Caravaggio: life drawn from the shadows

For almost 400 years, historians asserted that in 1606, ‘badboy’ Renaissance artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – ‘Caravaggio’ – murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni on Rome’s Via della Palla Corda after a row over a game of tennis.

Caravaggio’s life was characterised by conflict and contradiction: the protégé of a Cardinal who moved in refined circles and attended exclusive soirées; a wayward streetfighter who carried a sword and dagger, lived among criminals and caroused with puttane.

The master of ‘chiarascuro’, Caravaggio’s paintings possess a cinematic intensity. In his work as in his life, attention is drawn to small pools of light, but most of the canvas – and most of the detail – exists on the periphery, in shadow and darkness.

The Dutch artist Carel Van Mander describes the intensity of Caravaggio’s existence: after weeks of frenzied activity, delivering searingly sensual depictions of the sacred and the profane, the artist would then

“…swagger about for a month or two – a sword at his side and a servant in tow – from one ball court to the next, ever-ready to engage in a fight or an argument”

From this one can infer at least two things: that palla corda was played at numerous locations across the city – and that in Italy as elsewhere, public courts were dark, dangerous places.

Caravaggio and Tomassoni may well have fought a duel over Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan who had modeled for some of Caravaggio’s most celebrated paintings
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1597),
Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1598)
Portrait of a Courtesan (1598)
Martha and Mary Magdalene (1599)

Tomassoni – a young man with a reputation for violence – was Melandroni’s ponce. Leading art historian Maurizio Marini believes the painter’s relationship with Melandroni went deeper than that of artist and model: Caravaggio may have been seeking to avenge ill-treatment of his favourite model.

“Judging by the way he painted her, Caravaggio had clearly succumbed to her sexual charms. The game of tennis was a pretext for a duel – not the cause of it”

It’s also possible that the artist intended to take over Melandroni’s management: she was one of Rome’s most successful courtesans and Caravaggio had taken up pimping as a sideline.

A strict ‘honour code’ prevailed throughout C17th Italy: fama – one’s reputation – was considered paramount and stout redress was sought for any and all insults. Typically, such revenge would take the form of a cut or slash with a sword or dagger. Great significance was ascribed to the nature and location of these ‘vendetta’ wounds: the most commonplace was a ‘sfregio’ a cut to the face – revenge for an insult or slight. Prudenza Zacchia – another of Ranucio Tomassoni’s courtesans – made a Police report alleging that Melandroni had attacked her in bed and that an injury to her (Zacchia’s) hand was sustained while defending her face.

Insulting another man’s woman meanwhile, would result in a wound to the groin, castration – or even the complete removal of the offender’s penis!

The account of the barber surgeon into whose care the injured Tomassoni was delivered reveals that his patient had a severed femoral artery: little could be done and the duelist bled to death. Eyewitness accounts claim that Tomassoni was injured after falling to the ground; fencing experts and historians now contend that – in line with the ‘honour code’ – Caravaggio would have stepped in, lunging his sword at his foe’s groin. Understandably, Tomassoni will have flinched and raised his sword in defiance/defence: a natural reflex which rendered Caravaggio’s thrust fatal, rather than merely grievous.

Caravaggio had a history of causing affray. Past misdemeanours included: assault upon art student Girolamo Spampa wounding a mercenary throwing a plate of artichokes into the face of Pietro Fusaccia, a waiter hurling stones at Roman Guards discharging a gun in a public place smashing the windows of his landlord’s house (having failed to pay rent for 6 months, he’d been locked out) attacking notary Mariano Pasqualino with a hatchet (Pasqualino had offered to make an honest woman of a young courtesan working for Caravaggio)

The Tomassoni family dominated their neighbourhood; recognising their influence – and the extent of his own reputation, Caravaggio fled. Condemned as a murderer in absentia, he became subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’ with a reward attached. Anywhere within the Papal States, he could be killed with impunity: to collect the reward, one need only produce his severed head.

After taking refuge in Paliano for a couple of months, he moved to first to Naples, then to Malta. The Order of Malta had a history of working with fugitive artists, harbouring them, offering commissions and helping secure a pardon.

The Pope was aware of Caravaggio’s arrival in Malta – and seemed privately sympathetic, writing to the Grand Master:

“…by our Apostolic Authority we impart and grant to you authority to receive as Brothers of the grade of Magistral Knights two persons favoured by you, who are to be selected and nominated by you, even if one of them has committed murder in a brawl….”

Presumably, the Pontiff deliberately keeps his references oblique in an attempt to keep Caravaggio’s identity secret. Although far from noble, the Tomassoni family wielded considerable influence via numerous Cardinals and curia officials. The family had not ‘made peace and in the absence of’ “Fare la pace” or “ottenere la pace”, it was difficult to issue a public pardon.

David with the Head of Goliath was produced during this period: Goliath’s severed head offers a portrait of the artist’s own anguished countenance. The theme of a severed head surely reflects his preoccupation with the bando capitale.

On 14 July 1608 – one year and two days after his arrival in Malta – ‘Fra Michelangelo Merisi’ was inducted as a Knight of Justice in the Order of Malta. Within a few weeks, however, he became embroiled in a violent altercation involving at least seven knights. Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, Conte della Vezza, one of the order’s cavalieri nobilissimo, was seriously wounded. Hauled before the Court, Caravaggio compounded his problems by assaulting the judge.

Doubtless fearing a return to Rome, he made a desperate bid for freedom. Miraculously escaping, first from gaol, then from Malta itself, he made his way to Syracuse, Messina, Palermo and then Naples.

The following year, Caravaggio was attacked and brutally beaten in a seedy Neapolitan tavern, Osteria del Cerriglio. It’s now believed that Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero led the attackers: exacting personal revenge and delivering his Order’s punishment for absconding. Caravaggio was so seriously injured that reports of his death reached Rome.

In the summer of the following year, he sailed up the coast to meet a nobleman who promised to secure a Pardon. Briefly detained at the port of Palo, Caravaggio was devastated to find his boat had set sail – taking with it everything he owned. In the intense heat of Italy in August, he endured an arduous 100-mile journey on horseback desperate to meet the ship at Porto Ercole. Although made it, he then collapsed of exhaustion and died a few days later.

An envoy arrived with The Pope’s pardon three days after Caravaggio’s death.

Caravaggio’s epitaph, written by his friend Marzio Milesi:

Michelangelo Merisi, son of Fermo di Caravaggio – in his art, equal not to a painter, but to Nature itself – died, journeying from Naples to Rome, in Porto Ercole on August 15 in the year of our Lord 1610. He lived thirty-six years, nine months and twenty days: Marzio Milesi, Jurisconsult salutes a friend of extraordinary genius.

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