ROME – This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Michelagnolo da Caravaggio, who is best known simply as Caravaggio, from the Milanese town where he lived as a youth. Caravaggio, who spanned the artistic moment between the Renaissance and the Baroque, is the rock star of old master painters—a brilliant, trouble-seeking rebel who died far too young. His body of work is therefore limited, and until a century ago he was nearly forgotten. But now this gifted artist, whose experiments with light influenced generations of painters after him, is the subject of countless blockbuster exhibitions and biographies rich with conjecture about his tempestuous life and tragic death at only thirty-eight.
Newly emerged evidence about that life means that some of the juicier biographies will have to be revised. Looking for the first time in 400-year-old archives of Roman police and inquisition tribunal records, a team of highly-trained Italian scholars has uncovered fascinating details about Caravaggio’s daily life, friendships and brawls, including the one that brought him a death sentence from Pope Paul V, whose portrait Caravaggio had only recently painted. The relevant documents, which are the solid building blocks of art history, have now been transcribed and put on display in Rome’s handsome state archives building Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, the original University of Rome main building, designed by Borromini. “A window has been opened into the past,” said Federica Galloni, Lazio Region director for culture, inaugurating the exhibition. Beside the rare documents are related works of art by his peers and friends during his Roman years. They include portraits of the artists and Caravaggio’s portrait of Paul V, the pontiff who later ordered the artist decapitated for having murdered a man.
The new information establishes for the first time with certainty the date, Sept. 29, 1571, and place of his birth, Milan, rather than in the nearby town of Caravaggio, as was previously believed. The date of his arrival in Rome must now be advanced by three years, an important detail since it shows that Caravaggio was about nineteen rather than sixteen on his arrival, and hence not quite the child prodigy described by early biographers. The documents also suggest that the woman who was the model for one of his loveliest paintings, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, was 27-year-old Faustina, mother of four and the widow of one of Caravaggio’s first and dearest friends in Rome, Sicilian artist Lorenzo Carli. Most importantly, the new evidence clarifies at least some of the details of the notorious brawl in which Caravaggio killed a man. Finally, some light is shed upon his death at Porto Ercole in July 1610, not while wandering aimlessly and alone on a beach, as has been widely written, but in a hospital.
All this had been unknown until skilled archivists were able to examine the original records from Caravaggio’s decade in Rome. These records—police blotters, judiciary decisions, eyewitness accounts in the first person—were bound into ten volumes, each with up to 1,500 parchment pages of hand-written reports in Italian and Latin. The problem was that the parchment pages were self-destructing because the highly acid ink was eating up the pages. To save them, the archives director made a public appeal for sponsors. Thanks to articles in the Italian financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore, a handful of private sponsors were found, and the costly, time-consuming and painstaking restoration work could begin.
Caravaggio was the protégé of Cardinal del Monte, but he was also frequently in trouble. In one incident he insulted gratuitously a guard, who found that Caravaggio was carrying a sword and a dagger. Another time he threw artichokes at a waiter in a tavern. Yet again he removed a floor from his rented studio so that his huge canvases could fit in. His landlady took him to court for damaging her property so he and a friend threw rocks at her window. All these incidents emerge from the new documentation, with first-hand witness accounts.
In his most serious brawl, about which the documents provide an entirely new account, Caravaggio killed a man. The brawl, like a Los Angeles fight between rival gangs, had been planned ahead of time with eight participants, whose names are now known. Caravaggio and his three companions (one a captain in the papal army, presumably hired for the fight) met the rival four at a pallacorda court (pallacorda was an early version of tennis) in the Campo Marzio neighborhood of Rome where Caravaggio lived. Some biographers have suggested that the motive was either in the game itself or over a woman. Definitive proof is still lacking, but the new evidence suggests that the quarrel broke out over a gambling debt Caravaggio failed to pay. In the fight Caravaggio killed one of his opponents, and had to flee Italy to save himself from capital punishment. One of Caravaggio’s men was severely wounded. Taken to prison, he was subsequently put on trial, and the new evidence emerges from his trial.
Judith Harris was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and began selling articles to the “Cleveland Press” of Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen. A graduate of Northwestern University she is today a regular contributor to “ARTnews” of New York and to “Current World Archaeology” of London. She lives in Rome, Italy, with her partner David Willey. www.judith-harris.com