another Lombard painter -- whose writings, notes the catalogue, "may have influenced" Caravaggio -- was Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, who is also represented. Before heading south to Rome in 1592, Caravaggio, it's thought, might have visited Venice, where he might have seen the Tintoretto night scene, "The Agony in the Garden" from the church of Santo Stefano, that's been borrowed for this show.

But all these "mays" and "might haves" are tenuous at best. We will never know for certain exactly who or what "influenced" Caravaggio, or what pictures most impressed him, or what yearnings and revulsions led him to the threshold of his revolutionary art.

We can only speculate. And all our speculations inevitably will lead us to impressive works of art absent from this show.

He surely must have known Leonardo's pictures, for he studied painting in Milan. But there are no Leonardos here. If he went to Venice and saw that Tintoretto, he would have looked at Titians, too, but there are no Titians in this show. The catalogue notes that Bernard Berenson "was the first to identify the compositional source" of Caravaggio's Naples "Flagellation" in a Roman mural by Sebastiano del Piombo. But that mural, too, is missing. So are a thousand other impressive works of art that might have stirred his soul.

That's the problem with trying to put an innovative genius, a Caravaggio, in context. It is easy to imagine him sneering at the sweetness of a Raphael madonna, or staring up, with awe, at the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, or noticing a bit of cloth in the light beam from a lantern -- but that lantern and that ceiling, and all the antique statues one assumes he scrutinized, are missing from this show.

We learn more, much more, about Caravaggio's obsessions, his violences and passions, from the pictures that he left us than we will ever learn from objects he did not make himself.

We know he considered violence. We see that in the knife that is about to slice the throat of scheming Isaac, and in the bloody sword that's sawing through the neck of Holofernes, and in the posture of the torturer who braces his foot against the calf of Christ in the Naples "Flagellation." The round, bare shoulder of the "Boy Bitten by a Lizard," and the rose behind his ear, and the torso of the Bacchus, and the feather tip that strokes the thigh of the grinning, naked cupid in "Amor Vincit Omnia" ("Love Conquers All") may similarly hint at the artist's lusts.

He was anything but tame. We know that from the wildness apparent in his pictures. And also from his life. The documents are sparse, but what documents survive are sprinkled with accounts of his willingness to fight. Some are listed in the catalogue:

1592. Caravaggio is forced to leave Milan because of "some quarrels."

Nov. 19, 1600: "Caravaggio is accused of assault."

Feb. 17, 1601: "A case against Caravaggio for having wounded a sergeant of the guards of the Castel Sant'Angelo is dropped after the two parties make peace."

Aug. 28, 1603: Painter "Giovanni Baglione brings a libel suit against Caravaggio . . . Caravaggio is arrested Sept. 11 and freed Sept. 25."

April 24, 1605: "Testimony against Caravaggio for insulting a waiter and throwing a plate of artichokes in his face."

Oct. 19, 1604: "Caravaggio is imprisoned for throwing stones."

Nov. 18, 1604: "Caravaggio is in prison for insulting an officer."

May 28, 1605: "Caravaggio is arrested for illegal possesion of arms."

July 20, 1605: "Caravaggio is again in prison for having offended a woman and her daughter."

July 29, 1605. "Caravaggio is denounced for insulting a notary . . . The artist flees to Genoa."

Sept. 1, 1605: "Caravaggio's landlady brings charges against him for breaking a window shutter: Caravaggio's rent was six months in arrears and the landlady had seized his furniture."

Oct. 24, 1605: Caravaggio, discovered badly wounded in the street, "states that he fell on his own sword."

May 28, 1606: "In a dispute over a wager on a tennis match, Caravaggio kills his opponent, Ranuccio Tommasoni, and is wounded."

Oct. 6, 1608. "In Malta, two men are charged to seek Caravaggio, who had escaped from prison . . ."

July 1610: "Caravaggio's enemies caught up with him in Naples, slashing his face so badly he was almost unrecognizable. Caravaggio then boarded a boat for Rome where his pardon was being negotiated . . . Upon landing at Porto Ercole he was mistakenly identified and thrown into prison for two days. He resumed the trip on foot, caught a fever, and 'within a few days died as miserably as he had lived . . .' "

Something of his temper, of his willingness to plunge into the hot cauldron of anger, is almost from the start apparent in his art.

As a painter, Caravaggio was a dramatist of sorts. The unbearable intensity of many of his pictures often calls to mind moments out of his contemporary, Shakespeare. Lomazzo, the Lombard painter, wrote that Leonardo had gone to executions "to observe the expressions of those condemned to death -- those archings of the brow, those expressions of the eyes . . ." Caravaggio, too, paid particular attention to martyrdoms and beatings, to severed heads and crucifixions and other moments of great pain.

Remember the "Painting in Naples 1606-1705" show, starring Caravaggio, shown in Washington at the National Gallery of Art in 1983? It included only a half-dozen pictures by the master (and all except the grandest, the "Seven Acts of Mercy," are also in New York), but the Naples exhibition was a consistent, and coherent, and nearly perfect show. It obeyed dramatic unities -- one century, one city. It taught the viewer more about "The Age of Caravaggio" than does the present exhibition.

Caravaggio had no patience with the bland. The great force of his pictures, and the passion of their gestures, cannot help but call attention to the misleading meanderings of the Metropolitan's plotless show.

The museum suggests that visitors pay a general admission charge of $4. There is no additional cost for the Caravaggio exhibit, but timed tickets are required. Tickets for each day become available at 9:30 a.m. The exhibit will close April 14.