Four hundred years ago on July 18th, 1610, the great Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio after his hometown in Lombardy, died at the age of 38 in the unremarkable town of Porto Ercole while on the run from the law. He spent the last 4 years of his life wandering from Naples to Malta to Sicily trying to escape an indictment for murder (he was guilty; he killed a young man, Ranuccio Tomassoni, in a brawl over a tennis game). He traveled to Porto Ercole on his way back to Rome after he received some assurances that he would be pardoned. Instead, he became ill with a fever and died in the town. All kinds of theories abound about the circumstances of his death, everything from heatstroke to malaria to murder. The temperamental artist made a lot of enemies in his life, including powerful ones like the Knights of Malta. However, the exact cause of his sad and sordid death remains unknown. His body was buried in an unmarked grave in a local cemetery and forgotten.
Economically hard-pressed Italy is going all out to mark the occasion with special exhibitions of Caravaggio’s work, academic and not-so-academic events, and even a ceremonial reburial of some bones which locals in Porto Ercole claim are Caravaggio’s. Hopes are high that this popular artist will help revive Italy’s suffering tourist trade.
I remember visiting the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome 20 years ago and seeing Caravaggio’s great canvases about the life and death of Saint Matthew. I remember thinking, “My! He liked really rough trade.”
The Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, built by Cardinal Cointrel (Contarelli) for his family
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599 - 1600
Caravaggio set the Calling of Saint Matthew in a dark 17th century Roman basement. Matthew looks less like a corrupt public official than a small time chiseller running an extortion racket. Christ and Peter appear to be interrupting as Matthew and his crooked accountant count out the payroll for the hired muscle, the thugs who shake down shopkeepers and residents. They are wearing the gangster fashions of 17th century Rome, and Caravaggio is fascinated with them. They appear more prominently lit than either Matthew or Christ.
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, detail.
. The brightest face in the whole painting is the young man with the round cheeks leaning on Matthew’s shoulder (probably Mario Minnitti, Caravaggio’s friend, companion, and sometime lover). The one in front seems startled at the intrusion and ready to either flee or draw his very conspicuous sword. Caravaggio seems much more genuinely drawn to the criminal glamour, and sex appeal, of these two thugs than to the story itself. We’d hardly know that this was a religious painting at all but for its presence in a church. Christ barely appears here.
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, detail.
He almost vanishes in a pool of dark shadow on the right, eclipsed by Peter, who seems to be vigorously protesting his Master’s recruitment decision.
The other paintings are just as curious.
The altarpiece is the second one Caravaggio painted for this altar. Church authorities obliged Caravaggio to remove the first painting. It now survives only in black and white photos. It was destroyed in World War II.
Caravaggio, Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1602, destroyed.
The large powerful figure of Matthew looks like he is receiving remedial reading instruction from the angel. The angel looks uncomfortably close to the boy pictures Caravaggio painted for Cardinal del Monte years earlier, making his gesture look suggestive. What is more, Matthew’s big dirty foot sticks out right into the face of the celebrant at this altar.
The second painting is not that much of an improvement.
Caravaggio, Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1602 - 1603
The relation between saint and angel is no longer quite so ambivalent, but if Matthew should shift his weight, that stool will fall right off the edge, out of the picture, and splash the Sacrament.
The last painting is, to my mind, the strangest of all. It shows Matthew’s martyrdom.
Caravaggio, The Death of Saint Matthew, 1599 - 1600
According to The Golden Legend, Matthew preached in a church in Ethiopia before the king, condemning the king’s plan to seduce a virgin named Ephigenia. After the sermon, the king sent a swordsman who stabbed Matthew in the back as he prayed at the altar.
One of those thugs from across the chapel in the other painting appears again, strangely unclothed, about to finish off the wounded Matthew. The saint weakly protests, as a very boyish nude angel presents him with the palm of martyrdom. An acolyte runs screaming off to the right as pandemonium erupts in the rest of the picture. Two more of Caravaggio’s glamorous bad boys run off to the left. Caravaggio himself appears center left in the background turning to look at the violence.
Why all the man flesh on display? Scholars usually explain the three semi-naked figures in the foreground as candidates for baptism. Perhaps, but why is the swordsman semi-nude? Caravaggio seems to find him attractive and terrifying all at the same time.
Caravaggio, Death of Saint Matthew, detail
Caravaggio’s inner demons run all through his work, which is why it is so powerful and so fascinating. They are also the reason why he was so very controversial. Caravaggio was praised and blamed for bringing the 17th century Roman street into history painting.
Annibale Carracci painted the largest and most ambitious ceiling cycle since the Sistine Chapel around the idea of Amor Vincit Omnia.
Annibale Carracci, The Palazzo Farnese Ceiling, 1597 - 1601
Annibale Carracci, Jupiter and Juno from the Farnese ceiling; Jupiter appears humiliated before his domineering and jealous wife, his legs almost stepping upon the eagle; The mask on the bottom yawns with boredom at the sight of conventional married love.
He painted a series of paintings within the larger painting of stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, brilliantly recalling the complex structure of Ovid’s poem where characters in stories narrate other stories. These are all tales of the gods brought low and mortals raised high by love. The series is light hearted and full of comic moments. The learned Roman clerics for whom this was painted knew Ovid by heart, and would have immediately seen this cycle as a metaphor for Christian salvation.
Caravaggio gives us a very different version of Amor Vincit Omnia.
Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia, 1601 - 1602
A nude boy with dirty nails and unconvincing stage-prop wings straddles discarded artifacts of human enterprise in a wicked parody of Michelangelo’s Victory. He’s clearly a street kid with a smile that is inviting and threatening at the same time. He looks like he’s been in situations like this before. A feather from the wings very suggestively brushes his thigh.
This same round-cheeked auburn haired model appears in a number of other works by Caravaggio. The boy appears nude again in two identical paintings called “Saint John the Baptist,” but which show him in another seductive pose that parodies Michelangelo, making explicit the homoeroticism in the Michelangelo’s work.
Caravaggio, "Young John the Baptist," one of 2 identical pictures, 1600.
The ram in the painting seems thoroughly captivated by the boy, perhaps a surrogate for a male lover, perhaps for Caravaggio himself.
Caravaggio began as one of these street boys. He arrived in Rome on the run from the law. He fled his hometown after a brawl in which he injured a bailiff. He was very young and penniless. He went to work for the artist Giuseppe Cesare as one of many artists on an assembly line painting hackwork still lives of fruit and flowers.
Caravaggio, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, around 1595 to 1598; a marvelous painting of over-ripe fruit with no setting, no background shadow; an indication of what Caravaggio painted for Cesare and what brought him to the attention of potential patrons.
He entered the household of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, a close friend of Galileo, who seems to have recognized and valued his talent. The young Caravaggio probably played the very role of kept boy that he painted for the Cardinal. Caravaggio includes himself in a group portrait of the Cardinal’s talented pretty boys in a painting titled The Concert.
Caravaggio, The Concert, 1595
The lute player tuning his instrument in the center may be Caravaggio’s friend Mario Minnitti, who seems to have been a favorite of the Cardinal. Caravaggio himself looks out at us from behind Minnitti. An open music score and violin in the foreground suggest that we are invited to join in. The overt theme of the painting is that music is the food of love, but closer inspection may reveal something else. Minnitti appears to be weeping. We assume these are tears of longing, however they may mean something else. This was a hierarchical age of princes and peasants. Those who may, helped themselves, and those who must made the best of things. Poor parents probably saw a powerful cardinal prince lusting after their son as an opportunity to rise. Pretty boys with beautiful voices were frequently sent by their parents to barber surgeons to be made into castrati for the fiercely competitive Roman choirs. It is not hard to see an element of sorrow and protest behind the homoerotic allegory.
In fairness to the Cardinal, he used his connections to promote Caravaggio's work, to secure the painter's first major public commission in the Contarelli Chapel, and to protect the brawling young artist when his escapades landed him in trouble.
Minnitti appears to be the model for most of the boy pictures that Caravaggio painted for the Cardinal.
Caravaggio, The Lute Player, 1595
Caravaggio, Boy With A Basket Of Fruit, around 1594
Minnitti and Caravaggio seem to have remained close friends, even after Minnitti married. He sheltered Caravaggio in Sicily when he was on the run.
Caravaggio’s detractors (and there were many) accused him of dragging the sacred subjects of religion and the high and noble stories of antiquity into the gutter. His enemies accused him of taking the instructive and ennobling forms of the Grand Manner and making them tawdry and suggestive. They accused him of inability to idealize, of being too literally dependent upon his models.
There may be some truth to those accusations. There is a lot of perhaps inappropriate sexuality in his religious work. The angel in his painting of Saint Francis in ecstasy looks quite earthbound and appears to be seducing rather than inspiring the saint.
Caravaggio, The Ecstasy of Saint Francis, around 1595
Some of that sexuality can be disturbingly violent as in his painting in the Uffizi of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son.
Caravaggio, Abraham and Isaac, 1600.
And what are we to make of that marvelous and wholly inappropriate note of eroticism in the altarpiece Caravaggio painted for the chapel of the Palafrenieri, the carriers of the Pope’s sede gestatoria?
Caravaggio, Madonna dei Palafrenieri, 1605 - 1606
A too sensual looking Christ Child and His Mother step on the head of a snake whose body writhes and whiplashes so beautifully and ambiguously.
Caravaggio’s critics described his painting of the Conversion of Saint Paul in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome as looking like an accident in a blacksmith’s shop.
Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul, from the Cerasi Chapel, 1600 - 1601
Saint Paul’s large horse steps gingerly around the fallen and blinded saint. Horse and page seem oblivious to the light blinding Paul. But the painting has the compositional concentration and monumentality of the work of his more classical contemporary, Annibale Caracci (who painted the altarpiece of the Cerasi Chapel). What we like best about it is what his admirers have always loved about his work, the theatricality of the painting. Caravaggio can be credited with creating Baroque art. He is the artist, more than anyone else, who introduced that element we call “theatrical” into 17th century art.
What do we mean by “theatrical” in this painting of the Conversion of Saint Paul? I think we mean something like downtown theater, off off Broadway, the theater of very bare dark sets and dramatic lighting. Caravaggio created a new kind of chiaroscuro of screaming high contrasts of light and dark that give his dirty street people acting out sacred stories a real presence and resonance. Dramatic lighting performs the role in Caravaggio’s art that invocations of classical form play in other artists of the day. The lighting gives a sense of the momentous and profound. The unearthly light blinding Paul is the only light in the whole painting. It picks out all the forms from the darkness. The fallen Paul threatens to tumble out of the picture onto the floor in front of us. Caravaggio shows him in a daring fore-shortened pose, reaching up helplessly to the light blinding him.
A papal lawyer, Laerzio Alberti, commissioned Caravaggio to make an altarpiece of the Death of the Virgin for his family chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in the Trastevere section of Rome.
Caravaggio, The Death of the Virgin, 1601 - 1602
When it was finished, parishioners were horrified. This was probably the very last painting of the subject to show the Virgin as dead. The Assumption would not become doctrine in the Catholic Church until the 1950s, but so candid a depiction of her death deeply disturbed and offended many people. She is not lying in a bed, but laid out on a cot with feet uncovered. Her face is ashen and bloodless with lips parted in death. Her belly swells with the fluids and gasses of decay. Caravaggio’s one concession to the convention of the day is to show her as a young woman instead of an elderly matron. The critics were furious. They accused Caravaggio of using a mistress as the model. They described his dead Virgin as looking like a drowned whore. The parish authorities obliged Caravaggio to remove the painting, and Alberti to replace it with a work by another artist.
Peter Paul Rubens admired this painting enthusiastically, praising it as Caravaggio’s greatest work. He persuaded the Duke of Mantua to buy it. The Duke sold the painting to King Charles I of England, who bought it probably upon the recommendation of Rubens. What Rubens admired in this work was not simply its candor, but its power to stir our sympathy. Caravaggio makes her death seem so impoverished, instead of queenly. By doing so, he summons very unregal feelings of empathy from us, as though she was a neighbor, a friend, or a sister; one of us instead of Our Lady Queen of Heaven.
Caravaggio had his supporters as well as his critics among the clergy. More thoughtful and far-sighted clergy recognized that at last here was an art that could be useful to the cause of the Counter-Reform. It told stories clearly, vividly, simply, and memorably. Caravaggio's supporters pointed out that the legends of the Christian Testament take place among the poor and outcast, among the very people Caravaggio painted. They recognized the theatrical quality of his work and its powerful effect upon our feelings.
Other artists would long be Caravaggio's greatest fans, long after his name was forgotten by the public. Some of his admirers might come as a surprise. Rubens might be a surprise to some (it was to me). Bernini enthusiastically admired his work. Caravaggio spawned generations of imitators known in Italy as Caravaggisti. There were Caravaggesque schools of painting in France, Spain, and in the Netherlands, especially in Seville and Utrecht. Velazquez and Rembrandt would emerge out of these schools of imitators.
Caravaggio painted at a time of religious civil war, of warring schools of doctrine where one's position on all kinds of issues could be a matter of life and death. I find it amazing that so individual and personal an art could flourish at a time when things as simple as choosing what one preferred to look at or hang on one's wall could be seen as a political act announcing one's doctrinal or ideological allegiances (similar to our own time).
Caravaggio’s young John the Baptist is a lanky street kid with dirty nails and hair.
Caravaggio, Young Saint John the Baptist, around 1600.
It is the lighting that gives him his very powerful presence, that makes him seem to be about to turn to us and deliver a piercing soliloquy. It is the power of Caravaggio’s staging that makes him seem so portentious, and makes him so memorable. We can see Caravaggio’s origins as a still life painter in the vivid airless clarity of all the forms in this painting, in the the polished self-effacing brushwork.
Caravaggio was not out to supplant the Maniera Magnifica, the Grand Manner as all the textbooks claim. His relationship to classical form was much more complicated (as was the relation of all artists to that tradition). His street boys remind us of the human clay out of which classical form was shaped. The candor of his lust for them reminds us where creativity really begins, that art is human before it is divine, or as WB Yeats reminds us:
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
Ottavio Leoni, Caravaggio