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20 March 2024

The last crimes of Caravaggio

Within weeks of finishing his final painting, a murder scene, the artist was himself dead.

By Michael Prodger

In May 1606, Caravaggio’s rackety life caught up with him. He already had a long list of misdemeanours against his name. He had been twice arrested for carrying a sword without a permit; put on trial by the Roman authorities for writing scurrilous verses about a rival, Giovanni Baglione (or “Johnny Bollocks” according to the poems); arrested for affray and assault, in one incident being injured himself (his testimony to the police survives: “I wounded myself with my own sword when I fell down these stairs. I don’t know where it was and there was no one else there”); arrested again for smashing a plate of artichokes in the face of a waiter; for throwing stones and abusing a constable (telling him he could “stick [his sword] up his arse”); and for smearing excrement on the house of the landlady who had had his belongings seized in payment of missed rent. There were more incidents, all meticulously recorded in the Roman archives.

Eventually, however, he overstepped so far that even his lofty clerical patrons, notably cardinals Del Monte and Borghese, could no longer help him. The painter had a long-running animosity with a pimp called Ranuccio Tomassoni that seems to have come to a head with an argument about a woman, either Tomassoni’s wife or Fillide Melandroni, a courtesan and one of Caravaggio’s models: the two men decided to settle matters with a duel. They met at night on a tennis court and in the fight, Caravaggio pierced Tomassoni’s femoral artery. Caravaggio may have been aiming for his opponent’s genitals, to inflict a sexual wound in keeping with the honour culture of the time. Tomassoni bled to death.

Duelling was illegal so Caravaggio fled Rome. He was convicted of murder in absentia and a death warrant – a bando capitale – was issued against him, meaning anyone could kill him for a reward; Caravaggio’s severed head would serve as proof. The painter made first for the protection of the Colonna family, with whom he long had ties – Costanza Colonna was Marchesa of Caravaggio, the town in Lombardy where the painter was born – and then for Naples, a Spanish territory and therefore beyond the laws of the Papal States.

The painter, distinguished, according to an eyewitness, by a “black beard, thick eyebrows and black eyes, who goes dressed all in black”, arrived in Naples both celebrated and infamous. His pictures in Rome had caused a sensation: there was approbation – with the maligned Baglione, who despite his subject’s insults was one of Caravaggio’s three early biographers, reporting that his Madonna of Loreto (circa 1605) had been met with sounds of approval he likened to “the cackling of geese” – but disapproval too. Another biographer, Gian Pietro Bellori, claimed that the reason fellow artists were “infatuated” with Caravaggio was because “without study or effort” his example “enabled them to make facile copies after nature and to imitate forms, which were vulgar and lacking in beauty”. Naples was rich, teeming and, as a major port, well used to dangerous and unpredictable men; it wanted something by his hand.

His first major commission was a large altarpiece depicting the Seven Acts of Mercy for the Pio Monte della Misericordia, the church of a charitable confraternity dedicated to helping the Neapolitan poor. It showed the acts prescribed in the Bible – feeding the hungry, burying the dead, clothing the naked, and so on – taking place at night, torchlit and crammed into a Naples street corner with the Virgin and swooping angels overhead. It amounted to seven paintings in one and with its mixture of realism, imagination, drama and the sacred unfolding in the profane world, it was the most audacious picture the city had seen. The Seven Acts set an example that younger artists such as Jusepe de Ribera, Battistello Caracciolo and Mattia Preti quickly adopted.

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Perhaps because he feared the reach of his enemies, Caravaggio did not stay in Naples long. In the summer of 1607 he sailed for Malta in a flotilla commanded by Fabrizio Sforza Colonna, in another example of the bond between him and the family. He may also have headed for the middle of the Mediterranean in order to join the Knights of the Order of St John – the Hospitallers – whose headquarters were on the island. Membership of the military-charitable order would immediately grant him dispensation for the murder of Tomassoni and he could return safely to Rome.

Although he was indeed invested as a knight, he could not outrun his brawling nature. He got into an altercation with a more senior Hospitaller and wounded him with a pistol. He was incarcerated in a castle rock-cell above a 200-foot drop but, barely plausibly, somehow managed to escape. With the help of an unknown accomplice he scaled the precipice and clambered down to a boat waiting beneath. From Malta he headed for Sicily, where he spent nine itinerant months before once again the breath of his enemies felt too warm on his neck and he headed back to Naples and the protection of the Colonnas.

Even they, however, were unable to shield him. In the autumn of 1609, as he left an insalubrious tavern, the Osteria del Cerriglio, he was set upon. His assailants, perhaps the Maltese knight he had wounded or men hired by him, cut his face “with such severe slashes”, said Baglione, that “he was almost unrecognisable”. A sfregio, facial wound, was a sign of revenge; as Caravaggio had tried to do to Tomassoni, so his attackers managed to do to him. It was a scarred and scared Caravaggio who in early 1610 began work on what was to be his last painting.

The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula depicts the culmination of a story that became popular with the dissemination of The Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ lives first published in 1265. It recounts how Ursula, a British or Breton princess, travelled on pilgrimage to Rome with 10,010 virgins (some accounts say 11,000). On their way back through Cologne they were massacred by the Huns. The Hun prince offered to spare Ursula if she would marry him and when she refused, he shot her with an arrow.

Many earlier artists had helped service the cult of the saint, from Hans Memling to Vittore Carpaccio and Jacopo Tintoretto, and had made the flock of virgins their focus. Caravaggio pared the martyrdom back to its essentials. He painted just six figures – Ursula, the Hun prince, an appalled bystander who tries to intervene and three soldiers (one almost hidden behind the saint): one of the onlookers is Caravaggio himself. It was not the first time he had painted himself into his pictures. He is there in both the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1600) and the Taking of Christ (1602) as a witness or an everyman who, in his failure to act, is complicit in the drama. Here, he showed himself unscarred.

Caravaggio compresses the scene into a tight and seemingly airless space; in fact it takes place in a tent but deterioration of the paint surface makes some details hard to make out. The effect of this constriction is both to heighten the emotional impact of the action and to give it an otherworldliness. The Hun prince, a coarse-featured older man, shoots Ursula at point-blank range. His hand is still in the action of releasing the bowstring as the saint looks down to where the arrow has pierced her chest. She is painted in a ghostly pale light, caught between life and death, and her hands frame the arrow shaft in a gesture that has sexual overtones – she has refused her wooer-killer and dies by penetration – and also recalls images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

There is a small spurt of blood; Ursula’s face registers both incomprehension and acceptance, while her murderer’s bears an expression almost of surprise, certainly not rage; the palette is muted and the handling more abbreviated than in his Roman works. Some commentators have ascribed the broad effects to the aftermath of his wounds – a shaky hand, a diminished eye – but they are just as likely the result of Caravaggio deciding to do more with less. He had received a traumatic reminder that life was short and he wanted to get things done. He spent effort on the prince’s armour and there is delicate gold filigree in Ursula’s bodice, but he didn’t waste time on details.

Regardless, this is a painting to be seen close up – but the closer the viewer gets the more uncomfortable it becomes. This is both an intimate martyrdom and a silent one: mouths are open in shock but they emit no sound. The flurry of hands act out an eloquent mime. Caravaggio himself seems at first glance to be looking at the archer but in fact his gaze goes beyond the picture frame. He numbers among the knot of figures but remains unreadable, playing no real part in the action. The overriding impression of the painting is one of sheer strangeness.

This enigmatic work is now being lent by the Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, from its gallery in Naples, for a single-room free exhibition at the National Gallery, where it will be shown alongside the gallery’s own late Caravaggio, Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist (1609-10).

When the bank acquired the painting in 1973 it was thought to be by one of Caravaggio’s followers rather than the artist himself. It wasn’t until the discovery of a letter in 1980 in the Naples archives that a proper attribution could be made. The letter, dated 11 May 1610, was addressed to Marcantonio Doria of the noble Genoese family by his homme d’affaires in Naples Lanfranco Massa. In it, Massa describes how he had intended to dispatch the Saint Ursula commissioned by his master to Genoa “but to make sure of sending it perfectly dry I put it out yesterday in the sun, which, rather than drying out the varnish, made it soften, since Caravaggio applied it quite thickly. I will go round to said Caravaggio’s again to get his opinion on what to do so I can be sure of not ruining it.”

Here then was not just proof that Caravaggio was the painter – further confirmed by the discovery of Doria’s initials on the back of the canvas – but that damage to its surface was suffered early (it was further harmed by careless packing when the painting was sent back to Naples in 1832). The link to Doria, who had met Caravaggio in 1605, also helps to explain the subject of the painting. At the time of the commission, Doria’s stepdaughter, Livia Grimaldi, was a nun at a convent in Naples and she was finding things hard. She had taken the name Sister Ursula and her unhappiness was clearly on her stepfather’s mind.

The coda to the painting was rapid and tragic. Just six weeks after it had been sent to Genoa, Caravaggio himself left Naples. Believing a papal pardon was imminent he headed for Rome, but at the port of Palo he was arrested by mistake and the boat carrying his belongings – including three paintings – sailed on without him. According to Bellori, when the painter was released he ran “along the beach in the heat of the summer sun” trying to catch up with the vessel – in fact, he was probably on a hired horse – but, still suffering from his wounds and debilitated by exhaustion, he fell into a “malignant fever” at Porto Ercole and died. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

Caravaggio was dead at 38 after a career of a little under 15 years. He left no drawings and no workshop, yet his influence was instantaneous and widespread. As the critic Robert Hughes put it: “There was art before him and after him, and they were not the same.” Caravaggism – dramatic chiaroscuro, unidealised models, earthy realism, sparse settings, concentrated storytelling and striking gesture – spread to Spain and, through the Utrecht Caravaggisti, a group of Dutch painters who had studied in Rome, to northern Europe.

Bellori commented that younger painters “especially flocked to him and praised him alone as the only true imitator of nature, looking upon his works as miracles, they vied with each other in following him”. Caravaggio’s artistic bloodline can be traced in Artemisia Gentileschi and Rubens, Georges de la Tour and Rembrandt, and any number of highly skilled but lesser-known painters, from Valentin de Boulogne and Simon Vouet to Bartolomeo Manfredi and Carlo Saraceni.

A waning of influence soon followed as the faction critical of him in his lifetime reasserted itself. Painting, it stated, should be uplifting and should treat the ideal rather than the street; colours should be harmonious and compositions planned and underpinned by drawing. Caravaggio fell from view for more than two centuries. He had significant adherents such as Théodore Géricault and Édouard Manet, but as late as the second half of the 19th century John Ruskin could still castigate him as someone who painted “for the sake of the shadows”, and as a “ruffian… distinguished only by his preference for candlelight and reinforcement of villainy” (in fact, a candle flame appears in just one of his paintings, The Taking of Christ).

Caravaggio died at Porto Ercole “as miserably as he had lived”, reported Bellori. That pale, open-mouthed figure standing behind Saint Ursula at the very instant of her death is the last glimpse we have of this great and divisive painter in life.

“The Last Caravaggio” shows at the National Gallery, London WC2, from 18 April to 21 July 2024

[See also: When Europe went Angelica Kauffman mad]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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