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The Battle of Light with Darkness

Caravaggio: The Final Years

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Nicola Spinosa
An exhibition at the National Gallery, London, February 23–May 22, 2005.
Electa Napoli, 191 pp., £25.00 (paper)

Caravaggio: L’ultimo tempo 1606–1610

An exhibition at the Museodi Capodimonte, Naples October 23, 2004–January 23, 2005


The murder that sent Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio on the run in 1606 proved, if anything, that life was not so cheap after all in Baroque Rome—at least for an artist of talent. Small-time local street bosses like his victim, Ranuccio Tomassoni, were not much missed, but no one could paint like the man everyone simply called “Caravaggio,” and that fact saved his life as he made his way from Rome to Malta and then to Sicily. It was not so much his skill at what he called “imitating nature” that saved him, although his talent for painting fruit had once been enough to earn him a modest living. It was not even his bold experimentation with light and shadow, although this was the aspect of his painting that his imitators grasped first. What kept Ca-ravaggio alive over the next few years was an ability he shared with his fellow countryman Leonardo: the ability to capture life itself in a painted image.

He would have known about Leonardo early; he was born either in or near Milan in 1573, where Leonardo had worked in the last years of the fifteenth century and his father worked, like so many men from the town of Caravaggio, as a builder, rising eventually to the position of major domo and architect to the Marquis of Caravaggio. But the young Caravaggio also must have looked carefully at the great Venetian oil painters—Lorenzo Lotto and Titian, especially—before coming to Rome, where he learned still more about the interplay of light and shadow from paintings by the mature Raphael and Raphael’s Venetian rival, Sebastiano del Piombo.

Unlike Leonardo and Raphael, Caravaggio was never one for sketching. He composed directly on a stretched canvas, scoring lines into the dark brown undercoat. He worked exclusively in oil paint, in a restricted range of pigments; with typical foul humor, he railed against the cinnabar-reds and azure-blues in which contemporaries like his former employer Giuseppe Cesari, the Knight of Arpino, swathed their ancient Romans and their biblical apostles, “saying,” in the words of his biographer Giovanni Bellori, “that they were poisonous colors.”1 And he looked relentlessly at the world before he committed it to paint. He watched the way that blood surged beneath human skin, and painted figures that flushed and paled like real people. He watched the little old ladies that everyone else ignored, with their wrinkles, goiters, and dirty bonnets, and saw how much more quickly they understood the way of the world than the glittering nobles who pushed them aside. He honored them in his paintings just as they were, living sibyls who pass unnoticed. He painted young women with plain, strong features and lubricious boys decked out as Cupid, Bacchus, or John the Baptist, and he painted Jesus, over and over, at a moment when Christianity itself was racked with doubt.

London’s National Gallery opens its show of Caravaggio’s final years with two paintings of Jesus at the Supper of Emmaus, displayed side by side on a maroon-painted wall canted at a dramatic angle. It is several days after the Crucifixion and Jesus’ strange disappearance from his tomb. Two disciples are wandering, desolate, away from the disaster at Jerusalem when they meet another traveler on the road, who asks them why they are so sad. As the Gospel of Luke then reports: “And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?” (Luke 24:18)

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

(Luke 24:25–31)

The disciples remember how it felt to be with him: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

When Caravaggio painted the scene in 1601, he was still showing off, an ambitious painter who had finally attained real success in Rome with a series of portraits of cardinals and princes, as well as a goodly dose of controversy. The table at the inn in Emmaus is a triumphant exercise in the “imitation of nature,” set with convincingly crunchy-crusted bread and a chicken whose curled feet are as startlingly real as the basket of fruit improbably cantilevered over the table’s edge. Condensation glistens on the ceramic water jug and light plays through the glass flask of white wine, each substance more transparent than the other. One disciple starts up from his chair; the man and his seat, like the fruit basket, both seem ready to tumble into the viewer’s own space. The other disciple spreads his hands wide in an arresting display of foreshortening. The beardless Christ has been taken straight from some early Christian image: a mosaic or a catacomb painting, a reminder, at the moment when Cardinal Cesare Baronio and Antonio Bosio were applying archaeological methods to Church history, that Caravaggio’s work is historically informed; if the disciples are dressed in contemporary dress, it is to indicate that Jesus is always there to be recognized, in the bread and wine of the Mass or in a burning heart.

Caravaggio’s second version of the Supper at Emmaus was painted in 1606, just after the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni had sent him running to his family’s traditional protectors, the Colonna dynasty, and their feudal property at Paliano in the hills south of Rome. The changes that tragedy and exile wrought on this virtuoso painter are the real subject of the National Gallery’s show, and the second Supper at Emmaus distills them all. Many of the earlier painting’s distinguishing qualities are simply gone: the crystalline detailing, the bravura gestures, the archaeological accuracy. Instead, the shadowy interior of the inn seems to have taken the edge off figures and objects alike, and has reduced the range of color to browns and the deep blue of Christ’s robe. The handsome young innkeeper has been replaced by an elderly couple: a perplexed husband and his wrinkled wife, who has already bowed her head in prayer, the first person in the room to understand who their mysterious guest must be. Significantly, she is about to serve the three travelers a rack of lamb, the sacrificial animal of Passover and Easter, and one of the most ancient of all Christian symbols.

Caravaggio’s earlier beardless Christ is here replaced by a more conventional image, a mature man whose weary expression suggests both the weight of his recent ordeal and of the endless mission to save humanity from its own folly. The disciples convey their reactions to his presence less by their gestures than by their facial expressions, except for the place on the edge of the table where one disciple’s hand, gnarled and ruddy, barely touches the hand of Jesus, lit by the glow of divinity. In that touch, or near touch, Ca-ravaggio has concentrated all the fervor of a burning heart and distilled the essence of Christianity as the meeting of God and man.

In the five years between 1601 and 1606, in other words, Caravaggio transformed his work from the imitation of nature to its refinement through imagination and through spirit. In the second version of the Supper at Emmaus, he is no longer showing off his skill, but meditating in paint, and however muddled his personal life may have been, his wisdom as a painter could fathom mysteries as deep as this tired Christ, his hostess’s quiet reverence, and the fiery faith of the apostles. In the last four years of his life, from the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni to his death by malaria along Italy’s mosquito coast, Caravaggio’s heart burned within him in a new way, earning him more praise than ever, and more disaster.

The National Gallery’s exhibit of paintings from Caravaggio’s final years began last fall in Naples, at the beautifully refurbished Capodimonte Museum. It follows the fugitive painter from Rome to Paliano to Naples, where his short stay was enough to transform the style of painting in the second-most-populous city of Europe. From Naples, Caravaggio boarded a galley bound for Malta, where he landed in July of 1607. In July of 1608, he was inducted into the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, specifically, as recently discovered documents show, for his skill as a painter.

Just over a month after his investiture, however, a summer brawl landed him in prison; Caravaggio escaped by rappelling down the sheer limestone bastion of the Sant’Angelo fort, and boarded a boat for Sicily, where he moved from Syracuse to Messina to Palermo, and then back to Naples. In the ancient Neapolitan inn called the Cerriglio, a thug jumped him one night in the summer of 1610, cutting his face “beyond recognition”; once again, he took shelter with his Colonna protectors, who persuaded him that Pope Paul V was inclined to issue him a pardon for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni, thus making possible his return to Rome.

In July of 1610, therefore, the painter, his face a maze of barely healing slashes, set out for Rome in a felucca with a roll of his paintings. The ship put ashore at the little port—and customs office—of Palo Romano, where petty officials, mistaking him for another man, threw him into prison. It took him two days to establish his identity, by which time the felucca and the paintings were long gone. “This made him furious,” reports his biographer Giovanni Baglione, “and in desperation he started out along the beach under the heat of the July sun, trying to catch sight of the vessel that had his belongings. Finally, he came to a place where he was put to bed with a raging fever, and so, without the aid of God or man, in a few days he died, as miserably as he had lived.”

It seems remarkable now that Caravaggio could have produced as much as he did under such conditions, and that a man so disciplined in his work could continue so willfully to destroy himself in every other aspect of his life. One of his very last paintings, a David and Goliath, puts his own face on the decapitated giant, one eye already gone dull, the other flashing a last spark as the slackening mouth, with its bad teeth, releases a cry of pain (see illustration on page 12). This may have been one of the three paintings that Caravaggio carried with him on that wayward felucca, and the expression of David, “contemplative, grieving and infinitely compassionate,” shows the other side of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, giant and monster: the tender soul that only his art could ever fully reveal.2

  1. 1

    The three earliest biographies of Caravaggio, by his physician Giorgio Mancini, his rival Giovanni Baglione, and the theorist Giovanni Pietro Bellori, are now available with illustrations and a vivid introduction by Helen Lang-don in The Lives of Caravaggio: Mancini, Baglione, Bellori (London: Pallas Athene, 2005). The passage cited here is taken from Bellori’s Life, p. 88.

  2. 2

    The evocative description comes from Anna Coliva’s catalog entry on the painting, pp. 137–138.

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