Rome’s Soft Spot for Caravaggio
WHEN Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1592 he was just another young, aspiring painter. It took only a few years for his unconventional aesthetic vision and colorful, often violent lifestyle to transfix Roman society. To read his 17th-century biographers, Caravaggio was more likely to have a sword in his hand than a paintbrush, and court papers from the time amply substantiate his bad-boy behavior, which ranged from churlish (hurling artichokes at a waiter) to deadly (murder).
But it was his naturalistic style, along with his tendency to set religious scenes in the contemporary world, that really captured the public imagination.
And is still capturing it, if the lines snaking outside the Scuderie del Quirinale are any indication. For the last three months a greatest hits show at the gallery has drawn thousands of visitors who don’t mind jostling for space to get a glimpse of works like “The Lute Player” and “Amor Vincit Omnia.” But even after the exhibition closes on June 13, Rome will still be the best place to explore Caravaggio’s world: about a third of the more than 60 works that experts acknowledge are his are housed in the capital’s museums and churches.
One place to start is the Borghese Gallery, in the park that backs onto the Spanish Steps. It is there where visitors will find two early paintings: “Boy With Basket of Fruit” (1593-94) and “Sick Bacchus” (c. 1593). Caravaggio was too poor to pay for a model, so he often painted friends, as in the “Boy With Basket of Fruit,” or himself, as in the “Sick Bacchus.” The latter, an ashen self-portrait as the god of wine — which recalls hangovers more than Bacchanalian delights — was likely created after Caravaggio’s release from the Hospital of the Consolation where he was treated for a horse kick.
Cardinal Scipione Borghese was an early fan and it’s thanks to him that the gallery boasts six Caravaggios. The two early works were acquired from one of Caravaggio’s first employers in Rome, and some art historians posit that two others — a “St. Jerome” (1605-06) and a “David With the Head of Goliath” (1609) — were gifts to the cardinal from Caravaggio for getting him out of various legal entanglements. The most imposing Caravaggio in the Borghese is the “Madonna dei Palafrenieri,” which the cardinal bought in 1606 for “just 100 scudi,” according to Rossella Vodret, who this year published a slim guide: “Caravaggio in Rome: Itinerary.”
The center of Caravaggio’s existence was the Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi, halfway between the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. As Peter Robb writes in his biography, “M, The Man Who Became Caravaggio” (1998), nearly every major event of Caravaggio’s Roman life happened within a five-minute walk of this square, from selling his first works to killing a man, which occurred just a few streets to the north of the piazza, in 1606. (Details concerning the murder are unclear; some biographers say it was the result of a brawl over the outcome of a tennis game. Whatever the cause, Caravaggio was forced to flee the city.)
In Caravaggio’s day San Luigi was already a bustling thoroughfare and home to several Roman power brokers. “There was a huge concentration there and everyone knew each other,” said Helen Langdon, the author of an engaging 1998 biography of the artist, “Caravaggio: A Life.” On the square was the shop of the dealer believed to have hawked “The Fortune Teller” (1594-95) to Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the artist’s first powerful patron. The painting — along with a “St. John the Baptist” (1601-02) that also belonged to Del Monte — is now in the Capitoline Museums, about a 10-minute walk from San Luigi.
Caravaggio would ultimately choose many of his models from the streets he strolled through each day, and from his circle of friends and acquaintances: swordsmen, painters, commoners and courtesans. Most of his models have remained nameless, like the red-haired young woman who modeled for his “Penitent Magdalene” (c.1595) and for the Virgin in the “Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” (1595-96). Both are in Rome’s Doria Pamphilj Gallery, about a five-minute walk from the piazza.
Others have been tentatively identified, like Fillide Melandroni, who may have served as the model for his “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1599) in the Barberini Gallery, close to the Via Veneto. The story of Judith, a Jewish widow who saves her people by beheading the Assyrian general, was a popular subject at the time, and Caravaggio’s shocking version may have been influenced by the public execution in 1599 of Beatrice Cenci and two other members of her family for the murder of her abusive father.
And little is known of “Lena,” whom Caravaggio’s contemporaries identified as his lover; for some she was a poor honest girl and for others a prostitute. She was the model for the “Madonna of the Palafrenieri,” and for the “Madonna of Loreto” (1604-05) or pilgrims’ Madonna, which hangs in the church of Sant’Agostino, just around the corner from Piazza San Luigi. Of this work, the painter Giovanni Baglione, Caravaggio’s contemporary biographer, wrote that “the lower classes made a huge fuss” over the two grubby pilgrims. In keeping with a vision that broke down the barriers between the real world and the divine, the Virgin could also be mistaken for a young Roman mother clutching her son to her chest.
Between 1595 and 1600 Caravaggio lived in Palazzo Madama, then the residence of Cardinal Del Monte and now home to the Italian Senate, which abuts Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi. Getting into the cardinal’s household was Caravaggio’s first big break, and through Del Monte he was commissioned to paint three altar paintings for the Contarelli chapel in the French church of San Luigi. It was his first, important religious commission and it made him the talk of the town. Given the strict artistic formulas dictating how religious scenes should be painted, the paintings were nothing short of revolutionary. In “The Calling of St. Matthew” (1599-1600) he fast-forwarded the action by 1,600 years, plunking the apostle in a pub and portraying a slice of tavern life that Caravaggio, no teetotaler, would have been familiar with.
The first versions of the “Crucifixion of Peter” and “Conversion of Saul” (both 1604-1605), his next religious commission, were rejected for reasons that remain unclear. But his second take on the lateral paintings in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in downtown Rome, next to the massive gate that received visitors traveling from the north, offers a striking contrast to the grandiose altarpiece, an “Assumption of the Virgin” by Annibale Carracci, another star of the time.
To see “The Deposition,” (1602-1604), painted for the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, one must go to the Vatican Museums. But it’s also worth going to the church, which is a short walk from San Luigi, on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, to see a copy in situ, if only to get a full sense of Caravaggio’s originality. A stone slab juts into the viewer’s space as grievers prepare to lay the remarkably realistic body of Christ into a tomb that corresponds with the chapel’s altar.
Caravaggio spent the last four years of his life on the run, a death sentence hanging over his head as a result of the murder. He flitted between Naples, Malta and Sicily, and died in the summer of 1610, in mysterious circumstances, as he was returning to Rome after receiving a papal pardon.
If accepted as a late work, “David With the Head of Goliath,” now hanging in the Borghese Gallery, is believed by some biographers to have been intended as a gift to Cardinal Borghese for his role in commuting the death sentence. Goliath appears to be a self-portrait, a hunted, haunted likeness, capturing Caravaggio’s fear and his unflinching pursuit of the real.
IF YOU GO
Borghese Gallery, Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5; (39-06) 8413979, galleriaborghese.it. (Ticket reservations necessary: 39-06-32810.)
Barberini Gallery, Via delle Quattro Fontane, 13; (39-06) 4824184, galleriaborghese.it.
Capitoline Museums, Piazza del Campidoglio, 1; (39-06) 060608; en.museicapitolini.org.
Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Via del Corso, 305; (39-06) 6797323; dopart.it.
Vatican Museums, Viale Vaticano, (39-06) 69884676 or (39-06) 69883145; www.vatican.va.
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi; (39-06) 688271.
Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Piazza del Popolo, 12; (39-06) 3610836.
Sant’Agostino, Piazza di Sant’Agostino, 80; (39-06) 68801962.