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A Reflection of Darkness

From his influence on creatives (Martin Scorsese), artwork in films (John Wick) and TV shows (Ripley), to three exhibitions running simultaneously right now, Caravaggio has enraptured all since Roberto Longhi’s rediscovery of his work in the 1920s. Known for his revolutionary use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, the darkness in Caravaggio’s work has long been discussed. When paired with the story of his life, questions arise as to whether his life was literally reflected in his art, or whether we simply infer it from the tales told. 

The Seeds of Chaos and Sanctuary

In late September 1571, Michelangelo Merisi was welcomed into the world. September 29th, to be precise, on Michaelmas, the feast day of Michael, the archangel who would become the newborn’s namesake. The Merisi family stayed in Milan for five years before escaping to the nearby town of Caravaggio when plague struck; their young Michele in tow. 

Michele’s father and grandfather both died a year after settling in Caravaggio. While it is assumed he grew up in Caravaggio, connected with the Sforza and Colonna families in Milan (who would prove invaluable in his later life), a thirteen-year-old Michele entered a four-year apprenticeship with the painter Simone Peterzano in Milan after his mother’s death in 1584. Peterzano was a former pupil of the Venetian Master, Titian, which may explain for the Venetian style of Michele’s work. It is sometimes proposed, however, that he visited the Veneto during this period, arising from an accusation Federico Zuccari who suggested Michele had imitated Giorgione. 

What is known for sure is that Michelangelo Merisi left the northern city after wounding a police officer, moving to Rome in 1592. There, he stayed with Pandolfo Pucci – whom he nicknamed Monsignor Insalata for his refusal to give Michele anything more to eat than salad. It is not known exactly when Michele became known as Caravaggio, but it is likely in this period, in which he began painting still life for Pope Clement VIII’s favourite artist, Giuseppe Cesari. 

Making Connections

His earliest known painting is the Boy Peeling a Fruit, but Young Sick Bacchus gains the most praise. The painting is believed to be a self-portrait painted when Caravaggio suffered an illness (possibly malaria) which ended his employment with Cesari. He made his most important connections once he had returned to full health, namely: 

  • Prospero Orsi, who introduced him to important collections and had witnessed a crime near San Luigi de’ Francesi with Caravaggio; 
  • Onorio Longhi, who introduced him to the streets of Rome and the thuggish lifestyle for which Caravaggio became renowned; and
  • Mario Minniti, who not only modelled for Caravaggio and can be recognised in several of his earlier paintings but was also instrumental in obtaining Sicilian commissions later in his life. 

Though he worked for a small exclusive circle, Caravaggio’s fame quickly grew. He painted rapidly, using live models, and portrayed their flaws, breaking from classical idealism and famously rejecting the art of the past. He also broke from standard practice by refusing to sketch – choosing instead to work in oils directly from subject. 

The more controversy Caravaggio courted, the more patrons wanted him. Enter Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte with a large, extremely wealthy, art-loving circle who wished to court Caravaggio. 

Going Public

In 1599, Caravaggio claimed his first public commission. The job was to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi: three paintings in total, each depicting a moment in the life of St. Matthew. The commission ostensibly made Caravaggio a superstar as he never solicited commissions again. These paintings also defined his style, introducing a darker Caravaggio. Within them he used dramatic illumination styles: 

Chiaroscuro – the interplay of shadow and light, and 

Tenebrism – details being illuminated by light, bringing out a figure from complete darkness. 

Several of Caravaggio’s public commissions caused extreme controversy at the time. First, his altarpiece for the Contarelli Chapel – Saint Matthew and the Angel – was originally rejected for its inappropriately dirty feet pressing into the viewer’s space and a young angel who clung to the balding peasant saint. Destroyed in World War II, it now only exists as a photograph. 

In 1601, Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, which had been commissioned for a private chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Scala was rejected by the Carmelites. According to Giulio Mancini, it was because the model was a well-known prostitute, but Giovanni Baglione suggests it was also because the Virgin’s legs were bare, seen as a breach of decorum. It is also thought to have been a theological matte, as the Virgin did not die but rather was assumed into Heaven. 

The Madonna and Child with Saint Anne also courted rancour: the Virgin Mary’s cleavage is full as she holds onto a too-old-to-be-running-around-naked Christ, stomping on the head of a snake. Maddalena Antonietti modelled for this painting, and while there is no evidence to prove as much, it was thought she was also a prostitute. 

Rap Sheet

Caravaggio was notoriously a violent man, often cited in police reports. 

In 1600, while living at the Palazzo Madama with Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio was arrested for beating Girolamo Stampa da Montepulciano with a cup. Three years later, he was tried for defaming Giovanni Baglione, along with his friends Orazio Gentileschi (father of Artemisia Gentileschi) and Onorio Longhi, a series of offensive poems about his fellow artists held in evidence against him. At the end of 1604, there were several arrests for the possession of a weapon (he liked to wander around with a sword at his hip despite it being against the law), insulting city guards (he loved a good brawl it seems) and throwing a plate of artichokes in the face of a waiter. The following year, he injured a notary, apparently in a dispute over a woman and which forced him to flee to Genoa. Upon his return, he was sued by his landlady, Prudenzia Bruni, for non-payment of rent. He exacerbated the situation by throwing rocks at her window. He was even hospitalised after he ‘fell on his own sword’, though as Caravaggio himself gave this account, it is possible he was covering another crime. 

It was a crime committed at the end of May 1606 which truly changed the course of Caravaggio’s life. It was well known that Ranuccio Tommasoni and Caravaggio disliked each other. They argued often and publicly. But on 29th May 1606, Caravaggio attacked Tommasoni with a sword, slicing through an artery in his thigh and killing him. There is much speculation over the cause of this argument. Some suggest it was a gambling debt, others say it was over a game of pallacorda (a game like tennis), but the most famous speculation is that they argued over Fillide Melandroni. Melandroni was a well-known prostitute, pimped out by Tomassoni, and a potential lover of Caravaggio. It is believed Caravaggio tried to castrate Tomassoni and missed, making the latter’s death an accident. Either way, Caravaggio had committed murder. 

Until this point, Caravaggio’s patrons had managed to shield him from any serious consequences, but this was beyond their help. Tomassoni came from a wealthy family, who were incensed and demanded justice.  They published an open bounty: anyone who saw Caravaggio was to behead him. 

He fled.

A Life on the Run

It was with the Colonna in the south of Rome that Caravaggio found refuge. The family, who had been close with Caravaggio since childhood, hid him just outside of Rome’s jurisdiction in Naples with Constanza Colonna (the widow of Francesco Sforza). He remained there for a few months, painting a few pieces before heading to Malta, facilitated by Constanza’s son, Fabrizio, who was a Knight of Malta. 

Malta was graced with the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, the largest altarpiece Caravaggio painted and the only one he ever signed (in the Baptist’s blood, no less). As a reward, he was inducted as a knight himself. Within the year, however, he found himself in yet another sticky situation; wounding another knight and imprisoned in Valletta. The prison was dug into the ground, impossible to escape without help, and yet before his trial, Caravaggio disappeared. It is unsurprising that he was subsequently expelled from the order. 

In Sicily, Caravaggio reconnected with Mario Minniti. He travelled from Syracuse to Messina to Palermo, continuing to win commissions and fans. On this sun-kissed island, his style began to change, figures now small against empty, earthy backgrounds, an incredible contrast to his tight compositions and suffocating darkness. Caravaggio’s attitude also seems to have changed. He began to rip up paintings at the first hint of criticism and paranoia had him sleeping fully armed. It was not long before he returned to the safety of the Colonna. 

In 1609, he returned to Naples. He was ambushed, disfigured, and rumours circulated he was dead. Once more, Caravaggio’s style changed. His use of tenebrism grew, and decapitations appeared more frequently. In his painting, David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio went as far as painting himself – a younger, idealised version of himself with a sorrowful expression, holding out the head of an older Caravaggio almost in apology. “I have cut the head off my ego and proffer it to you”, it practically speaks, “now please leave me my life.” 

The Mystery of Death

In the summer of 1610, a rumour circulated that a pardon for Caravaggio’s crimes was imminent, secured by friends who had never given up on the artist in Rome. Eagerly, Caravaggio packed up his paintings and jumped on a boat to the Eternal City. On 28th July, a message was sent from Rome to Urbino announcing his death. Three days later, another arrived stating that fever had been the cause of death. 

18th July 1610. 

It was at Porto Ercole that Death caught up with Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He was arrested as soon as he docked, ironically in a case of mistaken identity. It caused a delay that would see the end of the artist. Discovering his boat had left without him, paintings and belongings still on board, Caravaggio decided to walk. 

Contemporary rumours suggest that Caravaggio was murdered – the Tomassoni make likely suspects, angered by the fact he had murdered one of their own (a theory supported by documentation released by the Vatican in 2002). Another theory is the Knights of Malta had caught up with him, though if they were the ones who disfigured Caravaggio the year before, this may very well be unlikely. 

Historians suggest, however, that Caravaggio died of syphilis or malaria. In 2010, however, after a long investigation that led to the discovery of what they believe is Caravaggio’s body, tests suggest he died either from lead poisoning from the paints he used or was wounded in a brawl and died from sepsis. 

What is known is that Caravaggio died the way he lived, not as a wealthy gout-ridden old man surrounded by family but swathed in the same red-hot chaos of his life. He left an indelible mark – one we are all affected by whether we realise it or not. 

Celebrate the genius of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio with me this month. Visit…

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