Caravaggio – The Cursed Painter

Based on a Smithsonian Associates lecture by author, Professor Rocky Ruggiero and further research.

“Tonight’s title, derived from a nickname better translated as the damned painter, is not arbitrary. Everything Caravaggio did went south personally and professionally,” begins Ruggiero.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known as simply Caravaggio (1571-1610), was born of humble means in Milan, then shortly moved to the small town of Caravaggio, whose name he adopted. By the age of six, Bubonic Plague had taken his father, paternal grandfather and grandmother, and his uncle. His mother died shortly thereafter. At 12, he was apprenticed to a minor Milanese fresco master, Simone Peterzano. We have no record of the artist’s ever working in the medium. He seems to have spent an indolent, rowdy youth.

Sick Bacchus (Public Domain) “If it were Bacchus, the crown would be grape leaves, but here they’re ivy.” (Ruggeiro)

In Milan, it’s suggested Caravaggio was influenced by Counter-Reformation Archbishop Charles Borromeo whose aesthetic in religious art, unlike the trend of the time, was vivid and visceral rather than formulized and prettified. The tone of the Caravaggio’s palette, “solid” backgrounds, and depiction of scenes in confined spaces, may have taken root here. His first painting teacher was Venetian, in fact one of Titian’s last students.

After the wounding of a police officer, 21 year-old Caravaggio moved on/fled to Rome, “the place to make it big.”  He was penniless and ragged, but managed to secure a job painting flowers and fruit for the pope’s favorite artist Giuseppe Cesari. Ruggiero suggests Cesari knew exactly what he had and hid the boy for fear of his being discovered. The artist fortuitously arrived at a time when “Mannerism” was on the wane. Skill with extreme naturalism – including defects instead of idealized images – and the use of chiaroscuro (strong contrasts between light and dark to achieve a sense of volume) made him valuable

Caravaggio hung out with other young artists (about 2,000 artists lived and worked in the city) at the Piazza Navona, tying paintings end to end and hawking the work. Seeking to catch the eye of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, whose reputation for philandering and pedophilia followed him to the church, he displayed The Cardsharps and The Gypsy Fortune Teller, both of which show young men being tricked out of money by a grifter.

The Gypsy Fortune Teller 1594 (Public Domain)

Del Monte bought the pair and invited Caravaggio to move into his home, the Palazzo Madama (formerly a Medici house). There, Caravaggio received his earliest commissions and who knows what else. The painter never depicted a single nude woman. Some say he was bisexual, others gay. Rome was a city of competition, feuds, vendettas, transactional sex, and frequent violence.

In his early twenties, the artist fell sick or was wounded by a horse (conflicting stories) and was hospitalized. Several self-portraits were painted at the time. Leitmotif in Caravaggio’s early work was solicitous young men. The model in Boy with A Basket of Fruit was apparently a close friend. “The blouse falls off the shoulder in a homoerotic way, but what really steals the show is the basket of fruit. Look at the decaying leaf, the overripe pear. It’s a kind of Memento Mori. The boy appears to be fading with the fruit…”  (Ruggeiro)  Caravaggio was revolutionary.

Boy with A Basket of Fruit (Public Domain)

1597’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt is one of his most colorful of his paintings. Joseph, Mary and Jesus are in transit. An angel – not part of the story – plays a violin soothing the Christ. “Have you ever seen anything as warm?” Ruggiero rhetorically asks. “Everything you see would’ve been present in his studio. He had three or four sets of birds’ wings. The angel is borrowed from The Judgment of Hercules by Annibale Caracci, 1596.”

Top: Rest on the Flight Into Egypt – Caravaggio (Public Domain) Bottom: The Choice of Heracles – Annibale Caracci (Public Domain)

The Medusa Shield of 1597 was gifted to Duke Ferdinand di Medici. It’s ceremonial, made of wood.  Facial proportions are distorted to fit on the shield.“ This is the moment when Perseus is fully able to sever Medusa’s head from her body by using a reflection in his shield. The look is one of shock and horror.” Ruggiero jokingly calls Caravaggio, “The Quentin Tarantino of the Baroque world…No one had ever seen the kind of violence he depicted.” Brutal struggles, horrific decapitations, torture and death were within his realm.

Medusa –  Public Domain

After work for the cardinal, Caravaggio did a series of paintings for Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi, the official French church. It was the first time his talent could be publicly observed. Commissions came pouring in. One, for the altar of Augustina Church of Sant’ Agostino, was contracted while he was incarcerated for yet another brawl.

The painter hung out with a group of young men who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, ‘without hope, without fear.’ “The majority of what we know about his life is garnered from criminal records. He had a rap sheet a mile long.”  Caravaggio killed a man in a duel either over a gambling debt or a woman and was arrested for possession of illegal weapons and for insulting city guards. He was known to carry a knife, knocked one man out with a cudgel, and was ignominiously sued by both a tavern waiter for having thrown a plate in his face and his landlady for throwing rocks in her window after she insisted on overdue rent.

Madonna of the Palafrenieri 1605, meant for the chapel of prestigious St. Peter’s, was rejected as being “indecorous.” It was, Ruggiero notes, “the first image of Mary’s cleavage and her bare feet. Also the Christ child is too old to be seen in the nude.” The model for Mary was a prostitute. It was illegal for women to model for painters in Rome. Employing a whore was a convenient way of getting around the law.

Madonna of the Palafrenieri Public Domain

In 1606, Caravaggio stabbed and killed a man. Capital punishment was decapitation. A witness said: This painter is a stocky young man…with a thin black beard, thick eyebrows and black eyes, who goes dressed all in black, in a rather disorderly fashion, wearing black hose that is a little bit threadbare, and who has a thick head of hair, long over his forehead.

He ran. Anyone who caught the fugitive was empowered to carry out the sentence. His route started with Zagarolo where, in 1607, the artist created David with The Head of Goliath. (Even on the lam, he worked.) Meant as a message to the pope in exchange for pardon, the painting represented an act of contrition – David stood for humility, Goliath, pride. (A double self-portrait.)

David with The Head of Goliath (Public Domain)

Next he went to Naples where patrons fought for his time. He painted there as well, but decided the public eye was too glaring to stay. At the Isle of Malta, his reputation garnered a knighthood in exchange for The Beheading of John the Baptist , a huge work 12’ high 15’ wide. Peace was short-lived. On the eve of the unveiling, he assaulted a more-senior knight of justice wounding him with a pistol and was imprisoned. Again he escaped justice – scaled ramparts, and lowered himself down a 200-foot cliff into a boat awaiting him below. Caravaggio made his way to Sicily and resumed creating art. Here, his Raising of Lazarus seemed so real, it was said he had a body exhumed to model.

The Raising of Lazarus (Public Domain)

Resolved to work his way back to Rome still hoping for a papal pardon, he stopped at a local tavern and was assaulted by the man he and the knights took down. The artist suffered a sfregio, or facial wound symbolic of vengeance. It was a near fatal injury. Work from this period is observed to be less precise perhaps because his wound was close to an eye. He created only two more paintings.

At last a papal pardon arrived. Caravaggio boarded a felucca, or skiff in Naples. Oddly, it detoured to south west Tuscany. In a case of ironically mistaken identity, the painter was arrested. While in jail, the boat sailed off with his paintings and the pardon. He either decided to chase it on foot or wore out a horse. (Differing accounts.) It was July. Some say de died of sunstroke, others that he was again attacked. No body was found.

“If there ever was a damned painter, it was Caravaggio.” Dr. Rocky Ruggiero

There are about 60 authenticated Caravaggio paintings in the world.

A terrific lecture.

Opening images: Left: Portrait of Caravaggio, turned to the right and looking at his reflection in a mirror by Henri Simon Thomasson (1687-17-41) CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Right: A Portrait of Caravaggio 1621 by Otavio Leoni (1578-1630) Public Domain

Join Dr. Ruggeiro on August 31 for Brunelleschi and Ghiberti: The Rivalry that Ignited the Renaissance  6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

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About Alix Cohen (1350 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.