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Recommended Biographical Readings

Artist – 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.


Pardon Me!


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.


 2009 Elizabeth Lunday - "Secret lives of great artists". All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 Barry. All rights reserved.