Museums throughout Italy are hosting exhibits to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the death of Michelangelo Merisi: the so-called “Caravaggio.” The year began in Rome with Caravaggio and Bacon at the Galleria Borghese and the slightly less contrived, but equally imaginative, “Caravaggio-Lotto-Ribera” at the Musei Civici agli Eremitani in Padova. Naples spread six thematically related exhibits throughout the city to highlight the connections between Caravaggio and late-Baroque Neapolitan masters like Luigi Vanvitelli and Ferdinando Fuga (Ritorno al Barocco, da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli). The Palatina Gallery in Florence is featuring Caravaggio e Caravaggeschi until October 10th, after which several of those works will move to Rimini for Caravaggio e altri pittori del XVII secolo. Perhaps most notable was an exhibit that recently closed at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. Conceived by Claudio Strinati and organized by Rossella Vodret and Francesco Buranelli, it featured a unique collection of Caravaggio’s most famous works collected from museums worldwide. A record 4,000 visitors thronged to see these masterpieces on opening day, well exceeding the 2,500 printed tickets.
The truth is that Caravaggio did not die along the beach of Feniglia, but in the hospital of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice in Porto Ercole on July 18th, 1610, after having received the sacraments. The exact cause of his death remains a mystery. Textbooks say syphilis, meteorologists sunstroke. Simon Schama, in his BBC series The Power of Art, suggests that it may have been partly due to sheer exhaustion as Caravaggio desperately pursued the ship carrying paintings that were supposed to be the key to his papal pardon.
In typical Italian fashion, a team of scholars has recently capitalized on this special anniversary by announcing that the painter’s remains have been identified by DNA testing, and that, presuming the bones really are his, Caravaggio seems to have died of lead poisoning: a fact, they claim, which would also explain Caravaggio’s erratic and violent behavior: common symptoms of lead poisoning. That Caravaggio was an irascible character is fairly certain; whether his irascibility is evidence for death by lead poisoning is another matter. Yet perhaps the more pressing task this year is to understand who the man was rather than how he died.
Much of what we presume about Caravaggio comes to us by way of a biography written by Giovanni Baglione, a mediocre painter who once had Caravaggio summoned to court after taking offence at an ironic sonnet the latter had composed in Baglione’s honor. Indeed, Baglione’s account often reads like a tale of jealousy motivated by a slight inferiority complex, helping to perpetuate the image of Caravaggio as an impulsive, undisciplined, sexually distraught maledetto who was hostile towards the church, dismissive of tradition, and generally indignant towards authority. No surprise, therefore, that Caravaggio is also championed as a precursor of Nietzschean nihilism.
An attentive study of written records together with the paintings themselves has led several respected Italian scholars, including Maurizio Calvesi, Maurizio Marini, Alessandro Zuccari, and Marco Pupilio, to present Caravaggio in more subtle, though no less complex, terms. Born of a moderately noble stock, Michelangelo Merisi’s father Fermo was tutor to Francesco Sforza, the marquis of the area from which Caravaggio takes his name. As a lad, Michelangelo was privileged to receive a fine Milanese education that was then furthered by the patronage of the Colonna and Borromeo families. The latter in particular had a lasting influence on both the religious climate of Lombardy and Caravaggio’s own spiritual sensibilities. The painter’s abiding sympathy for the weakness and sinfulness of the human condition began in Milan as he witnessed first-hand the solicitous care that the Borromeo family gave to the victims of the severe plague that ravaged the city in 1575. Caravaggio learned from the Borromeos that acts of mercy accord with the Gospel counsel to care for the sick, and he was reportedly introduced to a northern-Italian, counter-Reformation spirituality that emphasized identifying Christ in the poor.
Caravaggio’s relationship to the Borromeo family only grew stronger as he settled in Rome in 1592 to advance his career. The young artist depended heavily on the protection of Federico Borromeo and Costanza Colonna Sforza to help him adjust to his new life in the city. Costanza was the daughter of Marcantonio Colonna, the victorious admiral of the pontifical fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, and whose eldest son Fabrizio married Anna Borromeo, the niece of Pope Pius IV and sister of Saint Charles Borromeo. All of this is to say that Caravaggio was hardly foreign to ecclesiastical circles and the spiritual climate of the day. What eventually attracted an eye of suspicion was not a loathing for the church but the unconventional way in which he painted its members (i.e., the poor, the lame, the outcast, and above all, the sinner).
Even with the support of Federico and Costanza, Caravaggio had to move freely in the right circles to meet other artists and attract patrons. His socializing undoubtedly crossed the boundaries of respectability since the prostitute whose face appeared on his Madonna in the Dormition of the Virgin was recognized by everyone instantly, causing the picture to be removed from the church of Santa Maria della Scala within days. Written records also attest to what roughly translates as Caravaggio’s “issues with women” (questione di donne), remarkably similar to Bernini’s indiscretions. In any event, Caravaggio’s efforts to make himself known paid off, as he was eventually received by Cardinal Del Monte at the cardinal’s villa in Porta Pinciana. The Cardinal subsequently acquired some of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings including Musica di alcuni giovani, Sonatore di liuto, and I bari, all of which were recently display at the Scuderie del Quirinale.
The first two paintings exemplify the lightness of tone and fusion of styles that were typical of Caravaggio’s early work. But if we read these images only as depictions of sheer hedonism painted with unparalleled technical prowess, we miss the fundamental iconography that the minstrels assume in these early paintings, which Caravaggio depicts most often as a visual contrast to narrative pleasure. Musica di alcuni giovani, for example, features not only a breathtakingly harmonious composition of sleek bodies and sumptuous clothing, but gives us a disquieting glimpse into the soul of the young man staring vacuously into ungraspable space—and yet it is sonorous space that pertains to a entirely different level of reality substantial enough to shipwreck this muse-intoxicated lad. In fact, the iconography of this secular scene is no less impressive than what we find in Flight from Egypt, which features symbolic elements that imbue the event with a profound theology. The musical score in the hands of Saint Joseph contains a motet of verses taken from the Song of Songs, the book that most lyrically celebrates the love of Christ for the church.
The noted scholar Maurizio Calvesi has been particularly effective in identifying and contextualizing the basic symbols Caravaggio uses to refer to divine grace in both his secular and sacred scenes, thus bringing out elements that are absolutely essential for a fuller understanding of Caravaggio’s oeuvre. An abrupt penetration of light into the picture frame is perhaps Caravaggio’s best known but most frequently misinterpreted technique as many an exegesis of the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi or the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo reveals. In the Call of Saint Matthew, the guided light illuminates the hand of Christ and extends to the withdrawn face of Matthew, penetrating his ruffled hair. This light comes not from some hidden window but rather, as indicated by the shadow trailing along the back wall, from a higher source with an intensity that evokes the divine. Calvesi explains that this and other techniques were used by Caravaggio in strict accord with commissions specifying that the painting was meant to foster devotion among people of every social class. Caravaggio therefore approached the canvas as a sort of mirror to reflect the graced brokenness of the simple faithful, exalting their humility without overtly insulting the privileged classes. Unsurprisingly, the theme of poverty that pervades his canvases was most offensive to the sensibilities of artistic conformists rather than the wealthy. Indeed, citizens from every social class recognized that Caravaggio was trying to shed light on the blessed ones Jesus most came to serve, and thus hailed him as a prophet calling the church back to its roots. Yet for as revolutionary as painting the poor was at the time, it was not entirely Caravaggio’s invention; the idea actually arose within the broader context of a fresh, unfiltered reading of biblical texts advocated by Saint Philip Neri and his Oratorians. Caravaggio came into contact with this fledging order through Federico Borromeo, who himself assisted and encouraged the Florentine priest and his companions.
The contrast between the piety depicted in Caravaggio’s paintings and the turbulence experienced in his own life continues to confound us. But turbulence does not mean impiety. Perhaps lead poisoning did exacerbate Caravaggio’s temper; but maybe he was just one of those religiously fervent recidivists who still mill about the Roman piazzas today. In any event, willingness to take risks grew in proportion to his booming fame, especially since he would have also enjoyed civil protection. In the end, he pushed the limits too far, killing a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni, who seems to have been a shady figure anyway (not to excuse Caravaggio).
In Caravaggio’s later works—painted mostly in Naples, Malta, and Messina—terror and hope exist side-by-side. This is especially true in religious scenes that capture contrasting emotions in a way they had never been captured before, nor have they since. It is hard to disagree with Simon Schama’s verdict about David and Goliath (circa 1610): there is a David and a Goliath inside each one of us, and in many cases, the more heroic the David, the more brutal the Goliath. In fact, Maurizio Calvesi proposes that, being a man of extremes, Caravaggio consistently decided to depict himself in the most downtrodden of saints, such as the deceased Lazarus, precisely to express his sense of repentance and hope in the darkest moments of sin. All of us have been there. Thank God one of us was able to paint it.