There are some artists who change everything, who create their work way outside the known boundaries. One of these, one of the brave, who found a new way to tell stories with paint, is Caravaggio.
The masterpiece above is thought to be the last that Caravaggio ever painted. He included his own face in the work – it’s pale and deep in the shadows, second from the right, immediately behind the saint.
A month after the painting was finished the 38-year-old artist, considered by many to be the founder of modern art, was dead.
Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio) was born in Milan at the end of September 1571. His family was relatively well-off and, on his mother’s side, well-connected. His mother’s father had an important administrative job with the powerful Sforza family; and his mother’s sister was wet-nurse to the children of Francesco I Sforza di Caravaggio, whose wife was the young Constanza Colonna Sforza.
The wet-nurse-aunt and Constanza became friends for life, Constanza later going so far as to use her influence to protect her wet-nurse’s turbulent nephew, Caravaggio, who was known by the name of the small town where he grew up.
Caravaggio’s family had chosen the town in the hope that it would be safer than plague-infested Milan, but the decision couldn’t save them all. By the time Caravaggio was six both his father and grandfather were dead from the disease. When he reached his teens he was apprenticed for four years to a well-known local artist and then, in 1592, he moved to Rome.
It was in this city that he caught the eye of an enthusiastic patron, Cardinal Francesco del Monte whose support changed everything.
By 1600, thanks to the cardinal, Caravaggio had done some important commissions for churches in Rome, paintings that shook them from basement to bell-tower. Everything was different. There were no preliminary sketches – the scenes were painted straight on to the canvas with a beam of light focussed on the heart of each work. There was darkness and there was light and the characters that moved though them were real people, not idealised beings. Many of them were modelled on Caravaggio’s own friends, most of them fresh from the city’s streets. The results were a shock at the time but even though not everyone was impressed it didn’t seem to matter.
Caravaggio’s reputation rocketed … so did his knack for trouble. By 1606 he was in his mid-thirties and wanted for murder in Rome, so he fled to wealthy Naples and the protection of Constanza Colonna.
Thanks in part to her the city welcomed him and commissioned him. Within months he completed two of his most famous works: The Flagellation of Christ for the church of San Domenica Maggiore; and The Seven Acts of Mercy for the city’s charity, Pio Monte de la Misericordia.
He left Naples a year later in 1607 to seek a new fortune with the Knights of Malta. It worked – they were so impressed with his art that they raised him to the rank of knight … then they dropped him fairly quickly when he wounded one of their own. They tried to imprison him but he escaped to Sicily and made his way to a friend where he stayed and carried on painting.
By 1609, still wanted by almost everyone, he was on the move again, this time back to Naples. He reached the city but at some point got caught up in a fight and ended up with a slash across his face close to his eye. This may have affected his sight and his last painting: The Martyrdom of St Ursula, but there was no time to fix anything. Wounded, and with Ursula barely dry, he fled to Rome.
It was his last run for freedom. Caravaggio died, or was killed, somewhere between Naples and Rome. His body has never been found.
Where to find Caravaggio’s works in Naples
Today Naples has given separate, significant venues to the three Caravaggio paintings it holds.
The Flagellation of Christ now hangs in the large Capodimonte art museum in Naples. I saw it in February of this year framed dramatically by a long corridor of large doorways leading down to where it hung, shadowed and alone.
Pio Monte, the charity that commissioned The Seven Acts of Mercy was founded in 1601 to help the poor, and to raise funds to free the Christian slaves held by the Ottoman Turks.
The charity’s church in Caravaggio’s day was quite small but by 1671 it had been replaced by a larger church designed by Antonio Picchiatti. The octagonal building still stands and is a perfect fit for The Seven Acts of Mercy. The huge painting is above the main altar while other works by well-known artists, each depicting an act of charity, hang in the remaining seven sides.
The Martyrdom of St Ursula, thought to be Caravaggio’s last work, hangs amongst the collection of Neapolitan art in the grand Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano on the Via Toledo in Naples.
In the palazzo, once owned by the Colonna family, Caravaggio’s work has a room to itself and hangs quietly beneath lights with the pale face of the artist peering out behind the wounded saint. It’s well worth a visit. The palazzo, and its collection of lovely paintings, is towards the Teatro San Carlo end of the swirling life of the Via Toledo.
Apart from the proud exhibition of Caravaggio’s paintings Naples also does something else that helps to explain the lighting and immediacy of the artist’s work – the city stages frequent Tableaux Vivant on certain Sundays throughout the year in the Donnaregina Nuova part of the Museo Diocesano.
In the main nave of the church a small troupe of actors reproduce the poses for some of Caravaggio’s paintings. They wear little other than bits of cloth which they rearrange between poses according to the classical accompaniment. The actors, who never leave the stage, are expressionless and utterly calm. The half hour is intense, and so immediate that five centuries seem to evaporate beneath the lighting.
For further information on the venues listed please click on the links below:
Sources I have used for this piece include:
Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon
Caravaggio: A Life by Helen Langdon
Caravaggio: The Artist and his Work by Sybille Ebert-Schifferer
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018