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


The London version of this exhibit is smaller and more concentrated than its counterpart in Naples; it lacks two large, important paintings (The Seven Works of Mercy from Naples and The Burial of Saint Lucy from Siracusa), as well as the several “new proposals” and “old copies” that, in Naples, were relegated, mercifully, to a separate room. The two venues also exploit space in very different ways. Superintendent Nicola Spinosa’s inspired decision to hang the paintings right in the mid-dle of the Capodimonte’s permanent collection put Caravaggio in a superb before-and-after setting and challenged the entire mentality of blockbuster shows by suggesting, rightly, that the Capodimonte collection, in one of the world’s greatest museums in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, can compete with any traveling show.

There were Titian, Raphael, and Sebastiano del Piombo in their rightful place as Caravaggio’s forerunners. Annibale Carracci’s stunning (and woefully dirty) Pietà showed, as no other painting by this artist can, the full stature of Caravaggio’s most gifted rival, and Caravaggio’s legacy was laid out in the work of Velázquez, Ribera, Guarino, Stanzione, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, as well as the so-called Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds (who may at last have a name), each affected by the struggle of light with darkness that gripped Neapolitan painting from the moment that Caravaggio unveiled his Seven Works of Mercy in 1607.

He had painted that altarpiece for the sophisticated young philanthropists of a men’s sodality called the Pio Monte della Misericordia, turning a traditional list of good works into a portrait of everyday Christian charity taking place in the torchlit warren of Neapolitan streets, the same streets where the Pio Monte continues to perform its good works, and where its chapel remains open to this day. Normally, therefore, The Seven Works of Mercy is one of the several Caravaggio paintings that can still be seen in the place for which it was conceived; it was removed to the Capodimonte for restoration and displayed there before being returned home.

One of the other great works from Caravaggio’s stay in Naples, his own favorite, a Resurrection of Christ, was crushed in the earthquake of 1798. But both Naples and London exhibited the glorious Flagellation from San Domenico Maggiore, a Dominican church and convent whose power in early modern Naples was nearly equal to that of the ruling Spanish viceroy. San Domenico’s parishioners included most of the great feudal families from the Kingdom of Naples; shelves high in its sacristy contained (and still contain) the leaden coffins of the Aragonese kings who had ruled the kingdom from the mid-fourteenth century to 1503. Its long corridors housed both the Royal University and the Dominican College, where Thomas Aquinas himself once taught. From one of its side chapels, it was said a crucifix had spoken to Aquinas with the voice of Christ himself.

The friars of San Domenico had not only included that fat and formidable saint, but also, in Caravaggio’s own day, the heretics Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella, the former burned at the stake at Rome in 1600 (Caravaggio could have seen the execution), the latter languishing in prison for having helped to foment, from San Domenico itself, a revolt against the viceroys in 1599. Before Caravaggio arrived in Naples, Campanella had famously saved his own skin by feigning madness through forty hours of torture on the Judas cradle, hands tied above a pointed seat; he had to flex his biceps for hours to avoid relaxing back onto a wedge designed to split his strapping peasant’s frame in two. Caravaggio’s world contained a shocking degree of physical violence that shows up in his paintings as well as in his life; the color that most often interrupts their interplay of shadow and light is blood-red.

For a noble member of San Domenico’s remarkable congregation, Tommaso de Franchis, Caravaggio painted Jesus crowned with thorns and tied to a column at the moment just before his torturers have begun to scourge him. The dramatic lighting of the London show, which suggestively reproduces Caravaggio’s characteristic technique of an intense, concentrated beam high on the left, has a drawback: a tendency to bleach color. In particular, it bleaches the flush of blood under Christ’s skin in this picture, a flush concentrated at his chest and knees so that he is visibly throbbing with life. Soon that blood will no longer be surging through his capillaries but spilling forth, like the stray drops he has already shaken free from the crown of thorns. His splendid torso owes a certain debt to Sebastiano del Piombo’s powerful fresco in Rome’s church of San Pietro in Montorio (itself inspired by Sebastiano’s mentor Michelangelo), but the Naples show also put up an unexpected comparison: a Flagellation by Titian that Caravaggio probably saw as well (it is reproduced on page 38 of the catalog).

The contrasts between these two great oil painters reveal wholly divergent ideas about painting: Titian gives life to flesh by exploiting the sheen of oil; Caravaggio’s Christ looks more like an ancient Roman sculpture, brought alive by patches of blushing skin, and the bruises that have begun to rise on his pinioned arms. Titian focuses his portrayal on the eyes of Jesus, at once accusing and compassionate; the soft contrasts of his color make Caravaggio’s stark essay in black and white look harsh by comparison—but then Caravaggio’s Flagellation was painted for Naples, a city under brutal Spanish occupation rather than the civil, sovereign republic where Titian made his home. Ca-ravaggio’s Christ averts his eyes from the impending violence so that all the viewer can grasp is a beautiful body before its defilement, the same body that was commemorated every time that a priest celebrated Communion on the altar beneath this terrifying altarpiece by pronouncing the words “This is my body, given for you.”3 Caravaggio’s painted battle of light with darkness is openly a battle of good with evil, and it spoke to Naples so truly that he changed the local style of religious art with a handful of images—and sent this new style back, by way of Velázquez and Ribera, to Spain itself.

During Caravaggio’s year in Malta, as with his sojourn in Naples, he concentrated on a huge painting that still hangs in its original position in the Oratory of the Co-Cathedral of St. John at Valletta. The Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist was probably installed there on August 29, 1608, the only painting that Caravaggio ever signed. And what a signature it is: blood spurting from the Baptist’s severed neck traces the letters F. MichelAn. F. stands for “Fra,” “Brother,” the title assumed by Knights of Malta on their investiture, an indication that Caravaggio had already been inducted into the order by the time he completed the painting. (The restorers who cared for the painting in the late 1990s suggest that the last four letters of “Michel-Angelo” probably fell off the heavy canvas as it buckled under its own weight over the centuries.)

The Martyrdom of Saint John will not be traveling soon; it was taken to Florence for a restoration completed in 1999 and displayed there before returning to Valletta, but it is too large, and too integral a part of Malta’s heritage, to be moved for any other reason. Similarly, the Louvre refused to lend Caravaggio’s portrait of the the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Alof de Wignacourt, and one of the twelve pages who gave him the Christian equivalent of an ancient Roman consul’s twelve-man escort. These are the two paintings that best sum up Caravaggio’s experience in Malta, and they are essential to understanding his final years.

The other Caravaggio still surviving in Malta is a masterful Saint Jerome Writing, which has also hung in the Co-Cathedral since the seventeenth century, and it is not so surprising that the Maltese decided not to lend it; in 1985, the picture was cut from its frame and held for ransom for two years. This criminal act (described in fascinating detail by Father Marius Zerafa, former director of museums for Malta and Gozo, in his Caravaggio Diaries) put the painting at grave risk; rolling up four-hundred-year-old oil on four-hundred-year-old canvas is nothing like rolling up a fresh work of art (and even that action, as Caravaggio’s patrons discovered on several occasions, can inflict significant damage—not to mention what Caravaggio did by using a painting as his tablecloth).4 The obvious solution to this curatorial problem would have been—and still is—to mount a version of the exhibition in Malta.

Still, neither Naples nor London lacked for powerful paintings to illustrate this period of Caravaggio’s life. His portrait of the venerable knight Fra Antonio Martelli from the Galleria Palatina, Florence, is enough to capture both the spirit of the Maltese islands and of the knighthood that Caravaggio yearned to obtain and then squandered so stupidly, so soon. We can virtually tell by looking at this wiry, elegant man that he took part in Malta’s Great Siege of 1565, when the Knights of Malta repelled a huge contingent of the Ottoman navy, slinging decapitated Turkish heads back at the invaders as cannon fire pounded away at the bastions under their feet.

Martelli himself was seriously wounded in the fighting, but the ministrations of what was reputedly the best hospital in Christendom evidently set him right for another forty years. Remarkably, Caravaggio has captured the starchy crinkles in this high-ranking Knight’s white appliquéd Maltese cross and his collar by letting dark brown prime coat show through lead white paint; up close, the effect is pure Impressionism, but a few steps back turns pigment into satin and linen that are crisp enough to feel. One of Martelli’s hands grips a sword, and one a rosary, proclaiming the essence of these battling friars, the last Crusaders on earth.

The other painting from the Malta years on display, a Sleeping Cupid (perhaps a reference to the Knights’ vow of celibacy), apparently delighted its owner, Francesco dell’Antella, although the Cupid has been described by modern writers as ugly, sickly, jaundiced, arthritic, and dying if not already dead. Caravaggio’s babies are usually healthy, alert little creatures (and they are usually Jesus), so that it is hard to know what to make of this sallow, pot-bellied symbol of irrational passion except, perhaps, to let the sleeping demon lie.


The Great Siege of 1565 devastated most of the Knights’ emplacements in Malta. They decided to move from their old home in the island’s Great Harbor to the high promontory that had seen the fiercest fighting, and where they could overlook not only the Great Harbor but also the deep bay of Marsamxett. Valletta, the city they began to lay out with the labor of Turkish slaves, was nearly complete when Caravaggio arrived. Grand Master Wignacourt was eager to supply its golden limestone buildings with paintings, and he understood what Caravaggio’s presence could mean for the quality of those paintings. He may also have hoped that the order’s military discipline could put some discipline into Caravaggio’s personal life; to that end, he wrote to Pope Paul to ask that the Knights’ prohibition against inducting men convicted of homicide (as opposed to warriors!) be waived on this single occasion; the letter survives with the Pope’s endorsement scrawled across the bottom in large letters—a terse placuit that comes as close to “OK” as any Latin phrase.

Like Alof de Wignacourt, the Pope, and more emphatically his nephew Cardinal Scipione Borghese, understood Caravaggio’s standing, not only as a painter, but specifically as a religious painter. When Caravaggio, after the standard year of novitiate, was finally accepted into the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem as Fra Michelangelo, Wignacourt’s letter of induction exulted that, like Alexander the Great, he now had the services of the greatest painter alive: “Our island of Malta, and our Order may at last glory in this adopted disciple and citizen with no less pride than the island of Kos (also within our jurisdiction) extols her Apelles.” Instead, Fra Michelangelo got into a brawl with six other knights one August evening, and spent the rest of his time on Malta in the prison of Sant’Angelo.5

The exact circumstances of Caravaggio’s arrest and imprisonment have only recently come to light; the excellent catalog essay by Keith Sciberras (who discovered the hidden facts) and David Stone outlines the new evidence and its implications for Caravaggio’s career. When the painter escaped to Sicily, it was obviously with Wignacourt’s knowledge, and perhaps more tangible support from Fra Antonio Martelli, newly appointed as bailiff of Messina. Caravaggio’s biographers describe him from this time onward as a hunted man, but in fact any hunt on the part of the Knights was only perfunctory. Like any shrewd old warrior, Wignacourt had more effective weapons than brute force: he defrocked Caravaggio in December 1608, pronouncing the formula that “cast him out as a putrid and fetid limb.” The hunt took place mostly in Caravaggio’s head.

Hunted or not, the fugitive continued to work, creating a series of large altarpieces that share stark diagonal compositions, thin paint, extensive use of priming as a shading device, and a surprising psychological delicacy. The Nativity he painted for Palermo was stolen in 1969 and presumably graces some mafioso’s lair, but we have another Nativity from Messina, perhaps the most mannered of any of Caravaggio’s compositions, but also a scene of tender intimacy—a brightly clad Madonna reclining on the hay with her child as Joseph, shepherds, ox, and ass look on. The badly damaged Annunciation now in Nancy has suffered especially for the loss of the Madonna’s overpainted face, but the angel Gabriel, diving down in a flutter of white drapery, is recognizably brother to the two daredevil angels who whirl and dive above The Seven Works of Mercy. The aquamarine blue of the Madonna’s robe is rare in Caravaggio’s work, and may reflect his need to use whatever pigments he could find in his wanderings.

Most evocative of all his Sicilian paintings, with a surface as ravaged as the rest, is The Raising of Lazarus from Messina, like David and Goliath a kind of testament to Caravaggio’s entire career. The Christ who resurrects the dead boy with a single commanding gesture is the same Christ who summons the moneychangers in Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew, one of the first paintings to mark his success in Rome, but seen from the rear rather than the front. The same preternatural white light that we see in The Flagellation searches the faces in a crowd of onlookers, landing on an ugly, snub-nosed redhead who looks on baffled, grazing the face of Martha as she weeps over her dead brother, and positively bathing the body of Lazarus. Caravaggio has suggested the boy’s physical decomposition by literally decomposing the painting of his torso into a confusion of priming and daubs of lead white; as Lazarus extends his arms at the summons from Jesus (a deliberate visual quotation from the figure of the epileptic boy being healed in Raphael’s Transfiguration), he seems to be coming together as a figure of paint on canvas as well as a character in a story.

And then Caravaggio moved on to Naples, to the ambush at the Cerriglio, and at last to the malarial beach north of Rome. The London show ends with David and Goliath in a magnificent gilt frame, all alone in a dark room. The felucca with its cargo of paintings had turned back to Naples and the Colonna as Caravaggio tried to chase it northward along the beach from Palo Romano to Porto Ercole. He was going in the wrong direction.

The exhibition catalog shows what treacherous terrain Caravaggio scholarship has become, for much of Caravaggio’s chronology is hotly disputed, as is the attribution of his paintings. The wide range of opinions to be found in its pages are sometimes in open conflict with one another and with a rich variety of adversaries. Sciberras and Stone are exceptional both for their straightforward essay, aimed at general readers as well as at specialists, and for their example of mutually beneficial collaboration. The other essays emerge from the exhibit’s Neapolitan setting and continue longstanding debates that will elude many viewers; it would have been most valuable, for instance, to have Ferdinando Bologna address his persuasive ideas about Caravaggio’s relationships with Campanella and Galileo specifically to the visitors to the London show in the National Gallery, a short distance from the Royal Society.

As a matter of academic interest, the section devoted to “New Proposals” of works that might be attributed to Caravaggio shows how different one person’s idea of Caravaggio’s essence may be from another’s (by and large, the “proposals” were not much acclaimed by the public). But these are passionate debates: this writer, for example, cannot suppress a violent antipathy for the sodden, sickly creature that is usually known as the Klain Penitent Magdalene long enough to believe for an instant that Caravaggio could have painted it; two other versions of that same object show up in the section of the catalog devoted to “Old Copies,” but all of them are ugly enough to sink every felucca from here to Porto Ercole, and strike terror into the stoutest Maltese galley.

This Issue

May 12, 2005