Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born on September 28, 1571, in a small village near Bergamo, after which he got his name, which remained in the history of world art – Caravaggio. The date of birth of the great artist became known only thanks to the surviving contract for his education, concluded by the parents of the future artist with the painter Simone Peterzano, who was quite famous at that time. A document dated 1584 indicates that Michelangelo Merisi was 13 at the time of his imprisonment. Peterzano was a student of the great Titian and lived in Milan, where Caravaggio’s creative career began.
The beginning of the creative path
Michelangelo’s mother, Lucia Aratori, was the second wife of the architect and decorator Fermo Merisi, who served under Francesco I Sforza, who bore the title of Marquis da Caravaggio. In total, the family had five children. The first years of Michelangelo’s life were spent in Milan, from where the family fled back to Bergamo, fleeing the plague. True, the epidemic did not spare the father and uncle of the future artist, whose entire family was left in the care of his mother, who was in great need.
Entering the workshop of Simone Peterzano in 1584, Michelangelo signs a contract with the Duke of Colonna, heir to the Marquis da Caravaggio, who died in 1583. Colonna, who decided to buy all the works of the young painter as soon as he entered the workshop of Peterzano, became a faithful patron of Caravaggio for his whole life.
The head of the Catholic Church, which was one of the largest customers of paintings, was Pope Sixtus V, who favored new trends in art that had just begun to emerge in Lombardy. At this time, the Duchy of Milan, under Spanish rule, became the center of a strict artistic and religious doctrine. In particular, the art of Europe and Italy was under the rule of Mannerism, but in parallel with it, there was also Bologna-Roman academism, which limited itself to the imitation of the great Venetian and Roman painters. In Lombardy, the artists began to move away from mannerisms and focus on a realistic depiction of life. This trend had a great influence on the formation of the creative style of Michelangelo Merisi.
Unfortunately, we know little about the activities of the Milan workshop of Simone Peterzano at the time when Caravaggio arrived there. Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo wrote in 1584 that Peterzano rejoiced at the great demand that his works, made “elegantly and lightly,” steadily enjoyed. If you look at the frescoes he made in the church of Garegnano near Milan, or at such canvases as “Venus” or “Cupid and Two Satyrs” (Corsini Collection, New York), one can see a clear influence of Mannerism, mixed with new Lombard realism.
In the early works of Caravaggio, the influence of the style of Peterzano is visible, although the continuity of the painting of the great masters of the Renaissance, such as Titian, Giorgione, Giovanni Bellini or Leonardo da Vinci, is also obvious. The work of the latter, namely the Madonna in the Rocks, Caravaggio, of course, saw in the Milan church of San Francesco Grande. Also, back in Bergamo, the artist admired the painting of Lorenzo Lotto, which stood out for its special emotional intensity.
Art historian Mina Gregori convincingly proves that the young artist carefully studied the works of Andrea Mantegna, which is demonstrated by the only fresco executed by Caravaggio, undoubtedly painted under the influence of the pictorial style of this magnificent master of perspective. Caravaggio was also in Mantua, where he examined the monumental works of Giulio Romane.
Meanwhile, a real school was formed in Milan, which fell under the influence of the picturesque manner of the Campi brothers. In it, young artists developed the themes of their works, focusing primarily on real life, from which they drew inspiration. The painting of this creative group absorbed all the innovations in the fine arts of that time.
To discover the effect of chiaroscuro, Caravaggio may have been helped by the work of the High Renaissance master Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, whom the young painter admired. At the same time, he created a portrait of the famous artist Sofonisba Anguissola, who was familiar with the great Michelangelo in her youth. Sofonisba created genre scenes taken from everyday life. We can see in one of her drawings, created in charcoal and chalk, the image of her little son, who was bitten by cancer on the finger. It was this drawing that suggested to the young Caravaggio the plot of his first painting, which he painted immediately after he arrived in Rome.
Unfortunately, we can only hypothetically talk about the creative formation of Caravaggio. According to art historian Berenson, Giorgione was fundamental to the development of Caravaggio’s style. The influence of the Lombard school is also quite clear. Roberto Longhi writes: “In Milan, for a long time, a group of artists who came from Lombardy, who created simple democratic art, were revered… In their paintings, there was a lot of human feeling, and inner light and there was no religious ecstasy at all; coloristic solution, light, and shade effects were coordinated with each other and verified with nature. It was a realistic art that strove to display simply and truthfully nature and man.
Peterzano, who was a very progressive teacher for his time, also played a significant role in the development of the artistic style of Caravaggio. In teaching, he focused precisely on the technique of painting, without which it is impossible to achieve the heights of mastery.
Barely reaching the age of 18, Caravaggio, full of a passion to work independently, moved to Rome. The itinerary of his journey is unknown, one can only assume that along the way he saw many works of great masters. In Rome, the prelate Pandolfo Pucci provides shelter to a young man. The first works of Caravaggio are distinguished by a simple plot: “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” (1594, National Gallery, London), “Young Man with a Basket of Fruit” (1593, Borghese Gallery, Rome), “Boy Peeling a Pear” (1593).
The first self-portrait of Caravaggio is the painting “Musicians” (1595, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), in which the artist depicted himself along with two more young musicians and Cupid in the background. Many art historians consider the image of Cupid to be a kind of homoerotic symbol, indicating Caravaggio’s penchant for homosexuality. Soon the painter becomes seriously ill, but miraculously recovers and, almost immediately, paints the painting “Little Sick Bacchus” (1953, Galleria Borghese, Rome), which is his second self-portrait.
Caravaggio is patronized by the powerful Cardinal del Monte, for whom the artist creates several religious paintings. In the painting “The Penitent Magdalene” (1595-1597, Doria Pamphili Gallery, Rome), we see the first female image created by the artist. In the same period, the painter creates his second “Bacchus” (1596, Uffizi Gallery, Florence), this time bursting with health. Soon, Caravaggio provokes his first, but not the last, skirmish with justice.
But why did the young artist choose Rome? Biographers of Caravaggio agree that the choice of the cultural capital of Italy, and therefore of the whole world, was due to the extraordinary ambitions of Caravaggio, who dreamed of becoming the greatest artist of all time and peoples. Is it because he repeatedly broke the law because he believed that he – gifted by God more than those around him – was allowed to do everything?
Rome at this time, indeed, flourished. The construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral, which in those years was the largest architectural structure in the whole world, has just been completed. Grandiose basilicas were erected, such as San Giovanni Laterano, and Santa Maria Maggiore and the harbor of Ripetta on the Tiber was opened, which truly became the gateway to the world. Pope Sixtus V invited all the talented painters of the peninsula to come to Rome, and many, including the Lombards, followed this call. All this was intended to convey to the whole world the triumph of Christianity.
Like many things about the life of Caravaggio, we do not know the exact date of his arrival in Rome. Maybe it was 1591 or 1592. There is a lot of evidence that the artist arrived in the Eternal City under Pope Clement VIII.
The young artist who arrived in Rome most likely had several canvases painted back in Milan. But these works, with their realistic interpretation of characters and plots, could hardly arouse the interest of the local public, whose tastes were then determined by mannerism and classicism. Copies of works by Michelangelo and Raphael enjoyed great love in Rome. It is indicative that the painters who were very popular at that time, such as Agnesti, Shiolante, Taddeo Zuccaro, Salviate, Rafaelino da Reggio, Cesars Nebbia or Giuseppe Cerasi, left only an insignificant trace in the world history of art.
The art historian Kallab writes: “The young artists who arrived in Rome at the end of the 16th century not only had to limit themselves to the resigned imitation of the paintings of the old masters but also inherited their inherent idealism, artistic timidity, fear of abandoning the empty superficial manner of depiction. In painting, these artists were content only with the external resemblance. To somehow survive, they were forced to submit to the tastes of the public and engage only in decorating life. An example is the work of Annibale Carracci, who came to Rome from Bologna. He was entrusted with the decoration of the gallery in the Palazzo Farnese. Already in the process of working on the implementation of the creative plan, he encountered great difficulties and distrust of customers and the public.
The same thing happened with Caravaggio. He huddled in the poor quarters of the city, in the same place as many other immigrants from Lombardy, the same unemployed artists, sculptors, and stonemasons who tried to survive while waiting for orders. Soon the painter managed to enter the service of Lorenzo Siciliano, in whose workshop he met his countrymen, the Longo brothers.
During this period, Caravaggio and his companions spent their days at work, walking outside the city and having fun. The researchers searched in vain for the works of the artist of this period. Perhaps he painted something for himself, but these paintings did not find buyers.
And yet, Caravaggio was lucky in the face of a wealthy patron of the arts, a man of fine artistic taste, but with a dubious reputation, the prelate of the papal court, Monsignor Pandolfo Pucci. He was the brother of the cardinal, who, by the way, also took care of the “timid” Benvenuto Cellini.
The prelate was fascinated by the dexterity, talent of the young artist, and uncompromising, explosive character. Pucci invited Caravaggio to his house, ensuring his existence. The artist, for his part, in gratitude for the kindness of the prelate, had to do for him the work of copying the best pious church paintings. All the works of Monsignor Pucci were sent to the Capuchin monastery in Recanati, in which he was once born and spent the early years of his life. Not a single work of this series has come down to us.
Style and themes
With a lot of free time and complete creative freedom, Caravaggio could choose any subjects for his works and think about them for a long time. Now we know for certain that the artist’s painting “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” (circa 1954, National Gallery, London and, second version, the Longhi Foundation in Florence) was created during his stay with Monsignor Pucci. The painting was a kind of reminiscence of the well-known charcoal drawing by Sofonisba Anguissola. The young man on the canvas is depicted at the moment when the lizard bites him, and he frightenedly withdraws his hand. For the first time in painting, a moment of movement was captured and recorded.
According to Berenson, in this work of Caravaggio, there is a “general need for innovation”, a desire to destroy conventions. Perhaps an allegory is also hidden here: the boy’s bare shoulders and a flower behind his ear indicate that the young man belongs to the Roman lower classes – the world of prostitutes and thieves, which Caravaggio associated with physical pain and the suffering that necessarily accompanies love. Throughout the artist’s career, images of physical suffering were inextricably linked with mental suffering.
Caravaggio also wrote his famous “Lute Player” during his stay with Pucci. Now the picture is in the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg. The image of the musician is very typical for the models chosen by the artist. There is another version of the canvas, which is stored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. On it we see the same boy playing music, but we do not see flowers or fruits next to him.
The care with which the artist paints musical instruments is amazing. The dreamy face of the lute player, and the languor in his eyes, everything indicates that the young man is carried away in his imagination into his deep inner world. In the painting kept in the Hermitage, one can read an intriguing inscription on the score depicted by the artist: “Voi sapete chio vato” (“You know that I love you”). I wonder who this confession is directed to? In the painting “Musicians”, in the foreground, a score is also shown facing the audience, which is held by a half-naked singer. But here the inscription, made by his hand, so far no one has been able to read.
The fact that all of the works of this period, Caravaggio were inspired only by young men (there are no female images), also suggests an unconventional orientation of the artist. The first female image in his work was the painting “Penitent Magdalene”, painted around 1596.
It is not known for what reasons Caravaggio left the house of Monsignor Pucci. Perhaps the prelate had a very hard temper. The artist again finds himself on the Roman streets, deprived of his livelihood. Fortunately, an old friend of the painter, who worked with him in the studio of Lorenzo Siciliano – the artist Antiveduto Gramatica, sheltered the homeless and impoverished Caravaggio. Grammar enjoyed some success with the public, so he was provided with regular orders.
But misfortunes haunted poor Caravaggio, he fell ill with Roman fever, which raged throughout the peninsula. A friend of the artist Longo took him to the monastery hospital of Santa Maria della Consolatione, where they took those who did not have the means to pay for treatment. There, Caravaggio was placed in the basement, which was considered a suicide room.
Quite by accident, the artist caught the eye of the prior of the hospital, the Spaniard Senor Conteras, a good friend of Monsignor Pucci, who passed by and recognized Caravaggio. Conteras asked to transfer the terminally ill painter to another room and ordered the sisters-nurses not to leave him. Only this saved the artist’s life.
But the themes of death and illness, from now on, as a distant echo of what he experienced, can be seen in many of his canvases, for example, in The Assumption of Mary. In gratitude for his salvation, Caravaggio painted pictures for Contares, but, unfortunately, they, like many of his other works, have not survived to this day.
Six months spent in the hospital, the pain and fear associated with illness left a deep mark on the soul of the artist. It was then that Caravaggio created one of his most famous works, The Sick Bacchus. The figure of Bacchus has depicted in a mirror image: a puffy, pale face and dull eyes testify to the grave condition of the artist himself after his illness. In “Sick Bacchus” we see a god who is no longer able to enjoy the delights of life, to rejoice in it.
The painting was painted in the workshop of one of the most famous painters in Rome, the cavalier Cesare d’Arpino, who sheltered Caravaggio in his home. Cesare d’Arpino was not much older than Caravaggio himself, but he was already known as the favorite of high society and was even accepted at the papal court. Belonging to one of the most popular artistic associations in the capital of Italy – the Academy of the “Reckless” (which also included such poets as Batista Laura, the future Pope Urban XVII, and Torquato Tasso), d’Arpino preferred the divine over the rational. In gratitude for the shelter, Caravaggio had to make garlands of leaves and flowers for the frescoes of Cesare d’Arpino. On this occasion, a contract was even signed. The murals of Caravaggio were recognized by contemporaries as perfect.
In the house of Cesare d’Arpino, Caravaggio met many wealthy patrons of Rome: cardinals, merchants, ambassadors, as well as well-known artists of good reputation: Van Dyck, Jan Brueghel, and, possibly, Rubens. Among them was Valentine, who had recently arrived from France and paid attention to the young artist. There is an assumption that later Valentine was secretly removed from the workshop of Cesare d’Arpino and sold several works by Caravaggio.
Around that period, the painter creates another of his masterpieces – “Young Man with a Basket of Fruit”, which Pope Paul V would later give to his nephew Scipione Borghese. 1607. Then, they were confiscated by agents of Pope Paul V, who succeeded Pope Clement VIII, to pay off debts.
Having no permanent income, Caravaggio turned to Valentin for help, and he advised him to start painting religious paintings. Indeed, the demand for church painting was enormous. Caravaggio accepted the offer, and he received paints and brushes, but after a while, he brought the agent a non-religious work in his second Bacchus.
On this canvas, we see the ancient god in the form of a plump-cheeked young man, bursting with health, with slightly heavy eyelids characteristic of many of the artist’s characters. The head of Bacchus is decorated with a traditional vine wreath, in his hand is a glass of wine, and on the table, we see a half-empty carafe. But there are other nuances – slightly withered leaves in a wreath, spoiled stale fruits, which make the attentive viewer think.
Biographer Caravaggio Giovanni Baglione writes: “Bacchus, with several branches of grapes painted in different colors, is written with great care, as well as with a certain harshness and dryness of manner; this canvas comes from the time when Caravaggio tried to live on his means by selling his paintings. In 1916, this work was rediscovered by Roberto Longhi, who discovered it in the depository of the Uffizi Gallery.
The extraordinary talent of Caravaggio was appreciated 300 years late. It is not known for sure whether the customer accepted Bacchus or the work never went on sale, in any case, its implementation could not help the master solve his material problems. Valentine, who believed in the great artistic talent of Caravaggio, persuaded the artist to accept an order for the execution of a work of religious content, but the stubborn, despite everything, began to work on new work – he wrote The Fortune Teller.
On the canvas, we see either a street scene or one of the episodes of the folk theater. Valentine paid Caravaggio 30 thalers for her! Subsequently, the work was donated by Prince Doria-Pamphilj to the French King Louis XIV and is currently kept in the Louvre.
X-ray examination of the work showed that under the image of a young fortune teller there is an earlier painting in a manner close to Cesare d’Arpino. Perhaps Caravaggio was simply saving money on canvas. The vulgarity of this scene shocked the artist’s contemporaries, but it was she who subsequently inspired another painter, the Frenchman Georges de Latour, to create a painting under the same name and on the same subject. Having received the money, Caravaggio immediately rushed toward adventures, fights, and brawls, which forced the papal police to again conduct strict supervision of his life.
What happened next? How did Valentine manage to persuade the wayward artist to return to the righteous path? Probably, in this struggle with the rebellious temper of Caravaggio, he took advantage of the name of one of the richest collectors of art of this period – Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. Finally, the painter agrees to paint for the cardinal a picture on a religious theme, which became the first in his work.
True, at the same time, the artist set his condition: complete freedom in choosing a topic. Caravaggio immediately refused to paint the traditional scenes of crucifixion and martyrdom. As a subject for the image, the artist chose the theme of ecstasy, consonant with both his painting style and his artistic temperament. He begins the monumental work “The Ecstasy of St. Francis”. Caravaggio resolutely takes up the creation of the canvas, settling in the basement of Valentine’s house to complete this difficult task for him as soon as possible.
The work was to be a highly artistic, masterful work that could open Caravaggio’s doors in the collection of the largest Roman art lovers. At the same time, she would make him famous and help win the favor of wealthy and authoritative people. Modern researchers of the artist’s work consider “The Ecstasy of St. Francis” the first mature work of Caravaggio.
The genius of innovation
The work “The Ecstasy of St. Francis” caused a lot of controversy and discussion. Writer Dominic Fernandez sees in it the birth of a true baroque. The plot of the picture takes place against the backdrop of a night forest. In the background, Caravaggio depicted simple shepherds who kindled a fire. In its light, the figure of the sleeping accompanying saint, Brother Leon, clearly emerges. Saint Francis displays the stigmata while in a state of mystical ecstasy.
No one before Caravaggio depicted scenes of religious ecstasy like this: the saint lies in the arms of an angel, whose image is embodied in the form of a seductive young man, strongly reminiscent of the painter’s favorite models in type. The figure of an angel, despite the wings behind his back, does not soar, but, as it were, crouches to the ground. Trying to find new visual and expressive means, the artist enhances the play of light and solves the whole composition as a theatrical staging, thus trying to achieve not only a significant artistic effect but also greater persuasiveness.
“The Ecstasy of St. Francis” did its job – marked the beginning of Caravaggio’s fame as a religious painter. He was followed by other monumental works of the artist, such as the “Conversion of Saul” from the church of Santa Maria del Polo. Cardinal del Monte, who appreciated the painter’s innovation, invites Caravaggio to the Palazzo Madama.
Francesco Maria del Monte was the ambassador of the Duke of Tuscany at the court of Pantifex Maximus. His residence was located in the Villa Medici. The cardinal was a highly educated person: he knew Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and other oriental languages. He was a great lover of music and painting, always open to new ideas. Thanks to this, Caravaggio made a good impression on him, and the cardinal gave him creative freedom and full content. Living in the Palazzo Madama and being perceived as a pupil of the cardinal, Caravaggio turned into a sought-after and famous artist. True, he was not only admired, but also hated.
Protected from all adversity, well provided for, and perhaps in love, the artist began to get used to a quiet life. That, however, did not affect the sharpness and sharpness of his pictorial language, which was constantly honed. He was absorbed in the search for the most dramatic subjects, and in embodying his ideas, he resorted to a wealth of contrasts, the play of light and shadow, giving his paintings vitality and persuasiveness.
Meanwhile, the turn of the century was approaching. Mannerism as an artistic movement gradually fell into decline: the Renaissance became history. This was the time of the Edict of Nantes, which put an end to religious wars in Europe. France and Italy allied: Henry IV married Marie de Medici. Michelangelo Merisi, who now took the name of Caravaggio, was 25 years old at this time.
Being a pupil of the cardinal, who gladly acquired most of his works, the artist could completely surrender to inspiration – “the fury of the moment.” He began to write not only religious but also genre paintings. The Penitent Magdalene by Caravaggio is amazingly real. By the way, a girl from the street named Julia served as a model for the painter. Two years later, he created the painting “The Conversion of the Magdalene”, which is distinguished by an even more painstaking study of all the details.
In the house of Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio paints his famous still life “Fruit Basket”. The basket hanging over the very table seems unusually material. Along with fresh juicy fruits, the master also “filled” it with overripe fruits and withered leaves. This canvas did not adorn the collection of del Monte, the cardinal only later discovered it in the workshop of the gentleman Cesare d’Arpino, to whom the artist himself gave it as compensation for debts. Later, Caravaggio’s still life was forgotten. Until recently, “Fruit Basket” belonged to the Dutch school of painting. Only a 1919 scientific study by Longhi proved the authorship of Caravaggio.
Soon the artist left the Palazzo Madama and moved to the house of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who was one of Valentine’s customers. Under the influence of the constant advice and instructions of his friend, Caravaggio again turns to the development of religious themes, without losing fidelity to his ideas and principles. The artist is looking for dramatic situations in history and life, enhancing them with the theatrical compositional solution, and extraordinary contrasts of light and shadow, giving his works a completely new sound.
The works “The Capture of Christ” (National Gallery, Dublin, Ireland) and “The Sacrifice of Isaac” are dedicated to scenes from the biblical story. The most attractive in the “Sacrifice of Isaac” is the highly humanistic interpretation of the image of an angel, which appears to Abraham, raising a dagger over his son. The angel gestures to the ram, which is to be placed on the altar instead of the boy.
In the canvas “Saint Catherine of Alexandria”, the artist depicts a frightening torture wheel with steel spikes in the background. Caravaggio skillfully balances the composition by correlating dark and light parts. The work, which was for some time in the del Monte collection, was sold by his heirs to the Barberini family, from which it then came into the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1935.
The painting “John the Baptist” belongs to the same period, the creation of which was inspired by the figures of naked youths by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel. He also writes another Mary Magdalene, performed in the manner of the Venetian masters (“Conversion of the Magdalene”). On this canvas, in addition to Magdalene, leaning on a large round mirror, we see another character – Martha, who is introduced by Caravaggio. The model for Martha was Phyllis Melandrone, who worked with the artist when writing Catherine.
The urgent personal request of the cardinal and the great demand for religious painting forced the painter to continue working on works on biblical themes. All his further works dealt a crushing blow to the fundamental direction of European art – mannerism.
Soon Caravaggio decides to paint a canvas on one of the most terrible moments of Jewish history, described in the Old Testament. He writes “Judith and Holofernes”, where he depicts the moment of chopping off the head of Judith to the Assyrian tyrant Holofernes. Phyllis Melandrone also served as a model for Judith. Initially, the artist depicted Judith bare-chested, but later, he was forced to “cover” her with a corsage. A little away from the heroine, an elderly maid is waiting. She readily holds a linen napkin to wrap the victim’s head in. The image of the old maid was created by Caravaggio under the impression of the “Head of the Old Man” by Leonardo da Vinci.
The painting “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” vividly demonstrates both the acceptance and rejection of the traditions of religious painting. The chestnut hair of the Mother of God contrasts with the light red curls of the Infant Jesus. An angel painted from the back plays the cello, his gaze is fixed on the score held by Joseph. The artist depicted the husband of the Virgin Mary barefoot and gray-bearded, he sits on a bag, next to which we see a half-drunk bottle of wine. The background landscape frames the entire composition. He and the pattern of flowers and leaves are stylistically close to Giorgione’s painting, but, of course, Caravaggio surpasses him with the power of his talent.
The canvas “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” was perceived by the public ambiguously and received a variety of assessments. However, the cardinal gave Caravaggio a new commission to paint the ceiling of his residence (currently, there is Boncompagni Ludovisi’s villa). The artist completed the order in the mid-1590s. This fresco is still the only known work of Caravaggio in the field of wall painting. The painter demonstrates an amazing mastery of perspective. The figures of Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, depicted by him on the fresco, testify to the outstanding abilities of the 26-year-old artist. Although the work was very favorably received by enlightened connoisseurs of art, Valentine expected more from the artist.
Under this contract, the artist created two monumental canvases – “The Martyrdom of the Apostle Matthew” and “The Calling of the Apostle Matthew”, which still adorn the church of San Luigi Dei Francesi, located in the same place where they were assigned at the time of the artist. They are clear evidence of a new stage in the life and work of Caravaggio.
This picturesque ensemble was the largest of all completed in the life of the artist. And the result of his work was amazing. The monumental works written by him, which are based on an innovative view of biblical subjects, gave rise to passionate disputes, both among the clergy and among art connoisseurs. This is not surprising, given that at the beginning of the 17th century, church paintings and frescoes were at the center of attention and aroused close interest not only among the clergy, but among all art lovers, so everyone was eager to see the new works of painters.
The history of this order is rather unusual. Cardinal Matteo Contarelli, who wished to dedicate the chapel to St. Matthew, his heavenly patron, invited painters and sculptors to decorate the church. The work was not yet completed by the time of the death of the cardinal, and the issue of their completion was further discussed at numerous church councils. Among the artists involved in the Contarelli Chapel, it should be noted Girolamo Muziano and the cavalier Cesare d’Arpino painted the vaults and ceiling of the church with scenes from the life of the saint. He was going to paint all the walls of the chapel with frescoes, but for unknown reasons, he could not continue the work. Its completion was entrusted to Caravaggio. A contract dated June 25, 1599, which was concluded with the artist, has been preserved. According to him, Caravaggio received a reward of 400 skudos.
It is not clear why the choice fell on Caravaggio, and not on other, more famous Roman masters in those years. Probably, the mediation of the artist’s all-powerful patrons: Cardinal del Monte and the wealthy Genoese philanthropist and aristocrat Vincenzo Giustiniani played a big role here. Of course, the painter was flattered by the honor shown to him and immediately set to work. But then one problem emerged: masses were regularly celebrated in the Contarelli Chapel, and therefore it was impossible to install the scaffolding necessary to create large-format compositions. Caravaggio offered his way out – he decided to execute large-format oil paintings on canvas measuring 3.40 x 3.24 meters! None of his contemporaries had ever carried out orders of this magnitude. After some thought, the clergy gave their consent.
The painter did not meet the deadlines stipulated by the contract and provided his work several months later. He completed The Martyrdom of the Apostle Matthew just in time for the beginning of 1600. Caravaggio repeatedly changed the composition of the canvas in search of the most successful solution. The painter depicted a scene that took place in the courtyard of the king of Ethiopia, who ordered the execution of St. Matthew, who preached the Gospel there. The executioner, sword at the ready, was already bending over the resisting martyr to kill him. An angel holds out a palm branch to the saint – the emblem of martyrdom for the faith. In the distance stands a young man with a gentle face, involuntarily trying to move away from the ongoing terrible scene. The fleeing boy turns away, his face expressing unspeakable horror. In one of the characters on the canvas, the witness of this atrocity – a middle-aged man with a beard and a tormented expression – you can recognize Caravaggio himself. This is the artist’s third self-portrait.
The painting “The Martyrdom of the Apostle Matthew” conquers, first of all, its realistic authenticity, emotional richness, and the utmost persuasiveness of the images. Hermann Voss writes: “At the time when Caravaggio, for greater impact, began to use the manner of lighting he had invented in the development of multi-figure compositions, he felt the need to abandon the linear-planar means of representation used by Zuccaro and Giuseppino. His competitors did not hesitate to make critical judgments. One of the theorists of Roman mannerism, the artist Zuccaro, spoke as follows: “Much ado about nothing! I don’t see anything here but copying Giorgione’s style!”
The painting “The Calling of the Apostle Matthew”, made a few months later and installed in the chapel next to the composition “Martyrdom”, gave further food for conversation. The artist showed the mystery of the “Vocation” in the form of a scene from Roman everyday life. Realizing his bold plan, Caravaggio chooses the scene of one of the Roman taverns, where gamblers are usually found. In the original, the episode of the gospel story takes place in a room corresponding to modern customs. After all, it refers specifically to the main tax collector, the head of the publicans, who controls the collection of taxes.
In the canvas, the light falls from above and illuminates only the right side of the room. The only window is tightly closed and seems bricked up. The painter depicted an environment that was not at all suitable for performing the sacrament of conversion, but this is where Jesus appears. Entering, he points with his hand at the elected tax collector, and this gesture is somewhat reminiscent of the movement of the hand of the god Sabaoth, from the fresco “Creation of the World” by Michelangelo.
Finally, Caravaggio becomes famous. He convincingly proved that in painting a harmonious combination of the divine and everyday is possible. The appearance of Jesus in the tax collection office shown on his canvas does not look blasphemous. True, this innovation in church painting caused endless controversy. Nevertheless, the executors of Cardinal Contarelli’s will were pleased and immediately commissioned the artist to complete the central image for the church altar. The motive of the last image was determined in advance – the Apostle Matthew and an angel. The painter presented the work to the customers on time, but it was rejected because Caravaggio endowed the image of the saint with the characteristic features of a simple peasant, depicting him as bearded, bald, with bare and dirty feet.
Under pressure from the clergy, Caravaggio presents a second version of the painting, with a completely different interpretation of the plot. In the second version of the work, the painter refuses to demonstrate the emotional closeness between the apostle and the angel whispering something in his ear. The altarpiece of St. Matthew, created by Caravaggio, can still be seen today in the chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The artistic ensemble of three monumental canvases remained in complete oblivion in the darkness of the basement of the Contarelli Chapel for a long time, until it was “revived” from oblivion by Roberto Longhi. The first display of these works took place in 1922 at an exhibition organized in Florence.
These sensational paintings brought Caravaggio unheard-of success. He immediately received a new order. Now the artist had to complete work on a religious theme for another chapel, standing on the most beautiful square in Rome – Cerasi in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The chapel, located to the left of the altar, was bought by the Cerazi family for the family tomb.
It was 1601, and Caravaggio finally had students, one of whom, Giovanni, even moved to his teacher, in the basement of the Palazzo del Monte. In the meantime, the artist was finishing the painting “The Assumption of Mary”, written for the Cherubini Chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, commissioned by the mendicant Carmelite monks with the direct mediation of the Marquis Giustiniani.
The canvas “Assumption of Mary” was supposed to be the largest on the altar of the chapel. The composition of the picture shows us the dying Mary. Her room is poor, the whole miserable situation consists of a towering bed, a chair, and a vessel for ablution. The deathbed is covered by a large red curtain that hangs straight from the ceiling beam. Longhi states: “The picture tells us what the death of a woman from the common people looks like … The pain of everyone standing at the bed is impressive and receives unlimited power of influence thanks to a stream of light fighting shadows, falling from the left and, as it were, illuminating the flickering flaming colors from the inside. The grief and shock of those present, expressively emphasized by the lighting, seem infinitely huge, inexhaustible.
Not surprisingly, the Carmelite monks rejected the painting. There were also rumors here. Did the artist invite a woman of easy virtue as a model for the main character? Caravaggio depicted the body of the deceased Mary in such a way that everything pointed to a severe illness. Even the image in the foreground of a bowl of acetic water intended for washing the dead was already blasphemy in itself and alerted the church. It should be recalled that a year earlier in Rome, Giordano Bruno, who rejected religious dogmatism, was burned at the stake of the Inquisition.
The Assumption of Mary did not find a buyer for a long time until the Duke of Mantua Vincenzo Gonzaga acquired it for his collection on the advice of Rubens. Rubens was fascinated by the boldness and power of Caravaggio’s painting, and his mastery of light and shadow. The Assumption of Mary, like most of the duke’s collection, was sold in 1628 to Charles I of England. For some time after the death of the king, the painting belonged to a Parisian banker, then it was acquired by Louis XIV.
During this period, Caravaggio again begins to meet with his friends from poor neighborhoods and does not try at all to conclude a profitable contract with the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which Valentina is very worried about. Nevertheless, the painter agrees to paint a monumental canvas for the wealthy banker Marquis Giustiniani – “Coronation with Thorns”. The original version of the painting, long thought to be a copy, was only identified in 1974 and is in the Prato Art Gallery.
In addition to her, the master, in an incredibly short period, writes another large work – “The Entombment”, which is now in the Vatican. In this work, his extraordinary vision of light and shadow and his talent for working with “revived” colors were surprisingly manifested. The painting was the only work of Caravaggio on a religious theme, without delay and positively accepted by customers from the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, speaking on behalf of Monsignor Vitrici. Later, Rubens made a copy of this work, slightly changing the composition.
Soon, an important contract with the church of Santa Maria del Popolo for 400 scudos, with the direct assistance of Valentine, was concluded. This money allowed Caravaggio to pay off his debts and gain some independence. Initially, according to the contract, the artist had to write paired works of a small format, made on cypress boards, however, in the end, Caravaggio painted them on canvas with oil paints. The plots were suggested by Señor Cerasi: “The Crucifixion of the Apostle Peter” and “The Conversion of Saul”. Most likely, the painter fulfilled this order without enthusiasm, which was classic in every respect.
However, the clergy strongly rejected the first version of the paintings created by the artist, which gave rise to the creation of their second version. The original version of the canvas “The Crucifixion of the Apostle Peter” is in the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, while the first version of the “Conversion of Saul” has been lost. The second version of the “Crucifixion” was created with such extreme realism and so convincingly that the Carmelite monks accepted it with fear. Caravaggio depicts executioners who are trying to raise a large cross with a saint nailed to it. The artist painted the Apostle Peter from the sitter who posed for him for the painting “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” and the canvases located in San Luigi lei Francesi.”The Crucifixion of the Apostle Peter” was accepted by the customers, albeit with some dissatisfaction.
The painting “Conversion of Saul” was twice rejected by the monks before it was placed in the Cherazi Chapel. The fact was that such an interpretation of the biblical story, as in the painting “Assumption of Mary”, was an unthinkable provocation. Suffice it to say that almost the entire space of the canvas is reserved for the image of a horse. One of the prelates of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo stubbornly disputed this artistic decision with Caravaggio himself. An acolyte from the church recorded this conversation for history: “Why is the horse in the middle, and the apostle Saul lies on the ground?” – “So it is necessary!” – “Should this horse replace God?” “No, but she stands in the light of God.”
Berneson notes that “… Caravaggio anticipates something from the sculptors of our time …”. Roberto Longhi believes that both canvases from the church of Santa Maria del Popolo are clear evidence of the artistic genius of the master. “Caravaggio’s experiments in painting finally allowed him to apply the reduction of deep shadows, and this, of course, increased the impact of his tragic and courageous realism … Caravaggio completely changes traditional iconography. Perhaps this is the most revolutionary painting in the history of religious art, which helped to make an important turning point in the colossal spiritual development of society,” he writes. Anthony Blunt is more concise but claims that it was this painting by Caravaggio that inspired Georges de La Tour to create the painting Saint Joseph the Carpenter.
Due to the delay in completing the order, Caravaggio was fined 100 scudos. The works from Santa Maria, as well as those from San Luigi, were gradually forgotten. One of the reasons for this was the too high placement of the canvases on the church premises. Both the “Conversion of Saul” and “The Crucifixion of the Apostle Peter” were located in partial shade under the ceiling so that it was almost impossible to see them. It was not until the 20th century that they were reborn.
The artist was very sensitive to criticism. Absorbed by indignation and resentment, he plunges headlong into wildlife. For many months Valentine heard nothing of him. And Caravaggio wandered around the outskirts of Rome, along with a young groom named Benedetto and his friend Lionello Spada. However, Valentine still managed to get on his trail. Having found the painter, he invited him to create several canvases on famous mythological subjects. So the paintings “Narcissus” and “Cupid the Victor” (1603) were born.
The canvases put up for sale caused extremely hostile criticism from art dealers, who considered them indecent. Perhaps the model for the figure of Cupid, depicted by the painter as a very earthly, playful child, was the groom Benedicto. The boy, armed with arrows, does not hesitate to mock the symbols of love, art, power, and might. The work bears the significant inscription: Amor Vincit Omnia (“Love conquers all”). In addition, there were rumors that “Cupid the Victor” was created as a parody of the famous statue of Michelangelo “Victory”, standing in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Others saw in it an allusion to the image of St. Bartholomew from the fresco “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. Of course, Caravaggio exposed the homosexual theme in the work of his great predecessor.
The period from 1602 to 1606 was filled not only with creativity, but also with adventurous adventures, constant clashes with servants of the law, and the payment of countless fines. For example, a painter wounded a certain Girolamo Spamp with a sword for insulting reviews of his works. A little later, he was accused of writing and replicating defamatory poems about the painter and his future biographer Balion. It happened just when the artist finished the work “Ascension” for the Roman church del Gesu. Then, for writing a sensational slanderous libel (which was not forgiven in Rome), the painter was sent to the Torre di Nona prison, even there he managed to behave not in the best way. The statements of Caravaggio, replete with insolence, lies, and slander, did not contribute to the indulgence of the judges towards him.
If it were not for the intercession of two or even three cardinals and the Marquis Giustiniani, Caravaggio would inevitably have received a long prison term, given the many previous convictions. But the artist repented, promised not to commit any more unseemly acts, and even asked for forgiveness from Baglione, after which he was released. So he had the opportunity to finish the work “David with the head of Goliath.” In it, the artist freed himself from the influence of mannerism and gave a completely new interpretation of space and light. Three years later, Caravaggio painted another version of this painting. Soon he signed an agreement to create a monumental work “Madonna di Loreto”, for the Cavaletti Chapel in the Roman church of Sant’Agostino. The artist set to work, but this work did not bring him happiness. Despite the warnings
The notary Mariano Pasqualone, who was one of the customers, openly expressed his indignation at this fact. This or something else gave rise to a strong conflict between the painter and the notary, which ended with the bloodied Pasqualone appearing in the courtyard of the court and explaining that he had been beaten by the artist Caravaggio in front of the palace of the Spanish ambassador. A scandalous and criminal incident forced Caravaggio to urgently leave Rome.
He travels to Genoa in 1604 and receives there the patronage of Duke Marzio Colonna, who had been his protector since his studies in Milan. There, Caravaggio received an offer from Prince Marcantonio Doria, who wished the artist to fresco his residence. But the painter refuses a lucrative contract. Now in the gallery of the Palazzo Bianchi, there is a work by Caravaggio “Behold the Man” (Ecce Homo, 1606), which may have been written precisely on this visit of the artist to Genoa. True, this has not been proven.
Unexpectedly, the notary Mariano Pasqualone withdraws his complaint against Caravaggio and the artist returns to Rome. There he completes Madonna di Loreto. In this incredibly popular painting, the Virgin Mary is depicted “floating in the sky” within the space of the altar. The artist decides to present her in a simple peasant guise at the moment when she meets two barefoot, dirty pilgrims with touching meekness and respect. Madonna’s face is filled with infinite modesty, and the Baby Jesus, whom she holds in her arms, looks at the elders with a mixed feelings of curiosity and concern. The interpretation of the images of pilgrims is especially impressive in the work.
The picture, as always, caused a lot of controversy and endless discussions, during which the painter had both new fans and new irreconcilable enemies. The priests of the Church of Sant’Agostino could not make up their minds to accept the work and, therefore, pay for Caravaggio’s contract. In the state archive of the city of Modena, a letter from a clergyman has been preserved, where he describes the artist’s problems with justice and his proceedings in the judicial curia.
Soon there was a new incident, which, of course, only aggravated the position of the painter. At a merry meal in Albergo del Moro, a waiter boy served Caravaggio impolitely and sluggishly, and he threw a plate of artichokes at him. This led to a scuffle and the violator of the order was arrested. The artist again found himself in the courtyard, which he left only thanks to his patrons. Trying to somehow rehabilitate himself and justify himself, Caravaggio accepts an order for two canvases: “St. Francis with a Skull” and “Writing Jerome”, intended for the church of the Capuchin monks.
Around the same period is the word “Christ in the Olive Grove”, destroyed in 1945 during the bombing of Berlin. We can now only see copies of it. In the same years, Longo dates “John the Baptist” from the Borghese Gallery and another version of the painting “Christ at Emmaus”, which is now in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.
This period was the most fruitful during the entire stay of Caravaggio in Rome. In the second version of the painting “Christ at Emmaus”, the artist achieves the highest mastery in the compositional construction of the painting, in which the figures of five biblical characters fill almost the entire space of the canvas.
The patronage of the Duke of Colonna helped to make Caravaggio’s commissions more and more numerous. Now, his creative genius could be fully revealed, and the award to the artist was not long in coming. Contrary to the notoriety of the painter, the nephew of Cardinal Scipione Borghese received permission from Pope Paul V himself to entrust Caravaggio with the execution of the image of the Madonna for St. Peter’s Cathedral.
Absolutely all Roman painters of that time dreamed of working in this largest cathedral in the world. According to the terms of the contract, it was necessary to decorate the most important altar of the Palafrenieri Chapel, one of the noblest families of Italy, to which Pope Paul V belonged. It was Caravaggio who ordered the fulfillment of this order by the cardinals from the church council, it was for the artist a great chance to completely restore his damaged reputation and assert his position, as one of the best painters of Rome, and all of Italy.
But, as always, their stubbornness of Caravaggio ruined everything. Despite the advice and warnings, the artist again invites the street girl Helen as a model. He fulfilled the order unusually quickly – all work on the canvas was completed in just three days, after which it was presented to the public.
It was an indescribable collapse of all the ambitions and hopes of the painter. Never before had Caravaggio been able to advance so much in a realistic interpretation of the gospel story and the life-like authenticity of the images. As might be expected, most of the public found the work appallingly vulgar. “Madonna Palafrenieri” was categorically rejected by the clergy, and the doors that could open the way for the artist to fame and fortune were closed forever. “We see nothing in this picture but vulgarity, sacrilege, lack of divinity and beauty,” wrote one of the secretaries of the council of cardinals. Then, as his rivals: Chevalier Cesare d’Arpino, Pomarancho, Passignano and Giovanni Baglione, and others, actively climbed to the pinnacle of glory – to the Academy of St. Luke itself, along the way being awarded the honor of receiving a knight’s cross,
The painter again indulges in all seriousness and soon again finds himself in the prison of Torre di Nona. Now we are talking about a more serious crime. One of the papal guards who followed the artist at night was found dead – someone had broken his head with a stone. The painter tried to prove his innocence: he assured that the stone had accidentally fallen off the roof just at the moment when this man was passing there. But the court rejected this version, and Caravaggio was imprisoned.
The artist was put in shackles and interrogated for a long time, he was even given punishment in the form of beating with sticks. Perhaps these sufferings were then reflected by Caravaggio on the canvas “The Flagellation of Christ”, which he would write later in Naples. Friends feared for his life and saw his salvation only in flight.
Caravaggio’s escape from prison was a success, but now he was blacklisted as wanted by the papal police. Neither the artist himself nor his friends had any idea how to get rid of the persecution. But the most regrettable is the fact that the artist did not want to learn from his mistakes.
In the harbor of Ripetta on the banks of the Tiber River, Caravaggio again resumed his adventures and fights, periodically hiding in the Palazzo Colonna. On May 29, 1606, during a ball game on the Champ de Mars, the artist accused his partner Ranuccio Tomassoni of cheating. This led to a fight. A weapon was launched into action, and as a result, Tomassoni fell dead. The painter was also wounded but managed to escape.
After this scandal, his friends were delayed, and he was sentenced to death. At that time, such a sentence meant that every law enforcement officer, anywhere and at any time, if a fugitive was discovered, could carry out the sentence.
Caravaggio appealed for help to his patrons, but they were already tired of the endless requests of the artist, who did not want to behave prudently. Weak and sick, the painter had to hide again. He wanted to take refuge in the lands of the Column or in Latium, which was outside the Roman borders.
At the age of 35, the painter enters the last period of his life. Rome never promised him wealth, however, but provided him with sufficient means of subsistence to develop his genius. Caravaggio never returned to the Eternal City. Although every minute he hoped for a return, hiding in a secret shelter. The fugitive, poisoned by illness, hatred, and the threat of death, begins to write his masterpieces at an incredible, “inhuman” pace. His latest works are filled with passion, grandeur, and power.
Balancing on the edge
Having fled from Rome in May 1606, Caravaggio, who had the fame of one of the best painters of the Eternal City, did not hope for pardon, therefore, he preferred to move away from the papal detectives. Without hesitation, he headed to Naples – a large, densely populated city, literally ablaze with new ideas, artistic movements, and revolutionary spirit.
Here, the artist almost immediately receives an order from a wealthy Ragusan merchant. Caravaggio creates a large altar image “Madonna with a Rosary” for the altar of the Dominican church, which has a second name – “Madonna del Rosario”. This canvas marked the beginning of a new stage in his work.
The finished work caused a conflict between the artist and the Dominican monks, who recognized themselves in the characters depicted on the canvas. This was contrary to traditional ideas about religious painting. The painter uses sharp contrasts of chiaroscuro for an emphatically voluminous, very material transfer of forms, while the painting techniques themselves indicate the artist’s return to his early style of painting.
As a result, the painting was bought by the painter Ludovic Finsonius from Bruges. He sent it to Antwerp, where an art association that included Rubens, Van Balen, and Jan Brueghel purchased it for the Dominican cathedral for 1,800 guilders. In 1781, Joseph II, King of Austria-Hungary, bought it from the monks, having come to complete admiration.
The new order, soon received by Caravaggio, was also not appreciated by the customer. This time, the artist had to paint a canvas for the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia. The customer was the head of the city curia. The painter was instructed to create a monumental image of the “Seven Mercies” behind the altar.
The master decides to combine in one canvas the seven episodes described in the Gospel of Matthew. The painting, as well as the Madonna del Rosario, is distinguished by the Neapolitan style, which is especially pronounced in the depiction of the characters and the construction of the composition. Rich and poor, plebeians and nobles are united in the one-night scene. A simple woman from the people at the door of the prison is breastfeeding an old man: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me food” (“Gospel of Matthew”). Nearby, a thin gentleman takes a sword to cut off a piece of cloth from his cloak and cover the beggar with it. The owner of the lodging gives a drink to a thirsty person, and the latter, like Samson, uses the jaw of a donkey instead of a bowl. Another character in the picture meets an emaciated wanderer and donates his traveling clothes to him. And the last act of mercy captured by Caravaggio is the burial of the deceased.
The opinions of both the artist’s contemporaries and critics of our century differ. Someone considers the picture grotesque, someone sees in it the “last flash” of the genius of Caravaggio. But one thing is clear, this is an unusually highly artistic, masterful work that had an undeniable influence on Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Franz Hals. Ribera directly borrowed from Caravaggio the figures of the wanderer and the owner of the inn for his painting The Five Senses.
During an eight-month stay in Naples, the artist created two versions of the painting “The Flagellation of Christ”, which became an artistic embodiment of the torture experienced by Caravaggio in Rome. Mina Gregory writes about the first option: “Darkness emphasizes the inner strength of Christ.” Scholar Roberto Longhi considers this work one of the most amazing of Caravaggio: “Cruelty, ruthlessness, atrocity and endless fear of God are in conflict with each other.”
In both versions of the picture, we see the same faces of the tormentors, which suggests the artist’s revenge on the guards of the prison in which he was imprisoned. In a few months, the persecuted criminal Caravaggio became the most productive and famous artist in Naples. However, he abruptly leaves the city and heads for Malta.
The reasons for this behavior are unknown. Perhaps Caravaggio found out about papal spies, or maybe he decided to become an honorary knight of the Order of Malta. In July 1607, the artist sailed on a ship to La Valletta, the capital of the knights of St. John of Jerusalem, the noble defenders of the Christian faith from the Maghreb pirates and Islam. The Maltese period of Caravaggio’s work was distinguished by unprecedented fertility. The painter spent less than six months on the island, but all this time he painted at an incredible pace, creating several works on genre and religious themes. The paintings of this period were very different from everything Caravaggio created earlier. So much so that for a long time, these canvases were attributed to other authors.
As soon as he arrived in Malta, the artist received an offer to paint Jerome for one of the chapels of the Cathedral of San Giovanni dei Cavalieri. The work was incredibly liked by the Grand Master of the Order – Alofuda Vinyakur. He immediately offers Caravaggio to create a monumental painting “The Beheading of John the Baptist.”
The canvas “The Beheading of John the Baptist” received the widest recognition. Artists from all over Europe specially came to see him. The picture is dominated by light and space, the viewer almost physically feels the last convulsions of the headless martyr’s body, sprawled on the floor with his hands chained behind his back. The executioner seemed to have just raised his sword. Salome holds a chalice to receive the head of John. An old woman who looked like Magda from Caravaggio’s Christ at Emmaus clutched her head in utter despair. Two prisoners are watching through the bars of their cell for what is happening. Pietro Ambrogiani writes: “The idea is born by itself that the artist conveyed his personal memories in this picture.”On the original frame of the work is the coat of arms of Alof de Wignacourt.
The painting “The Beheading of John the Baptist” was the only work signed by Caravaggio. The artist’s autograph can be seen on the bloody trail from the head of the martyr. Perhaps by this, the painter equates himself with the victim. The letter “F” in front of his name means “fra” (“brother”), which means that Caravaggio at the time of the end of the picture was already included in the Order of Malta.
The Grand Master instructs Caravaggio to paint his portrait. The artist willingly began work on the “Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt”. But the restless disposition of the painter did not give him rest. He could not resist introducing notes of sarcasm, scandal, and life itself into the solemn and pretentious canvas.
Next to a terrifying-looking knight in archaic weapons, Caravaggio depicts a beautiful page carrying the train of his master. The work, revolutionary in terms of its impact, truly shocked the church environment. The image of a celibate knight and his attractive page with a provocative look enjoyed incredible fame.
Delacroix made drawings from this picture in his albums. Manet also turned to this work when working on the canvas “Child with a Ball” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Louis XIV bought the “Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt” in 1670 for 14,000 livres. Of course, the picture became the reason for another scandal.
At the same time, Caravaggio creates his “Sleeping Cupid”, the artistic image of which resembles the child in the Palafrenieri Madonna, but this time it is written more modestly: the penumbra hides its gender. These two works again brought the wrath of those in power to the painter. Soon the newly converted “honorary knight” was captured, beaten, and imprisoned in the prison of Sant’Angelo.
The indictment is not preserved in the archives of the order, but there is other evidence that the “brother Michelangelo” was caught in an attempt to seduce the young son of a minister or inspector of the order. The fact of disappearance of the sentence may indicate that the clergy tried to hide it. The righteous knights were filled with anger. The girlfriend of the version, the artist became a victim of a conspiracy of the brothers of the order, outraged by his “inappropriate” work “Sleeping Cupid”. All this taken together was the reason for the exclusion of the painter from the order “as a spoiled and dishonoring brother.”
Caravaggio managed to escape from prison and move to the island of Sicily. For some time the painter remained in Syracuse, where he created the canvas “The Burial of St. Lucia” for the local church. This was his first order in Sicily.
And here, the artistic experiments of Caravaggio did not receive a positive assessment. In The Burial of St. Lucia, a significant part of the canvas space is reserved for the grave and the massive wall of the house, which is why the figures grouped on different plans look crushed. Berenson calls this work “… cynical in its imbalance, since crying people, without any reason located in the background of the picture, are compositionally unbalanced in any way.” Probably, the more than modest success that awaited the painter after the completion of the “Burial of St. Lucia” forced him to continue on his way.
The artist goes to Messina, where he is received very warmly, and in a friendly way. Caravaggio receives an order: to write a canvas for the Confraternita dei Crociferi on the gospel story. Talk is born in the work “The Resurrection of Lazarus”, which absorbed all the fears, doubts, and hopes of the artist. Lazarus is depicted without burial sheets. Caravaggio shows the corpse naturally, its smell seems to be physically felt by the audience, this effect is also facilitated by the fact that one of the characters present in the picture covers his nose with his hand.
According to some studies, here, in Messina, in 1608, the artist paints his canvas “Behold the Man”. Before World War II, this painting was considered a copy of Lionello Spada. Both works were in Genoa, in the ship’s school. They disappeared in 1944 during the bombing of the city. The painting by Caravaggio was considered lost, but in fact, it was transferred to the city museum – Palazzo Ducale, where it was simply forgotten in the attic. It was only in 1953 that it was discovered by the director of the museum, Caterina Marchenaro, during an inventory of the museum fund.
In Sicily, the artist lived only one year. At the end of 1609, he left for Palermo, so that from there he would again go by ship to Naples. Caravaggio dreamed of returning to Rome. However, this journey was accompanied by many troubles. The painter was still famous and did not lose his cheerfulness, but he suffered from various diseases and noticeably aged. This can be seen in his last self-portrait. The works were written by the artist in Naples tragically and convincingly tell us about the last days of his life.
Here, in Naples, an assassination attempt was made on the artist. The wounded and beaten Caravaggio was considered dead and left lying on the street. We do not know who ordered this attack, it is quite possible that it was someone’s personal revenge or the work of the knights from the Order of Malta.
Only by a miracle, the painter remains alive. Now, in memory of this assassination attempt, his entire face is crossed by a scar. We know of only two canvases from this period. The first of them – “John the Baptist”, depicts a saint in a state of deepest sadness, his facial features have a clear portrait resemblance to Caravaggio, and both of them are haunted by painful memories.
Longhi writes: “The extreme excitement and drama of what is happening is emphasized by the lighting … the picture is perceived as the last bitter complaint of the artist.” Another canvas suggests a painful mental and physical state of the author himself. The painting “David with the Head of Goliath” gave us the last self-portrait of the artist. The features of Goliath are written out very realistically, his face expresses suffering and bitterness.
Caravaggio has already painted a canvas on this gospel story, but here we see a completely different David. Now, he is not a standout, but a simple doubting person. The head of a giant with a scar on his forehead and a sad, blurred look testifies to the confusion of the painter himself. The sword of David (in Italian – “Spada”), present on many of the master’s canvases, symbolizes the presence in his life of a true friend and comrade – Lionello Spada.
Performing on a wooden board the painting “The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula”, commissioned by the Genoese prince Marcantonio Doria, the son of Doge Agostino, Caravaggio, most likely, hoped to secure a comfortable existence for himself after returning to Rome. Not a single work of painting has ever conveyed the image of death so truthfully. The master depicted the moment when the arrow of the merciless king of the Huns is about to pierce the very chest of the martyr and decide her fate. “Due to the limited space of the composition,” writes Mina Gregory, “there is a barely noticeable pause, an empty space is formed, a gap between the gesture of the shooter and the moment when the arrow pierces the martyr’s chest. And here, as always, the master deviates from the historical canvas of the biblical episode … But we ask ourselves if this deviation is not the secret of the attractiveness of Caravaggio’s works.
Having finished the touching work The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, Caravaggio no longer creates a single painting. It’s the summer of 1610. Some historians believe that having barely finished his last masterpiece, Caravaggio decides to leave Naples. For a long time, no evidence of the last days of the painter in this city was found.
Instead of going directly to Rome, Caravaggio boarded a felucca (small sailless boat). He waited for news from his patrons, who were outside the territory of papal jurisdiction. He had with him some personal belongings and a couple of canvases. The goal of the voyage was Porto Ercole – a harbor near the mouth of the Tiber. For unknown reasons, Caravaggio flees from the felucca, perhaps this was due to the news of malaria that raged on those shores.
Having landed near the capital of Italy, Caravaggio hoped to be the last to receive news of a pardon. Unfortunately, things did not go as the artist had planned. Whether the Spaniards were warned about the landing of the persecuted and disgraced painter, or whether it was a denunciation of other ill-wishers, for example, the Knights of Malta, we do not know.
But as soon as Caravaggio stepped on solid ground, he was captured and imprisoned in the citadel of Porto Ercole. No protests were successful, Caravaggio tried to impersonate a knight of Malta, but this did not help either. No evidence has been preserved that helped the painter to be released from prison. Perhaps it was a pledge or bribery (the artist had the amount received for “Saint Ursula”). One can easily imagine how the terrified persecuted Caravaggio fled along the coast to find shelter for the night in Porto Ercole.
Some sources present Caravaggio as a sick, starving, and deadly tired man, hopelessly rushing about in search of a felucca or other ship. His wounds are inflamed, and he himself suffers from a fever. Others say that he was the victim of gossip provoked by himself, which was the reason for his murder. The day after his release, the body of the artist was found on the shore, not far from the citadel. He died in July 1610, and Caravaggio failed to see once again the Eternal City, to which he so aspired.
Only in August, in one of the Roman newspapers – “Avisi”, a note about the death of Caravaggio appeared. After the painter fled to Naples, his fame began to grow with incredible speed, which did not prevent Baglione from writing: “His death, like his life, was unworthy.” It is noteworthy that a few days before the death of the master, Pope Paul VI nevertheless relented and put a seal on his pardon.
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