Caravaggio: The First Punk Rock Star
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Historical figures have an annoying tendency towards free pursuit of their own voices and artistic sensibilities. Or, at the very least, this is annoying enough to us later-day accountants who followed centuries after the fact with the dull compulsion to systemise, categorise, and try to explain the arts in terms of clearly-defined movements and labels.
Take for example the moment that art in Italy ceased leaning towards Mannerist tendencies, and became instead Baroque. These terms were retroactively applied; no artist would have willingly labeled themselves as either. To be called a Mannerist was actually an insult. Painters such as Sicciolante de Sermoneta, Raffaelino di Reggio, and Cesare Nebbia were, in essence, being accused of cliche, of copying the mannerisms of better artists. Similarly, if you suspect that “Baroque” sounds nothing like a term an Italian would self-apply, you would be entirely correct. The term was French and, like Mannerist, it was derogatory, used to belittle a type of excessive and overly-exuberant art that Europe was certainly fond of. Besides which it did not enter the collective lexicon until the mid nineteenth century, a time when another group of maligned artists, the Impressionists, were forming a new aesthetic destined for its own derogatory moniker.
The terms Mannerist and Baroque are also somewhat interchangeable, the distinction between them at times nebulous and subjective. From Da Vinci onwards, the artists of the High Renaissance competed in more and more ambitious compositions: more figures, more animation, more life breathed into oil and stone. No less an artist than the great genius Michelangelo Buonarroti himself could be described as the first Baroque Italian artist, at least according to our modern criteria: take his Pieta, and his Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. These are expressions of extreme emotion, perhaps of self-hatred too. Michelangelo paints his own likeness as a stand-in for the flayed skin of St Bartholomew with all suggestions of martyrdom and suffering fully implied.
The artists that followed the High Renaissance followed the established style of the time, though their innovations generally pushed towards ever-greater dynamism and vitality. For example, the painter Annibale Carracci is often labelled as a painter of the Italian Baroque. It is true he was a painter of compositional melodrama, and yet his Baroque is colourful, it depicts subjects and styles that the people of Italy would have been well-acquainted with too. Virgins. Check. Halos. Check. Cherubs. Check. In fact, the only thing that might have distinguished his works from those of his immediate forebears, such as Titian, is the unfortunate fact that they are nowhere near as good.
One of the most famous paintings by Carracci, The Assumption of the Virgin, hangs in the Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Next to it hang two paintings by a second Michelangelo: this one named, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Like his namesake, Caravaggio was a genius, a truly unique artist, one that defies something as trite and facile as a label. Incidentally, Caravaggio makes his feelings towards Carracci known, his Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus is largely occupied by the rear end of a horse. Caravaggio - an innovative mind when it came to staging and audience positioning - places his horse’s arse opposite Carracci’s Assumption for all future generations to see and judge for themselves.
So, who exactly was Caravaggio? An instinctive and innovative painter who never even seemed to require anything so crude as drafting and underdrawing? A violent man who assaulted waiters and murdered a man in a duel gone wrong? A compulsive womaniser who painted homoerotic images of young men and for whom rumours of sodomy were never far away? An honorary knight of the Maltese Order of St John? A walking disaster area? A self-destructive man, and ultimately, a victim of murder? These are the most popular stories of a painter that seems to be almost too good to be true: a movie star, the first punk rocker, the chiaroscuro sledgehammer, determined to shatter the stale veneer of the late Renaissance along with all of its tropes.
As a young man Caravaggio painted an eclectic mix of subjects. In Milan he painted a virtuoso example of still life, vivid and bold, the fruit and leaves of his plants decaying and withering upon close inspection. In Florence he painted a furious visage, the beheaded medusa, onto a shield for one of the Medici. This in itself was glorious arrogance. The Medici already owned one Medusa shield, painted by no less than Leonardo da Vinci. Today, the da Vinci is lost, the Caravaggio stands proudly in the Uffizi gallery - though not before a lengthy ban to the storage rooms after one of the Medici women was repulsed by the sight of it.
Yet it was in Rome that Caravaggio found infamy. He is believed to have travelled there in around 1592, though exact records do not exist. The early paintings in Rome were dominated by images of young boys. They stood for mythological and allegorical subjects. In some ways, this young Caravaggio resembled more a painter from Holland than one from Italy in his interests and techniques. Indeed, it could be said that these secular images of card-players and musicians show an artist learning and perfecting his techniques.
The most famous of these is probably Boy Bitten by a Lizard which hangs in London’s National Gallery. Audiences of the time would already have been challenged by the manner in which Caravaggio depicts the recoil, shock, and pain of his subject, even before we go looking for sexually-charged implications and the link made between pain and pleasure. It is not until 1598 that Caravaggio paints a canvas devoted to a female subject. Undoubtably this early focus on young men was a key factor in Caravaggio’s reputation as a homosexual or bisexual. Charges of sodomy remain unsubstantiated, yet would follow him persistently throughout his lifetime. It is possible that these rumours were spread by the many enemies he made, though it is more likely that there was truth in them.
The story of this young artist could well have ended here. Around 1593 he was struck with an illness and taken to a crowded hospital for the destitute. Here it would have been highly likely that Caravaggio would have been left to perish of his own disease, or may have contracted something from another. We are lucky then that the artist was recognised by a prior who had met Caravaggio previously and was able to transpose him to better care. He paints the first remarkable self-portrait in the ensuing months, a self-portrait that shows the artist’s commitment to those great rock and roll themes: intoxication, sexuality, violence and impulse. The painting is called The Young Sick Bacchus. Bacchus was the Roman god of wine and orgy. Caravaggio’s Bacchus is jaded, pallid-skinned, grey lipped, and toxic, the grey tones highlighted by the stark contrast against the chiaroscuro.
Perhaps, if he was left to his own inclinations, Caravaggio may have remained a secular painter of street scenes, an oddity destined for obscurity. However this was Italy, and more importantly still, this was Rome. The penniless Caravaggio was eventually persuaded to accept religious commissions from some of the city’s most influential and wealthiest patrons.
The change in subject matter did not herald a change in painting style: the staging remained dramatic and fully-aware of the positioning of audience and painting; the chiaroscuro accentuated the drama of his art more profoundly than ever before; his paintings still reeked of the street, uncomfortably so for many of his immediate contemporaries. This body of religious work is a remarkable and unique legacy of artistic accomplishment, an oeuvre that is unmatched in its combustibility and controversy among any of the Old Masters.
The impact that Caravaggio’s religious art had on Rome at the turn of the seventeenth century could be compared to that of blockbuster success. At the San Luigi dei Francesi church in Rome, queues formed sometimes for hours to see the exciting new work of this most problematic of geniuses. Caravaggio had secured the commission due to his connections and influential supporters, and yet his work stood on merit. The two striking paintings The Vocation of St Matthew, and The Martyrdom of St Matthew still emerge from the candle-lit church, distilling a life into two moments, the birth of belief and its brutal consequences.
The Vocation of St Matthew recalls the earlier work of Caravaggio. The tax collectors are sat in a way that recalls his genre scenes of cardsharps and musicians. Jesus stands authoritatively on the right-hand side, calling out his future disciple. A beam of divine light illuminates the face of Matthew who, alone among the laconic and arrogant tax collectors, displays his conscience. Matthew points tentatively to himself as if asking if salvation is still a possibility for him. It is, and The Martyrdom of St Matthew shows how. Mostly in Caravaggio, salvation is sacrifice, it is suffering. Matthew lays prostrate on the floor, gazing upwards at a face twisted in hatred and murderous intent. There are on-lookers, they do not intervene. One of them is a self-portrait, Caravaggio himself is a coward who half-turns from the scene of imminent butchery with a mix of disgust and pity on his face.
I sometimes wonder about the sincerity of Caravaggio’s religious art. Certainly he did not live a chaste or devout life. It is therefore easy to see his work as a product of a deeply religious society, to interpret a mendacious quality to his faith. Yet, who needs salvation more than the sinner? His life veered between temptation, violence, and vice. He made enemies and suffered the consequences. Depictions of martyrdom and suffering appealed to Caravaggio, and are arguably the purest and most effective use of his talents.
Take The Beheading of St John the Baptist. What do we see in this haunting, life-size, image? We see an image of nonchalant violence. Here there is a lack of melodrama. What Caravaggio offers is something far more sinister. He offers us nihilism on canvas. Where are the halos? The cherubs? The choir eternal reassuring the audience that this death served some great and divine purpose? The absence of the established vocabulary of Christian suffering bothered the church of the day, far more than the depictions of renowned prostitutes as stand-ins for the virgin Mary – though of course he did that too. Strangely enough, this is the only canvas signed by the artist, the signature occurring in the stream of blood leaking from the neck of St John. Could we interpret this as a symbol of his sincerity, or simply his pride in completing such a painting?
Caravaggio is supposed to have painted this image in return for sanctuary. While in Rome, he had been no stranger to the papal police and had spent several stretches in cells for minor offences and indiscretions. Usually an influential friend or patron had been able to expedite his release. Yet when Caravaggio killed a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni in public, there was going to be no cursory solution. The exact reason for the death is uncertain. Ostensibly it was over a tennis match. Most likely it was an arranged duel, with both men having brought seconds along with them, the tennis match serving as little more than a pretext. Gambling debts have been offered as an alleged motive for their falling out. A woman has been suggested too, her name was Fillide Melandroni, a prostitute well-liked by the artist and pimped by Tomassoni. The duel is fertile ground for speculation and mythologising, and likely the only men who know the truth of the matter are now dead.
Regardless, Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome, a wanted man, and a price on his head by papal decree. His journey took him to Malta, where he sought refuge with the Knights of St John, who sheltered him in return for the scene of their patron saint receiving his martyrdom. Yet Malta was not where Caravaggio wished to be. He painted arguably his greatest painting and sent it back to Rome. David with the Head of Goliath serves as a haunting double self-portrait. In this painting we see a depiction of the young Caravaggio presenting the head of his older self – innocence rejecting sin. It nearly worked too. The new Pope, Paul V, a Borghese, was sufficiently moved by the gift to issue a pardon, and Caravaggio was permitted to return to Rome.
He might have made it too. Might have had a happy ending. But that simply isn’t the way the Caravaggio story was ever going to end. Even in exile, he could not be humble, could not be impulsive, could not be anything but himself. The reasons why Caravaggio found himself defrocked by the Knights of St John and on the run again were not recorded in Malta, despite his painting of an iconic masterpiece at St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. It is now believed he once more found himself at the heart of a violent altercation. Nevertheless, the men who attacked, and wounded, Caravaggio in Naples, ultimately killing him, are now widely believed to have been Knights of St John who vengefully pursued their ungrateful former ward.
The location of Caravaggio’s body is unknown. His death was profoundly unceremonious. The first man to offer a biography, Giovanni Baglione, actively despised the artist, accusing him of plagiarism. In death, as in life, he paid a price for his innate subversiveness. Many of his works were attributed to other, lesser, artists; while lesser artworks were attributed to Caravaggio in a posthumous attempt to discredit his legacy. Other great artists that followed, namely Velázquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt, all took something from Caravaggio. In particular, Rubens actively tried to promote his memory, though his attempts were ultimately in vain. For nearly three centuries the name Caravaggio was successfully obliterated from the collective memory.
It was around the close of the nineteenth century that his work caught the eyes of art historians. We owe it to a small group of enthusiasts, who dedicated their time and effort in identifying the works of this forgotten provocateur and their research of documents from Rome, Naples, and Malta to uncover the dramatic life of one of the most compelling artists in history. The twentieth century represented a change in aesthetic: there was a decline in romanticism, a rise in cynicism, society became less reverential towards faith. In short, we caught up to Caravaggio.
His reputation now marks him out as a giant even within the context of great Italian artists: as naturally gifted as da Vinci, as prolific as Raphael, every bit as proud and compelling as Michelangelo. Yet less safe than any of them, a volcanic eruption of talent, sexuality, and violence, destined for greatness and unhappiness in equal measure. ▲
Jake Kendall fell in love with art history while working at the Ashmolean Museum in his hometown of Oxford. He is currently studying his MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. You can follow his work and shameless self-promotion @jakendallox if you like.