By William Clague


      One of the most respected artists of all time was an ill tempered lout, intolerant, devious, jealous, spiteful, a street brawler and a murderer.  It has been said that he was endowed with innumerable gifts, but none for decent living.  These little character flaws defined his life as much as did his superb paintings.

      Michelangelo da Caravaggio was born in 1571 in Caravaggio, a town of no importance situated about thirty miles east of Milan.   He lived in a violent and dangerous time, and the difficulties of life were compounded for him by a personality that kept him in trouble most of his life.   He was apprenticed at the age of twelve to the Milanese painter Simone Peterzano, but remained in Milan only briefly.  Why he left is not known for sure, but indications are that there was a brawl involving a nobleman and a whore and that a sbirro (policeman) was killed.  Carravagio evidently had to pay a fine, and spent some time in the slammer, and when able he left Milan for Rome and never went back.

      In Rome Caravaggio came under the patronage of Cardinal del Monte, and lived in his palace.  The Cardinal was also his protector, and helped him  in his numerous brushes with the law.  Caravaggio’s talents became widely known and he was always fortunate in having wealthy, church official patrons.  When he left del Monte’s household in 1600, he went to reside in  Cardinal  Mattei’ palace.   Soon he was painting Pope Paul V’s portrait.  Good fortune and a respectable income were always his for the asking, so long as he could keep out of trouble.

      The Council of Trent which sat from 1545 to 1563, as part of its efforts to meet the problems in Roman Catholicism that led to the Reformation, had decreed that artists banish the lascivious or impure from religious art.  During his entire but  unfortunately brief career Caravaggio tried to follow that dictate. [1]   While he did some significant still lifes and important portraits most of his paintings were of religious subjects.  Frescoes were the preferred medium for religious paintings at that time, but Caravaggio had not been trained in that technique and for some reason did not undertake to learn it himself by inquiry and experiment.  This cost him many important commissions but he was finally asked to do a ceiling mural in oils.  That work, in the laboratory (alchemy room) of his patron Cardinal del Monte survives today in the Villa Buoncompagni Ludovisi, while many frescoes have deteriorated or vanished.  

Most of Caravaggio’s paintings have a very dark background, either black or umber and are  indistinct, and shadowy [2]  This casts his flesh tones and drapery in glowing light. He painted in a dark studio when other artists needed good light.  Lanterns or candles were all the light that was needed, so he could work all night long if he chose. He painted directly onto the canvas with no known preliminary sketches or drawing.  Severed heads we a subject of special fascination for Caravaggio, and he painted many of them.  Some seem unnecessarily ghastly.  Beheadings were common in XVI Century Rome, and were well attended public entertainments, so maybe Carravagio was merely giving his customers what they wanted.

      Caravaggio was utterly sincere in his efforts to follow the counter-reformation policies of the church.  His down-to-earth treatment of sacred subjects moved his viewers deeply, and no other artist was so successful in proclaiming the new Catholicism.  Yet for these paintings the models were vagrants, slaves, whores and people of the mean dirty streets.  The use of sinners and lowly people as models for the most revered of persons in Catholicism was not always well received by the patrons.  Knowing that the Blessed Virgin’s beautiful face in a painting above the altar was actually a portrait of a notorious whore did not sit well in some quarters. Picky people!

      Life was for once going well for Caravaggio in May, 1606 when he and some friends were passing the house of Ranuccio Tommasoni, a troublesome sort, with whom there had been some ill feeling about an unpaid bet on a game of tennis.  Tommasoni and his cohorts sallied forth and knives and swords flashed.  Tommasoni fell, and Carravaggio ran him through as he lay on the ground.  A quick departure for Naples followed. 

In Naples, an even more dangerous place than Rome, Carravagio was well received, even though it was known that he was a fleeing murderer. Soon he was working for rich patrons, doing important altarpieces and commanding high fees.  At this time Carravaggio decided to try to become a Knight of Malta.  Malta was an independent state, and the Knights were an order of monk-soldiers having their origins at Jerusalem during the Crusades. [3]  They policed the Mediterranean as best they could, and were partly successful in curbing the pirates that plagued the sea in those times.  Membership in the order was generally restricted to men of noble backgrounds, but occasionally persons with special qualifications, such as artists were admitted.  By special permission of the Pope, Carravagio became a novice at the age of thirty-five, successfully completed his training, and became a Knight of Malta in July 1608.

But good times could not last.  It did not take Caravaggio long to get in a fight, evidently with an official of the order, and wound him severely.  He was arrested and put in an apparently escape proof cell. The penalties inflicted the order for such an offense were harsh, and the officials knew that while they could not treat the matter lightly, neither could they inflict the required punishment without causing an outcry for imprisoning or executing a great artist.  So, unaccountably Caravaggio escaped from the cell, which he could not have done without considerable help on the highest level. A ladder and an order to the sentries not to interfere would have been required. He fled to Syracuse, in Sicily, and although expelled from The Knights he stubbornly continued to use the title.
     Again, despite his crimes, Caravaggio was warmly welcomed and was commissioned by the Syracusan Senate to paint an altarpiece of St. Lucy, the patron saint of the city.  He knew that the hired killers retained by the Knight that he had wounded would be on his trail, so he soon left for Messina.   There commissions soon came to him, and he could have stayed indefinitely. 

      He received a commission from the Lazzari family for a Raising of Lazarus, and rendered the corpse so realistically that inquiry was made as to how he did it.  It was revealed that he had obtained a corpse from a recent grave and had some workmen hold it in the correct position for him to paint.  When they could no longer stand the smell the dropped the body and tried to leave, Caravaggio drew his dagger and threatened them, and they decided the smell could be borne.  When the first rendition of the painting was done several people made critical remarks, and in a flash of rage Caravaggio took his dagger and cut the painting to ribbons.  He painted another.  His ill temper caused him to wound a schoolmaster who he thought was accusing him of having a suspicious interest in his young boy students, so he had to quickly depart.

      This time he fled to Palermo and obtained commissions immediately, but soon moved on to Naples.  The Palace of the Marchea di Caravaggio was his refuge, and he would have been safe there had he stayed indoors.  However, by October 1609,the temptations of the tavern Osteria del Ciriglio famous for its food and wine and women were too much, and he went there only to be attacked in the doorway by a group of armed men who seriously wounded him about the face and left him for dead. 

      Caravaggio recuperated in the Marchesa’s house and it was not until the following May that he was able to resume painting.  He seldom left the house, and became impatient with his situation and painfully slow recovery, and was, even before well enough, on his way again, probably bound for Rome.  He traveled by felucca, a small vessel that kept to the coast to avoid pirates, and beached at night in the vicinity of a fort for protection.  They put in near Palo, and Caravaggio was arrested by the Spanish garrison in the belief that he was a notorious bandit of similar description that they had been told to look out for.  By the time the mistake was discovered his ship was gone with all his possessions on board.  It was reported to be at Porto Ercole, and Carravagio walked there in his weakened state, and searched unsuccessfully and frantically, eventually collapsing on the beach.  He was put to bed with a fever, probably in a seaside tool shed, and died miserably, in want, with no one to care for him.  It was July 18, 1610, and he was thirty-eight years old.


1  He was not always completely successful.  See for instance the sexy angel that dominates the Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1590) where the Holy Family are mere background figures and one’s attention is drawn to the lovely figure and coiffure of the central figure.

Anticipating by 450 years the black velvet phenomena of recent times?

3  The order still exists today, and the book, Caravaggio, a Passionate Life, was written by a present day Knight, Desmond Seward, and is available in the Montgomery County Library at 759.5.  It contains sixteen small but excellent reproductions.  Further information on this unusual religious order see The Knights of Malta, by H.J.A.Sire. ISBN 06885-9 available from The Yale University Press, 1-800-987-7323.

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