Devious and Violent Killer, or Victim of his Times?
Caravaggio’s myth has been fuelled over the centuries by his legendary life tinged with mystery and death, but also by immortal works of art of extraordinary beauty. But who was he really? Who was this ambiguous, incredibly modern figure who left such an indelible mark on the history of painting? An undisputed genius as a painter but with a violent and irreverent personality, Michelangelo Merisi, better known as “Caravaggio,” was born in Milan on September 23, 1571 and died on July 18, 1610 near Porto Ercole (in Tuscany). History and contemporary accounts speak of a “famous painter who excelled in his use of colour and in portraying from nature” but who, at the same time, was always ready to pick a fight, to brawl and even kill for love and lust.
The Lombard painter, indeed, was certainly no stranger to seedy inns, knife fights, and incredible escapes. That Caravaggio had strong personality and did not bow easily to social constraints has long been well-known, but studies conducted in recent years, thanks as well to the merits of his paintings, have demonstrated that he might not have been the murderous monster that history has passed down to us but rather simply the victim of a dark, violent Italy populated by knights, prostitutes, commoners, and unscrupulous cardinals interested exclusively in his works of art.
Among the dramatic events that conditioned the artist’s life, of particular relevance was the killing of the young Ranuccio Tommasoni da Terni in 1606, a crime of passion that forced the artist to flee from Rome to avoid capital punishment. Tommasoni appears to have challenged Caravaggio to a duel because the latter had dishonoured him. Caravaggio, in fact, was accused of having had an affair with Tommasoni’s wife, Lavinia Giugoli, and her husband had thrown down the gauntlet. Thus, unlike what was previously thought, their quarrel was a matter of honour (cf. Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane).
His “Natural” and Mysterious Style of Painting Caravaggio can certainly be considered a revolutionary painter. In the late 16th century painters didn’t look to reality and daily life for inspiration but tried to represent the beauty and nobility of subjects and actions, generating an elegant and refined style of painting known as “Mannerism.” Caravaggio’s extraordinary originality lies in the fact that he flew in the face of just such conventions and attempted to portray reality. Nor was he content merely to observe and copy nature; the Lombard painter represented the “truth” of daily life by seeking his models in the world around him, in the streets and in everyday life. Such characteristics, however, aroused scandal and drove many patrons to refuse the artist’s works because they considered them to be blasphemous. Caravaggio set his sacred scenes not in front of ancient buildings or inside sumptuous palaces, but in taverns, poorly-furnished rooms, or out in the street. His saints are not solemn, “beautiful” and elegant but have the look of labourers.
His Madonnas are ordinary girls and in some cases even have the faces of well-known prostitutes: the model used for the Death of the Virgin, at the Louvre, was Anna Bianchina, who died at a young age because of complications from a pregnancy; while in the Madonna of the Pilgrims, in the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome, Mary and the Baby Jesus have the face of Lena and her son Paolo.
Chiaroscuro. Another element that characterizes the artist’s style is his magisterial use of chiaroscuro, a pictorial method based on strong contrasts between light and shadow. A pictorial technique capable of giving a body three-dimensionality, in which the light moulds the figures and underlines the volume of bodies that suddenly emerge from the darkness of the scene, where the subjects themselves are the painting’s only real protagonists. The contrast between light and dark has the effect of drawing the spectator into the dramatic representations that play out before their eyes, emphasized by the play of light which takes a leading role in the scene. This technique is very similar to the one used in photography and film to confer dramatic quality and visual force to the subjects in front of the camera.
Symbolism. Caravaggio’s painting is notoriously rich in symbols, beginning with the famous vanitas reference contained in the Basket of Fruit at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, or The Calling of St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. In The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, the largest canvas Caravaggio ever painted, executed in Malta in 1607, the vastness of the architectonic space strikes the spectator almost as if the painting were a theatrical stage.
But what is most fascinating about this work is the pool of blood that collects beneath the saint’s neck, in which Caravaggio placed his signature. The signature, noticed by some in the early 20th century, was nevertheless revealed to the world during the work’s restauration in 1955. The signature, limited to the artist’s first name, is bizarre and disquieting: evidence of a secret, perhaps, of a mysterious pact of initiation concerning admission to the Order of the Knights of Malta, for the order was particularly devoted to none other than John the Baptist. Yet this signature also leaves us free to imagine something far worse, something terribly compromising that only a blood pact could seal.