We told his story in our last post on scofflaw, artist Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Melisi). It included details of his life up until the moment when he committed an unforgivable sin: murder.
Caravaggio was not new to legal trouble. His powerful patrons had protected his interests before. This time it was more complicated. The 35-year-old fled Rome instead of being tried in court.
He longed for a pardon. This could be why he painted “Saint Jerome,” currently at the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Some scholars believe that he executed the painting shortly after his 1606 crime. After all, we know that Caravaggio sent his painting to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, his most powerful patron. We also know it is more than a portrait of a saint. It’s a portraying, we believe, of a saint who was known for his carousing early on–and who eventually saw the light.
Caravaggio may have been trying to draw a parallel to show that he could also turn things around. Another hint: Jerome was usually shown with a little bit of red. Here, however, he is covered in it (and perhaps protected from) it. Red? This is the color of a cardinal.
The request for pardon was not granted if the painting was an appeal for pardon. Not yet, at least. Caravaggio then headed south to Naples. The artist spent seven months in Naples working on several commissions. One of these was the “Seven Works of Mercy,” which was commissioned by the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia and is still in its possession. Caravaggio might have felt some personal significance for the subject of works of mercy towards others that believers were expected. Although his patrons weren’t able to save him right away after the murder, Caravaggio still hoped for a pardon… but he knew he had to wait.
But for unclear reasons, Caravaggio quickly left for Malta. He seemed to hope that the Knights of Malta could help him in places his patrons couldn’t. With that pesky pardon, he was able to return to Rome with his many commissions.
At least, things seemed to be working out in his favor: Caravaggio was made a Knight in the Order by the Grand Master of Knights of Malta. Caravaggio was again the most well-known artist in town and won many commissions. His left-hand painting “Portrait of Maltese Knight,” is currently at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. This was just one of many portraits he did of the leading Knights of Malta. Things were looking up.
After less than two years, Caravaggio got arrested and was imprisoned in Malta… probably because of another brawl that severely wounded a knight.
Caravaggio narrowly escaped imprisonment. He was released from the Order of the Knights of Malta and found himself back on the road.
He traveled to Sicily where he met Mario Minniti, his friend from Caravaggio’s erotic paintings. He was awarded commissions all over the peninsula. His style seemed more anxious and depressed as he painted pathetic-looking characters surrounded by darkness and shadow, such as in his painting “The Burial of Saint Lucy,”, which hangs at the Church of Santa Lucia Alla Badi in Syracuse.
This style is not surprising. Caravaggio continued to be desperate despite not being pardoned by Rome. Contemporary reports claim that he was acting out of character and paranoia. He even slept fully dressed and armed and was ready to attack an attacker at any moment.
He might have had a reason. According to his first biographer he had enemies. Caravaggio then crossed the sea to Naples and surrendered himself to the protection of the Colonnas while he hoped for a pardon.
He continued to paint during his second stay in Naples. He may have produced “David and the Head of Goliath”, one of his most memorable works. It is now in Rome’s Borghese gallery. This eerie painting gives us a glimpse into Caravaggio’s mind. Instead of Caravaggio showing him holding Goliath’s head proudly as is the norm in portrayals of that time, he appears confused, or even revolted by the crime he has just committed.
Caravaggio also created his own self-portrait… not on the face of David but on that of Goliath.
Caravaggio was not safe even in Naples. He was severely wounded when four armed men attacked his restaurant. He was able to recover and he accepted another commission, “The Martyrdom Saint Ursula,” which is located at the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano.
The painting was done with quick, visible brushstrokes. It is almost impressionistic. And the image depicts Ursula being wounded by an arrow. Caravaggio’s style was clearly still evolving.
It wouldn’t change. He left Naples in July to go to Rome after hearing that the Pope had finally pardoned.
Caravaggio, on his boat trip to Rome, died. It is not clear how. Rumors suggested that he had been murdered. He likely fell ill and died in Porto Ercole (a Tuscan seaside resort). His exact cause of death and where he was buried are still not known.
His work, as well as the story of this talented, fiery, deeply troubled artist, would live on.
You will find the stories behind art fascinating if you visit our Borghese Gallery Experience. It includes a look at some of Caravaggio’s most important paintings.