– Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio
Anger-management therapy: Carvaggio needed it. The guy careened from one brawl to
another. He couldn’t stop ticking off someone or getting pissed off himself.
And since he walked around armed to the teeth, the results were often grim and,
on at least one occasion, fatal. That’s right; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
was a convicted murderer.
Yet if Caravaggio had a penchant for trouble, he also had a gift for creating dramatic,
unflinching art that brought new emotion to tired religious themes. And, fortunately
for him, he had a knack for attracting powerful patrons so enraptured by his talent
that they repeatedly rescued him from scandal.
But in the end, not even Caravaggio’s admirers could save him from himself.
From Riches To Rags
Michelangelo Merisi came from a modest but connected family; his father served as the
steward to Francesco I Sforza, the Marchese of Caravaggio, hence his surname
(a la Leonardo). Caravaggio’s early childhood was spent in the luxurious Sforza
household in Milan, but all that comfort disappeared when the plague swept through
Lombardy, killing Caravaggio’s uncle, grandfather, and father all on the same day.
Caravaggio was six years old.
After a childhood spent back in his hometown, in 1584 the twelve-year-old was apprenticed
to a painter in Milan, although he ended his apprenticeship early under unknown circumstances.
The next four years are a blank, and then suddenly Caravaggio turns up in Rome, utterly destitute.
He worked as a servant, churning out three portrait heads a day in the studio of a Roman hack
artist, until finally he found the time and money to complete a few paintings. Some are self
portraits, and others taken as their theme life on the streets and in the brothels of Rome.
The Cardsharps, for example, presents a scene the artist might have seen play out dozens of
times: a wealthy and innocent young man being fleeced by two practiced cheats.
From Rags To Religion
Caravaggio finally caught a break when the wealthy Cardinal del Monte spotted The
Cardsharps in a local shop and invited the artist to work as a painter-in-residence
in the del Monte household. Well-fed for the first time in years, Caravaggio
completed paintings for powerful church officials and religious institutions
around Rome. He soon developed his mature style, which features dramatic
interpretations of traditional religious themes. Take The Calling of St.
Matthew, for example. The work depicts the moment Christ selects the sinner
Matthew to be his disciple. Caravaggio set the painting in a grimy tavern,
with five men sitting around a battered old table. Jesus, accompanied by
another disciple, stands in the doorway and points to Matthew, who in turn
points to himself as if to say, “Who, me?” Earlier artists had used hovering
angels or parting clouds to signify the moment of conversion, but Caravaggio’s
solution is much simpler: Light indicates the touch of grace. It pours in
behind Christ and falls full upon Matthew, while the rest of the painting
is plunged into dreary shadow. Caravaggio pioneered this chiaroscuro style,
which is characterized by extremes of light and shadow.
From Religion To rap Sheet
But success didn’t have a calming effect—it only gave Caravaggio enough time to
get into really big trouble. He would buy expensive clothes and then wear them
until they fell apart; he used an old canvas as a tablecloth; he insisted on
wearing a fashionable long rapier even thought carrying a sword was forbidden
to commoners. His rap sheet with the Roman police grew long and detailed, full
of brawls over prostitutes and squabbles over artistic ability.
His patrons continued to defend him, until he crossed the line to murder.
Caravaggio’s victim, Ranuccio Tommasoni, was no choirboy, and indeed he seems
to have been an out-and-out thug. The two quarreled over the outcome of a
tennis match, or a bet on a tennis match, or somewhere near a tennis match
(the details are fuzzy), and in a brawl involving a dozen people, Ranuccio
was killed. Friends smuggled the wounded Caravaggio out of town, but they
couldn’t stop his conviction for murder and the subsequent sentence: the
death penalty. The artist now had a price on his head.
A Few Good Knights
Caravaggio headed for Naples, outside papal territory and near the Marchesa di Caravaggio,
who remembered him from his Lombardy days. Strangely, Neopolitan society welcomed the
irrepressible artist, treating him more as a visiting celebrity than a fugitive.
But soon he set off again, this time for the island of Malta, famous for its intrepid
knights. This order of warrior monks combined courageous defense of the Mediterranean
with dedication to chastity, obedience, and religious devotion. Caravaggio probably
hoped that acceptance into a religious order would help him achieve a pardon back in
Rome. Perhaps he also felt some remorse. The emotional depth of his paintings
reveals that he was more than a mere bully, and perhaps his conscience pricked.
Caravaggio took the oath of the Knights of Malta on July 14, 1608, standing before
the alterpiece he had painted during his novitiate. Located in the church’s oratory,
The Behading of St. John the Baptist is his largest and one of his most dramatic works,
depicting the saint thrown to the ground as an executioner stands ready to chop off his
head. Blood spurts from John’s neck, pools at this side, and drips toward the bottom
of the canvas, where we find, as though written in blood, Caravaggio’s only known signature.
For more than a year, his behavior was faultless, but sometime in September 1608 he
quarreled with another prominent knight (whose name is now unknown), seriously
wounding him. We don’t know Caravaggio’s motive, although one early biographer
claimed that he was “blinded by the madness of thinking himself a nobleman born.”
The artist-turned-monk was thrown into a prison cell known as the “birdcage”—a pit
carved into limestone. Soon after, he reportedly “escaped” and fled to Sicily.
But no one could escape from such a cell without help; clearly, someone powerful
had arranged to get him out of Malta. The knights formally expelled him from the
order in a ceremony in which he was described as a “foul and rotten limb”.
The Murderer Has Two Faces
Caravaggio moved around Sicily, again acting more like a visiting dignitary than a
man on the run. In 1609 he abruptly returned to Naples and the protection of the
Marchesa di Caravaggio. It’s assumed he learned that someone – presumably the
knight he wounded on Malta – was on his tail. Reports from this time described
him as wearing a dagger even while sleeping. Caravaggio might have stayed safe
in the marchesa’s place, but the town’s taverns proved irresistible, and in late
October he emerged to sample their wares. In the doorway of one popular bar,
he was surrounded by armed men, stabbed in the face, and left for dead. The
knight finally had his revenge.
Caravaggio spent months convalescing in the marchesa’s care, and the wounds left his
face almost unrecognizable. Yet his creative drive pulsed stronger than ever. As
soon as he was able to hold a brush, he began painting again. David with the Head
of Goliath is the most haunting works of these days. Emerging from velvety darkness
into a shaft of light, a young David holds a gleaming sword in one hand and the head
of the giant Goliath, mouth agape and neck dripping blood, in the other. What’s
really strange about the painting is that both figures are self-portraits, with
David as the young Caravaggio, full of innocence and promise, staring mournfully
at Goliath, his current old self, face worn from carousing and scarred from fights.
The future still seemed to hold potential when news from Rome reported that a pardon
was in the works. Barely healed, Caravaggio set out from Naples aboard a small ship,
but when a storm forced the vessel to seek shelter in a small town, the captain of
the local garrison arrested him, mistaking him for a local banditto. It took a
hefty bride to free him, and by then the ship had headed north, carrying all his
possessions. Frantic to catch up, Caravaggio set out in the brutal heat of an
Italian summer. What happened next remains unclear. Perhaps he fell victim to
malaria or another illness or was simply weak from the earlier attach. Whatever
the case, Caravaggio collapsed with fever and died July 18, 1610, at age thirty-eight.
He never knew that a full pardon had been granted to him in Rome.