One of my Christmas gifts this year was Catherine Puglisi’s “Caravaggio”. Now I know that Christmas was a long time ago but I just haven’t found time to write about this book before. Puglisi’s book describes in detail each of Caravaggio’s major works, in the order they were painted, whilst at the same time detailing the spectacular and tragic arc of his life. What I appreciated most was that the author’s work is factual; wild speculation and pop-psychology analysis are avoided. This would certainly be something all too easy to do with a character like Caravaggio.
My own encounter with Mr. Caravaggio’s paintings was unexpected. I had been visiting the Naples observatory, in Capodimonte, and I thought, hey I better go and visit the art gallery next door — the museum of Capodimonte. I went there very late in the day, the museum was almost empty, I had the place to myself. I wandered through the empty galleries, not knowing what works of art were there — not knowing that there were three or four paintings of Caravaggio’s. Not even knowing who Caravaggio was. It is always most surprising to see his works displayed with other paintings from that epoch; most other painters were searching an elusive idealised beauty, producing paintings removed from the squalid realities of 17th century life in Italy. So when you see his paintings for the first time you think — these people look like real people! And in fact they were — Caravaggio drew from life. Girls from the street stood in for the Virgin Mary. Surprisingly, looking at enough of his paintings you will see that these models actually reappear in several different works — almost as if he’s a film director who always uses the same actors. Look closely enough you will see that his apostles’ clothes are ripped at the corners. Of course there are the strong chiaroscuro effects, beams of light illuminating chosen sons, tragic figures whose faces are half hidden in shade. It’s easy to see why Caravaggio is Martin Scorcese’s favorite painter.
Caravaggio’s own life was no less shocking — after numerous brushes with the law, he finally ends up killing a man in duel, although perhaps it was an accident?– and he flees Rome, heads south, stopping in city after city for year or two at a time, painting and painting. Caravaggio was probably one of the best-paid artists of his time, and he fled Rome at the height of his fame… although he had become successful and famous, he has always this unstable side. He retreats to Malta, he almost becomes a Chevalier, a knight of the order — but something goes wrong, he’s in prison again, he has to run away once more. He returns to Naples, there are always rich people to protect him, he has connections. Then the final act, the abrupt end: Caravaggio tries to return to Rome, but he is arrested en route. His boat continues on northwards without him, containing the paintings he has made as an act of appeasement for Cardinal Borghese. He tries to folllow on foot, he crosses marshy plains — he catches malaria and dies and is buried in an unmarked grave.
In the boat heading north without Caravaggio is his last painting, drawn for the Cardinal and now hanging in his gallery in Rome. It is “David with the head of Goliath”, representing the well known biblical scene, David holding the head of the slain giant. Except in this case, the giant’s head is that of Caravaggio’s. Caravaggio’s final act of atonement?
Reading Puglisi’s book and looking at all the paintings one after another what impressed me most was Caravaggio’s incredible gift of composition, his ability to place the actors in each scene so as to best tell the story he wanted to tell. It also seems that he worked directly on the canvas, without any preparatory sketches — at least, none has ever been found. Interestingly enough, X-rays of some of his paintings has revealed that he didn’t always find the right solution the first time around; underneath the first layer of paint hidden figures are visible, heads are turned in a slightly different angle.
Strangely enough, Caravaggio had an enormous influence on the painters of his own time, but then he was completely forgotten until the 19th century. Wandering around the Louvre one afternoon I was surprised to stumble into one small room which seemed to be full of Caravaggio paintings I had never seen before. But — these works were not painted by him at all as I realised in a second, looking at the labels — they were painted by his imitators.