Who Killed Caravaggio?

Leonardo is called da Vinci because he was born in a small town near Florence of that name. Michele Angelo da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is called Caravaggio because he was born in a small town of that name, located just outside Milan. He became a major figure in art and, as art was so fundamental to the times, he is a major figure in history. His dramatic use of light and his controversial presentations influenced all or nearly every artist since, from Atremesia to Rembrandt and well beyond. His aggressive behavior lead to an early death at the age of 39. We lost the opportunity to see what other innovations he might have developed.

He painted his principal subjects in shafts of light, contrasting the heavy use of shadow and darkness. He painted directly onto the canvas without the usual multiple drawings. He used live models, often the same ones. Some of his versions of religious figures were controversial, showing them as more earthly than the mores of the time allowed, such as his Madonna dei Palafrenieri (Madonna of the Groom). It was rejected by the Church, and ended up in the hands of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Notice that Jesus is uncircumcised, suggesting Jesus was not really Jewish, but of course he was.

Palafrenieri (Madonna of the Groom), Caravaggio
Madonna dei Palafrenieri (Madonna of the Groom), Caravaggio, 1606

We took a stroll with Guru Walks, our second walking tour in Rome with this group, which is tip based versus a fixed fee. It was billed as “Who Killed Caravaggio.” The guide took us past scenes of his violent acts and into churches where you can see some of his 100+ paintings.

The church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome has three famous Caravaggio’s, all about Saint Mathew. These paintings were Caravaggio’s first major commissions, which to our lasting benefit set him on the path to the work we see today.

In the Calling of St Mathew (1600), Jesus inspires Mathew to become a follower. The painting dramatically, brilliantly both figuratively and literally depicts the story from the Gospel According to Mathew: “Jesus saw a man named¬†Matthew¬†at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, “Follow me”, and Matthew rose and followed Him.” Matthew 9:9) The hat wearing (it’s not a yarmulke) Jesus is largely obscured by another figure. Jesus sports a trimmed beard, hugely unlikely to be what any Jewish man of that time displayed, and probably the only such portrayal in the history of art. The outfits are hardly Middle Eastern, except perhaps the one but even it has the man wearing a black shirt beneath the robe.

The Calling of Saint Matthew
The Calling of Saint Matthew. This painting greatly reminds of Rembrandt.

In The Inspiration of St Mathew, Mathew is listening to an angel as he writes his version of the story of Jesus. Mathew is awkwardly posed, as if he was about to sit down, ready to write, when his visitor appears, catching his attention, pen in hand and book (and not scroll) at the ready. The background is in darkness, the table lightly illuminated, focusing your attention on the figures. Plenty of robes in this painting.

People at that time believed, as many still do, that the Gospels were written by four apostles. It was not until the mid-1800’s that Christian scholars determined that the books were written in Greek by educated people, whereas both Jesus and the apostles spoke Aramaic and were unable to read or write, according to Paul. You’d think that if Jesus could write he would have, that he did not write himself and did not find someone to write for him a la Mohammed suggests further his inability to read and write. Christian scholarship also shows that the earliest of the gospels, Luke, was not written until after 50 CE. The Gospels themselves do not claim authorship at all. The titles were added around 200 CE, and only Luke claims the use of eye witnesses, but gives no details. See for example World History. org

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio
The Inspiration of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio

Madonna (literally “My Lady”) of Loreto depicts a barefoot Mary holding a large baby Jesus before two peasants. Not kings, but peasants! Barefoot! Peasants! Mary is almost always depicted wearing a crown and some pretty fancy duds befitting of the mother of Jesus. The room is bare, which is also unusual. The model he used was a known prostitute, well known locally and commented upon at the time. Caravaggio certainly was not constrained by tradition, at least not entirely.

Madonna of Loreto
Madonna of Loreto, 1606

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Popolo (St Mary of the People) at the Piazza del Popolo was also on our itinerary. According to the ancient tradition, after his death sentence was announced, Peter requested that he be crucified upside down, saying that no man is worthy to be killed in the same way as Jesus. This is a strange thing to say, it seems to me, as many were executed exactly as Jesus was, including the two hanging right next to Jesus. Crucifixion was a common method the Romans used, allowing the body to rot as a way of further intimidating the locals.

Here we have Caravaggio’s brilliant rendition of the horrendous scene about to unravel. Peter looks more like the poor fisherman he and most of the disciples were, continuing Caravaggio’s predilection for portraying the famous actors as ordinary, common people. The shadowing across his body is nothing short of brilliant. One figure seems to be wearing robes, the other shirt and trousers as they try to lift the heavy cross and body. Peter is dressed as Jesus normally is on the cross. He is trying to keep his head upright, delaying the rushing of blood to his head.

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Crucifixion of St Peter 1601 and the Conversion of St Paul on the Way to Damascus

The Conversion of St Paul is a more genteel scene, although falling from a horse is no laughing matter and can be fatal. Caravaggio shows he can paint horses, this one with his hoof in the air, suggesting it is still in motion, obscuring the thorax of Paul’s groom. His clothing reminds of a Roman soldier, his sword and helmet lying on the ground. The figures are surrounded by darkness, presumably due to the storm whence came the bolt of lightning, leaving him isolated and vulnerable. No wonder he heard voices.

Saul is the Hebrew version of Paul. Paul did not change his name.

We finished on the steps of this church (aside from Caravaggio the small church also contains works by Raphael and Bernini among others) with the mystery of who killed Caravaggio.

Caravaggio was often fleeing from one part of Italy to another, near the end to Malta, then Sicily and then Naples. Reports show bizarre behavior in addition to much violence. While in Naples he was attempting to negotiate a pardon with the Cardinal Scipione Borghese, offering a painting in exchange.

He died on the way to Rome, but the cause is unknown. There were rumors that the powerful Tommasoni family of Rome, whose son he killed causing him to flee Rome, or the Knights of Malta had him killed, and also that he died of syphilis. Painters until modern times used white paint with lead in it, and other paints containing toxic substances, which might have contributed to the strange and violent behavior in contemporary reports, and could also cause death. There are reports of wounds from a sword fight in Naples leading to sepsis.

So the mystery remains with us, along with his fabulous works.