Caravaggio: A Passionate Lifeby Desmond Seward, Michael Angelo Caravaggio
Michael Angelo da Caravaggio (1571-1610) had an amazingly colorful and adventurous career, full of dramatic contrasts. He was a religious artist who used prostitutes and castrati as his models; a mystic with a police record; the favorite of Cardinals and the Pope's portrait painter, who committed a murder; an outlaw from the Roman hills, lionized at Naples; a… See more details below
Michael Angelo da Caravaggio (1571-1610) had an amazingly colorful and adventurous career, full of dramatic contrasts. He was a religious artist who used prostitutes and castrati as his models; a mystic with a police record; the favorite of Cardinals and the Pope's portrait painter, who committed a murder; an outlaw from the Roman hills, lionized at Naples; a Knight of Malta imprisoned in a Maltese dungeon; hunted by hired assassins in a vendetta with an unknown enemy; horribly disfigured by sword cuts in a Neapolitan brothel. Ironically, he died on a lonely Tuscan beach after receiving a pardon that would have allowed him to become an even greater painter.
Based on the latest research, but largely written as an adventure story, the book concentrates on the man and his personality, without neglecting the artist. It vividly re-creates his life in early Baroque Italy and as a "monk of war" on Malta.
Caravaggio served as artist-in-residence to Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who was rumored in his lifetime to be homosexual, and who sponsored several of Caravaggio's more romantic paintings of young men; his servitu particulare is adequately defended here as a business relationship between a heterosexual painter and his celibate patron. In focusing on Caravaggio's artistic triumphs rather than his personal idiosyncrasies, Seward portrays the painter as a man of strong faith; according to the author, his art exemplifies the Counter-Reformation's exaltation of both the theatrical and the humble, while his realistic depictions of people and his dramatic, unnatural lighting anticipate later painters' realism. Caravaggio joined the Catholic order of the Knights of Malta (which Seward depicted in The Monks of War) only to be imprisoned in a Maltese dungeon after a duel with a higher-ranking Knight. From there, his life slid further into misery.
It's a tragic tale, from what we can know of it; Seward's trail of evidence runs cold at times, reducing him to conjecture such as "All we can be sure of is that [Caravaggio's motif of decapitation] reflected some hidden anguish." Seward apologizes, excuses, exonerates Caravaggio too often (contrast Johanna Falk's treatment of the pedophile Egon Schiele in Arrogance); were it not for that narrative tendency, this look at late Renaissance Umbria and one of its most powerful artists, would be a truly engaging contribution to the field.
Born in 1571, Caravaggio lost his father to the plague when he was only six. From then on, death followed close on the painter's heels, leaving its reflection in Caravaggio's portrayal of corpses and severed heads in his art. A man of violent temper, prone to fits of jealousy and uncontrollable rage, Caravaggio committed a crime in nearly every city he lived in and had to flee the law on numerous occasions. Arriving in Rome in 1592, he lived for many years on the fringe of respectability, making a meager living in the workshops of other artists. Eventually, one of his paintings caught the eye of Cardinal del Monte, who invited Caravaggio to become a resident painter at his palazzo. The cardinal's patronage ensured a quick rise to fame and numerous commissionsespecially from clergy, who were perpetually smitten by Caravaggio's Madonnas (even if many of them were modeled by prostitutes). Caravaggio's success culminated in a commission to paint the pope's portrait, but soon after, he was implicated in a duel that ended in the death of his tennis partner. Caravaggio became an outlaw in Rome, but he continued to exploit his talent and even sought admission to the Knights of Malta. The master of the order relaxed the rules to admit the famous artist but was just as soon obliged to expel him for attacking another knight. Caravaggio would remain on the run until death finally caught up with him. Penniless and exhausted from wounds and illness, Caravaggio died on the shore at Porto Ercole in 1610.
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About 1596, shortly after Caravaggio went to live in Cardinal del Monte's household in Rome, his brother Giovan Battista, soon to become a friar, called on the cardinal and explained who he was, adding that Caravaggio might not wish to see him. It was clear that he loved his brother, so del Monte told him to come back in three days' time. Summoning Caravaggio, the cardinal asked if he had any relatives. He answered that he had none. Del Monte then questioned men from Caravaggio's part of Italy. They confirmed that he had a younger brother. When Giovan Battista returned, the cardinal sent for Caravaggio, who insisted that Giovan Battista was not his brother."I've come from very far away to see you, and, having seen you, I've done what I set out to do," Giovan Battista told him. "I've no need for you to help me or help my children, because I won't have any. As for your own children, if God answers my prayers to see you married with a family, I hope he blesses you in them, as I shall ask his Divine Majesty at my Masses, and as your sister will in her prayers." But Caravaggio refused even to say good-bye.
This story comes from Considerations on Painting by Giulio Mancini(1558-1630), a dilettante physician from Sienna who, although he never met Caravaggio, knew at least one of his sitters. He tells the story as an example of Caravaggio's oddity. Yet Caravaggio's refusal to acknowledge Giovan Battista may have been due to doubts about his paternity. The marriage of his father's employer, Francesco Sforza, Marchese di Caravaggio, to Princess Costanza Colonna had gone badly at first, and Caravaggio's parents could have spoken about their quarrels in front of him,although they were over by the time he was born. It is not entirely impossible that he imagined he was an illegitimate Sforza.
Fantasies apart, he was the son of Fermo di Bernardino Merisi of Caravaggio. Two early sources say Fermo was a mason, Bellori apparently copying Baglione. But Baglione was a bitter enemy of Caravaggio, against whom he once brought a libel action, and his account, written after Caravaggio was safely dead, is often malicious. Mancini, the most reliable of the early sources, informs us that Fermo was "master of the household and architect to the Marchese di Caravaggio," while documentary evidence shows that he was a small landowner on the fringe of the lesser gentry.
Fermo appears to have been on very friendly terms with the marchese, who was a witness at his wedding to Lucia Aratori on 14 January, 1571, in the church of Santi Petri e Paolo at Caravaggio. No birth certificate has ever been found, but it is now generally agreed that he was born in either Caravaggio or Milan at the end of September, a few days before the great victory over the Turks at Lepanto. He may well have descended from a family of architects. A Giuho Merisi had been an architect in Rome, where he is said to have built the Palazzo Capodiferro Spada for Cardinal Capodiferro. Fermo, an architect himself, named his son after another architect. Ironically, in the Milanese dialect "Michelangelo" could easily be confused with "Michelaccio," a roving ne'er-do-well from Lombard folklore.
Just over forty kilometers east of Milan, the tiny town of Caravaggio was close to the Venetian border. Fermo owned a house at the Folceria Gate, with a little estate outside the wall. The town's only distinguished son was Pollidoro da Caravaggio, a pupil of Titian, murdered in 1543, who may have been a Knight of Malta.
The surrounding countryside, the plain of Lombardy, was very fertile, irrigated by innumerable canals. In 1608 the English tourist Tom Coryate, viewing it from the roof of the Duomo at Milan, called the plain "the garden of Italy," marveling at its orchards, vineyards, and pastures. When Henry James undertook the same interminable climb to the Duomo's roof in 1872, it looked very similar "level Lombardy sleeping in its rich transalpine light and resembling, with its white-walled dwellings and the spires on its horizon, a vast green sea dotted with ships."
The Duchy of Milan's social structure was more feudal than that of Florence or Venice. Its great nobles lived with pomp and ceremony, and no name could have been more illustrious than that of Francesco Sforza, Marchese di Caravaggio, the main branch of whose family had ruled Milan until recently. Whether at the marchese's palace in Milan or at his villa near Caravaggio, Fermo ranked after his master in an enormous household. In 1658, while in retirement, a Franceso Liberati, who had served two cardinals and a Roman duke in the same capacity, published his experience of a lifetime in a book entitled Il Perfecto Maestro di Case "The Perfect Master of the Household!" which gives us an idea of Fermo's duties and social standing.
He must have had more than thirty senior household officers to help him look after the marchese, among them a cupbearer, a seneschal of the dining hall, a steward in charge of the household expenses, a collector of provisions, a storekeeper, and a quartermaster, who organized accommodations. There were also a chaplain, a doctor, and the gentlemen waiting on the marchese at table and in his bedchamber. Then there were the underservant butlers, cooks, huntsmen, coachmen, grooms, porters, valets, and footmen. Fermo was responsible for running this vast establishment and engaging and dismissing its members. He paid their wages and bought the food and wine to feed them. Far from being a humble mason, he was the right-hand man of a great Milanese magnate.
We know very little about Francesco Sforza, the marchese himself, but his wife, Donna Costanza Colonna, was a strong and colorful personality, the daughter of Prince Marcantonio Colonna, Duke of Paliano, the heroic captain-general of the papal galleys at Lepanto. Married in 1567, when she was only twelve, she did not at first get on with her husband. She complained to her father, threatening, "If I'm not set free from my lord's house, I'll kill myself, and I don't care if I lose my soul as well as my life." Prince Marcantonio asked the archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, to intervene, and after moving her to a convent, the archbishop succeeded in reconciling the young couple, and Costanza bore Francesco six children. When her husband died in 1583, she ran the family, now known as "Sforza Colonna," together with its estates, and rescued Fermo's son on more than one occasion, giving him refuge during the last months of his life.
Since Francesco and Costanza spent most of their time in Milan, Caravaggio may have been born in the city, in the Sforza di Caravaggio Palace, in the parish of Santa Maria della Passerella "Our lady of the Footbridge." Brought up here, the little boy would certainly have been very much aware of the Marchesa Costanza.
Located at the junction of the Alpine passes, Milan was as wealthy as Florence or Venice, using rivers, lakes, and canals to export its merchandise. "Milan is a sweet place, and though the streets are narrow, they abound in rich coaches, and are full of noblesse," the diarist John Evelyn recorded in 1646. It must have been like this in Caravaggio's boyhood. Coryate says the suburbs were "as bigge as many a faire towne, and compassed around with ditches of water." Enclosed by a network of canals, notably the Naviglio, which linked it to Padua, its population of over 100,000 was enormous for the age. There were more than 150 churches, many of them magnificent, and a citadel "of an incomparable strength," the Castello Sforzesco.
The Duchy of Milan had been ruled by Spain since 1535, through governors who imposed savage taxation. At the same time, a constant flood of gold and silver from Spanish America devalued the currency, so that prices were rising enormously, impoverishing all classes. The regime was deeply unpopular. In April 1572 the governor, Don Luis de Zuniga y Requesens, reported to King Philip II at Madrid, "One cannot trust any of the subjects of this state, since many of them are much more sympathetic to France." He was warning Philip that an uprising against the Spaniards might break out at any moment. Even so, Spain was determined to keep the Duchy, the expense of a large garrison and the hostility of the Milanese being small prices to pay for its military and strategic advantages. Occupying Milan not only enabled the Spaniards to control the entire plain of Lombardy but it guarded against any threat of a French invasion of Italy from across the Alps.
This was the city of Caravaggio's earliest childhood. When he was five years old, it experienced one of the most terrifying calamities in its entire history.
Meet the Author
Desmond Seward, a well-known historian in both America and Britain, is author of The Monks of War (new edition 1995), the first general history of the military religious orders since the eighteenth century. He lives in Brighton, England.
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