Caravaggio: The brutal life and early death of the sinner who painted saints

Although named after an angel, Caravaggio needed no stronger reason to brawl than having his artichokes dressed with butter instead of olive oil. Maev Kennedy delves into his short and brutal life.

In the claustrophobic gloom of Caravaggio’s 1610 The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, a dark, burly man is shoving his way into the centre of the frame. His expression, mouth open, is enigmatic: is he coming to cheer on the executioner, whose bow has just fired the fatal shot or to rescue the saint looking down with calm acceptance at the quivering arrow piercing her breast? Is he merely excited at the drama? He certainly looks, as described by a contemporary, ‘a stocky young man… with thick eyebrows and black eyes’. It is unquestionably a self-portrait of the artist and, whatever his intention, he is acting exactly as he did throughout his short, turbulent life — barging his way towards, rather than away from, trouble.

The painting is coming on loan to the National Gallery in London from the Banca Intesa Sanpaolo, undoubtedly the greatest work in the institution’s collection of 35,000 works of art. In the narrow, windowless gallery specially designed to showcase it in Naples, the city where it was painted, it has an eerie effect. A slot cut through a thick wall gives visitors a chilling glimpse before they enter the gallery. In reproductions, the effect is less evident, but in the flesh the contrast is brutal between the ruddy skin tone of the executioner — a king of the Huns whom the virgin saint has refused to marry — and the almost phosphorescent pallor of Ursula and Caravaggio, as if both are already dead.

The artist looms behind the saint in a self-portrait in The Martyrdom of St Ursula (1610). Credit: ©Archivio Patrimonio Artistico Intesa Sanpaolo / foto Luciano Pedicini, Napoli

To Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, curator of the National Gallery exhibition, which is free, as part of the museum’s 200th-anniversary celebrations, the artist is looking beyond the picture frame towards an unguessable future. That future would be very short. The exhibition is titled ‘The Last Caravaggio’ for a reason: within weeks of completing The Martyrdom of St Ursula, he was dead. ‘There is something very poignant about it,’ Dr Whitlum-Cooper says. ‘This really is the last time we see Caravaggio.’

Records for many of the artist’s contemporaries are scrappy or non-existent — perhaps a marriage certificate, snippets of gossip, a painting in an aristocratic inventory. Caravaggio’s own short, blood-soaked life, by contrast, is spattered with records. Trawls in recent decades through archives in Rome, Naples, Malta, Sicily and other landmark places in his life turned up a paper trail of disasters, serial arrests and imprisonments, brawls, sword fights, outraged complaints, not least by a woman who had obscene verses scrawled on her door and by a Roman landlady in whose ceiling he chopped a hole to get more light for his studio. Once, he even attacked a waiter for serving him artichokes dressed with butter instead of olive oil.

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The use of contemporary settings for religious scenes, such as in Judith beheading Holofernes, shocked and thrilled in equal measure. Credit: Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica / Alamy

However, among the discoveries shining light on a dark life, there was also a letter, found in 1980 in the Naples state archives, which authenticated Ursula, recording that it had been about to be sent to a Genoese nobleman Marcantonio Doria. When the bank had bought the painting, it had been attributed to an obscure follower.

The life and times of Caravaggio

  • September 29, 1571 Born Michelangelo Merisi in Milan, Italy
  • 1576 The family moves back to its hometown of Caravaggio following a bubonic-plague outbreak in Milan
  • 1577 Caravaggio’s father, uncle and grandparents die
  • 1584 Apprenticed to fresco painter Simone Peterzano
  • 1592–1606 Caravaggio (pictured) is in Rome. Major church commissions include The Madonna of Loreto and Matthew and the Angel, rejected and later destroyed in Berlin during the Second World War
  • 1606 Flees Rome to escape death sentence for murder. He paints The Seven Acts of Mercy in Naples and the Beheading of St John, his only signed work, for the co-cathedral in Valletta, Malta. He’s jailed for assault, but escapes
  • 1608 He is in Sicily
  • 1609 Returns to Naples, where he’s gravely injured in tavern attack
  • 1610 Completes The Martyrdom of St Ursula when convalescing
  • 1610 Leaves Naples for Rome. He’s arrested en route and the ship sails without him
  • July 18/19, 1610 Dies at Porto Ercole

Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi in Milan in 1571, named not for the artist, but, most unsuitably, for an angel, as his birth fell on the feast day of the Archangel Michael. His family moved to escape the bubonic plague devastating the northern Italian city, back to their property in the small Lombardy town of Caravaggio, which gave him his adopted name. It was to no avail: by the time he had turned six, the disease had taken his father, uncle and paternal grandparents.

For the rest of his life, every effort to befriend him ended badly, except for the touching support of a family connection. Costanza Colonna, Marchesa of Caravaggio, was from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Italy. Caravaggio’s aunt had been wet nurse to her children and, clearly, the Marchesa felt close to maternal towards the artist. She supported him in countless scrapes, likely introduced him to wealthy patrons and helped get him to Malta to escape a death sentence — the artist’s Maltese period produced some great works, most notably The Beheading of St John the Baptist for the co-cathedral in Valletta, and inevitably ended badly in a moonlit prison escape after another assault charge. Her shelter extended to the very end of his life, when he lodged in her family palace in Naples, where he may have painted Ursula.

The Beheading of St John the Baptist (1608), the most notable of many great works produced during the artist’s Maltese period. Credit: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

Long before that, by the time he had turned 13, he was apprenticed to a rather dull fresco painter, Simone Peterzano. Art historian Andrew Graham Dixon believes he can hardly have spent any time with Peterzano, still less working ‘night and day’ as specified in his indentures. Caravaggio reached Rome by 1592 and was given lodgings by a priest, but, according to a contemporary biographer, left in high dudgeon, complaining ‘Monsignor Salad’ fed him nothing else.

It was in the Eternal City that he found fame, progressing from smaller commissions such as Bacchus (for Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte) to ever larger, more prestigious ones, such as those of the Cappella Contarelli in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where he painted The Martyrdom of St Matthew and The Calling of St Matthew, and the several works he produced for the Mattei family, not least The Incredulity of St Thomas and The Supper at Emmaus.

Once he finally gained wealthy clients, his use of contemporary costume and settings for religious scenes and of recognisable local models — including prostitutes, one of whom may have been the model for Judith in Judith beheading Holofernes — shocked some, but thrilled many. In a letter, Giovanni Magni, ambassador to the Duke of Mantua, reported that the painter was ‘among the most famous of those who do modern things in Rome’. Critics worried that over-awed younger artists would follow his example in abandoning drawing, instead painting straight from the figure onto the canvas.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601), one of many works for Rome’s influential Mattei family. Credit: National Gallery / Album / Alamy

In May 1606, however, Caravaggio’s life changed. He went beyond street brawls and pub punch ups, killing Ranuccio Tomassoni, the pimp of one of the prostitutes, in a duel. A murderer, he had to flee Rome, then the centre of the art world, under a death sentence, with a price on his head. He arrived in Naples for the first time, then moved on to Malta in an attempt to achieve respectability through membership of the powerful Knights of St John. That wasn’t to last either and he was back in Naples, a fugitive again, in late 1609, where he was set upon in a notorious tavern, his face slashed so badly that the first reports in Rome were of his death. His attackers were never identified, but there were many candidates.

Despite this troubled history, however, it wasn’t violence that put an end to his life. He was on his way to catch a skiff to a harbour near Rome, where he hoped to negotiate a pardon for the murder he had committed, when he was arrested. He managed to pay bail and travelled all the way to Porto Ercole, in Tuscany, but there he died in July 1610, aged only 38, most probably of a fever.

‘The Last Caravaggio’ is at The National Gallery, London WC2, until July 21 —