Caravaggio’s anti-climactic demise hasn’t prevented him from being prime for the Hollywood treatment. Simon Schama’s dramatization of the artist’s life (see video below) from his “Power of Art” series produced by the BBC has been the most recent of note, and is as irresistible as it is melodramatic.
After viewing certain portions, one can’t help but chuckle at the contrived, slow-motion instant replays of Caravaggio during various fits of madness and suffering. A frenzied scene sword practice is particularly memorable, seeming very much like one of his paintings. Chiaroscuro in this case, however, isn’t highlighting some stirring Biblical legend, but rather a generous downpour of sweat and spit (see image #1)
Such histrionics would be trite if not for Schama’s pithy commentary, which transforms this erstwhile soap opera fare into an illuminating glimpse into the rebel’s time and place. This is particularly apparent during Caravaggio’s formative years in Rome, where grainy shots and quick edits of the city’s intimidating architecture amidst oncoming dusk bring about a wariness that underscores the artist’s destitute surroundings; a world to which Schama deems that “evil Eden down by the River Tiber.”
Such cauldron of sin and temptation of course paralleled the emotional torment stewing inside Caravaggio. As Schama puts it this was the battleground for the “war for souls”-the spirit which propelled some of the artist’s most magnificent works in Contarelli Chapel (depicting the life of Saint Matthew, see image #2) and the Cerasi Chapel (St. Paul’s conversion and the martyrdom of St. Peter, see image #3) as commissioned by the Church in their campaign to reaffirm public allegiance.
Furthermore, Caravaggio could channel this battle inward, using as a tome of personal reflection. In “David with the Head of Goliath”, the giant’s severed head is actually the master’s self portrait, a symbol of his humbled repentance and request for forgiveness and mercy from Pope Paul V (who in exchange for some newly painted works, was to arrange for the artist’s murder of Ranuccio de Tommasoni. Such a reading is tidy enough, however Schama’s perspective leads to a more complex picture. Things aren’t so black and white within the fog of one’s morality and self-worth. As he concludes, in this battle, “(t)here is a David and Goliath in all of us.”
Another compelling look at Caravaggio’s life comes by way of the accounts from his contemporaries. Walter Friedlander’s “Caravaggio Studies,” is an essential compilation, particularly for uncovering some anecdotal gems. One comes by way of translation-from an early biographical account of Caravaggio by the collector Giulio Mancini from 1619, revealing that upon first arriving in Rome and staying with Pandolfo Pucci, a well-to-do, yet stingy man of the cloth,the young menace nicknamed his host “Monsignor Insalata,” in recognition of his distaste for Pucci’s daily fare: chicory and lettuce for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Further cheekiness can be found in the official accounts of the infamous libel trial brought against Caravaggio by Giovanni Baglione, (see image #7), the three-time head of the Accademia di San Luca (the premier organization of painters in Rome) who was a successful painter in his own right, but was threatened by this upstart’s unorthodox style, which flew in the face of tradition. The Academy stressed a vigilant adherence to the past mastery of the Renaissance- emphasizing a measured process of draughtsmanship and sublime, idealized depictions of the holy. On the contrary, Caravaggio came crashing in with spontaneity and realism. He painted directly onto his canvas, never preparing sketches or outlines of his works. More importantly however, he repackaged religious imagery on populist terms.
Here were images that the public could relate to, where holy figures were not cast as infallible icons, but as ragged figures very much like the rest of them, trying to make due in a dark, disillusioned world. Such a humanistic outlook is what propelled breakthrough works like “The Calling of Saint Matthew”, from the Contarelli project. (see image #4) Amidst a seedy tavern gathering of avaricious men counting their tax earnings, Caravaggio offers a glimmer of hope to the Matthew, who cannot understand his choosing. In this moment of “Who..me!?,” Caravaggio offered a scene of faith procured in real world terms, one to carry with us because we could understand what it would be like to in Matthew’s shoes.
Baglione, however, opposed such pioneering. While his biographical publication “The Lives of the Painters” is well regarded as the Baroque sequel to Giorgio Vasari’s celebrated account of the greats of the Renaissance, passages from his account of Caravaggio reek of resentment and hypocrisy.
From the Friedlander translation:
While “he thought that he alone with his works had surpassed all the other men of his profession..some people consider him to have been the very ruination of painting, because many young artists, following his example, simply copy heads from life without studying the fundamentals of drawing and the profundity of art and are satisfied with color values alone. Thus they are incapable of putting two figures together or of composing a story because they do not understand the high value of the noble art of painting.”[i]
Baglione loses his street cred here, because in spite of such a denouncement, he imitated Caravaggio’s style, most lamentably in the painting “Sacred Versus Profane Love,” (see image #5) a response to Caravaggio’s “Love Victorious,” (see image #6) in which Baglione not only crowed about his prowess in winning the commission, but also inserted the likeness of his nemesis into the face of the devil found in the bottom left hand corner.
Caravaggio and his circle took exception to such hubris, and conjured up a response as humorous as it was scathing. A poem denouncing Baglione was prepared and distributed to throughout the Roman community. One particular passage from “Caravaggio Studies” is a recipe for a chuckle:
“Come hither, please, you who presume to find fault
With other men’s paintings, and yet know that your own
Are still nailed up in your house
Because you are ashamed to show them in public.
Indeed I will abandon my undertaking
Because I feel that I have too great an abundance of subject-matter,
Especially if I were to enter upon the chain,
The gift which he wears around his neck unworthily,
For I certainly think that-if I am not mistaken-
An iron one on his feet would be more fitting”[ii]
While this witty rebuke was a collaborative effort, it’s both amusing and befuddling to reconsider Caravaggio as a man both adept with the pen and the brush, yet who could never fully take to them being mightier than the sword. Couldn’t he have given Tomassoni a similar tar and feathering? Perhaps he wasn’t as easy a target as Baglione, who comes off feebly as a Salieri of sorts- an incumbent self-conscious of his inferior talent. While the libel suit that he brought against Caravaggio and his entourage was ostensibly to protect his tarnished reputation, it was also a scramble to retain power amidst the onset of a hurricane.
Such is not to excuse Caravaggio’s brashness, but perhaps underscore how little love was lost between the parties. The trial testimony of Orazio Gentileschi-Caravaggio’s comrade and father of Artemisia Gentileschi, offers another glimpse into the circumstances leading up to the incident:
“There is..a certain rivalry among us. For instance, when I placed a picture of St. Michael the Archangel in St. John’s of the Florentines, Baglione showed his rivalry by placing another picture opposite it. This was Divine Love (“Sacred Love vs. Profane Love”), which he had painted in order to rival an Earthly Love (“Love Victorious”) by Michelangelo da Caravaggio. This Divine Love he had dedicated to Cardinal Giustiniani, and although this picture was not liked so well as Michelangelo’s…the Cardinal presented him with a (golden) chain. This picture had many imperfections, as I told him, for he had painted an armed full-grown man, whereas it should have been a nude child…
I never spoke to Baglione again after the incident of the St. Michael. And seldom even before, because when walking about Rome he waits for me to lift my cap to him and I wait for him to lift his cap to me.” [iii]
How enjoyable is an ethering from four hundred years ago ? So often we think of Old Masters as these lofty art historical icons that are the fossilized hand behind legendary works of art. It’s refreshing to see some personality for a change..sarcasm like this only ages better over time.
NOTE: OMNP would like to mention an addendum to historical inaccuracies regarding our look at Caravaggio’s late life in Part I of this series. Details regarding his imprisonment and escape from the Knighthood in Malta, his work in the years thereafter, his assault in Naples, mistaken imprisonment, and the plea for his pardon have been corrected and added, as necessary.
[i] Friedlander, Walter.”Caravaggio Studies,” (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1955.) pp. 235-236