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Exhibition Review: The Last Caravaggio

On 29th May 1606, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tommasoni in a brawl. With a price on his head, he fled. In his exile, he moved from Naples, to Malta, to Sicily, and then back to Naples. It was in this second stint in Naples, roughly four years after his escape from Rome, that he painted his last masterpiece. 

Commissioned by Marcantonio Doria, a Genoese nobleman whose daughter was to take holy orders as Sister Ursula, the painting tells the story of the Princess Ursula, who set sail accompanied by eleven thousand virgin companions to marry a pagan king. Miraculously, a storm pushed their ship across the sea in a single day, so Ursula decided she would undertake a pilgrimage before her wedding. She and her companions set out for Rome via Cologne but were besieged by the Hun army. The virgins were all slaughtered, but the King of the Huns was overcome by Ursula’s beauty. Upon hearing her refusal of marriage to him, the king martyred her with an arrow through her chest. 

In a composition that is tight and suffocating, Caravaggio depicts the moment between the King’s arrow entering St. Ursula’s breast, and her final breath. The deed done, the King of the Huns lowers his weapon on the left, the expression on his face somewhere between anger and regret. There is a warmth to his face, as if a fire flickers behind him, a metaphor for his anger. St. Ursula is his polar opposite. The arrow has been shot at point blank range, and her hands frame the wound, her thumb pressing into her breast. Her face is calm, lit in the silver of moonlight making her look ethereal. 

In Caravaggio’s characteristic chiaroscuro, you can just about see a pressing between the two of them, hand outstretched as if trying to stop the murder far too late. Behind her, another two figures press up against her. One is a soldier clad in armour. The other is Caravaggio himself, his mouth open – shocked, perhaps, or is he feeling the pain of a wound of his own? 

The painting is slightly damaged because Lanfranco Massa, Doria’s procurator in Naples, left it to dry in the sun which softened the varnish. He had planned to return to Caravaggio to have it fixed. Not long after the commission had been fulfilled, Caravaggio set sail for Rome after receiving word that a pardon was soon to be secured for him by the friends still fighting his corner with the Pope. He died at Porto Ercole on 18th July 1610, under circumstances still shrouded in mystery. 

Just as the Huns isolated Ursula, separating her from her companions; just as Caravaggio himself had been isolated from his life in Rome; the National Gallery isolates the Last Caravaggio. They place her alone on a wall in a room filled with darkness. The closest thing she has to companionship is Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist in the far corner of the room, and an archival letter describing the commission. There is more to experience than just Caravaggio’s last painting in this room; his isolation and the darkness of his days before his death – and Ursula’s death -are present too. 

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