More than four hundred years from the day he packed up his things and headed for Rome from the small Lombardy town in which he grew up, Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio (1571-1610) is still, to borrow the wording of one of his contracts, “top painter in the City” (egregius in Urbe pictor). Recent books about the man his contemporaries called Caravaggio (to distinguish him from the other Michelangelos they knew) far outnumber those on Raphael, Titian, or Leonardo; among the old masters, only Michelangelo Buonarroti seems to share a similar degree of popularity. Caravaggio’s paintings, meanwhile, are caught in a game of museological musical chairs as they pass from Rome to Hartford, Rome to Padua, Hartford to Kansas City, Dublin and Detroit to Boston, Kansas City to Milwaukee, Florence to Malta. His fortunes, however, like his notoriously prickly personality, have never stood fast. By 1660, Nicolas Poussin could claim that Caravaggio, by then dead for half a century, “had come into the world to destroy painting.” For Stendhal he was “a great painter, but a wicked man,” and most of the people who have loved his paintings would tend to agree. Just what made him a great painter, however, and what made him a wicked man, have been subjects for unceasing debate. Nor is it clear how much the wickedness and the painting actually bear on one another.
Remarkably, a significant number of Caravaggio’s oils (the only medium in which he ever worked) survive in their original settings, mainly churches, his contracts still preserved in their archives. A survey of his work shows that despite a distinctiveness that was present from the beginning, his style changed radically over the course of his brief career (he died at thirty-nine). He began with bright tones of red, green, gold, and pale flesh against backgrounds of gray or ochre and ended with thin layers of red, rust, brown, and shimmering white emerging from deep darkness. Between the open-mouthed expectancy of the pretty, wiry Boy with a Basket of Fruit he painted early (1593-1594) and the grave expression of his sad-eyed, late (1610) Saint John the Baptist, now hung side by side in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, we can trace the somewhat superficial promise of a young man’s skill through to its fulfillment in a way of painting that strikes for the soul. Caravaggio’s brush could cut as truly as the sword he always carried with him, and together they brought him both his pride and his unspeakable pain.
Caravaggio’s life figured already in contemporary biographies, together with lists of his paintings; he was that important an artist. His story can also be traced through documents such as transfers of real estate, police blotters, the correspondence that attended his induction into the Knights of Malta, the bureaucratic rites that marked his expulsion from the same order, and reports of his sudden unglamorous death on a stretch of malarial coastline north of Rome.
Still, any number of questions about the painter and his paintings may never find adequate answers when four centuries stand between us. Just as biographies of long-dead artists mention a frustrating number of works that no longer survive, so, too, an enormous amount of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art has been preserved without artists’ signatures or contracts to tell us who made it, or why, or for whom. Identifying a painting as a lost Caravaggio is a rare coup, a standing temptation for critics, art historians, and dealers; books on Caravaggio are invariably filled with examples of such “attributed” works, beginning with Roberto Longhi’s landmark 1951 exhibit in Milan, “Caravaggio Show” (Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi). Longhi effectively reintroduced this great painter to twentieth-century tastes by presenting a Caravaggio whose “antimythic” Bacchus “is already modern, almost like Manet’s barmaid at the Folies Bergère,” and who composed his paintings as if they were movies “shot right in front of us using real bodies rather than painted ones.”1
Almost fifty years stand between Longhi’s bold challenge in his catalog for the Milan exhibit and Catherine Puglisi’s sizable 1998 monograph on an affirmed master, the most recent catalogue raisonné, with generous documentation and color illustrations.2 It is perhaps more surprising to realize how radically the generally accepted body of Caravaggio’s work (some sixty paintings) now differs from what Longhi believed it was, guided largely by his own sharp but idiosyncratic eye. Because Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting and distinctive brushwork exerted such a powerful influence on his contemporaries, many of the paintings now attributed to him may well turn out either to be copies of works by Caravaggio, which were already legion in his own lifetime, or independent paintings executed in some version of Caravaggio’s spirit.3
When, in 1944, the restorer Sergio Benedetti spotted Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ in the refectory of a Jesuit house in Dublin, it was covered with layers of grime and ascribed to a Dutch painter, Gerrit van Honthorst. Cleaned and restored, securely identified, the The Taking of Christ can now be seen for what it is, a painting of such significance in its own day that it inspired a host of other artists to try their hand at the same theme, borrowing bits and pieces of Caravaggio’s composition, his figures, his lighting. (One of the best was an Ecce Homo painted by Bartolomeo Manfredi and exhibited in Milwaukee this spring.4 ) Yet among them all, Caravaggio’s version will always stand out for the way it is composed as well as the way it is painted. Characteristically, The Taking of Christ compresses a series of events into a single crucial moment: if the Gospel writers took up several chapters to tell how Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities of Palestine, Caravaggio distilled those chapters to an instant.
Judas told the Romans that he would identify Jesus by greeting him with a kiss. As Caravaggio shows him, the betrayer has just flung his arm around his victim, his lips still puckering, but already a centurion’s steel-clad arm claps across the traitor’s sleeve and a mailed glove takes Jesus by the throat. Balding, snub-nosed, his eyes an uncannily light golden hue, Judas scowls with what seems to be a mixture of deep malice and the remorse that will shortly drive him to suicide. Jesus winces, his hands still twined in the remnants of a prayer.
Caravaggio and his contemporaries all knew the contents of that interrupted prayer, offered in an anguished vigil in the olive grove of Gethsemane. “Sorrowful, even unto death,” Jesus pleaded three times to escape the trouble that loomed before him in Jerusalem: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” The “cup,” as he well knew, meant capture, torture, and crucifixion, the methods by which ancient Rome imposed its Pax Romana on the world.
Caravaggio’s painting catches Jesus at the very moment when he learns that the answer to his prayer is “no”—the twinge of that recognition shoots across his face. Yet Jesus ended his prayer in Gethsemane with an act of resignation, “not as I will, but as Thou wilt,” and Caravaggio also conveys this obedience, by showing how Jesus sways with the crush of people moving in on him from the painting’s right, a rush that reaches its climax in the screaming, fleeing disciple on the far left—John, to judge by his age, his anguished attractiveness, and the traditional colors of his clothes. Jesus sways, but he also stands his ground amid the knot of grasping hands, the cloying intimacy of Judas’ kiss, and his beloved disciple’s panicked desertion; the victim of this drama is also its strongest character.
Caravaggio’s agitated night is bathed in an icy moonlight that glints off the centurions’ armor and Judas’ vulpine eyes. Yet off to the right, amid the mailed centurions, an unarmed bystander holds up an ineffectual lantern. He may be a portrait of the painter himself. In the anguish of Gethsemane, Jesus had warned his sleepy disciples to “watch and pray,” although typically they nodded off instead. Here Caravaggio has painted with a degree of concentration that surely counts as devotion no less than a pair of folded hands. His painting rouses all the senses: we hear the clang of the soldiers’ metal armor, the betrayer’s mumbled greeting, the disciple’s scream; we can almost taste Judas’ perfidious kiss, and smell the press of sweaty flesh, the bloodlust and fear, and most of all, revel in the sensations of touch that evocative painting can set off as effectively as sculpture.
Caravaggio has a particular gift for putting life into luminous skin. Furthermore, as the painter knew with rare profundity, we respond to a great variety of sensory impressions, including the senses that give us awareness of placement in space, of bodies moving, of the cool humidity an olive grove gives off at night to change the texture of the darkness. We know, too, that there is a moment before a violent act has taken place when it all might have been different. The Taking of Christ puts us just beyond that moment, when the disaster has already been set into motion, and slams us with its first blow.
Caravaggio is usually described as a realist painter, his work contrasted with the stylized classical saints, angels, and mythological figures that typified religious art in Rome when he arrived to make a career in 1592. Born in 1571, he had grown up and served his apprenticeship in Milan, where Leonardo da Vinci had left a powerful imprint a hundred years before Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio came along. Details seem to prove that the younger painter was as obsessed as Leonardo with recording physical reality; little touches like dirty fingernails or the reflections in a glass, not to mention the faces of his strong-featured figures, were often clearly culled from life.
In fact, though, with this great artist nothing is ever so simple as painting what he sees. The Taking of Christ has been carefully posed to compress real time into a symbolic instant, and all his best paintings likewise depend on the same sort of artful, but revelatory, arrangement. Contemporaries reported that Caravaggio painted directly onto his canvases without making preparatory drawings, using at most a few guidelines scratched into the surface of the work. Given to bravado, he let them continue to think so, boasting that he worked only from nature. And yet his stately Entombment of Christ (Vatican Picture Gallery) re-creates the complex poses of an ancient Roman sarcophagus, a marble coffin of the second or third century of the Christian era whose sculpted front portrayed the death of the Greek hero Meleager.5 Young, innocent, divine, and prematurely dead, Meleager served as a gentile precursor of Christ.
For all its apparent immediacy, this Entombment is an erudite work, not a poor man’s Bible. It is the artist’s skill that makes us forget that the crinkled hide of wizened Nicodemus and the generously padded bosom of Mary Magdalene descend from a stone ancestor; that when the dead Christ trails a lingering finger across the marble slab of his tomb, he only expresses the quality of life-in-death that the sculpted sarcophagus famously evoked for viewers in Caravaggio’s day.
In Caravaggio’s paintings we can see a small crowd of ancient statues brought uncannily to fleshly life. He may not have sketched the ancient monuments as did his Italian predecessors Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo (all of whom left behind sheaves of drawings), but even his lowliest characters maintain a sculptural dignity whether their looks and their poses derive from art or from life. When compared with the feral Bean Eater of his competitor Annibale Carracci, the faithful peasants in his Madonna of Loreto express an entirely different standard of human worth. Caravaggio’s dirty pilgrims pray with an intensity of devotion that gives full weight to their spiritual integrity, whereas Carracci’s dull-eyed glutton, caught gorging in a tavern, glares at the spectator with the animality of a dog defending his bone.
Carracci, ironically, is usually identified as the supreme classicist of the era he shared with Caravaggio, the sanitary academic counterpoint to a Caravaggio immersed in grubby reality. But Caravaggio’s grittiest scenes, unlike the Bean Eater, are always more than a glimpse of low life painted for the rich. They almost always show, and powerfully, moments of epiphany: Christ revealed to his disciples over a modest meal in two versions of The Supper at Emmaus, or The Seven Acts of Mercy committed with businesslike dispatch by a battery of saints who go about their good works amid the grim bustle of a Neapolitan street, and perhaps most dramatically, The Calling of Saint Matthew, in which Jesus interrupts a group of tax collectors at their counting table and says, “Follow me.”
The reactions to this imperious call range from studied indifference to guilt-ridden refusal, finally to focus on the gesture of the dandy Matthew, who points at his own chest as if to say “Who, me?” and eventually will follow Jesus to the death. Caravaggio presents us with a world full of decadence, foul play, misguided intentions, disturbing nuances. These misgivings erupt in the figure of Judas from The Taking of Christ, in thuggish executioners, but also in a long series of paintings of young boys whose wriggling exuberance crackles with sexual electricity. Modern viewers, disconcerted by that adolescent brew of appetite, swagger, and aimless energy, have searched for explanations in Caravaggio’s biography, as if the painter’s sexual history can account for such works of hand and imagination. And yet, however tantalizing the connections that can be made between the life and the paintings, the two can never be entirely reconciled. Stubbornly, the paintings remain the paintings. The life is the life.
It was a sad life, in many ways a sordid one, marked by capricious behavior, violence, sickness, and early death. Caravaggio was neither a likable person nor an attractive man. It was this dark, unpleasant character that gave him his outlaw reputation, for his crimes, all told, are fewer and no more vicious than those committed by that glittering charmer Gianlorenzo Bernini. But Bernini knew how to solicit forgiveness, and Caravaggio did not, except in his art.
Poverty had something to do with the lack of charm. Caravaggio’s family belonged to minor aristocracy, but like many a talented spirit before or since, he wanted to find his own career, arriving in Rome destitute and ambitious. At first he made his way by churning out small portraits, and eventually he supplied still-life details for paintings that emerged from the workshop of a successful young Roman artist, Giuseppe Cesari, the future “Knight of Arpino” (Cavaliere d’Arpino). On the side Caravaggio also made a series of easel paintings, apparently to display the range of his talents to potential customers. These included a series of boys offering overripe fruits and, implicitly, themselves for the tasting. Of the series, the most accomplished is the lazily flushed Bacchus now at the Uffizi in Florence.
To a certain extent these early paintings read as technical exercises; in them Caravaggio shows his ability to render flesh, fruit, drapery, faces—an imperfect ability at that. Some larger vignettes show rich young dandies being duped by pretty gypsy girls and tatterdemalion cardsharps, all of them clad in colorful bits and pieces of courtiers’ peacock clothing. When these last two paintings, The Cardsharps and The Fortune Teller, caught the eye of a cultured churchman, Francesco Maria Cardinal Del Monte, the young painter from Caravaggio at last took off like a Roman candle.
The Counter-Reformation Rome into which Caravaggio now successfully inserted himself was a strange place, ruled by what modern Italians call the Pope-King, il Papa Re. The cardinals, bishops, and functionaries who ran the Church also ran a political state complete with armies and diplomatic corps, a state under threat ever since the Protestant Reformation had taken hold of powers like England, Sweden, and parts of Germany. The catalog of a recent exhibit of work by Caravaggio and his contemporaries at Boston College makes a valiant attempt to face this Roman Counter-Reformation head on. But it is difficult now to examine Caravaggio’s society without reacting strongly to its amalgamation of Church and State, its spiritual panic, its poverty, violence, and pageantry, its repressive laws, inquisitions, and networks of informants, and to separate that visceral response from the way in which we interpret patrons of Caravaggio like Cardinal Del Monte or, for that matter, Caravaggio himself. It is impossible to forget that during the painter’s sojourn in Rome, the Catholic authorities burned the philosopher Giordano Bruno at the stake (February 17, 1600) because of what he had said and written rather than what he had done. Caravaggio himself apparently killed a man in an argument after a game of tennis.
From their unprepossessing protagonist to his grimly colorful society, Caravaggio’s biographers face peculiar challenges if they are going to render an honest account of the painter in his world. Murderers and theocratic states do not command instant sympathy. Furthermore, as Parson Weems showed long ago with George Washington and the cherry tree, a good story told on the basis of bad information can prove just about immortal if it makes a point, and Caravaggio’s life, like Washington’s, offers a wealth of moral lessons, if only by negative example.
In 1994, the Italian scholar Riccardo Bassani (together with the art historian Flora Bellini) published a lurid biography called Caravaggio assassino, “Caravaggio the Murderer.” The book was based, so its author claimed, on new documents from the criminal archives of Rome, confirmed by papers from the Vatican Library and other sources. Its picture of Caravaggio’s lovers, male and female, the painter’s street brawls, and the tennis-court murder that exiled him from Rome in 1606 sufficed, as Bassani said in his preface, to dim the line between story and history.
Not surprisingly, Caravaggio assassino sold well in Italy, what with its detailed reports of taverns, women, scuffles, games, Giordano Bruno’s death at the stake—the pyre, Bassani reported, had smoldered for three hours after Bruno himself was incinerated—and the gruesome execution in 1599 of young Beatrice Cenci, her stepmother, and her brother for the murder of the clan’s abusive patriarch. Bassani tracked the models for several of Caravaggio’s Roman paintings to two Sienese girls who came to Rome together in a cart, bent on selling their adolescent virtue to the same patrons at whom Caravaggio aimed his art; to Anna Bianchini, a streetwalker who posed for Caravaggio as a Penitent Magdalene; and to the canny, classy Fillide Melandroni, who mingled, by contrast, with the very prelates who sponsored Caravaggio at the height of his career. (Fillide’s own portrait by Caravaggio, with its no-nonsense expression and extravagantly big hair, was finally immolated in the capture of Berlin in 1945.)
The stories were good while they lasted. Then the scholar Sandro Corradini took a copy of Caravaggio assassino with him to the State Archive in Rome, and quickly confirmed his suspicions that much of Bassani’s information was faked: real documents had been dressed up with new names, dates, and details, just enough to create new stories. Despite Corradini’s best efforts, however, these new tales of Caravaggio the murderer had already been launched, to lend their spurious pizazz to a generation of new books on an artist whose popularity had already received a similar fictitious boost, at least in the English-speaking world, from Derek Jarman’s 1986 movie Caravaggio.6
However laudable imagination may be in the reconstruction of history, Bassani’s swashbuckling Rome and Jarman’s tableau vivant recreations of Caravaggio’s paintings present the same serious drawback: they give us a twentieth-century version of the seventeenth century.7 The real Caravaggio, on the other hand, shakes us in deeply confusing ways, just as he shook his own contemporaries, and comes at us from a seventeenth century that adheres resolutely to its own time and place. Caravaggio’s patrons understood his capacity to disturb, and valued him for it: they, too, were complicated people rather than Bassani’s and Jarman’s cardboard prelates—Cardinal Del Monte, for example, was certainly a bon vivant for whom Caravaggio painted a consort of languid boys tuning their lutes with Cupid incognito among them, but Del Monte also commissioned religious paintings like the Ecstasy of Saint Francis that is usually housed in Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum. (This spring, exceptionally, it was in Kansas City.) Swooning into the arms of a gangly adolescent angel, Saint Francis resembles the Cardinal (whose name was Francesco, after all), an intelligent, middle-aged man taken in a sudden, unexpected rapture.
The eroticism of these two paintings is entirely male. It is both sacred and secular, and combines fantasy and reality: the god Cupid hides among the mortal musicians, stringing his bow as they string their lutes; frail, fleshly Saint Francis falls against a bodiless angel for support. Caravaggio and his patrons lived in a time when religion delivered a charge for which the most powerful metaphor might have been sexual ecstasy; but sex was still only a metaphor for a sensation they called piety, a sensation they often felt was the most real experience in their lives. Caravaggio never quite defines the ambiguous margin between orgasm and revelation—perhaps modern viewers keep asking him to do so because he so insistently shifts the burden to us.
Cardinal Del Monte’s friend Vincenzo Giustiniani (who was also a close friend of Galileo) kept his own sassy Caravaggio Cupid under wraps so that he could unveil it with a flourish as the climax of his collection; it shows a preadolescent bad boy who squirms from the surge of inarticulate desire that powers his energetic little body—but what other kind of little boy could Eros possibly be? (See illustration on this page.) He is at once a Platonic personification and a demonic monkey, but so, after all, are we, the objects at whom he directs his wicked grin.
In confronting images like these, Helen Langdon’s carefully researched Caravaggio: A Life does its best to free the painter from his pseudohistory. Readers may not catch the full weight of her skepticism when she denounces Riccardo Bassani in a footnote as “unreliable”; but excessive attention to a now-cooling scandal would only distract attention from Caravaggio himself. Besides, Langdon’s work with genuine documentary sources shows that the painter’s real surroundings are colorful enough on their own. And despite the discussion that some of her positions will arouse about this most controversial of artists, hers will clearly be the definitive biography of Caravaggio for some time.
Another Caravaggio biographer, the Australian writer Peter Robb, has relied more heavily on Bassani’s fictions, but then Robb, inspired perhaps by his intractable subject, is something of a bad boy himself. The success of his culinary and political travelogue Midnight in Sicily seems to have encouraged him to try increasingly experimental prose in his next book, beginning with its title, M (for Michelangelo Merisi, Caravaggio’s given name—not that the artist ever so used the initial himself). Australian slang and contractions heaped on contractions make reading M a wild ride, still jarring even after a ream of pages.
Robb is an opinionated writer, and if he had an eye to match his ear (and, to judge from the culinary passages of Midnight in Sicily, his taste buds), the reading of M might have offered its peculiar reward. Yet despite his close attention to Caravaggio’s paintings, he sees them through a narrow lens, determined to cast his M in a twentieth-century anticlerical mode. It is not the most promising line to take on a painter who spent most of his career revolutionizing religious art.
For a variety of reasons, moreover, writers on Caravaggio, Langdon included, have tended to concentrate on his career in Rome, a period that began in poverty, took wing toward a peak of success, and fell to ground in murder, conviction, and exile. Caravaggio’s time in the Eternal City makes a concise parable, both of his own dissipated life and of the strange contrasts and festering hypocrisies that marred existence in the timeless headquarters of the Counter-Reformation papacy. Just as significantly, perhaps, Caravaggio’s Roman period includes paintings that are both secular and religious; somehow, appreciation of his sexy, fidgety boys is more compatible with our own culture than facing the biblical scenes that make up the vast majority of the painter’s work—and claim the best efforts of his imagination.
From Derek Jarman’s film to recent books like Robb’s, Caravaggio’s sexuality has frequently been made to dictate his artistic life: not only the pictures of boys, but also the violence of his Christian images and his apparent propensity for self-portraiture. Most contemporary writers who take Caravaggio as homosexual—or who make Herculean efforts to deny male eroticism in his paintings—know that they are subjecting him to anachronistic categories, analyzing him in modern terms rather than those of his own era. Once again, as so often with this troublemaker of an artist, the simple, predictable present-day story often proves too powerful to resist when the alternative would be to face the radical strangeness of the real past. 8
When Caravaggio left Rome in 1606, charged with the murder of a local boss named Ranuccio Tomassoni, he had four more years to live, years in which he developed his art in surprising new ways. His subsequent work in Naples, Sicily, and Malta is almost entirely religious—two portraits of Knights of Malta provide the chief exception. Catherine Puglisi is exceptional in giving these late paintings very close attention: “In a career spanning only some sixteen years, the last four years, which he spent in exile from the Papal States, saw his genius realize an original vision that admits him into the company of the greatest artists in the Western tradition.”
Desmond Seward’s short, concise biography, Caravaggio: A Passionate Life, also concentrates on the late work, notably the epic Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (see illustration on page 12), executed in conjunction with Caravaggio’s own induction into the Knights of Malta—the only work he ever signed.9 And what a signature it is, a bright red announcement made in the martyred John’s pooled blood, visible in the very center of a painting that stands above the altar of the oratory where every Knight of Malta knelt in prayer several times a week, and where Caravaggio himself would have meditated in an all-night vigil before his ceremonial admission into the order. The composition itself is markedly asymmetrical, with all the action occurring on its left side. Only John’s Christ-like corpse and the artist’s name anchor it to its center.
A fugitive from Rome with a murder charge on his own head, Caravaggio may well have offered this image of John’s decapitation as the fee for his entrance into the Knights. The crumpled prophet’s shimmering body and resplendent red cloak pointedly prefigure the body and blood of Christ, offered in the rite of Christian communion as a promise that mortal sinners could still be redeemed from their sins. Just beneath the painted saint a real tabernacle held the Host by which Caravaggio was offered that redemption as a newly inducted Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. The Beheading of Saint John is a marvelous painting for its bold composition and luminous colors, but also for the bright sense of hope that infuses it, perhaps for the last time in Caravaggio’s career.
From his first important chapel commission, the Saint Matthew cycle in the Roman church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Caravaggio always had an acute sense of the setting in which his work would be displayed. His paired paintings of The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, respond directly to one another, suggesting that there may have been similar correspondences among works that no longer survive (his paintings for Sant’Anna dei Lombardi in Naples, destroyed in an earthquake in 1798), or have been displaced. As Peter’s cross is raised by three crouching executioners, the saint, about to be suspended upside down, looks across the brief space of the chapel to a blinded Paul, struck from his horse by divine revelation on the road to Damascus. Does Peter see the same beatific vision as the sightless Paul, who seems to be experiencing his conversion in private silence? Or is Peter’s intent glance the work of his memory, searching back to the instant in which his inveterate adversary became a fellow believer? This same sense of placement reaches its climax in The Beheading of Saint John, which covers the entire back wall of the Oratory for which it was designed, and flaunts Caravaggio’s signature to the world.
For the last four years of his life, Caravaggio lived as a fugitive, first from the charge of murder in Rome, and then, for unexplained reasons, from Malta. He took refuge in Naples and Sicily, all the while petitioning the Pope for a pardon that would allow his return to Rome. Caravaggio’s last moments on Malta were spent in its dread prison, the guva, or “birdcage,” a subterranean hollow, eleven feet deep, in the bristling bastion of Castel Sant’Angelo, whose walls still bear the graffiti of desperate prisoners. Although he never acknowledged the fact, he was expelled from the Knights of Malta when he made his escape from this supposedly impregnable jail and took refuge in Syracuse, and thereafter seems to have behaved like a hunted man.
The thin paint, quick execution, and standard figures of Caravaggio’s latest works provide perhaps the greatest temptation to read his art with his biography in mind; their degree of concentration and their speed of execution both suggest a man who knows that he has little time left. So, too, it is hard to separate the limitless sadness that suffuses the face of his Borghese John the Baptist from the knowledge that this is one of the rolled paintings Caravaggio was carrying with him when he died on the beach at Porto Ercole north of Rome, a port whose beauties he probably never noticed, exhausted as he was, and sick with malaria. “He died miserably, as he had lived,” said one of his seventeenth-century biographers, a rival painter, Giovanni Baglione. His late-twentieth-century biographers have been more kind, every one of them, but the real measure of Caravaggio is still too large to fit into any single account.10
October 7, 1999
Roberto Longhi, Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi, Milano, Pa-lazzo Reale, Aprile/Giugno 1951 (Florence: Sansoni, 1951), pp. xx, xxxi. ↩
London: Phaidon, 1998. ↩
In this category, for example, I would include, among more generally accepted paintings, the recently restored and much-debated Narcissus in the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome, and the slack, distasteful Magdalen in Ecstasy (“Klain Magdalen”) in a Roman private collection. ↩
Manfredi’s Ecce Homo of circa 1610- 1612 (painted, therefore, just after Caravaggio’s death) figures in Dennis P. Weller’s catalog Sinners and Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers (North Carolina Museum of Art, 1998). ↩
See Avigdor W.G. Posèq, “Caravaggio and the Antique,” in Artibus et historiae, No. 21 (1990), pp. 157-167; Sergio Benedetti, “Classical and Religious Influences in Caravaggio’s Painting,” in Franco Mormando, editor, Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image, pp. 208-235. ↩
Bassani’s misinformation still shows up, for example, in Puglisi’s Caravaggio, where it is especially damaging because of the book’s definitive nature, and also in various parts of the Boston College Saints and Sinners catalog. ↩
Time has not been kind to Jarman’s vision. It must be said that his portrayals of Caravaggio in the act of painting rank as some of the silliest cinematic shtick since Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel in pre-restoration browns to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. What kind of painter would put his canvas behind him? ↩
Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s treatment of Jarman’s Caravaggio (British Film Institute, 1999) provides a particularly annoying example of the queer Caravaggio, with its portentous hymn to homosexuality as “an other sameness” (italics theirs, presumably for dramatic reading), as if all human contacts do not involve such interplays between similarity and difference. Their Caravaggio’s Secrets (MIT Press, 1998) provides more of the same variety of musings for those who like their prose hermetic. They haven’t much to do with Caravaggio, however. ↩
See also David Stone, “The Context of Caravaggio’s ‘Beheading of St. John’ in Malta,” The Burlington Magazine, No. 139 (1997), pp. 161-170. ↩
My thanks to the Wadsworth Athe-neum, and to Andrew Butterfield, Jed Perl, Deborah Rosenthal, Michael Heidelberger, and especially Mario Pereira. ↩