• gerard van weyenbergh

ART & CRIME part 1: Caravaggio

The main subject of his theatrical works depicting characters having their throats cut or stabbed against a dark background, crime was also part of Caravaggio's life, punctuated by real blows of the blade. A sharp journey that begins as soon as he arrives in Rome. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was around the age 18 at the time and lived modestly. But his talent quickly secured him protectors and powerful clients such as Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte or his neighbor, the Genoese marquis and banker Vincenzo Giustiniani. Perhaps intoxicated by this dazzling success, and already proud of nature, Caravaggio quickly forged a reputation as a bloody, sensitive, and brawling man. A cocktail all the more explosive as the painter frequents taverns and has started to carry the sword like the old nobility members, quick to draw to defend their honor.

Often involved in brawls, Caravaggio ends up at least eleven times in court and several times in prison, from which he comes out thanks to his connections. The court records paint a striking portrait of him. On November 19, 1600, a man filed a complaint against the 29-year-old artist. Reason? Strikes and wounds with the stick and the sword! In 1601, he injured a guard at the Château Saint-Ange. On August 28, 1603, a rival painter, Giovanni Baglione (who would write his biography in 1642), sued him for defamation, Caravaggio having written and disseminated rough poems about him, riddled with rude insults! It earned him imprisonment, ultimately shortened following the intervention of the French ambassador.

More incongruously, on April 24, 1604, an inn boy reproached him for having thrown a dish of hot artichokes in his face! A few months later, the painter was imprisoned for insulting the urban militia, then arrested on May 28, 1605 for carrying an illegal weapon. In July 1605, he was accused by a notary of having wounded him in the head with a sword. Why? The honor of the beautiful Lena Antognetti, a courtesan who posed for Caravaggio on several occasions, and whom her interlocutor described with contempt as a prostitute, adding that she was on the sidewalk in Piazza Navona! The case is serious: the repeat offender takes refuge in Genoa for two months, until the complaint is withdrawn.

Sentenced to death in absentia by the Pope, the artist is on the run.

As soon as he returned to Rome, his landlady accused him of having demolished her shutters with stones. Exasperated, she had just fired him for six months of unpaid rent and for having pierced his ceiling for artistic lighting purposes! But Caravaggio's extravagances do not end there. Among other things, the American art historian Felix Witting reports that he would have, "out of jealousy", "seriously threatened painter Guido Reni", and even "sent a Sicilian hitman to wound the painter Niccolò Pomarancio in the face", who had succeeded in obtaining the commission for a large fresco!

On May 28, 1606, things got tough. While the whole city celebrates the coronation of Pope Paul V, Caravaggio, accompanied by friends, quarrels in the middle of the street with a young nobleman with a sulfurous reputation, Ranuccio Tomassoni, and kills him. The conflict having degenerated into a four-on-four duel, the painter would have fatally pierced his thigh. According to some, the dispute would have concerned a prostitute named Fillide.

Himself wounded, Caravaggio left Rome in disaster. Sentenced to death in absentia by the Pope, the artist is on the run. Haunted by this tragedy, the pictures he paints in his flight seem darker than ever. In Naples, he produced a macabre self-portrait, taking himself as a model to represent Goliath's severed head. Tracked down by the Pope's agents, he continued his flight to Malta, where he painted another surprising painting, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, which strangely evokes his Roman affair. The religious scene represented takes on the appearance of a sordid news item: in the courtyard of a prison, Saint John the Baptist, wounded in the throat by a sword which lies nearby, is held down to the ground by his murderer who is getting ready to finish him off with a dagger. Another chilling detail: the painter inscribes his signature in red letters with the blood flowing from the victim's throat.

Caught up in his past

In December 1608, Caravaggio was imprisoned at Fort Saint-Ange in Malta. The Knights of the Order, whom he had just joined before being brutally struck off, would he have discovered his criminal past? The painter would then have escaped by climbing at night the prison walls to take refuge in Sicily, then again in Naples in 1609, where he would have been the victim of attempted murder.

In 1610, Caravaggio tried to regain Rome where the Pope is about to sign his pardon. But, after missing his boat, the painter becomes uneasy in the small Italian port of Porto Ercole. Suffering from delirium and a high fever, he was transported to a nearby hospital and died on July 18, 38 old. Sunstroke, malaria, murder, lead poisoning contained in his painting. Many hypotheses have been put forward on the cause of his death. Until his skeleton was finally exhumed in 2010 from the old hospital cemetery - various scientific analyzes and DNA comparisons carried out by professors Michel Darcourt and Didier Raoult which made it possible to identify him in 2018 … And to conclude that the painter would have died of the consequences of a septicemia due to Staphylococcus aureus.

© Beaux-Arts, Josephine Blinde

© Galleria Nazzionale di Arte Roma