The painter of things happening as they happen
He was born a stone's throw from the Duomo, in the Milan of St Charles Borromeo. He lived in the Rome of St Philip Neri. He was familiar with people of power. But he was at home with the frequenters of the Roman taverns. The documents concerning him are largely court proceedings. He spent his last years evading a death sentence. Roberto Longhi wrote that in his life he had painted “what happens, nothing but what happens”. The story of Michelangelo Merisi, four centuries after his death
by Giuseppe Frangi
One of the rooms of the Caravaggio exhibition in the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome
So says the baptism certificate of Michelangelo Merisi, born 29 September, the day of St Michael the Archangel. The register for the year 1571 is in the parish records of Santo Stefano in Brolo, in Milan, which cover the years 1565 to 1587. Today the register is preserved by the diocese of Milan and there these few lines were found in 2007 by Vittorio Pirami, a retired executive with a passion for archives. So though he called himself Caravaggio and throughout his life claimed that as his origin, in fact Caravaggio was born in Milan. And the thing is in no way surprising: his father Fermo was a builder, and according to a statement by one of the earliest biographers of the painter, he was “Mason and architect of the Marquis of Caravaggio”. There is no confirmation, but we know that the Marquis, who bore the imposing name of Francesco Sforza, was present at the wedding of Fermo to another inhabitant of Caravaggio, Lucia Aratori. The family of the Marquis “commuted” between Caravaggio and Milan, where they had a beautiful palace in San Giovanni in Conca (where Piazza Missori lies today, just a few steps from the Duomo). Of the palace, only the magnificent portal of the palace remains standing, in a museum of the Sforzesco Castle in Milan. It seems very likely, therefore, that in those years Fermo Merisi worked on the building of the palace and had taken a house in Milan with his family (he had four children before he died young in 1577). It was the Milan of St Charles, and we can legitimately imagine Michelangelo growing up as a boy with Borromeo’s catechesis in the cathedral. But the key person Caravaggio encountered in those early years was the wife of the marquis, Costanza Colonna: a woman with a famous surname, who was to follow step by step, like a protective shadow, the adventurous life of the painter. Beginning from the first and decisive step: the decision to go to Rome with no return envisaged.
In St Philip’s Rome
“Afterwards he went to Rome,” writes Giulio Mancini, one of the first biographers of the painter. The date of the journey was most likely the summer of 1592. There is no direct documentation, but it is easy to deduce from clues that fit together with relative ease. It is certain that between May 1592 and June 1593 the Marquise Costanza was in Rome. And that Caravaggio found backing among the noblewoman’s network of Roman friends. He first stayed, in fact, with Pandolfo Pucci, a monsignor and steward of the house of Orsina Peretti, sister of Sixtus V (d. 1590) a relation of the Colonna. The best testimony to the artist’s appearance comes from a barber named Luca, in the records of a court inquiry – one of many – in which Caravaggio became involved some years later: “This painter is a large young man of twenty or twenty-five years with a small beard black plump with thick eyebrows and dark eyes, who dresses in black not too neatly, wore a pair of black hose a little tattered and has thick long hair in front”.
If we overlay an image with these words we find that, beard excluded, they coincide with the Sick Bacchus that Caravaggio painted after one of his first adventures in Rome. He had been kicked by a horse and brought to the hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione, where people injured in street brawls were treated. As soon as he was out he portrayed himself with a sickly air that certainly doesn’t hide a swagger (the painting, like many others, later entered the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V).
The first key date in Caravaggio’s long Roman period is 1595. In the autumn of that year he entered the service of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, settling in his house, that is in Palazzo Madama. That same year, Cardinal Federico Borromeo left for Milan, of which he had been appointed archbishop, taking with him the famous Basket of fruit and a fair dose of contempt for the rebellious painter. Years later he said this of him: “I knew in my days in Rome a painter who had filthy habits, and always went about in wondrously ragged and dirty clothes, and lived continuously among the kitchen scullions and the lords of court”. Federico Borromeo was President of the Academy of St Luke, an association of artists founded a few years earlier by Federico Zuccari, and he was replaced by Cardinal Del Monte. That same year Philip Neri died: after spending his youth in the Milan of St Charles, Caravaggio also knew at first hand the Rome of St Philip, for whose church, Santa Maria in Vallicella, almost ten years later he was to paint one of his masterpieces, the Deposition of Christ (now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana). There is a sign of Philip Neri in the Fortune Teller, the picture he painted for Del Monte. The central figure in the canvas is a gypsy woman who, while reading the palm of a young and dreamy nobleman, slips off his ring. St Philip had in fact defended the gypsies in 1570, protesting against a papal decree to round up the gypsies and send all the men to the galleys.
Deposition, 1602-1604, Vatican Museums, Vatican City
In Palazzo Madama Caravaggio occupied a room on the upper floors, sharing it perhaps with Mario Minniti, a Sicilian artist and steadfast friend who was to be at his side in the darkest months of his stay in Messina and Palermo. Another key man in the Rome of that time, Vincenzo Giustiniani, a banker of Genoese origin, had his residence across from Palazzo Madama. Ottavio Costa, also Genoese and in close relations with Giustiniani was also a prominent banker. In that triangle Caravaggio flourished before the turn of the century. They were all in fact collectors and all enchanted by the novelty introduced by the temperamental artist from the north.
Up to this point one might say that Caravaggio was a private matter between these prominent men in Roman society of the time. The turning point of his “going public” came in 1599. It was the run-up to the Jubilee and in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, just opposite Palazzo Madama, there was a chapel which the titular Cardinal, Mathieu Cointrel (later italianized as Contarelli) had set out in his will was to be decorated with scenes from the life of St Matthew and which instead, through the indecision of the executors, had remained bare for years. In irritation Clement VIII entrusted the execution of the will in 1597 to the Vestry of St Peter’s to get the work completed by 1600. The church was in fact linked to a politico-religious matter of great importance, the conversion of King Henry IV of France in 1593 and so the Pope was intransigent about completion of the work. The commission was supposed to go to the Cavalier d’Arpino, but, as Baglione said with a touch of envy, Cardinal Del Monte recommended Caravaggio. So, “through the working of his Cardinal,” on 23 July 1599 the contract was signed. The iconographic program he was to follow had been drafted years earlier by Virgilio Crescenzi and given in the instructions attached to the contract. On the right wall there was to be the martyrdom of St Matthew, on the left, his calling. Above the altar, however, a statue of the saint was first planned. On 5 July the following year the stipulated money was paid, a sign that the paintings were in place. For the first time all the painters of Rome could see and measure themselves against the novelty of Caravaggio: if the canvas on the right with the martyrdom had cost him much time and effort and repainting to hold the dramatic emphasis of the martyrdom and not go against his anti-rhetorical bent as chronicler, the one on the left introduced a novelty that unsettled everyone. Caravaggio had renounced all artifice and painted a scene of absolute simplicity, set in a tavern of the Rome of the day. Roberto Longhi writes: “Caravaggio asked himself, for example: what can we know, today, of how St Matthew’s martyrdom took place on the steps of the altar? Today, a painter can only represent it as a nasty crime story in church. Or for the saint’s calling? We do not know much about him except that he was a tax collector. And because in the tax office, where money is changed, it’s obvious that gambling goes on, there is no reason why, for greater naturalism, Christ, going into the wretched tax office today, should not call Matthew taking him out of a gambling game”.
It was the turning point. A few months later, the Pope’s treasurer, Tiberio Cerasi, gave him another commission of great prestige, the chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo where on the main altar there was a painting by the artist most praised by the Rome of the time, Annibale Carracci. The commissioners at work for the Roman churches began to follow his production. Thus came the paintings for Santa Maria in Vallicella, for St Peter’s itself (Caravaggio was given the altar destined to the confraternity of the Palafrenieri), for Santa Maria della Scala, to the one for Sant’Agostino. The commissions were never easy, starting with Tiberio Cerasi’s, for whom he had to redo twice the subjects commissioned, the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of St Peter. Undoubtedly the stormiest and most emblematic commission was the one for Santa Maria della Scala. Caravaggio was looked at on the one hand with admiration verging on stardom, and on the other with almost the obligation to keep at a distance the novelty he had introduced. The extreme case was that of the Death of the Virgin, a work for which he received the commission in 1601 from Laerzio Cherubini and that was intended for the church in Trastevere. The painting stirred curiosity and scandal, to the point that the Carmelite fathers decided to remove it in 1606. The patron put it up for sale and had no difficulty in finding a buyer. It was in fact the young Rubens, in Rome on behalf of Vincenzo Gonzaga, who advised the Duke of Mantua to buy it for his collection. When the purchase went through in 1607, the Duke’s ambassador displayed it in his palace on the Corso, such was the pressure from people and especially from artists to see it again. But he set a condition: no one could come and copy it. Copies of Caravaggio’s paintings were in fact much sought after by the market, especially after he fled from Rome. The reason is well known: along with three friends on 28 May 1606, in Campo Marzio, he had fatally wounded Ranuccio Tomassoni. A fight provoked by love and jealousy. On 16 July, a sentence entailing the death penalty for all fugitives was given out.
Flagellation of Christ, 1607-1610, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples
The wounded Caravaggio was first tended in Palazzo Colonna by “his” Marquise, then helped to flee over the borders of the papal territories, to the viceroyalty of Naples. Moreover he was a Spanish citizen by birth, and the Colonna who had properties in Naples and a beautiful palace in Chiaia, were also pro-Spain. The stay in Naples was a short but luxuriant new spring for Caravaggio, who immediately immersed himself in the vital atmosphere of the city and transferred it into masterpieces that still seem to breathe the joy of his beginnings. Naples was a city bursting with life, in those years three times larger than Rome. It was also rich: Caravaggio received money for commissions that he had never seen in Rome. For the Dominicans he painted The Flagellation and the extraordinary Madonna del Rosario (now in Vienna). While for the Pio Monte della Misericordia he created a large painting with the Seven works of mercy, that seems set in the streets of Naples, with a fitful coming together of people who unexpectedly emerge from every corner of the canvas. By 9 January 1607 he had already completed the work and cashed the 400 ducats deposited into the account he had opened at the Banco di Sant’Eligio.
But on 14 June 1607 Caravaggio left the city, embarked on one of the five galleys of Fabrizio Sforza Colonna, a son of the Marquise, and on route for the island of Malta. Probably his powerful patron had a hand in this move, knowing that Alof de Wignacourt, the grandmaster of the Order of the Knights of Malta was in desperate search of a great artist to work on the island. By 14 July Caravaggio was already there and immediately involved in whirlwind activity. Though far from Rome and the continent, commissions arrived without problem. For the Duke of Lorraine, for example, he painted an Annunciation which is still in Nancy. The grandmaster, to bind him to himself, took a step without precedent and knighted him, allowing him into the Order, for which he had to ask two dispensations from Rome since such investment was forbidden to those guilty of murder. We know the date of the solemn ceremony in which Caravaggio received the knight’s sword: 14 July 1608. On the most important painting left on the island, the great Beheading of St John the Baptist, Caravaggio proudly signed himself “f. [i.e. friar] Michelangelo”. His glory did not last long in the land of Malta. On 18 August 1608 the painter found himself involved in a fresh brawl in the home of the organist of the convent church of San Giovanni, Fra Prospero Coppini. On 27 August, the perpetrators were identified and detained in the prison of Sant’Angelo fort, an untakeable castle with walls dropping to the sea. On 6 October, the Venerable Council learned, however, that the knight friar Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had managed to escape. How did it come about? There had never been an escape from the fort in its history (not even with a “pair of wings” was escape possible, report the chronicles). Also in this difficult situation the artist found help from Costanza Colonna. Indeed, the procurator of the prison was Girolamo Carafa, of a family linked by kinship with the Colonna. It was he, probably, to put him aboard one of the feluccas trading between Malta, Sicily and Naples. Caravaggio landed in Syracuse, where he found his old friend of Rome days, Mario Minniti, who in the meantime has won a certain glory in his homeland. The patrons of the island could hardly believe they had the most sought-after painter of the moment, although Caravaggio continued to feel a hunted man, for now added to the papal sentence was the wrath of the grandmaster who wanted him back on Malta for the just punishment. Susinno, a biographer of Sicilian painters, says that Caravaggio “went to bed fully dressed, wearing a dagger that never left his side”. In Syracuse he painted the great Burial of St Lucia. In Messina and Palermo Capuchins took him under their protection and for them he painted an Adoration of the Shepherds and a Nativity (the one from Palermo, stolen twenty years ago and never traced). In both paintings Caravaggio adopts the iconographic solution of the “Madonna of humility,” that is with Mary lying on the ground (humilitas in fact has its root in humus). In Palermo he inserted St Francis into the canvas, who, as one of the biographies of Francis of Assisi says, “stood before the manger, sobbing, overcome by tenderness, and full of wonderful joy”. For the Messina commission for the church of Santa Maria della Concezione, he received the astronomic sum of 1,000 gold ducats.
Annunciation, 1608 to 1610, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy
But Caravaggio, as Susinno again tells us, is now a man “with a mind in upheaval.” In September 1609 he again took ship for Naples, where he was again welcomed in the Colonna’s Palazzo Cellamare in Chiaia. On 24 October, there was another violent episode: in a brawl in the Cerriglio tavern, the most famous in Naples, Caravaggio was seriously wounded. His plan was to return to Rome and thus he asked the Pope’s pardon. And to testify to his repentance he painted a David with the Head of Goliath, in which the Philistine giant was given his own features. One can read the marks of the aggression suffered at the Cerriglio tavern on the face. The artist continued to work at a dizzying pace. From Genoa came a very urgent commission from Marcantonio Doria: in honor of his step-daughter who had taken the veil he wanted a Martyrdom of St Ursula. Caravaggio painted it quickly and to save time put it out to dry in the sun on a terrace in Naples. The canvas still bears the signs of that hasty operation. It was dispatched to Genoa on 27 May. Meanwhile, Caravaggio was preparing the decisive journey for his attempt to return to Rome. In the summer of 1610 he boarded a felucca in Chiaia. In his pocket he had a safe-conduct, signed by Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga, which included the Pope’s pardon. In the hold he loaded many paintings, some of which were requested by Cardinal Scipione, nephew of Paul V. The felucca made a stop in Palo, a small port between the mouth of the Tiber and Civitavecchia. As soon as Caravaggio landed he was arrested by the captain of the fortress. Probably it was a matter of mistaken identity. The fact is that the ship left without him, and it cost him considerably to buy his freedom. He set out for Porto Ercole where the felucca was headed. A hundred kilometers north, in the heat and through areas of marsh. When he reached there he was utterly worn out. He was taken in by the local Confraternity of Pilgrims and there died. It was 10 July. On the 28th the news reached Rome. Worried, Cardinal Scipione immediately contacted the Marquise Costanza to know what had happened to his paintings. He recovered two, David with the Head of Goliath and a St John at the spring, today still in the Borghese Gallery. Thus ended the story of the Lombard with the “lively and hollowed eyes” (Giulio Cesare Gigli), who in his life painted only “what happens, nothing other than what happens” (Roberto Longhi).