by Roderick Conway Morris

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Caravaggio and his Demons

By Roderick Conway Morris
NAPLES 13 November 2004
Galleria Borghese, Rome
David with the Head of Goliath
by Caravaggio, 1611 (?)



Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had an abundance of 'sprezzatura,' that spontaneous, reckless élan, the mark of the natural aristocrat that was so much admired in Renaissance Italy. In life, his excess of this quality eventually proved his undoing; in art, it was the making of him as a painter.

Caravaggio's works constantly surprised his contemporaries. They were often rejected by the institutions that commissioned them - his realism, particularly in his representation of the poor and downtrodden, was often seen as distasteful, even subversive - but discriminating private buyers were always on hand to snap them up. His private life was a public mess. He hung out with all the wrong people, was involved in street fights and other disorders, and gained a reputation for hooliganism even in a society where a degree of bad behavior was expected of young bloods.

He enjoyed the protection of wealthy and powerful patrons, but when in May 1606 he fatally wounded an old adversary in a brawl at the ball courts in Campo Marzio, Rome, the most that one of his dedicated protectors, the Colonna family, could do was to hide him temporarily on one of their country estates.

The last four years of the painter's life were spent wandering: to Naples, then Malta, Sicily and back to Naples. Yet not only did his art continue to develop, he produced some of his best pictures, among them his finest portrait, 'A Knight of Malta,' and one of his greatest religious works, 'The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.'

That painting, 17 feet long by nearly 12 feet high, or 5 meters by 3.6 meters, is still at the Knights' Oratory in Valletta and is the principal absentee in Naples for 'Caravaggio: The Last Period 1606-1610.' Otherwise, a remarkably high proportion of his output during these turbulent but astonishingly productive final days of exile have been brought together in Naples. The show continues at the Capodimonte Museum until Jan. 23, then travels on to the National Gallery in London, where it will remain between Feb. 23 and May 22.

That Caravaggio's style was still changing when his life unraveled in Rome is forcefully illustrated at the beginning of the exhibition by the juxtaposition of two versions of 'Supper at Emmaus,' the first painted in 1601 in Rome (from London's National Gallery), the second probably at the Colonna estate at Zagarolo in 1606, before Caravaggio fled papal territory to go to Naples. But the feel of the later picture is radically different, the brushwork in the 1606 version more fluid, the modeling softer, the vision, literally, darker.

His style continued to evolve in Naples and afterward. But his gaze was now fixed on Malta - as a means, ultimately, to return to Rome. Acceptance by the Order of the Knights of St. John could have been a stepping stone to winning a papal pardon for the homicide. Caravaggio was fortunate that the Grand Master, Alof de Wignacourt, was then looking for a resident artist.

There were obstacles to Caravaggio's joining the Order, both because he had committed a capital crime and because he was not of noble birth. But Wignacourt was so keen to keep the artist on Malta that these were overcome. Caravaggio was soon at work on a portrait of the Grand Master in full armor (now at the Louvre), in which the artist returned to a more 'finished' style, presumably to please Wignacourt. The picture is both a homage to Titian, and a tour-de-force demonstration that Caravaggio could paint in the Venetian's grand manner if he chose to do so.

In contrast, he adopted a freer hand when he portrayed the aged, battle-scarred 'Knight of Malta,' almost certainly Fra Antonio Martelli, producing one of the most gripping character studies ever. 'The Beheading of St. John' for the Knight's Oratory also continues to astonish.

The dramatic composition of the subject, the blend of realism and symbolism, the orchestration of light and dark are arresting even by Caravaggio's own standards. The moment shown is when the saint, his hands tied behind his back, has fallen to the floor, felled by the blow from the executioner's sword. The man grips the hair on his victim's partly severed head, while he reaches behind him, unsheathing his knife to complete the task of decapitation. The scene has a horrifying topicality.

This is the only picture the painter ever signed. He did so, spelling the words 'f. MichelAn' on the prison's floor, as though he had dipped his finger in the blood welling from the Baptist's neck. The 'f' indicates his new status as a novice brother of the Order of St. John. Yet two days before the unveiling of this masterpiece in the Knight's Oratory on the saint's feast day, Caravaggio's demons had led him into another fracas, and he was already languishing in the Order's prison awaiting trial.

In early October 1608, he managed to escape to Sicily. Once there, he took up his brushes again, wandering from Syracuse to Messina and on to Palermo. Twice condemned in his absence now, by the pope and the Knights of Malta, he was a hunted man, hourly expecting arrest or assassination, at times practically a vagabond.

Nevertheless, he went on producing marvelous canvases, often of great dimensions, for religious and private patrons. The form of their compositions constantly evolved, and his brushwork was ever more expressive. His eyes, too, were still alert to new experiences and new influences. In his 'Adoration of the Shepherds,' commissioned by Messina's Senate, to take but one example, he shows a semi-reclining Virgin and Child in a pose startlingly reminiscent of Byzantine Greek treatments of the subject.

In 1610, the artist returned to Naples, where he was badly injured in an assault by four men outside a tavern. He continued to paint - studies of the young John the Baptist, the 'Martyrdom of St. Ursula,' and the 'Denial of St. Peter.'

By now Caravaggio was desperate to get back to Rome. A pardon seemed possible, but it was dangerous to re-enter papal territory without a guarantee. The course of his last peregrinations is unclear, his final days even murkier. Ill and exhausted, he seems to have expired alone on a beach north of Rome. 'Without human assistance, he died badly, just as he had lived badly,' one of his early biographers concluded.

In spirit, if not in the flesh, Caravaggio did reach his final destination. One of his last pictures, 'David with the Head of Goliath,' was obtained by his former patron Cardinal Borghese (it still belongs to the Borghese Gallery). The face of the slain Philistine is Caravaggio's own. In this macabre fashion, the artist finally delivered up his own head to Rome.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023