In three installments, OMNP takes an in-depth look at the captivating life of Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, in a noteworthy year for the artist.
Labor Day weekend means the languid pace of Summer coming to a close; the dog days of July and August having left us relaxed and refreshed for an exciting change of season. In 2010 however, it’s worth reflecting on how such a disposition was never really in the cards for the infamous Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (better known as Caravaggio); neither in the life he lived, nor the dire conditions leading up the art historical highlight of this season- the 400th anniversary of his untimely passing on July 18th, 1610, at the age of 38.
Celebrating someone’s death seems particularly morbid, but in Caravaggio’s case it’s a bit more appropriate.. It’s a nod towards a rebellious, live-fast, die young legacy of the painter that has been so lionized over the past several decades. Caravaggio has become a choice foil for our Romantic fascination with the eccentric genius- a brilliant talent who, in defying the artistic establishment, was as brazen as he was courageous.
His philandering lifestyle and frequent run-ins with the law have made him the Baroque equivalent of your standard, self-destructive celebrity today. TMZ would have had a field day with some of this guy’s more mild transgressions: amongst which included late night cavorting with friends, insulting rivals with “We’ll cut off your balls and fry them in oil!”, carrying a sword without a license, being sued for libel by an adversary painter, assaulting an impolite waiter over the topic of artichoke preparation, and fielding a landlord complaint, publicly registered against the artist for throwing stones at her window. (Caravaggio owed her six months’ rent, and she had confiscated several of his possessions.)
From the late 1590’s to the early 1600’s, such behavior was enabled due to favoring of the artist from people in high places, and Caravaggio continued to churn out masterpieces on both a private and public scale. Powerful patrons like the Cardinal del Monte, a noted connoisseur of the arts who first took the impoverished artist off the streets for a long term stay at his villa, played a crucial factor in his rise. Del Monte’s hospitality provided Caravaggio with a cushy situation, where he would consort with the likes of Galileo, and produced seminal Baroque pieces like “The Cardsharps,” (see image #2) “Bacchus,” (see image #3) and “The Musicians.” (see image #4)
Popularity amongst the elite circles soon led to mainstream success, as the Church came calling in the Summer of 1599 with a commission for three paintings decorating the altar of the Contarelli Chapel within the Church of San Luigi de Francesi in Rome. (see image #5) In honor of the bequest of Matthieu Cointrel, the affluent French Cardinal who provided San Luigi’s financing and had died in 1585, Caravaggio was to decorate the altar with scenes from the life of St. Matthew, the Cardinal’s name saint.
Out of the series of three paintings, the artist’s breakthrough piece-“The Calling of St. Matthew” (see image #8) emerged. A landmark work hailed for its dramatic employment of chiaroscuro (see the spearhead of light emanating from Christ’s pointing finger), and use of contemporary imagery for a religious scene, the piece resonated with the masses. Caravaggio soon became the most famous painter in all of Rome.
The magnitude of such success, however, was only matched by the severity of the fall from grace that followed. Years of malevolent behavior finally caught up with the artist on the fateful evening of May 29, 1606, when Caravaggio murdered a young man named Ranuccio de Tomassoni in a duel.
Conflated ego in tow, the artist had taken exception to Tomassoni-a reputed local pimp and handy swordsman, either over the result of a tennis match between the two, or the favoring of the beautiful Fillide Melandroni- both a rumored courtesan of Tomasoni, and a popular subject of Caravaggio’s paintings (appearing as herself in “Portrait of a Courtesan,” (see image #10) as the heroine in “Saint Catherine”, (see image #11) and “Judith and Holofernes” (see image #12), and as Mary Magdalene, in the moment of her conversion. (see image #17)
After a mortal wound to Tomassoni’s groin, a reward was placed on his head by the Roman authorities, a fix that that even his rich and powerful supporters could not get him out of. And so began a life on the run that would eventually carry him to his undoing. Relocations to Naples and Malta resulted in a trail of masterpieces, including the massive“ Beheading of St. John,” (see images #14-15) completed during Caravaggio’s esteemed tenure as a member of the Brotherhood of Knights of Malta in 1608.
Turbulence continued, and Caravaggio was soon booted from this fraternity and imprisoned, after arguing with a fellow member and attacking them. He soon escaped, according to a report from October of 1608 which stated he had used rope to break out and get back to Sicily (most likely in collaboration with someone else, as there was no way that the artist could have done this unaided.)
The artist then spent his last two years bouncing around Sicily, painting some of his most underrated works. These included the “Burial of Saint Lucy,” (see image #18) in December of 1608 (a fitting companion to the St. John piece in Malta, for its dramatic void in composition), the “Resurrection of Lazarus” from December of 1608 (see image #19) the “Adoration of the Shepherds” (see image #20) from 1609, (which the artist earned 1000 scudi,the highest total ever paid for one of his works) and “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula” (image #19) from May of 1610.
He also traveled with a fitting sense of paranoia, carrying a fitting suspicion that he was being pursued. Such fears were realized during a return to Naples in October 1609, when it was reported that at one of the district’s most infamous dives, the Locanda del Cerriglio, Caravaggio suffered a vicious beating to the point of non-recognition, at the hands of unknown assailants (possibly related to the aggrieved knight he tussled with a year before.)
For all of Caravaggio’s conflicts and misdeeds, it was a chance at peace and redemption that led to his final downfall. Months after the assault, Caravaggio’s spirits were renewed after hearing reports that Pope Paul V had arranged for a pardon for the murder of Tomassoni.
This was possible courtesy of an intercession by the Pope’s nephew Cardinal Scipione Borghese,(a powerful and admiring collector of the artist, who had acquired/seized two of his early works, “Sick Bacchus,” and “Boy with a Basket of Fruit” at that time) and Ferdinando Gonzaga of Mantua- another influential devotee of the artist’s, who had been newly elected to the position of Cardinal at the age of 20 in 1607, and had previously bought Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin” after its cadaverous looking subject matter was too morbid for its original owners- the brass of the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome.
The artist jumped at the chance to restore his reputation, and quickly prepared a series of works to win the Pope’s favor, including the infamous “David with the head of Goliath,” (see image #16), an updated version of a composition Caravaggio twice undertaken years ago. Here, his audacious imagination lent the Goliath’s severed head as a self portrait- a plea for atonement from the Church, showing how pathetic and repentant he felt about his previous sins.
The peaks and valleys soon continued, for after completing these works and boarding a chartered ship to deliver him to Rome, Caravaggio suffered further misfortune, imprisoned again by authorities who had mistaken him for another idle fugitive. According to Baglione, after the misunderstanding was cleared up two days later, he bolted from jail, ever determined to catch up with the runaway ship carrying his precious cargo.
This time, Caravaggio’s hubris got the best of him. After setting out on this 100-plus kilometer journey on foot to Porto Ercole in North, he didn’t plan on contracting a fatal case of malaria traveling through the festering Summer swamps of Maremma.
After going through all of that, death by fever and exhaustion feels more unbefitting than tragic. Shouldn’t it have been in some blaze of glory? Perhaps via bloody duel or some legendary stunt of artistic martyrdom? Even a plain old substance overdose would have made for a more climactic ending.