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Low Life, High Art

Why Caravaggio’s painting is even more exciting than his biography.


Some years ago I watched Derek Jarman’s film Caravaggio, starring Nigel Terry in the title role. As entertainment I am sure it has its fans, but I cannot recommend it to anyone interested in an art-historical shortcut, a crash course on this most popular Old Master. Jarman’s view of life in Rome in the seventeenth century is a combination of Fellini’s Satyricon and the soap opera Days of Our Lives, and his sense of artistic life must have derived from his personal knowledge of the scenes in London and New York in the 1980s. I did a lot of fast-forwarding. The movie’s portrayal of Caravaggio as an archetype of the modern artist may be a cliché—but it is a cliché that has been embraced by an admiring public today. In its way, then, the film provides a convenient way to introduce some of the common assumptions that make it especially difficult to come to grips with the paintings of this great artist, whose impetuous, defiant, and often violent life has created a fascinating but also a distorting lens for the understanding of his works.

The movie opens in a fisherman’s house near Porto Ercole, where Caravaggio dies. (The precise place and circumstances of his death are a subject of intense debate, as is the identification of his bones, which was recently announced in the press.) It is a blistering July, and we see Caravaggio laid out on a wood-framed bed in an artistically Spartan room, his face scarred by knife wounds that he received in Naples, where he was set upon in a local tavern and gravely wounded. His sole companion is a mute servant, and there are periodic visitations by some fisherwomen, who stand by paying silent homage. As Caravaggio hovers between death and life, the past flashes before his eyes, as it often does in the movies.

It is in these moments of recollection and delirium that we learn of the decadence of ecclesiastical life in Rome, and also of the love triangle that, in Jarman’s view, inspired the extraordinary series of masterpieces that Caravaggio executed between 1600, when his first public commission was unveiled, and 1606, when the artist fled Rome following the killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni in a brawl. In all this his most precious object is a dirty knife, the blade of which is inscribed with the threatening words nec spe nec metu, “without hope or fear.” This was indeed the motto that Caravaggio and his associates adopted; but so far from being the declaration of desperadoes, it carried Stoic associations, and had also been employed by the marchioness of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, almost a century earlier. Love (bisexual love), violence, and art are Jarman’s themes: Rome circa 1595 meets New York circa 1985.


How Caravaggio’s earliest biographer, Giovanni Baglione, would have relished all of this. Caravaggio and Baglione did not get along. Baglione, who was already a successful artist when Caravaggio came on the scene, had been the butt of Caravaggio’s barbed criticism. Scurrilous poems were circulated by a member of Caravaggio’s circle, and Baglione had taken the Lombard painter to court on a charge of libel. Jarman shows Baglione as a sort of muckraking journalist typing out his mean-spirited biography while soaking, Marat-like, in a bathtub. It is the conclusion of Baglione’s biography—his Lives of the Artists, published in 1642—that seems to have set the tone for Jarman’s film. “Finally,” wrote Baglione, taking a last jab at his nemesis, “having arrived in a place on the beach, [Caravaggio] was put in bed with a high fever and, having no human help, within a few days he died as miserably as he had lived.” A remarkable script—so remarkable that to one degree or another it still affects the way we approach Caravaggio’s paintings.

Baglione’s insistence upon interpreting Caravaggio’s work through the artist’s biography was not without precedent. The convention had already been set by Giorgio Vasari in the preceding century. Our notion of Fra Angelico as the gentle monk shedding tears as he painted images of the Virgin, or of the handsome and amiable Raphael composing harmonious frescoes—these are largely creations of Vasari. The same technique was employed on Caravaggio by Giovan Pietro Bellori, the great apologist of seventeenth-century classicism. It is in Bellori’s biography of 1672 that we find most fully developed the association of the darkness of Caravaggio’s style with the darkness of the artist’s personality. The analogy became something of a staple in later criticism.

According to Bellori, Caravaggio promoted the imitation of nature, forgetting the high calling of art and falling, quite literally, into error and darkness. At the head of Caravaggio’s biography Bellori inserted an emblematic illustration of an old woman with a plumb line in one hand and a compass in the other: an exemplification of praxis, the mechanical side of art unaided by the ideals by which it ought to be directed. “He seemed to emulate art with no art,” Bellori significantly remarks. The comment reminds us that Bellori regarded Caravaggio as a sort of autodidact: someone raised by a mason or bricklayer who then became interested in painting and, associating himself with painters whom he met, made portraits—a process of copying from nature that leapfrogged a proper theoretical artistic education. In fact, Caravaggio’s father was majordomo and architect to Francesco Sforza, the marquis of Caravaggio, and he was apprenticed for four years to the Lombard painter Simone Peterzano, who had been a pupil of Titian’s.

The most memorable passage in Bellori’s biography is one in which the style of the artist is directly linked to his appearance. “His style complemented his physiognomy,” Bellori writes, for “Caravaggio was dark-skinned and had dark eyes, black eyebrows and hair, and this can naturally be seen in his paintings. His first style was sweet and pure in its use of color and was his best ... but he fell into that other obscure style, drawn there by his own temperament, just as in his habits he was troubled and contentious.” Bellori’s comment reflects a theory of Renaissance physiognomy that associated physical traits with mental disposition—the good with the beautiful, the bad with the dark and the ugly. It is the basis of all those handsome heroes and hideous villains that crowd our popular culture, and I need hardly add that the relative coarseness of Caravaggio’s traits—which, in a colored chalk drawing on blue paper that is our finest portrayal of the artist, his friend Ottavio Leoni interpreted as pride—become exaggerated in the engraved portrait that Bellori included as the frontispiece of his biography. All that was needed to give this vision of the dark, troubled artist a modern twist was to add Freud to the equation, and this also has happened. Although today Caravaggio seems to many scholars a far more complex, even cerebral, painter, it is still rare to find a discussion of his art that does not seek to explain some aspect of it by reference to his biography.

Consider the perceived eroticism (or homoeroticism) of his early paintings—pictures such as The Musicians, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which half-dressed boys make music and seem to solicit the viewer’s attention. The fact that the picture was conceived as an allegory of love and music for his first major patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, should alert us to other, more subtle motivations behind Caravaggio’s equivocation between the classicizing, elevated style traditional to pictures of this sort and the provocative realism associated with low-life genre painting, which shaped his art. The image may seem to us sexually charged, but the polemical point it makes probably has more to do with style than the supposed sexual preferences of the artist and his patrons. A heightened sensuality was one of the most powerful weapons in Caravaggio’s artistic arsenal, and the sensuality could be both ambivalent and provocative.


Then there is his astonishingly compelling naturalism, and his insistence on treating a sacred event as an extension of everyday life, as in The Death of the Virgin in the Louvre. Caravaggio’s approach in this picture was at the opposite pole from the idealist tenets of Renaissance art. The Virgin is depicted as a woman of the people, her swollen corpse laid out on a bed in preparation for the rituals preceding burial. One of our most compelling contemporary sources, the papal physician and art expert Giulio Mancini, informs us that the model for the Virgin was a prostitute—perhaps even the notorious Lena, whose questionable honor Caravaggio defended by wounding a notary in the Piazza Navona. The story must have circulated widely in Rome and played a significant part in establishing the notoriety of the picture, which was rejected by the Carmelite monks whose church in the popular quarter of Trastevere it was to decorate—only to be purchased by the Duke of Mantua on the recommendation of no less a person than Peter Paul Rubens.

Some years ago I argued that the crucial issue in the rejection of Caravaggio’s picture was not his use of a drowned prostitute as his model for the Virgin, but his misrepresentation of a basic tenet of Carmelite belief: that at the moment of the Virgin’s death her soul ascended directly to heaven—that her death was no more than a passage. Caravaggio’s picture shows the Virgin dead, mourned by the apostles. Its impact on us today derives from the way a subject of sacred legend has become a meditation on the loss of a loved one. But the Carmelites did not see things this way.

In the contract for the picture that was drawn up in June 1601, we read that the artist was to show “the death or transit of the Blessed Virgin.” To most of us, and probably also to Laerzio Cherubini, who commissioned the work for his chapel in Santa Maria della Scala, mortem—death—and transitum—transit—must have seemed all but interchangeable, but the Carmelites felt otherwise. After Caravaggio’s picture was sold in 1607, a replacement was ordered from the Caravaggesque painter Carlo Saraceni; and his picture, which is on loan to the Metropolitan, has much to say about the issues involved. In it the Virgin is shown frontally, and she is both propped up and elevated above the two holy women and the apostles, who, with a single exception, either kneel in adoration or clasp their hands expectantly. The washbasin in Caravaggio’s picture—perhaps too potent a reminder of physical death and the ritual cleansing of the body—has been replaced by two books, and the simple room of Caravaggio’s depiction (which actually conforms with the Counter-Reformation emphasis on the Virgin’s humble origins) is exchanged for a deep church interior, to underscore the Virgin as the symbol for Mother Church.

In these ways Caravaggio’s recreation of an event taking place in real time—what we might think of as a depiction in deep harmony with the tone of the Gospels—is supplanted by clearly articulated theological allusions. Still, in one detail Saraceni made the same doctrinal error as Caravaggio. Anyone who looks closely at the picture will see that beneath the Virgin’s present head, surrounded by an aureole, there is a veil and a halo that belonged to another head in a reclining position. A reduced replica of the altarpiece recording this first stage establishes that the Virgin was, in fact, shown with her eyes closed—that is, she was depicted dead; and the first change required of Saraceni was to rectify this by showing her alive, gazing toward heaven—in transito, as it were.

And even this change failed to please the Carmelites. Saraceni’s altarpiece was also rejected, and he had to paint still another replacement. In the new one, set again in a church, the Virgin, now fully awake and much prettified, is welcomed into heaven by a host of flower-bearing angels. And the one mourning figure in Saraceni’s first replacement—included as a sort of homage to or recollection of Caravaggio’s picture—is here usurped by a kneeling apostle who, with hands crossed on his breast, discusses the import of the event being witnessed while Peter is shown lost in thought at the foot of the bed. There really could be no clearer demonstration, I think, of the Carmelites’ objections to Caravaggio’s approach to the theme.

We should not be surprised that art critics such as Baglione, Bellori, and Mancini did not go into the theological implications of the matter, of which they may have been ignorant. For them, the issue was one of decorum—of appropriateness—which lay at the very center of art theory. Thanks to some published letters written by Giulio Mancini to his brother in Siena, we are able to point to a firsthand and well-informed reaction to the events as they unfolded. In October 1606, Mancini writes his brother that Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin had been removed from its altar for errors of lasciviousness and decorum—that is, that the Virgin was not treated with the respect that was proper. He then adds his own critical appraisal: “The picture is well painted but lacks decorum, invention, or finish. However, the things in it are done well and the style is better than the [painting of] Saint John [by Caravaggio that we already own]. I have offered [to purchase it for] 200 scudi, though it cost 270.”

Mancini’s action speaks stronger than words, and his appraisal was echoed by the Duke of Mantua’s agent, who reported that “the picture is held to be one of the best paintings [Caravaggio] has ever made.” Evidently it was possible to appreciate the novelty and the brilliance of Caravaggio’s art while disapproving of his breaking of conventional standards. Works that were deemed unsuitable for churches could become sought-after by private collectors. The Duke of Mantua’s agent was quick to point out that the fact that the painting had been rejected “had not discredited it in the least.” We have other examples of rejected altarpieces by Caravaggio that bear out this tension between devotional suitability and aesthetic merit, and it is worth recalling that at the very height of the Counter-Reformation, churchmen criticized Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel for the pervasive nudity of the figures, which, it was thought, was clearly out of place, artistic greatness notwithstanding. Mancini continued to try to buy Caravaggio’s picture, eventually offering the 270 scudi originally demanded. This was quite a stretch for him. Just at the moment when he thought he had secured it for the glory of his native Siena, he was forced to step aside for the duke of Mantua’s offer of 280 scudi. So Cherubini, or the Carmelites, actually ended by making a profit on the rejected altarpiece.


I do not wish to suggest that there is no connection between Caravaggio’s notorious character and the pictures that he painted: for example, the rumored affair with a prostitute whose corpse ends up as the model for the dead Virgin, thereby contributing to the fate of a masterpiece. My point is that the relationship between experience and art is always a more complex affair, and involves also the culture within which the artist works. Caravaggio’s delinquent, even criminal behavior—which, archival discoveries show, began early on in Rome—is not a key to understanding his art, though it cannot be altogether ignored. Indeed, it can actually blind us to his seriousness as an artist, and to the ways in which his pictures address many of the artistic issues of his day in a considered and highly polemical fashion.

We must always remember that Caravaggio’s training in Lombardy, where a tradition of naturalism had become a distinguishing regional trait, made him fundamentally unsympathetic to the idealizing premise of Central Italian painting. Add to this the fact that he was nearly twenty-two when he arrived in Rome, and that one of the conspicuous features of his personality was an open hostility to authority of any kind, whether it wore the uniform of a policeman or the trappings of the academic art establishment. It does not take much of an imagination to predict the turbulent trajectory of such an artist working against the grain of the highly cultivated, often sycophantic world of late sixteenth-century Rome. At the same time, Caravaggio had been taught in Milan to admire the compositional solutions of the great masters Raphael and Michelangelo—and to use them as compositional aids.

The pose of the figure in his early painting known as the “Bacchino malato”—the “little sick Bacchus” (in the Galleria Borghese in Rome)—may strike us as a provocative display of self-portraiture. Certainly, it is very hard to efface Cindy Sherman’s own appropriation of this very image. But how much importance ought to be attached to Caravaggio’s use of himself as a model at a time when he was living hand to mouth? Add to this the fact that the pose of the figure is demonstrably patterned on a celebrated print by Marcantonio Raimondi after a design by Raphael. The same pose had been used by his teacher, Simone Peterzano, for the figure of a prophet in a vast fresco cycle in Milan, and it had been employed half a century earlier by the great sixteenth-century Lombard painter Moretto da Brescia in a painting of the sacrifice of Isaac that Caravaggio must have known well. (Interestingly, the same print was used again by another realist painter—Manet, in his Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, where the intention was to slam artistic conventions.) A different figure in the same print inspired the back-viewed, sinuously posed music-making angel in Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome.

What both of these paintings by Caravaggio do is recast paradigms of style—those that had formed the backbone of Renaissance art—into naturalistic terms. For contemporary viewers, much of the fascination of these pictures derived from the combination of what we would call high style and low style. Caravaggio famously proclaimed to his great patron, the marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, that it was as difficult to paint a vase of flowers as a figure, and anyone familiar with his sublimely poetic painting of a lute player, now in the Hermitage, will not find the statement surprising. Yet to any artist or collector in his own day, this notion was an attack on the universally accepted hierarchy that placed figure painting or history painting at the pinnacle of artistic achievement, and still-life painting at the bottom.

Caravaggio is known to have painted only two still lifes, so to that extent his statement was really more provocative than substantive. Yet it is not without interest in looking at a picture such as Rest on the Flight into Egypt, in which equal stress is laid on beautifully painted still-life details—including a marvelous donkey—and on the figures. So far from merely supplanting the idealistic premise of high Renaissance art, it proposes a sophisticated poetry of naturalism. The two main figures, Saint Joseph and the Virgin, are shown in unaffected poses. Saint Joseph’s bare feet are not mere emblems of humility, they are also a wonderfully observed homely detail. By contrast, the youthful angel is shown in a contrapposto stance of self-conscious elegance. The effect is two-fold. It establishes a provocative contrast between the earthly realm and the divine realm, situating the Holy Family squarely in the former, and through its evident manipulation of style, it served to épater les cardinaux. It also forestalls any criticism that Caravaggio’s naturalism was simply a sign of an inability to handle the finer points of art. In fact, the angel was singled out by Bellori for its evident artistry: “The angel is very beautiful, because, in gently turning his head in profile, he displays his winged shoulders and the rest of his nude body, interrupted by a piece of drapery.” Bellori saw the angel as an invention aiming at the display of style. It was to works such as this one that Vincenzo Giustiniani meant to refer when he placed Caravaggio in the highest category of artists, with those who knew how to paint with style but also with the example of nature before their eyes.


As in the work of Velázquez, Caravaggio uses naturalism to undercut the idealist legacy of Renaissance art, and he does this through an act of cultural subversion rather than outright rejection. Take, for example, those troubling nudes who occupy the foreground of Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Some scholars have, perhaps overly ingeniously, interpreted them as neophytes: figures awaiting baptism in a pool at the foot of the altar. But this activity is not mentioned in the highly detailed contract, nor is the treatment of the baptismal pool—if that is what it is—at all convincing from an architectural point of view. Moreover, the nude figures do not seem to have been planned in the first version of the composition, at least so far as can be made out from X-rays of the existing picture. And while this identification of the figures as neophytes would account for their nudity, it does not explain the impassivity of the two at the right. These are the ones that, in the emphasis Caravaggio lays on beauty of posture and physique, emulate Michelangelo’s ignudi on the Sistine ceiling, where nude male figures frame the biblical scenes of the Creation.

When we recall that this was Caravaggio’s first major public commission, I think we must allow that, like so many of his contemporaries, he took the opportunity to show off his mastery of just those aspects of art that were most appreciated by artists and connoisseurs—exactly as he had in the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. We should also remember that the pose of the nude executioner, who lunges forward with upraised arm, is derived from a print designed by Raphael showing the Massacre of the Innocents, while that of the fleeing boy, who looks back while his arms describe an arched cry, is inspired, in reverse, from a print copying a famous painting by Titian. In other words, these figures are references of style in a picture that puts forward a new credo of realistic drama.

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew was unveiled in the summer of 1600. By the time Caravaggio fled the city six years later, this sort of polemicizing against established artistic convention had pretty much disappeared from his art. Gone are those elegantly posed figures, such as the angel in the Rest on the Flight into Egypt or the nudes in The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew; and those astonishing foreshortenings and “in your face” displays of bravura painting, such as one finds in the great Supper at Emmaus in the National Gallery, London, where the sleeve of one of the disciples has a conspicuous tear at the point of maximum projection and the basket of fruit is made to hang out over the edge of the table. This is plainly a work that was meant to astonish, right down to the iconographic oddity of showing Christ beardless—a feature, incidentally, that is shared by Michelangelo’s Christ in The Last Judgment, and was criticized by more than one Counter-Reformation critic.


By 1606, Caravaggio had an established reputation and he no longer needed to clamor for attention. There was, however, another factor. When he painted in the 1590s, the art establishment was dominated by late Mannerist art. Caravaggio had himself worked with the leading late Mannerist painter, the Cavalier d’Arpino. But in 1601 Annibale Carracci, who had been in Rome since 1595, completed his grand frescoed decoration on the vault of the Farnese Gallery and began work on a couple of major altarpieces. Although the lateral walls of the Farnese Gallery would not be finished for three more years, it must have become clear to quite a number of patrons that Caravaggio’s was not the only act in town—that there was a painter whose art was in certain respects more accomplished, more observant of decorum, and better suited to the kinds of tasks they had in hand.

The year before, in 1600, Caravaggio received the commission to paint two works to decorate the lateral walls of a chapel in the Augustinian church of Santa Maria del Popolo. These are his famous canvases of The Conversion of Saint Paul and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter. Visitors to the church today concentrate all their attention on Caravaggio’s work, scarcely glancing at the frescoed vault or the altarpiece, but the vault decorations were designed by Carracci and the altarpiece was also painted by him. Carracci must be regarded as the principal artist, although the patron’s intention was clearly to make of the chapel a sort of competition between the two most acclaimed painters of the moment, whose artistic positions were beginning to polarize the Roman art world. We know that Caravaggio painted two versions of each composition: his first two were rejected. But what may have seemed a setback was turned to an advantage by the opportunity provided to completely rethink the meaning of the assigned subjects.

One of the rejected paintings survives, in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection in Rome, and although it is striking in its interpretation of Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, and is carried out with the bravura naturalistic style that also characterizes the London Supper at Emmaus, it is also a claustrophobic and distractingly showy design. The figure of the prostrate Paul, dressed in a Roman military lorica and covering his eyes against the divine light of God, makes too obvious a comment on the figure of an ancient river god and Michelangelo’s fresco of the same subject in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican. And what a peculiar effect is made by the armed soldier who seems to be warding off with his spear the figure of Christ, who bursts into the scene, supported by a fleshy-faced angel. He seems a perverse comment on Michelangelo’s depiction in the Sistine Chapel of God giving life to Adam. It reminds one of those youthful works by Rembrandt that are more notable for their assault on conventional taste than for their profundity. This is a work conceived in Caravaggio’s most polemical style: one that purposely upset the rules of decorum while at the same time displaying its own artistic pedigree.

The substitution work, by contrast, is a pared-down composition with a clarity of structure and a concentration on the spiritual meaning of the story that marks a new maturity in Caravaggio’s art. Rather than using the subject as an excuse for the display of dramatic effects, the painter conveys the true character of a personal vision or revelation. In certain respects the picture seems to acknowledge the power of Carracci’s art, with its emphasis on compositional structure and focused expressive gesture. But this is the consequence of a deepened engagement with the subject itself. In one of his sermons Augustine pointedly says of Paul that “he was blinded, but only in his bodily eyes, so that the eyes of his heart might be enlightened.” When Bellori criticized the picture for its lack of dramatic action, he missed entirely its profoundly Augustinian re-thinking of the theme.

From this point on, Caravaggio and Carracci were viewed—quite correctly—as the complementary protagonists of Italian art. And this pairing, or comparison, of Caravaggio and Carracci had an impact on the way the two artists came to see themselves. It is reported that Caravaggio was among the artists who, in 1599, congregated to admire an altarpiece by Carracci of Saint Margaret, and that he exclaimed that he rejoiced to have lived to see the work of a real painter. He was hardly moved to abandon the realism that lay at the core of his art, but the more he saw of Carracci’s work, the more he must have admired its expressive force and eloquence.

In the great Entombment of Christ, completed in 1604, Caravaggio manipulates Raphaelesque gesture to expressive ends, while the composition shows a desire for compactness and focus that marks, again, a new stage in his development. Bellori, who faulted the composition of The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and especially found Caravaggio’s treatment of gestures insufficient, considered the Entombment one of the artist’s finest works. He particularly admired the way the expressions of the three Marys are carefully differentiated by their gestures: imploring, in the Mary with raised arms; sorrowful, in the one sobbing into a cloth; stunned, in the downcast Virgin. For this repertory of gesture, Caravaggio was unquestionably indebted to the example of Carracci. But he has added details that make the event painfully physical and real: the projecting stone of the tomb, grazed by Christ’s fingers and the winding sheet; and the way the figure of Joseph of Arimathea stares out at us, making the viewer into an active participant. It is an incredible achievement, and it left a deep impression on Rubens, who copied the composition when he was in Rome.



It is for the last works that he painted in Rome, and above all those he painted after his flight from the city in 1606, that we might feel tempted to use the term “classical” to describe Caravaggio’s work. I do not for a minute mean to imply that Caravaggio converted to the idealist vocabulary of such later artists as Poussin, who, after all, thought that Caravaggio had been born to destroy art. I refer instead to the insistence on clarity of composition and the use of choreographed gesture as a conveyor of meaning, along with the subordination of peripheral detail to primary effect: a commitment to the high purpose of his art unrelated to any evident change in his personal behavior. The transformation is abundantly apparent in the extraordinary remake of the theme of the Supper at Emmaus that Caravaggio painted during his convalescence at Zagarolo, southeast of Rome, in 1606, following the killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni.

How noisy and dissonant the earlier painting seems by comparison! I remember the impression made when the two pictures hung in adjacent rooms at the Metropolitan in 1985, and then, again, in a recent exhibition in Rome. In the dazzling picture in the National Gallery, London, painted in 1601 - 1602 for Ciriaco Mattei, a collector of antiquities and the brother of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei, everything is exclamation and tour-de-force painting. In the other, now in the Brera Gallery in Milan, there is a laconic use of the brush to create a pervasive—and penetrating—quietness, with gestures used in a sparing but ultimately more eloquent fashion. Emphasis is on psychological probity rather than on dramatic moment. The somber mood of the picture has often been linked to a desire for repentance following the artist’s flight from Rome, but I believe this is overly simplistic. There is no indication that Caravaggio felt any remorse for the dead Ranuccio; after all, he was himself seriously wounded. In this picture are announced all the qualities that we find in Caravaggio’s work of the next four years. They are not really late paintings, because Caravaggio was not yet forty when he died in 1610, but they have a maturity of vision that we associate with the products of an artist who has experienced much and learned how to expand the personal into something of universal resonance.

As a result of Ranuccio Tomassoni’s death, Caravaggio found himself condemned for a capital crime. But he was neither abandoned by his high-placed friends nor undirected in his movements. He first took refuge on the Colonna estates southeast of Rome, where he convalesced. Then, by October 1606, he moved on to Naples. By this time the machinery must already have been set in motion to try to procure Caravaggio a papal pardon, but the artist did not have to look far for employment, nor is there any sign that he was keeping a low profile. He arrived in Naples, which was under Spanish rule, a celebrated artist, and commissions poured in. The first was for an altarpiece that has not survived, followed by one for the prestigious charitable institution the Pio Monte della Misericordia. It illustrates the seven acts of mercy sanctioned by the Church (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, burying the dead, sheltering the traveler, comforting the sick, ministering to the imprisoned) and can still be seen on the principal altar of the Misericordia’s oratory. A third altarpiece, The Flagellation of Christ, was completed for the principal Dominican church before Caravaggio left the city in the summer of 1607. These three commissions are only the most signal ones he carried out in this remarkable nine months of activity. In them we sense a deepening engagement with the tragic side of life, which Caravaggio quite literally illuminates with his signature light and emphasizes through a considered use of contrasting expressions and figure types.

It must have been in Naples that Caravaggio was approached by the Knights of Malta to paint an enormous canvas to decorate a newly completed chapel dedicated to their patron saint, John the Baptist. He sailed from Naples to Malta in July 1607. The move has all the earmarks of a pre-arranged step in the negotiations for Caravaggio’s pardon, for the object was clearly to have him made a knight; and barely had Caravaggio completed the mandatory year’s residence for admission to the order when he was, in fact, admitted. To qualify he had not only to demonstrate a noble birth but also to receive papal permission, which amounted to a tacit pardon for the crime he had committed. The Grand Master, whose portrait Caravaggio had painted (it is now in the Louvre), sent a letter of inquiry to the Pope in February 1608, but this had been preceded by another sent by Caravaggio’s supporters the preceding December—only five months after Caravaggio’s arrival on the fortified island. The pope granted permission that same February.

The picture that Caravaggio painted for the order’s oratory in Malta is one of the great masterpieces of European painting—a work that combines the geometry of Piero della Francesca with the compositional eloquence of Raphael and the deep humanity of Donatello. It shows the decapitation of John the Baptist outside the prison where he had been held by Herod. The story is from the Gospels. John had reprimanded Herod for marrying the wife of his deceased brother. To get even, Hérodiade put her beautiful daughter Salomé up to dancing for the king and told her to demand, as her reward, John the Baptist’s head on a platter. In no other picture by Caravaggio does architecture and space—shadowy, empty space—play such a conspicuous role, with the rusticated arch framing the figural group, arranged so as to emphasize carefully calibrated contrasts, or contrappostos: four standing figures, two young, two older, two men and two women. One of the men is bent over to finish cutting through the neck of Saint John. The other, a prison guard, erect and expressionless, gestures towards the platter onto which John’s head is to be placed to bring into the banquet hall. One of the women, possibly Salomé, bends over with the platter, while the old woman, standing erect, raises her hands to her head in a gesture of horror. Behind these figures are the slats of a closed door, adding to the atmosphere of desperation, while to the right, in a brilliant counterpoint, we see two prisoners pressing against the bars for a view of the grisly scene. Their rectangular window is like a picture within the picture, and it acts as a comment on our own viewing of the recreated event through the frame of the enormous canvas.

The composition can be read with the same clarity as a work by Domenichino or Poussin, but it has no need of their elevated, classicizing vocabulary. Nothing could be further removed from the packed, confused action of The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. (Incidentally, this is the only signed work in Caravaggio’s oeuvre: his name is shown as though scrawled in the Baptist’s blood on the ground.) Barely had this work been installed and Caravaggio inducted into the order than there occurred one of those incidents he seems to have been unable to avoid. He got involved in a fight together with six other knights and was arrested and detained in prison. His escape from his cell and the impregnable island must have been carefully arranged. Two months later, before the very picture he had painted, he was stripped in absentia of his honorary knighthood: the records state that he was “expelled and thrust forth like a rotten and fetid lamb.” So far from ingratiating himself with the pope, he was now a doubly condemned man and a fugitive from justice.


We find him next in Syracuse, in Sicily, where he painted an altarpiece showing the burial of Saint Lucy, a work that, despite its ruinous state, is almost as remarkable as The Decollation of Saint John the Baptist. Here the contrast is between the two powerful gravediggers who occupy the foreground on the viewer’s side of Saint Lucy’s pitiful corpse, and the row of spectators, arranged like a Greek chorus in a gradually declining diagonal, with each figure epitomizing a different and complementary reaction to the burial, the whole dominated by the blessing gesture of the bishop. The poses of the gravediggers may well be taken from life, but the rest of the picture is composed of a repertory of figure types—we immediately recognize the old woman with her hands clasped to her head from the Decollation. The figures are, in other words, abstractions based on experience: abstractions rather than idealizations. This marks yet a further removal from the principles of the Roman paintings, where the models are so individual that they have given rise to studies attempting to identify them with real people in Caravaggio’s life. Paradoxically, as the drama of Caravaggio’s life intensifies and whirls out of control, the style of his paintings becomes more abstract and controlled.

From Syracuse it was on to Messina, where in June 1609 he was commissioned to paint the extraordinary Raising of Lazarus, the frieze-like composition of which has recalled to many critics a Roman sarcophagus. The abbreviated style of these pictures has an almost unfinished quality when compared to the densely descriptive style of the Roman paintings. By the early seventeenth century, an unfinished or non-finito look was a recognized means of artistic expression that had been famously explored by Michelangelo, Titian, and Tintoretto. Caravaggio uses it brilliantly to achieve a haunting, spectral effect.

This brings us back to Naples, where Caravaggio returned in October 1609. We are told that he did a painting as a gift for the grand master of the Knights of Malta in an effort to placate him. Shortly after his arrival, his enemies caught up with him outside a tavern. He was beaten and disfigured and left for dead. The first reports to reach Rome stated that he had been killed, but two weeks later Giulio Mancini was able to write to his brother, “It is said that Caravaggio was assaulted by four men in Naples and it is feared that he was disfigured. If true this would be a shame and would grieve everyone. God grant that it is not true.”

We know little about Caravaggio’s activity as a painter at this time. There were three paintings—two of Saint John the Baptist and one of Mary Magdalene—that were returned to Costanza Colonna following his death. As the marchioness of Caravaggio, Costanza Colonna had known the artist’s family, and she was a mainstay throughout his post-Roman years. One of the pictures was claimed by that most assiduous collector, Scipione Borghese, and is now in the Borghese Gallery. But the work about which we are best informed is a badly damaged painting of the martyrdom of Saint Ursula.

We first hear of it in May 1610—two months before Caravaggio’s death. The agent of Marcantonio Doria, the Genoese patrician for whom it was painted, wrote his employer that he had intended to send the picture but had first set it in the sun to make certain the varnish was completely dry. Instead the sun spoiled the varnish and the picture was returned to the artist to put aright. An art expert had been brought in to see the picture, and he had, we are told, been bowled over—stupito is the word used. This is, I think, a notice of the greatest interest, recalling as it does Petrarch’s famous description of a painting of the Madonna and Child by Giotto: “Its beauty was not understood by the ignorant, but it stupefied those who understand about art”—magistri artis stupent. The implication is that there was something uncanny about the picture, something that exceeded ordinary expectations.

All the traits that we associate with Caravaggio’s last works are condensed in this painting: figures—none painted from life—are arranged in a frieze and set against a dark and ominous background. The emphasis is on contrasts of emotions. The action is stilled to the point that the picture becomes a meditation on a tragic event: the prince of the Huns has had his amorous advances spurned by the Christian virgin and has shot her at close range with an arrow. Ursula seems almost to contemplate the source of her martyrdom, while the face of the prince registers stunned remorse. Unfortunately, the picture has suffered a good deal, and its pictorial qualities can no longer be appreciated as Caravaggio would have liked, but still it is hard to miss what it was that so struck contemporaries: this is not realist painting, at least not in the sense of Caravaggio’s Roman works. It is something quite new. I would call it essential painting: a maximum of effect achieved with a minimum of technical means.


In 1997, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was fortunate to acquire a picture painted in this utterly personal and novel style. We know little about the Denial of Saint Peter before its purchase by the Caracciolo family in Naples just after World War II. Like the Saint Ursula, it was initially ascribed to a follower of Caravaggio and was only published as a work by the great Lombard painter following its cleaning in the 1960s. Was it among the pictures Caravaggio planned to take with him to Rome after an anticipated papal pardon? As early as December 1609, it was rumored that Caravaggio’s return to Rome was imminent. Mancini wrote to his brother on Christmas that “it is reported that Caravaggio is hidden in the region and wishes to return to Rome as soon as possible and that to do so he has bold supporters.” Among them were Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga and Scipione Borghese, and it is in a letter to the latter that we have our most detailed information on Caravaggio’s last days.

The Denial of Saint Peter portrays the moment when Peter has been accused for the third time of being a disciple of Christ and has denied three times the truth of the accusation. The cock crows and Peter recalls Christ’s words that “before the cock crows you shall deny me three times.” The story is told by three figures set against the indications of a fireplace, the spot in the forecourt of the high priest’s palace where, according to the Bible, Peter warmed himself. We see only the mantelpiece, some flames and sparks. To the left, in complete shadow, is a soldier who raises a gloved hand inquisitively in response to a woman who turns to him, her face broken into pools of light and shadow. With both hands raised, she points determinedly towards Peter: “Surely, this man is one of his disciples.” To the right, the light falling full upon him, is Peter, his face coursed with furrows to indicate both his steadfast denial and, I think, the dawning sense of guilt and remorse that accompanied the third denial. His hands pick up the triple-barreled assault of his accusers and point directly at his own breast in a “Who, me?” gesture.

The narrative detail of the rooster is omitted, as is anything extraneous to the psychological drama. Even the details of costume are barely indicated. Yet Caravaggio has omitted nothing significant for the telling of the story, and he has used light in a way that adds greatly to the psychological intensity of the work, indicating various degrees of recognition. The depiction of the light’s reflection in the woman’s eyes is brilliant, as is the way the soldier’s almost illegible profile is set off against the white folds of her headdress. In Peter’s face, the action of the brush is as important as the actual physiognomic description, and it poignantly conveys his complex reaction. As with so many of the late works, this picture is thinly painted, and there has been some damage from abrasion in the transitions; the picture has also darkened with age. But its greatness is intact. It epitomizes in an extraordinary way that moment in Caravaggio’s career when he seems to have left behind him the world of seicento art. He has moved beyond the Renaissance notion of mimesis—the imitation of an action—to probe the tragic motives that give the action its psychological significance.

The relation of The Denial of Saint Peter to Caravaggio’s better-known works in Roman churches is a bit like the relation of Beethoven’s string quartets to his symphonies: the private versus the public statement; the artist’s eye directed inward rather than outward. If the Roman paintings had a pervasive influence on a whole generation of painters in Rome, works such as The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula and The Denial of Saint Peter really were inimitable. They took painting into a new frontier. For those who believe that painting is about ideas and psychological insights as well as brilliant pictorial effects, these haunting paintings—and not his biography—constitute Caravaggio’s greatest legacy, his strongest claim to count as the first truly modern painter.

Keith Christiansen is the John Pope Hennessy Chairman of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This article ran in the December 30, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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