nthposition online magazine

Finding Caravaggio


[ bookreviews ]

Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto
“I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”
- Terence of Carthage, early second century BC


At his best, Michelangelo Merisi, known to history as Caravaggio after the town of his birth, captures stark realist images with noirish flashes of white light, like black and white WeeGee crime photographs in mid-1940s New York City, or those flashing camera bulbs exploding in motifs of revelation in so many Martin Scorsese films.

Caravaggio (1571-1610) was quite the modernist both in his subversive gangster art and his violent, bisexual murderous lifestyle. He was an approximate contemporary of Shakespeare and is considered today the dominant artist of the Italian Baroque school, a garish cultural mode, more propaganda machine for the Roman Catholic Church, which arose around 1600 and spread across Europe throughout the 17th century in reaction to the Reformation.

Caravaggio's father Fermo Merisi was an architect and his mother Lucia Aratori came from propertied gentry, both from the area of Caravaggio near Milan. His father and uncle died in a plague that ravaged the area when he was six years old and the impoverished Caravaggio apprenticed at age 13 to the painter Simone Peterzano in Milan, said to be a pupil of Titian.

Caravaggio soon arrived in Rome a penniless teenager who quickly built a reputation producing small genre pictures for academic painters until he hustled his way into the courts of decadent Church prelates, like one Cardinal Del Monte, who provided room and board in exchange for Caravaggio's paintings of the young boys the Cardinal so enjoyed.

Caravaggio paints his “profane” works - like ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’, a horrible misuse of his growing talent - to attract and please influential Vatican collectors, and all of this is captured with a sense of drama and insight by novelist Francine Prose in her brief biography and impressionist art critique, Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles.

Prose provides highlights of Caravggio's life and her own interesting and sensual read of his works and milieu:

“It was widely understood and accepted that a man could have sex with both males and females at different stages of his life. Moreover, sex with another male was not associated with effeminacy, nor was it believed to compromise one's toughness or masculinity, especially if one took the active role, and only with the appropriate partner, which is to say with a boy, preferably smooth-skinned and beardless, and no older than eighteen.” (p44)

As her title implies, the seductive 'miracles' Caravaggio painted are not necessarily religious in nature. In fact Caravaggio “despised” the accepted mannerist style of his day as well as classic Greek and Roman sculpture, not to mention Raphael's paintings. According to a contemporary biographer quoted in Prose:

“His only reply to classicism was to point at a crowd of men, to show that nature had given him enough contemporary teachers.”

Like Shakespeare, Caravaggio lived in a violent and inhumane culture; but Caravaggio was himself a murderer who killed at least twice. One man in a fight over a tennis bet (possibly jealous of the favors of a favorite prostitute model); and the other a policeman who broke up a Caravaggio street fight. As a result he spent too much of his life on the run from the law (and many real and imagined enemies) while painting brilliantly in Rome, Sicily and Naples.

Caravaggio continues to draw audiences and influence artists today. His work always attracts crowds no matter where it is exhibited and he remains a modern, I think, for three obvious reasons. Caravaggio captures the existential reality of the human condition in its natural - as opposed to socialized or propagandized - milieu; he exposes the banal symbolism of religious mythology used to appropriate human nature, and he remains a revolutionary, a violent man, dissatisfied with the authority of a ruling elite and critical of the irrational suppressive environment around him.

When Caravaggio paints the worn hands of the peasant, the calloused feet of a murderer, the broken faces of men and women who lived marginal lives, he validates their existence. He accepts individuals - not classes, social status or fantasies - as the proper object of visual engagement and ethical concern.

Caravaggio paints with a studied realism so psychologically insightful it transcends history, forcing the viewer, at any period in time, to consider the universal, the archetypal captured in the absolute existential present of his subjects. He painted saint and sinner alike regularly offending dogmatists who rejected his earthy reductions of Catholic mythology.

Caravaggio visualizes like a master filmmaker, drawing the viewer into the scene at the last possible most dramatic moment. He penetrates the mystery of religious mythology returning human experience to the essential human condition which religious allegory attempts to appropriate for the purpose of supplication, a means of socialization and control of the faithful masses.

Such dogmatic suppression was no more acceptable to him than it is to modern sensibility today. In this sense, Caravaggio simultaneously deconstructs mythology and liberates the viewer to see life as he or she actually lives it, not as others would have one conditioned to accept it.

One example of such modernism is Caravaggio's first version of ‘The Death of the Virgin’ (1606): Mary is not ascending into heaven on a cloud of angels as Church dogma would dictate appropriate; she is actually simply dead, like any woman at any moment in history, and the viewer need have no knowledge of any concept of the Virgin Mother to experience the moment of a woman's death as a matter of existential fact beyond ceremony, beyond allegory.

Her grievers need have no names, no identities rooted in biblical ritual; they are us, in fact, those who survive to carry the loss, merely one of a lifetime of losses Caravaggio experienced and chronicled so wonderfully precise and humanistically direct in his work.

As Prose recounts in her informative biography, Caravaggio quite probably used the corpse of a drowned prostitute as model for the Virgin Mary, offending the Carmelites who commissioned his work for the Church of Santa Maria della Scala. This was a daring act by any painter, bordering on blasphemy. The previous year philosopher Giordano Bruno, whose writings offended the Church, was burned alive in Rome for his unrepented insult to Catholic dogma.

Of course any rejected Caravaggio painting was quickly “snapped up by a wealthy private citizen” or Vatican prelate for private collection and often transported as gifts to other countries, like Spain and The Netherlands, where they influenced artists like Velázquez, El Greco, Vermeer and Rembrandt, not to mention over time David, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Cezanne and Picasso.

In fact, Caravaggio, much like any modern, may have been playing to his contemporary 'after market' with a tactic he repeated again and again. Commissioned by a Church, he paints an objectionable work; sells it privately, then paints a more acceptable second version to fulfill the commission, gaining notoriety and additional church commissions in the process.

Caravaggio died at age 39, probably of malaria, while fleeing authorities in Porto Ercole, north of Rome, where his body was found on the beach.


Experts estimate about a third of Caravaggio's work - about 70 paintings - survives today; most of his art was destroyed in the constant wars of Europe, or neglected and simply lost over the centuries.

Now Jonathan Harr has written an engaging tale of the discovery of one lost Caravaggio masterpiece, ‘The Taking of Christ’, a magnificent painting discovered in 1990, ironically hanging in the cramped library of a small Jesuit retirement house in Dublin, Ireland.

After 400 years, how did a work worth more than $50 million end up in such appropriately humble circumstances?

Harr's story begins on January 2, 1603, when a Roman nobleman named Ciriaco Mattei paid 125 scudi for what is noted in his account book at the time as, “a painting with its frame of Christ taken in the garden.”

The work then disappears until two young Italian graduate students begin an investigation into Mattei's family papers in 1990.

Anyone exporting artwork would have required authorization from papal authorities to take the painting out of Rome. The young historians dug into the historic documents and located an authorization paper issued on February 8, 1802, for the export of a list of paintings purchased by a Scotsman named Hamilton Nesbet from Giuseppe Mattei, one of which was described as, “Jesus betrayed by Judas, in the Flemish style.”

The painting may have been intentionally misrepresented to minimize export taxation and so Caravaggio's ‘The Taking of Christ’ was on its way to certain obscurity in Scotland.

Nothing is heard of the painting again until April 16, 1921, when property of Hamilton Nesbet was auctioned in Edinburgh by his last heirs and the auction house catalogue documents several “valuable pictures in oil and water-colour,” including, ‘The Betrayal of Christ’, by Gerard Honthorst, a minor Dutch painter.

And then in the early 1930s a Dr Marie Lea-Wilson, one of Ireland's first women physicians, donates the same painting to the Jesuit house in Dublin, where it hangs in the smoke-filled dining room until an Italian restoration specialist employed by the National Gallery of Ireland is asked by the Jesuits to clean it 60 years later.

No one knows how the good doctor came to own the painting, but the art restorer recognizes ‘The Taking of Christ’ as the missing Caravaggio masterpiece, and the rest, as Mr Harr explicates, is art history.

Harr shapes this story of art lost and found into an intriguing mystery and a fascinating exploration of the craft of art historians which reaches across time to the arcane world of Caravaggio experts.

Here is a sample of Harr's absorbing prose, the opening paragraph where we are first introduced to the world's leading Caravaggio authority, Sir Denis Mahon, as he makes his way to a restaurant in Rome:

“The Englishman moves in a slow but deliberate shuffle, knees slightly bent and feet splayed, as he crosses the piazza, heading in the direction of a restaurant named Da Fortunato. The year is 2001. The Englishman is ninety-one years old. He carries a cane, the old-fashioned kind, wooden with a hooked handle, although he does not always use it. The dome of his head, smooth as an eggshell, gleams pale in the bright midday Roman sun. He is dressed in his customary manner - a dark blue double-breasted suit, hand tailored on Savile Row more than thirty years ago, and a freshly starched white shirt with gold cuff links and a gold collar pin. His hearing is still sharp, his eyes clear and unclouded. He wears glasses, but then he has worn glasses ever since he was a child. The current pair are tortoiseshell and sit cockeyed on his face, the left earpiece broken at the joint. He has fashioned a temporary repair with tape. The lenses are smudged with his fingerprints.”

As Harr tracks the converging impetus of the young Italian art students, the frustrated Dublin museum restorer, the ageing English expert, he also recounts Caravaggio's wild and tragic life. Harr's work, coupled with Prose's new biography of the first gangster painter, provides an interesting and quick summary of a master artist's ability to transcend time.

Caravaggio rose from poverty to fame and wealth, but nothing changed his vision of the human condition or his philosophical rage to violence and murder, until he died alone and silent by the sea, decades before his time.