Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Caravaggio: The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, 1599–1600

Four hundred years ago this summer, a half-crazed, middle-aged man staggered into the little Italian seaside town of Porto Ercole, muttering incoherently in his nasal Lombard accent about a missing boat loaded with paintings. His face, with its scraggly black beard, was a maze of half-healed scars; his sweat-soaked clothing was finely made but worn to rags. He must have been carrying the sword that rarely left his side, but there is no record of it, or of those who put him to bed in the town’s tiny hospital, a place more accustomed to hosting ailing sailors, port workers, and galley slaves. We know only that there on his sickbed, his fever, his wounds, and his desperation carried him off in the heat of July. A terse local record notes: “On July 18 [1610], Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the painter, died of disease in the hospital of St. Mary the Helper.” We do not know whether that disease was malaria, syphilis, infection, or heartsickness, and it hardly matters; what mattered, then and now, was the work that this sad, desperate painter had left behind, including the boatload of paintings he had been madly chasing along the coast; those canvases landed in Naples, where one, a John the Baptist, was snapped up by portly, powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese to grace his growing gallery of art.

Four hundred years after the painter’s sad, lonely death, the crowds that flock to any show bearing his name prove that Caravaggio speaks to our time as clearly as he did to his own, despite the fact that we like to think of our globalized, technological, democratic age as an entirely different world from the violent Italy of feudalism and religious repression that forged his inimitable, influential way of painting. Epochal differences may divide his reality from ours, but there are also similarities so deep between our cultures that the man who was once called “Rome’s outstanding painter” can still lay plausible claim to his title.

The current Caravaggio exhibition in Rome has drawn huge crowds from the day it opened in the national gallery called the Scuderie del Quirinale (the eighteenth-century former papal stable that for the past ten years has provided an important and popular venue for large-scale shows). The catalog, a collection of essays on each individual painting by leading Italian and German Caravaggio scholars, is plainly and appropriately aimed at this vast general public. Two more exhibitions have been scheduled for the coming year; more importantly, Rome always houses a spectacular collection of Caravaggio paintings in chapels, churches, and museums, including the Borghese Gallery, the very same collection that Cardinal Scipione Borghese had begun to create when Caravaggio was still alive.

Rome is not the only place to celebrate Caravaggio in 2010. In the ancient Sicilian city of Syracuse, his monumental Burial of Saint Lucy has been newly hung in the convent church of Santa Lucia in the city’s main piazza, to spectacular effect. A series of six exhibitions in different venues in Naples this past winter proclaimed “The Return to the Baroque: From Caravaggio to Vanvitelli.” Caravaggio also continues to inspire new books, both scholarly and general, for he was a quicksilver artist, changeable, inventive, and—essential to his greatness—unflinchingly self-critical. An exhibition like that in the Scuderie del Quirinale, focused deliberately on a restricted group of familiar paintings, will still provide a satisfying series of new discoveries, for anyone and everyone.

There is the matter, for instance, of Caravaggio’s radiance; as the first paintings in the Scuderie reveal, the painter who became a master of darkness began his career in a blaze of light, with a simple basket of fruit whose golden background shimmers as vividly as the gold leaf of a Byzantine icon, but one is real gold and the other is sheer artistry: vibrant, radiant yellow paint. The basket itself teeters cleverly on the painting’s lower edge, threatening to tumble into real space, but the immediacy of the optical illusion is not really what rivets viewers to this little still life; rather, it is Caravaggio’s positive exultation in the forces of life itself, the juice that ripens fruit, the spiky vigor of leaves and branches, the suggestive contrast between different textures of decay: soft spots in the centers of pears or papery dryness along the edge of a leaf.

The Quirinale show pairs this marvelous image with an early painting of a boy with fruit, normally in the Borghese collection, and in this new setting the well-known painting shows how carefully Caravaggio, just arrived in Rome, must have been looking at the velvet textures of Federico Barocci, and particularly at Barocci’s mastery of grays and browns, muted tones that the elder painter brought to life in his rendering of flesh and drapery by bathing them in flushes of hot pink. Caravaggio has tried a similar technique on the boy’s exposed shoulder, and he would continue to study how the blush created by blood surging through capillaries will make even painted skin seem to come alive. At this point in the painter’s career, his fruit is more convincing than his boy, who is more a type than a personality; it would have been hard to predict that the older Caravaggio would become so penetrating a painter of character.


Other early Caravaggio paintings also show Barocci’s influence: the large-eyed, watchful donkey in another bright painting, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery (also exhibited at the Scuderie before traveling to Genoa), recalls the irresistibly soft fur of Barocci’s animals, which Caravaggio would have known—at the very least—from two paintings (a Visitation and a Presentation of the Virgin) in the Roman church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, and we can see the younger man’s experimentation with shades of beige in the background of his Penitent Magdalene in the same Doria Pamphilj collection, a background that is an experiment in pure, muted color and soft texture, testing the capacities of slick oil on rough canvas to awaken, as Barocci does, the whole range of our sense of touch.

Barocci, born in Raphael’s home city of Urbino and active in Rome in the 1560s, is not usually a painter we associate with Caravaggio; his bright palette, soft textures, gentle subjects, and intimate moods seem far removed from the stark lighting and high drama that became the younger artist’s specialties. Yet it is Barocci who gets at the heart of a quality that may explain Caravaggio’s continued draw, for Barocci is a compassionate, even sentimental painter, and Caravaggio confronts the harsh realities of his time with his own piercing compassion, though that compassion has often turned into outrage.

Caravaggio’s career in Rome is filled with outbursts of anger, recorded in police dockets from three different Roman jails, but it is hard to know now whether he came to Rome angry or lost his temper when a tender spirit met the experience of the city’s mean streets—or its dark, corrupt alcoves. His tousle-haired Boy with a Basket of Fruit, probably painted as a show of skill, retains an air of innocence despite his bare shoulder and proffered present, but the louche characters that Caravaggio painted for his first important patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, must have parted company with innocence long before. The devilish little imp who personifies Love Victorious has all the hallmarks of a real boy: long nose, small teeth, premature wrinkles, genitals off-kilter—but it is love as pure carnality, and love as wickedness.

The late Franca Trinchieri Camiz has shown convincingly that another series of paintings—Caravaggio’s The Lute Player in its various versions and a multiple image, The Musicians—probably portrayed Pietro Montoya, a Spanish castrato who lived in Cardinal Del Monte’s house. These youths’ open rosebud mouths imply that their range of skills went beyond music, and their air of boredom hints at a whole greenhouse stocked with such Venus flytraps.

Perhaps it is time to recognize these boys for what they are, to realize that the message in their troubled eyes is not “Come hither” but rather “Help me!”—that is, if the light in their young faces has not been extinguished altogether, as it seems to have been in the used-up redhead who cringes in the rear guard of The Musicians. Look long enough, and carefully enough, at Love Victorious, and the impish grin freezes on the child’s face: How much longer does he need to maintain it, and the rest of his overused body, underneath the weight of his fake cherub wings? His eyes convey fear, perhaps hatred, and, most of all, unspeakable sadness.

The same profile, the same baby-soft hair and crooked genitalia, appear on the enigmatic little creature known as John the Baptist, wriggling on a furry pelt as he clutches a ram close. The ram’s eyes are as kindly as an old dog’s, the little boy’s are frightened, and Caravaggio has portrayed the two of them together as if they are fellow sacrificial victims, the gentle ram destined for the butcher’s knife, the boy for another kind of violent assault—he recoils visibly from Caravaggio’s scrutiny, as if the painter were an accomplice rather than a compassionate witness to some great ongoing injustice.

In and of themselves, the paintings in the Scuderie show suggest that it may have been Caravaggio’s experience with Cardinal Del Monte that turned both his palette and his soul into a battleground between light and darkness. It is hard to see these strange, etiolated boys without thinking about their part in the play of dominance and submission that made up the essence of all courtly life, including the life of the Curia. It was a play of dominance and submission that also, necessarily, involved Caravaggio, the cardinal’s painter.


Cardinal Del Monte was a proud Florentine who served in Rome as ambassador for the Grand Duke of Tuscany as well as a prince of the Church; he was, therefore, in close touch with his native city’s intellectual forefront, the same environment that had only recently produced the young Galileo Galilei, a professor since 1592 at the University of Padua. Del Monte was also an alchemist who performed experiments with distillation in his suburban villa, or casino, a building that still survives amid the hotels and nightclubs clustered around the Via Veneto. There, in 1597, Caravaggio painted a ceiling for the cardinal showing the three divine brothers Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, seen from below in what was usually called “heroic nudity”—although this trio’s nudity, like that of their little nephew, Cupid, looks more clinical than heroic, and Caravaggio achieved it by standing on a mirror and painting his naked self. The crystal spheres of the heavens spin between the three gods, the largest of them traversed by the transparent belt of the Zodiac. Caravaggio executed this ceiling in the oil he knew rather than experimenting with fresco, provoking criticism from his rivals in Rome—but he would have been criticized in any case as his reputation grew.


Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Rome

Caravaggio: Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, circa 1597; from the ceiling of the Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi in Rome, recently opened to the public

Because the painting has been so inaccessible and concerns so unusual a subject, it has remained an outlier among his works, but now it has been opened to the public, once again to honor the anniversary of Caravaggio’s death. The luminous image is a welcome addition to Caravaggio’s Rome, and an important one, as it helps to lend a natural-philosophical impetus to his ongoing experiments with light and darkness. Contemporary natural philosophers, as Ferdinando Bologna noted some time ago, had been focusing intense attention on optics, lenses, and mirrors (Giovanni Battista della Porta) and on a more abstract consideration of shadows (Giordano Bruno). Caravaggio himself is recorded in one notarial document as having owned only fourteen books, but in Cardinal Del Monte’s house he would have had access to a vast library and to erudite conversation; what he made of either we will never know for certain, but it is tantalizing to guess.

Clearly he absorbed his patron’s ideas along with his habits, and clearly his later paintings suggest strong reactions to this heated combination of learning and decadence. What did it mean for the cardinal to walk beneath the image of a triply naked Caravaggio every time he entered his laboratory? What did pursuit of the philosopher’s stone have to do with young castrati, or with the Church? As Caravaggio pondered life and alchemy, standing above his mirror in a studio near Piazza Navona in Rome to paint the elemental gods of antiquity, that great writer on shadows, Giordano Bruno, languished for a fourth year in the prisons of the Roman Inquisition, accused of heresy but not yet convicted.

Yet Cardinal Del Monte also recommended Caravaggio for his first significant religious commission, The Calling and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, for a chapel in the French national church in Rome, San Luigi dei Francesi (Saint Louis de France), executed between 1599 and 1600, followed by a commission for the chapel’s altarpiece in 1602. The Calling of Saint Matthew revealed Caravaggio as an extraordinary painter of psychological states; within a dark room, a group of tax collectors gathers around a table as Jesus and an apostle enter from the street. Jesus has just delivered his order, “Follow me,” and Caravaggio shows us how the words have struck each person within this den of publicans. One young man with bright silken sleeves bows his head as if to duck the summons, a stricken look on his face; two very young men in plumed hats look on as if they have not quite heard. An elderly clerk fixes his myopic gaze on the pile of coins they have amassed, as bearded, balding Matthew, dapper in his white hose and cockaded velvet hat, points at his own chest as if to say, “Who, me?”

In fact Jesus, young and earnest, points his hand in no particular direction, while the apostle at his side aims his own pointing finger at one of the dapper youths with a plumed hat who stares without reacting; it is clear to us, at least, that the Lord’s command has been aimed at them all, but only Matthew has had the wit to receive it. The chapel’s opposite wall shows the terrible price that Matthew will pay for that obedience: a young executioner strikes him down in his priestly robes, as the tax collector turned evangelist prepares to baptize new converts, who scatter in the confusion. In the painting’s background, behind the executioner’s pale, muscular shoulder, we see Caravaggio himself bearing witness to the cruel murder, but not, perhaps, to Matthew’s celestial vision, a daringly contorted cherub who confers the palm of victory, victory over death, to the dying saint. It is the artist’s own sorrowful face that gives the scene such poignancy.

From this moment onward, most of Caravaggio’s commissions would involve religious subjects, and it is as a religious painter that he would make his greatest impact on the course of contemporary art in Italy. His paintings provide boldly independent readings of the Bible and the lives of the saints, readings that emphasize both the human tragedies and the human hopes distilled into these old, old stories. His implicit readings may be independent, but they nonetheless adhere to a strictly orthodox idea of Catholic Christianity. Caravaggio does not upset the Bible; an apostle in his own right, he makes the Bible upset us.

The Scuderie show presents several of Caravaggio’s most powerful religious compositions, including the Conversion of Saint Paul that the artist himself rejected when he finally installed it in its intended setting, a chapel in the venerable Roman church of Santa Maria del Popolo. For all its exotic beauty, this Conversion, with its dramatic dawn landscape (one of Caravaggio’s only paintings of the sky), proved too busy for its cramped setting. Caravaggio replaced it with the simpler, more rustic panel that has hung ever since in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo, with a magnificent horse gingerly removing its foreleg from the vicinity of the stricken Paul, who writhes on the ground, knocked flat on his back by his sudden change of heart.

But religion, however deeply he felt it, could not heal Caravaggio’s spirit. As he grew more famous, he also seems to have grown ever more angry; his name appears repeatedly in police records from Rome’s State Archive, whose new director, Eugenio Lo Sardo, will be mounting an exhibition of those documents this fall. The records of Rome’s bureaucracy range back over centuries, so copious that no single mortal could ever plow through them. The archive’s staff has been investigating Caravaggio’s life as a collaborative effort, with experts in various branches of the early modern papal administration investigating the tribunals where Caravaggio stood trial for his violent acts, real estate records, notarized contracts, payment slips, and any other tantalizing mention of painters named Michelangelo who worked around the year 1600.

Their work has already provided a much more comprehensive picture of the man and his surroundings, and the exhibition promises several surprises, including a detailed contemporary description of the artist and his habits. The documents themselves, however, are falling victim to the acidic ink that Caravaggio and his contemporaries made from the galls left by parasitic insects on the leaves of oak trees. Their script has literally burned through the sturdy rag paper on which most of the documents were written, and Lo Sardo has mounted a public appeal to finance their restoration in light of the current government’s drastic cuts in funding to cultural institutions.

Not one of Caravaggio’s jails survives today; dreadful places, they were razed in a series of campaigns for prison reform in the mid-seventeenth century. One, the Corte dei Savelli, has been engulfed by the Venerable English College in Rome. Once a baronial palazzo, the dilapidated structure is where, after conspiring to murder her violent, abusive father, the young Roman aristocrat Beatrice Cenci and her relatives were imprisoned and tortured in 1599. Upholding the patriarch’s paternal authority was more urgent in the Rome of Pope Clement VIII than the suffering, physical, sexual, and psychic, of his tormented family. Caravaggio may well have witnessed her execution, just as he was formulating his ideas for The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. He may also have seen Giordano Bruno burn at the stake a few months later by order of the same pope, and he certainly saw the inside of the same prison where Bruno spent his final week: Tor di Nona, built around an ancient Roman guard tower along the bank of the flood-prone Tiber River, demolished and transformed into a theater half a century after Caravaggio and Bruno crossed its slimy threshold.

The crime that drove Caravaggio from Rome was murder, but in facing that charge he was hardly unique among artists: both the brilliant Baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini and his no less brilliant rival, the architect Francesco Borromini, would also be prosecuted for homicide, and Borromini, like Caravaggio, went into exile for a time. Borromini had ordered one of his foremen to punish a workman caught vandalizing marble on a construction site; Bernini killed for honor. Caravaggio, however, killed the local gangster Ranuccio Tomassoni over a game of tennis—the street where it happened is still called Via di Pallacorda—Tennis Street. He would spend the rest of his life rushing from one place to the next: Naples, then Malta, then Sicily, Naples again, and finally the malarial coast of Tuscany and the neat little bay of Porto Ercole. With every stop, his painting grew thinner on the canvas and more monumental in its composition.

The lofty halls of the Scuderie allow us to take a long, revealing view of two late Caravaggio paintings, both presumably executed in Sicily: an Adoration of the Shepherds from Messina and a ruined Annunciation that has long hung in Nancy. These large canvases, like Caravaggio’s Burial of Saint Lucy in Syracuse and his Beheading of John the Baptist in Valletta, Malta, are anchored by bold perspective constructions that spring into their full three-dimensional relief only when they are seen from a considerable distance, and then they are stunning.

John the Baptist appears again and again in Caravaggio’s work, as a young man in the wilderness (including two very strange paintings in the Scuderie show, one from Kansas City and one from Rome’s Corsini Gallery, both of them anatomically preposterous, as Caravaggio can be, but also bland), but the most moving painting of all is the Beheading in Malta, where the saint appears as the adult victim of a thoroughly urban crime, a slit throat in a back alley that looks for all the world like Strait Street, the notorious “gut” of Valletta. The painter trains his eye on a pitiless world, but his eye itself is the essence of pity—one of his greatest paintings, in Naples, celebrates the Seven Acts of Mercy that were to guide the conduct of any real Christian’s life. Bravely, he faced the disturbed eyes of Cardinal Del Monte’s troubled boys and, as soon as he could, turned his talents away from the gaudy silks of the papal court to the shabby throngs of the poor, with their big rough hands, broken fingernails, grimy skin, and spotless faith.

He reserved evident admiration, too, for the hardy Knights of Malta, whose ranks he nearly joined until another summer brawl cut that career short on the eve of his investiture. He painted old women not as specimens of ravaged skin or addled vanity, but as wise Sibyls. In the Scuderie, these elderly visionaries include the resolute handmaiden in Judith Beheading Holofernes and the reverent innkeeper’s wife in his second, subdued Supper at Emmaus, who alone of all the company has recognized the resurrected Jesus as he breaks bread with his disciples, bowing her head in quiet acknowledgment. The disciples are still too excited by their conversation to reflect on what is happening to them—“Did not our hearts burn within us?” they will remember. But the old innkeeper’s wife already knows, and Jesus actually turns, ever so subtly, in her direction. Caravaggio has set up yet another line of pure energy that connects distant figures within his paintings, and those paintings with us.


Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Caravaggio: Musicians, circa 1595

After all he had seen and done, after all his explosions of rage, the slashings, verbal and physical (the State Archives will display the scurrilous verse he directed against his rival, Giovanni Baglione), Caravaggio painted a Virgin Mary who presses her face against her baby’s, shielding him with gentle hands in a stable where only animals and ragged shepherds keep the family company. A dramatic diagonal beam of light connects them all; the intimacy of mother and child spread through the child’s blessing hand as a light to the shepherds, and thence to the world.

This same dramatic diagonal appears in his Burial of Saint Lucy. The painting’s new hanging, in an impeccably restored Baroque church in Ortigia, the ancient center of Syracuse, is as breathtaking as the Maltese Beheading of John the Baptist, tragic portrayals of senseless violence that also chronicle great acts of God. The bishop’s hand that blesses Saint Lucy’s corpse throbs with the literal power to raise the dead, but we can feel the electric connection between hand and saint only when the painting’s perspective snaps all its pieces into place within a deep vortex of space. The Messina Adoration of the Shepherds shows a miracle of another kind, the spark of divinity enclosed in a tiny baby, but the stable where Jesus and his family receive a group of awestruck shepherds has turned, through Caravaggio’s masterful management of perspective, into a mighty cathedral.

The Nancy Annunciation is terribly damaged; it has been rubbed away at the center, and the face of the Virgin is almost devoid of expression. The angel who plunges dramatically to greet her, in his fuss of drapery, looks more like the work of Giovanni Baglione, whom Caravaggio called a “non-painter” among more pungent insults. It is simply not clear enough to be a convincing Caravaggio. For however tormented he may have been in body and soul, Caravaggio continued to see the world with the same clarity that glows from his golden basket of fruit: optical light and its geometric projection, and, perhaps still more intensely, the light of divinity as it glows in the works of nature, and in the compassion of the soul.

This Issue

May 27, 2010