by Roderick Conway Morris

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St. John's Cathedral, Malta
The Beheading of St. John by Caravaggio, 1608

True to a dramatic life

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 4 April 1992


In May 1606 Caravaggio fled from Rome having killed an opponent in an argument over a tennis match. This was the culmination of several years of hooliganism, during which he was regularly hauled before the courts for assault and battery, brawling, throwing stones at the police, vandalism and, on one occasion, hitting a waiter in the face with a plate of artichokes.

That the artist had not already been imprisoned for more than short stretches was thanks only to his powerful ecclesiastical patrons. But this time the verdict was 'capital banishment' - an open invitation to any state that laid hands on him to carry out the death sentence.

The drama of Caravaggio's life is amply reflected in his works, with their startling contrasts of dazzling light and tenebrous gloom; their freezing of fleeting moments of violence, tension, surprise and eerie calm; their depiction of a whole gamut of emotions from fear and horror to resignation and devotion.

Caravaggio invented realism more or less singlehandedly, revolutionizing 17th-century painting, and profoundly affecting both Rembrandt and Rubens. His was a heightened realism, however, in which the central figures are rendered totally convincingly down to the last detail of flesh tone and dress, as are the key props - books, playing cards, musical instruments, fruit - but with every other extraneous element excluded. His backrounds are ruthlessly stripped down so as not to detract from the drama: either being so dark as to be well-nigh impenetrable, or so bright as to be bleached of features. For Caravaggio an elaborate backdrop consists of a dimly-discerned curtain, a plastered interior wall, some shadowy foliage.

How Caravaggio painted, how his style developed during his hectic life, are the subjects of 'Caravaggio: How his masterpieces were made', organized by Professor Mina Gregori of the Roberto Longhi Foundation in Florence, to mark the centenary of its eponymous founder, who was primarily responsible for the rediscovery of Caravaggio's genius. There are a score of paintings in the show, and numerous others to be viewed in Rome's churches and galleries with fresh insights it provides.

Forced to leave northern Italy after a serious scrape with the law before he was twenty, Caravaggio made his way to Rome in 1592. Following a gruelling period of poverty, during which he maintained an absolute dedication to his artistic vocation, he won the attention of Cardinal Del Monte, the Grand Duke of Tuscany's ambassador in Rome.

The Medici's Palazzo Madama, where the cardinal lived and Caravaggio found a new home, is variously reputed to have been a riotous transvestite and homosexual playground, and the perfectly dignified residence of a diplomat-connoisseur who enjoyed the company of women. Certainly, Caravaggio's pictures of full-lipped, epicene, somewhat prematurely over-ripe boys date from this period - but so too do the Conversion of Magdalene and Judith and Holofernes, which show a lively and informed appreciation of the female form.

'In painting,' Caravaggio said, 'a man of merit is he who can paint well and imitate well natural things.' He seems almost invariably to have used models for his compositions, achieving his extraordinary lighting effects by placing them in semidarkness, with the light shafting in obliquely from the side or above. An equally remarkable aspect of his technique is that he disdained preliminary drawing, painting at speed in oil (even his murals are in oil, not fresco) directly onto the canvas. The only 'sketching' he did was with the handle of a brush or stylus into the wet primer, to outline in a few strokes parts of figures. The exhibition's intermittently changing lighting helps make some of these underlying 'incisions' visible to the naked eye. And, as a fascinating introductory section demonstrates, radiography, infrared and other photographic techniques that can subtley differentiate layers of the paintings are proving invaluable - not just in detecting Caravaggio's highly individual methods, but also in establishing authenticity.

Connections are made between Caravaggio's impetuous personality, his alternating states of pennilessness and profligacy and his art: X-ray photos demonstrate how he sometimes used second-hand canvasses by other artists and painted over them (a friend recorded that he even used an old canvas as a tablecloth). His addiction to gambling (the tennis court killing was over a wager, not some fine point of the game) and constant need for cash seems often to have led him to paint the same picture twice: the Boy Bitten by a Lizard, of which there is one at the National Gallery in London, and another at the Uffizi in Florence, now appear after decades of argument to be two autograph works, not an original and a copy. The exhibition confirms a number of attributions, and makes several new ones. Conversely, Narcissus, long held up as a Caravaggio masterpiece, is deemed to be the work of a follower, Spadarino.

After his flight from Rome Caravagio wandered from Naples to Malta and Sicily, still despite everything producing superb pictures. In Malta he became a Knight of St John, the only artist ever to do so, but ended up in prison, and was expelled from the Order. In July 1610 he fetched up on a beach north of Rome hoping to gain a pardon from the papal authorities. He was overcome with fever and, in the words of a 17th-century biographer, 'without human assistance he died badly, as he had lived badly.' But by then Caravaggio had decisively altered the course of western art.

First published: Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024