Michelangelo Caravaggio was an Italian artist who is regarded as the first great representative of the Baroque school of painting. His manipulation of light and shade created a new form of dramatic painting which was applauded by the public and his peers. However, his employment of contemporary realism for the portrayal of historical, Biblical saints, often caused anger and outrage from the all powerful Church of Rome.
Caravaggio was born in 1571 in the town of Caravaggio, and this is how he acquired his second name. At the age of 11, he moved to Milan where he was apprenticed to the naturalist painter Simone Peterzano. There, he learnt his trade and studied other artists’ works like the dramatic and theatrical ‘Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci, and the dark interiors of Antonio Campi whose figures are lit by a solitary light as they emerge from the gloom of their surrounds. Although Caravaggio later bragged that his painting style was all his own his work, he certainly owed a great deal to the two painters above.
Some time around 1590, the painter went to work in Rome. He’d no money or friends but he was in possession of the fundamental skills which would get him a job and a place to stay. He spent the next 4 years working as a ‘’fill-in’’ painter for other, better-known artists where he would say, paint the surrounding area of a picture while the master would finish off the finer details and then claim the whole work as his own. Caravaggio was living at the time in the violent, slum area of Rome’s Campo Marzio which was full of brothels, gambling houses and rowdy drinking dens. This suited his circumstances and his temperament for he was himself aggressive and speculative by nature, and lived a disorderly and drunken life.
Caravaggio’s early years in Rome was a time of instability and humiliation. He moved from one unsatisfactory job to another, working as an assistant to painters with much smaller talent than his own. In 1595, he decided to work for himself and began to sell his paintings through a dealer. Despite his material disadvantages, over the next couple of years, Caravaggio managed to paint more than 40 pictures, which were mostly of half-naked adolescent boys. These kinds of portraits have a fresh and realistic approach because they were painted from life and not from portrait copy books. They have no trace of either the Manneristic or the classical style which then prevailed in Rome. The pictures reflected Caravaggio’s own homosexual tastes and also those of a coterie of wealthy Romans. Most of these early works were sold for peanuts including the Card Sharps, which shows a young boy being cheated at cards by two con men. This picture was so popular that it attracted the attention of the homosexual Cardinal, Francesco del Monte, who was an art connoisseur with great influence at the papal court. He became Caravaggio’s patron and offered him money, board and lodging – for work on demand. The painter accepted and moved into the Cardinal’s house where he drew a series of half naked boys, in a variety of homoerotic poses.
Now that Caravaggio had the patronage of a powerful Cardinal, he received a rich commission to paint 3 scenes from the life of St. Matthew for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesci. The first picture in the series, The Calling of St. Matthew, shows us the Saint and four other men counting a pile of money on top of a table. Christ appears suddenly from the right where he calls Matthew to give up his life as a tax collector and follow him instead. The money-grubbers look at the sudden appearance of Christ in astonishment. They are not clothed or presented as in the usual Biblical setting but are dressed in fashionable Renaissance gear, sitting outside a contemporary house. There are no heavenly messengers either flying around the scene while the men’s shocked reaction to Christ’s unearthly appearance is in complete contrast to the traditionally beatific formula for these types of pictures.
Caravaggio’s new way of painting a holy scene caused bafflement at first but his painting was accepted. However, his second piece for the chapel, St Matthew and the Angel, was so offensive to the sensitivities of the canons of St. Luigi that he had to paint another version. The first portrayal shows the saint reading a book while an angel looks over his shoulder. Caravaggio has portrayed Matthew as a common laborer with dirty legs and big feet that seem to stick out of the painting itself. Even worse, the artist has pictured him sitting with his legs crossed, which was regarded as vulgar in a holy saint. Besides these faults, the man of god is baldy and his dirty face has peasant-like features. The angel seems to be guiding his hand over the page, which suggests that the holy man is an illiterate country bumpkin. The main criticism was that Caravaggio had not given Matthew the decorum that a saint was expected to have. What people didn’t understand was that, by elevating this poor and humble figure into that of a saint, the painter was following Christ’s own example when he had raised St. Matthew from the gutter.
When Caravaggio finished his three paintings for the Chapel, they not only caused a sensation in Rome, but also marked a radical change in his artistic preoccupation. From now on, he would devote himself almost entirely to the painting of traditional religious themes – except that he gave them a whole new iconography and interpretation. Also, whenever Caravaggio set out to paint a picture, he used the people of whatever place he happened to be living in. In those days there were no professional art models as such and he would hire beggars, down and outs or prostitutes for a small fee. To obtain the dramatic effects he wanted Caravaggio hung a lantern on one side of a darkened studio so that he could paint the resulting sharp, raking light that could only come from one direction. The effect of this selective light means that it picks out certain parts of a composition but plunges the rest into deep shadow. This dramatic form of illumination not only focuses the details and heightens the emotional tension of a work, but it also brings to the scene a sense of high drama – a style of painting that later came to be known as the Baroque.
Among the swarm of orders for Caravaggio’s pictures was The Death of the Virgin, which he painted around 1602. This work provoked a violent reaction from the Carmelites who had commissioned it because of the indignity of the Virgin’s pose, and the circumstances under which the artist produced it. Caravaggio painted her lying sprawled across the death bed with her bare legs sticking over the edge. Her body is swollen with rigor mortis while her facial features are not the beatific ones of the Mother of God but those of a well-known Roman street prostitute who was fished out of the river Tiber – the day before he started painting this picture. Caravaggio had paid to use the dead body as a model and, although people were appreciative of his new style, many of them condemned this brutal aspect of his search for reality in a work of art.
His new manner was a challenge, which was often condemned yet it did not cloud his success. This was an age when huge new churches and palazzo were being built in Rome. The Counter Reformation Church looked for authentic religious art to fill these places and help counteract the looming threat from Protestantism. The prevailing trend of Manneristic art was no longer adequate and Caravaggio’s novel manner only increased his reputation. By now, the poor artist of the early years had gone but, although he moved in the high society of cardinals and princes, his nature always remained the same, which was given to drunkenness, wild anger and violent brawling in the streets of the Eternal City.
If Caravaggio was now famous in Rome for his paintings, he was equally infamous for his drunkenness, his violent temper, and his readiness for a fight. He led a stormy life, had many run-ins with the law and was often in and out of jail for a variety of offences. In fact, the court records of the time cover many pages concerning his lawless conduct. In 1600, he was accused of assault and battery on a fellow painter, and was jailed the following year for sticking a knife into a soldier. Two years later, he was jailed again for battering another painter, and in 1604 he was arrested for smashing some windows and throwing bricks at the Roman police. Because of his continual reckless behaviour, a public notice, or a sort of early ASBO was posted up in the streets to warn people to keep away from this troublemaker. It described Caravaggio for what he was – a swaggering, drunken bully who was always looking for trouble. This notice didn’t stop him from getting into more trouble with the law for in 1605, he was sent to jail once more for recklessly firing guns in the street. Finally, in that same year, Caravaggio went too far and stabbed a man to death after an argument over a bet on a game of tennis. The person he murdered was a local gangster who ran money-lending, blackmail and protection rackets in the slums of central Rome. Previously, Caravaggio’s highly placed connections had helped him out but this was too much. He was declared an outlaw who was to be hanged on sight and the painter ran for his life from both the authorities and the family of the murdered man who wanted revenge.
Caravaggio sought refuge in the city of Naples which was outside the jurisdiction of Rome. There, he placed himself under the safety of the powerful Colonna family and he quickly became the most sought after painter in the city. Although he was supplied with bodyguards he never felt completely safe in the dark, narrow streets of this southern city and, after spending 4 nerve-wracking months, he left in a hurry for the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. More than likely, he had got word that assassins were on his trail.
Caravaggio’s new home was governed by the Knights of St. John of Malta, who were a religious military organization with powerful connections throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. They ruled the seas of the Mediterranean with their vast fleet, were greatly feared, and a law unto themselves. Caravaggio knew that if he could gain entry to their organization then there was every chance that they might force a pardon for him from the Pope. By this time, Caravaggio was Italy’s most celebrated painter and he needn’t have worried about his reception because the Knights welcomed him with open arms as the Order’s official artist.
For the knights Caravaggio completed a number of works including The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, for the Cathedral of Valetta. This is the only painting that he ever signed with his name and so, its subject must have meant a great deal to him psychologically. Caravaggio’s painting of the execution of the Baptist shows the dead man lying sprawled out in the forecourt of King Herod’s prison. The executioner has just finished sawing off his head with a sharp knife and is now wiping it clean on his loincloth. The temptress Salome, who caused the Baptist’s death, is standing on the left of the painting waiting to take St. John’s head away on a silver platter. In this scene of martyrdom, Caravaggio has painted a huge wall in the background. Psychologists, art historians and scholars all agree that this wall must have been linked to an awareness in Caravaggio’s mind of condemnation to a limited space – that narrow area between freedom and prison.
Caravaggio’s hopes for a knighthood came true and he was made a member of the Order. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested for an un-named offence and thrown into a 15 feet deep dungeon. Somehow or other, he managed to escape and made his way to Sicily, where he landed in 1608. Caravaggio could never have escaped from his prison unaided. Someone in very high authority wanted rid of him as quickly as possible – because his as yet unspoken crime would have been voiced in open court in front of the entire knighthood of Malta.
What crime had he committed that was so dreadful as to be thrown into the condemned cell? As there was no murder involved then the only other offence that merited death was either witchcraft or sodomy. Given Caravaggio’s known fondness for young men and boys, then he must have committed the latter offence with one or a few of the young aristocratic pages who lived on Malta while training to be Knights. If this was the case then what he had done was too embarrassing and shameful for the Grand Master of the island to admit to their parents, or for it to be heard in open court. Besides this, he was at the time in no position to kill Italy’s favourite painter who was also the idol of the Pope’s powerful nephew, Scipione Borghese. He was a massive fan of the painter’s work and for all these reasons Caravaggio was allowed and even helped to escape. It must have been decided that revenge for the painter’s crime could wait until another time and a more convenient place. Caravaggio had been dismissed from the Order as a ‘’foul and rotten member’’ and no longer had their protection. The Knight’s had a network of assassins over the whole of Europe who would willingly kill the painter when given the nod to do so. Even if Caravaggio was offered a pardon by the Pope himself, so long as the Knights could prevent him from reaching Rome to cash it in, then he was truly doomed.
In Sicily, Caravaggio was offered twice his usual fee to paint 2 pictures in Messina before traveling to the capital Palermo where he completed another work for the Church. These were painted under the most adverse circumstances, while he was on the run from the law and a highly likely assassination. The painter clearly understood that he was vulnerable and entirely alone. Contemporary reports say that Caravaggio was ‘cracking up’ while he was working in Sicily. He slept fully clothed and was always armed with a gun, a knife and a sword. He physically attacked anyone who criticised his pictures which he himself sometimes ripped up himself anyway. His fugitive mentality, coupled to his heavy drinking and violent outbursts show that his nerves were on edge. He must have been daily expecting and fearing some sort of retribution either from the Knights of Malta, the Papal authorities, the family of his murder victim, or from all three of them. The pressure became too much for him and in 1609 he took off again for Naples. His desperate plight could only be ended with a pardon from the Pope and restitution to the injured parties.
In Naples, Caravaggio painted what was to be his last ever picture. This was The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, which shows her being transfixed with an arrow after she refused to marry Attila, the King of the Huns. Shortly after he completed this work, Caravaggio was transfixed himself with a sharp blade when he was attacked and seriously wounded in the doorway of a tavern. The place was a haunt for thieves, cut throats and mercenary soldiers – any one of which may have been hired to kill the painter. During his convalescence from this attack, Caravaggio finally received word that the Pope was willing to give him a pardon – in return for a number of his paintings for himself and his nephew – Caravaggio’s number one fan. The painter was delighted and as soon as he felt fit enough, he planned to sail north to Port Ercole from where he would travel to Rome. Because he was still in mortal danger, the only person he informed of where he intended to sail to was Constanza Colonna, his patroness in Naples. He’d been hiding in her palace and she now arranged for a boat to take the fugitive artist up the coast towards Rome. For some unexplained reason, Caravaggio’s boat went off course to land at the tiny papal garrison of Palo. Here, the official story of his disappearance and death takes over.
According to the accepted story of Caravaggio’s disappearance he was arrested as soon as he set foot in Palo and taken to jail. After he bailed himself out he was informed that the boat he’d arrived in had sailed on to Ercole about 70 miles further north. The painter is reported to have rushed off in a hurry to cover this great distance on foot, during the hottest time of the year, and over territory that was covered in dangerous swamps and swarming with bandits. Somewhere on the journey he is supposed to have taken ill and died alone in an unknown place. This is all nonsense. Why did Caravaggio’s boat sail off course? and what was he arrested for in the first place? If he was delayed in jail why did he not hire or wait for the next boat going to Ercole when he got out of prison? If Caravaggio was running scared and desperate to get to Rome why didn’t he hire a horse and go there in relative comfort?
We only get nearer the truth about Caravaggio’s mysterious disappearance in a recently discovered letter which was written at the time of his death. In it, it says that, as soon as the painter set foot ashore he was surrounded by armed men. Amid the noise and confusion his boat abandoned him and pulled out to sea. The vessel did not sail to Ercole as it was supposed to do but was under orders by Caravaggio’s patron in Naples, Constanza Colonna, to dump the painter ashore and head straight back to the city. When it did arrive she took Caravaggio’s paintings and handed them over to head of the Order of the Knights of St. John in Naples.
Caravaggio had been set up both by Constanza and her son who was the Admiral of the Knight’s fleet. To get out of serious trouble with his peers, he’d informed them from his mother about where and when Caravaggio could be found and finally punished for his misdeeds on Malta. The Knights were waiting in ambush for the painter to come ashore and when he did they killed him and buried his body out of sight. They had finally got their revenge on the rascally painter and even to this day, his last resting place remains incognito.