I’m in Ottawa, Canada, to do research for my new historical novel, but yesterday I took advantage of the opportunity to see the Caravaggio exhibit that is visiting here. It is an excellent display of Caravaggio’s paintings and the paintings of many of the contemporary artists who were influenced by him. The exhibit includes a BBC video produced and narrated by Simon Schama that gave me a whole new outlook on the man and the artist.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a bridge between the Mannerist and the Baroque periods in Italian painting and an innovator in chiaroscuro—the amazing use of light and dark. He painted during the Counter Reformation when the Catholic Church was reestablishing itself after the Protestant Reformation. Rome was being restored and painters and sculptors were being commissioned to adorn and glorify the churches. Caravaggio was able to secure many commissions but he was perhaps not what they expected. He stunned the artistic world with his realistic, gritty portrayals of religious and mythical personages. Not for him an idealistic, ‘airbrushed’ rendition, his characters were painted with real people as models and they were shown dirty fingernails and all.
Caravaggio is known as a wild, almost psychopathic figure. He was in constant trouble with the law, culminating in a duel in which he killed his opponent. Accused of murder and forced to flee, he spent the following years eluding the law. According to Schama, the murder shocked him into realizing the depths to which he had fallen. In terror of losing his immortal soul, he tried desperately to control his furious temper. During this time he painted some of his most powerful religious works, Schama believes, as part of his repentance and as an offering for his salvation.
He sought refuge in Malta and through his paintings redeemed himself to the point where he was inducted as a Knight of the Order of Malta. Unfortunately, however, he could not overcome his violent nature and wounded another knight in a brawl. The Order expelled him. He was arrested and imprisoned at Forte Sant’Angelo. He managed to escape, and sailed for Syracuse in Sicily. There he painted several more important paintings, but he became increasingly paranoid and aggressive. He returned to Naples where he was attacked and his face mutilated, perhaps in retaliation for the assault on the knight in Malta.
Hope dawned with the possibility of a pardon. He set sail for Rome, bringing three paintings as gifts for the Borghese Cardinal Scipione, who had the power to grant or withhold pardons. But Caravaggio was denied any vestige of luck. When his boat docked at Palo he was mistakenly arrested. The boat—and his paintings—sailed without him. After managing to buy his release, he undertook a desperate trek through mosquito invested swamps, trying to catch up with his possessions. But, suffering from exhaustion and fever, he collapsed and died in the small coastal town of Porto Ercole. He was 38 years old.
Caravaggio painted David with the Head of Goliath after the murder of his opponent, with the realization of the depths to which he had fallen. He portrayed himself in that painting–not as the heroic David—but as the head of Goliath, the vicious killer. It is one of the most deeply disturbing paintings I have ever seen. In the features of the dripping head of the dead Goliath, Caravaggio has exposed the depth of his guilt and the horror of all the sins he has committed in his life. You cannot look at that head and not see into the tormented soul of the man himself.
He was never given the chance to atone. He died alone and unshriven on that unforgiving shore. But his atonement is there for us to see in the great paintings of his last years.
Now it’s down to work at the National Archives. It’s going to be difficult to switch from Caravaggio in 16th and 17th century Italy to Ottawa in the 19th.