“Caravaggio: A Life” by Helen Langdon

Many use the adjective “theatrical” as a pejorative, but as someone who loves the theatre, I can’t say I do. As I understand it, the word refers to a heightening of the audience’s response not merely in an artificial manner – all art is artificial, after all – but in a knowingly artificial manner: we are aware as we experience it of the artifice of the creation – of the artist (or the author, or the composer, or whoever) pulling the strings in order to intensify our response. Indeed, our awareness of the artist pulling the strings is part of the intended effect. This can, I accept, lead merely to the meretricious, especially when the material is slight, or is treated in a superficial manner. But when it isn’t, when the material itself is substantial in its own right and the treatment is more than superficial, then the artist’s presence, if sufficiently striking, can enhance the work.

Some seven or so years ago now, the National Gallery in London had hosted an exhibition of some late paintings of Caravaggio, and I remember vividly the effect of walking into that first room. No reproduction could have prepared me for something such as this. There, looming out of the darkness, was a vast canvas, almost three metres in height, of the Flagellation of Christ. At the centre was Christ’s almost naked body, lit as if by a fierce spotlight, his hands tied behind him, and his head, crowned with thorns, hanging limp; to the right of the picture, one of the executioners presses on Christ’s calf with his foot as he tightens the bonds; while to the left, another executioner, a man who, to judge from the vicious sneer on his face, enjoys his job, grabs Christ by the hair with one hand, while holding the scourge in a clenched fist in another; and a third executioner, in the forefront at the bottom left, is tying the rods together in preparation for the beating. These are working men doing a job: their job just happens to be inflicting pain. But it is that lighting that is so theatrical – that relentless spotlight picking out these figures from the profound dark that surrounds them, and covering them in a light of the most dazzling brilliance.

"The Flagellation of Christ", courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

“The Flagellation of Christ”, courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

I remember going from room to room, amazed. Nowadays, the adjective “amazing” merely signifies “very good”, but I actually was amazed: never, on seeing these paintings in reproduction, had I imagined that their real presence could make so visceral an impact. These were all late works, painted in Naples, Malta, and Sicily, while Caravaggio was on the run: in Rome, he was wanted for murder, and there was a price on his head. Of course, any work of art should be judged purely on its own terms, but once something such as this is known,  it is not possible to un-know it: like it or not, it is not possible to look on these highly charged tragic works, these meditations on violence and mortality and terror, and, sometimes, even of tenderness, without having in the back of one’s mind the thought that these were the creations of a man who had himself killed, and who feared for his own life every day. In one picture, David holds the severed head of Goliath. David is but a boy, and his face, though expressive more of sorrow than of triumph, is relatively bland. It is the dead head that seems a living thing. The strength of character is all in that dead and battered head of Goliath, and here, Caravaggio had painted himself. How is it possible to see this painting and keep from one’s mind the circumstances in which it had been painted?

It was that last room of that exhibition that particularly affected me. Here were three paintings rarely seen – two from the Museo Nazionale in Messina in Sicily, and the other from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nancy in France. The Sicilian paintings depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Raising of Lazarus, while the painting from Nancy depicted the Annunciation – all familiar subjects in Western art. But never had they been treated like this. In the Annunciation, the angel seems to be entering the space of the painting from our own space, and, his back to us, his shoulder and arm are brightly lit by a white light supernatural in its radiance. Before the angel, Mary, dressed in a deep blue, bows in deep submission, at once accepting and weighed down by the burden placed upon her. Mary appears again, of course, in the adoration of the Shepherds, this time in red. Here, she is not, as in most paintings of this subject, joyfully showing her divine child to the adorers: she is, instead, clutching the newborn baby in her arms, and is collapsed on the dirty floor of the stable in utter exhaustion, as if unaware of the shepherds who have come to pay homage. The shepherds themselves are ragged working men; the stable is dark and dingy and filthy. These figures take up less than half the space of the canvas; the rest – especially the vast space above the figures – is in almost complete darkness. And similarly with the raising of Lazarus: the top of the figures’ heads come up to just above the half-way mark of the height of the canvas, and all above is a cavernous, dark emptiness. These figures are seen in an unearthly, ghostly half-light, as if inhabiting some vague region between life and death. Christ’s face is in darkness: the light, from behind Christ and outside the frame of the picture, catches the back of his shoulder, and the top of his sleeve as he points towards the resurrecting Lazarus. Around Christ’s head is a complex of several other heads: Christ’s head stands out from theirs not by being in the light, but by being in the dark. One of the heads behind Christ strains forward to see what is happening; two workmen in front of Christ, holding the stone which is to cover the grave of Lazarus, seem to be looking over their shoulders to somewhere behind Christ, towards the source of this mysterious light that illumines the scene. The body of Lazarus is stiff with rigor mortis; the flesh is greenish, and the arms outstretched, as if crucified. Only the right hand has begun to move: it is at an angle from the wrist, and is receiving divine light. Pressed close to his face is the face of his sister, loving and tender even in the face of Death itself.

"The annunciation", courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

“The annunciation”, courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

These three paintings in the last room seemed to contain an entire world. It was a sensibility that was entirely new to me. It presented a world that is profoundly dark, where pain is as intense as it is inevitable, and where divine power, whatever power there is that is greater than our own, fills us with awe and wonder, but not with joy. And yet there is in all this human tenderness. There is the tenderness with which the rough and ragged shepherds view the newborn child, the tenderness of Mary who, even in the utter exhaustion of childbirth, holds the beloved child close to her heart; and there is that unforgettable image of the sister of Lazarus (who is either Mary of Bethany or Martha), pressing her living face close to the face of her dead brother, her love persisting even beyond this greatest of all mysteries. These are visionary works. And yet, how could such a vision belong to a man who was a common brawler and murderer?

"The Adoration of the Shepherds", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

 

I came out of that exhibition barely able to think, but when I did recover my faculties, I found myself thinking that I must get to know more about this artist. So why it took me a full seven years to come round to reading Helen Langdon’s acclaimed biography I don’t know. I suppose it’s because I’m not really a great reader of biographies: I am interested in the work, not the man. But Caravaggio is so fascinating a person; and it is so hard to think of the works without thinking also of the man behind them; that I was prepared to make an exception: what kind of man was this Caravaggio?

"The Raising of Lazarus", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Raising of Lazarus”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

Well, as far as can be judged, he was a thug, a brawler, a bully, and a great quarreller; he was a man quick to take offence, and  given to almost gratuitous acts of violence; and he was, possibly, a neurotic. As with his almost exact contemporary Shakespeare (Shakespeare was only seven years older), we don’t really know that much about Caravaggio’s life; we know that, like Shakespeare he was born in the provinces – in Caravaggio’s case, in a small town near Milan; that, again like Shakespeare, he came to the capital city to make a career for himself; and, once again like Shakespeare, his art developed from gentle and sensuous lyricism of his early works to a visionary tragic intensity that has not since been surpassed, or possibly even equalled. But that’s where the similarities seem to end. Shakespeare, to the great dismay of his biographers, seemed to have kept a low profile while in London, and was sufficiently level-headed and business-like to make a fortune and retire back to his home town; Caravaggio, on the other hand, seemed to spend his time whoring and brawling, and, while Shakespeare was buying himself the biggest house in Stratford, Caravaggio was fleeing from place to place, armed even in bed at night, constantly in fear of his very life.

Helen Langdon’s biography of this spectacularly unbalanced man is very level-headed and sober, almost to a fault. She gives wonderfully vivid depictions of the milieux which Caravaggio inhabited – from the plague-ravaged Milan of his youth to the violent and sexually licentious streets of Rome – but generally, she is not prepared either to speculate, or even to consider certain possibilities. She is not interested, for instance, in whether Caravaggio was gay: she reminds us that homosexuality was a capital crime in those days, that the awful punishment for sodomy – burning at the stake – was enforced, and that, under such circumstances, even if Caravaggio had been gay, he would hardly have advertised the fact. And indeed, there is no evidence except in his paintings – from the sensually painted young men in his early works with their delicate, androgynous beauty, to two rather explicit paintings of male nudes –  the Victorious Cupid in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and St John the Baptist in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. The male nude is of course hardly a new subject in art, and in both these paintings, the pose is very obviously taken from Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel; but the sexually enticing and blatantly provocative nature of these Caravaggio’s nudes can hardly be mistaken. Of course, we live, thankfully, in more tolerant times, in which gay culture is not just tolerated but celebrated; but these paintings of Caravaggio remain disturbing because they indicate not homosexuality, which does not trouble us, but pederasty, which does. If any photographer nowadays were to exhibit such sensual images of naked boys, far from celebrating them as art, we would, I fancy, have the exhibition closed down. And yet, disturbingly, these paintings are undeniably masterpieces.

We have other reasons also to find Caravaggio a disturbing figure. Rome in those days was a dangerous and violent city, and, from the surviving evidence, Caravaggio seemed to revel in it. Even as a successful and much sought-after artist, he seemed to delight in low-life, moving from tennis court to tavern to brothel, often deliberately quarrelling and provoking fights. Reading through the pages of Langdon’s biography, the wonder is not that he eventually killed someone in a brawl, but that it took him so long to get round to doing it.

And yet, all the while, he was producing masterpiece after masterpiece. The turning point came in around 1599-1600 – at around the same time as Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar and As You Like It and Henry V and Hamlet – when he painted for the Contarelli chapel three extraordinary paintings relating to St Matthew, and, for the Cerasi Chapel two paintings – the Crucifixion of St Peter, and the Conversion of Paul – which flank and overwhelm by their extraordinary intensity the central painting by Annibale Caracci.

Just about everything he painted after that was a masterpiece: The Supper at Emmaus (currently at the National Gallery London); the Deposition (currently at the Vatican Pinacoteca), and the almost unbearably moving Death of the Virgin (currently at the Louvre in Paris); possibly the most poignant depiction I think I have come across in painting of the sheer pain of loss; and many, many others.

And then, of course, those last few years of his desperate life. Little is known. Why, for instance, did he leave Naples in such a rush? Why, after his welcome in Malta and his success there (he was made a Knight of the Order of St John), did he end up in prison? How did he get out of prison? (The story goes that he made a daring solo escape, but Helen Langdon is sceptical: it is more likely, she suggests, that he had powerful friends who helped him get away.) Why, in Sicily, did he sleep armed with a sword? Why did he hurriedly leave Syracuse immediately after completing the Burial of St Lucy? Was he, perhaps, being trailled by his enemies from Malta? (Certainly, he had good reason to fear: he was savagely attacked and almost killed in Naples only a few months later. Who attacked him, and why, remain unknown.) And, perhaps the greatest mystery of all, how is it possible that such a thuggish and violent brute could have painted – especially given the state of mind he must have been in – works of such visionary intensity?

Caravaggio’s death in 1610, aged only 39, is part tragedy, part farce. A pardon had been arranged for him in Rome, and he was on his way back. But when his ship stopped at the town of Port ‘Ercole, the governor of the town, either not aware of the pardon or not knowing who Caravaggio was, had him imprisoned. And by the time Caravaggio could buy his way out of imprisonment, his ship, containing paintings he was intending for Rome (and now lost), had vanished. Desperate to recover his precious paintings, Caravaggio trekked overland, through disease-ridden marsh-land, to catch up with the departed  ship; and in the process, he caught fever and died. While his contemporary Shakespeare was no doubt in the process of buying with his carefully accumulated wealth the largest house in Stratford in which to spend his well-earned retirement, the violent and unstable Caravaggio was feverishly shivering to death somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The enigma remains. I look at the face of the dead St Lucy in the painting now in Syracuse: she is lying on the bare earth with her face turned towards us, filling our hearts with infinite pity; and I ask myself how a man who habitually and gratuitously inflicted violence upon others could ever sympathise so entirely, at least in his art, with this innocent victim of that same violence.

There is no answer to these questions. If we consider what little we know of Shakespeare’s life, all we see is a provincial who comes to the big city and becomes a success, carefully accumulates wealth and invests shrewdly, and then returns to his home town to spend his retirement in a big house. In short, we encounter a middle class bourgeois with middling aspirations. And yet, this seeming mediocrity created Falstaff, Hamlet, Cleopatra, plumbing the very depths of the human soul. And meanwhile, the brutish and neurotic Caravaggio, thug and murderer and possibly pederast, conveys the most intense and dark visions of awe and terror and pity.

Perhaps it is a mistake to expect geniuses to be different from the rest of us. They come in all shapes and forms, much as the rest of us do. Some of them may indeed be noble and generous; some may even correspond to the popular image of the genius as a misunderstood and tortured soul; while others may indeed be as mediocre and as unremarkable, or as nasty and as violent, as their less gifted fellow humans. Perhaps there is no real difference between geniuses and the rest of us. Except, of course, for their genius.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carl McLuhan on October 1, 2014 at 2:53 am

    Himadri:

    I must thank you for this enlightening portrayal of Caravaggio’s artistic life at the same time as Shakespeare’s. You write beautifully and thoughtfully and poignantly, rare enough in these trendy times.

    Your fascination with the artist’s violent realities makes me reflect on a couple of other situations in the era: the stabbing to death of Christopher Marlowe in a pub brawl and Ben Jonson’s killing of a man. I haven’t researched these for specific details, except for the suspicion of Marlowe’s having been in the secret service of Queen Elizabeth. I’ll let the details go.

    But, like you, I’m inclined to speculate about the realities of their times. I love your analyses of Caravaggio’s individual paintings. I am inclined to think that violence was much more a commonplace than what we encounter. It was out there, hiding in the torn fabric of an empoverished citizenry, and lurking in the urge for power in one form or another. I can also imagine that Caravaggio, being both a survivor and a sensitive artist, had learned what he needed to do to stay on top. It appears, from your description, that he didn’t succeed as Shakespeare did, but perhaps he lived more in the world of risks. Shakespeare seems to have been satisfied with his artistic creations and the public response which he earned, rather than go more out on a limb. Perhaps when he bought that large house, he was already a man who was tired and longed for more pastoral promises.

    Cheers,
    Carl

    Reply

    • Hello Carl, and thank you for your comments. In writing this post, I am sailing into new and unfamiliar regions: I am certainly no expert on art. However, I thought, if I were to restrict myself to writing only on matters I am knowledgeable about, I’d end up writing nothing at all!

      They were indeed violent times. Marlowe, as you said, was killed in a pub brawl (our boy is now in a student hall of residence in Deptford, where Marlowe was killed!); and Jonson and Gesualdo were both killers. But who knows what goes on in those extraordinary minds! Most great artists, though, do manage to keep out of trouble; Caravaggio, from what is known of him, seemed unable to do so.

      Well, thankfully, we don’t have to deal with Caravaggio the person: what remains in his art, and I do find that extraordinary. We are currently planning a holiday to Sicily, and I am very much looking forward to seeing Caravaggio’s “Burial of St Lucy”. Sadly, the theme of innocent victims of evil seems as pertinent to our own time as it has ever been.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

    • Carl,

      Those were very violent times: in Rome artists got into brawls all the time. Benvenuto Cellini, the sculptor, killed a man and was forgiven by the Pope because he was full of talent. In his autobiography he recounts how another artist broke Michaelangelo’s nose in a street fight. And Michaelangelo himself, although it’s probably urban legend, was rumoured to have killed people just to study rigor mortis, all in the name of perfectionism. But the fact that such a legend exists just goes to show how artists and death was often linked.

      Reply

  2. I’ve always wondered if Caravaggio was mad, and that madness gave him this Xray vision of the workings of the human heart, a bit like a serial killer who knows exactly how to reach people’s tender places. I had the good fortune to spend a term at Perugia wtih a wonderful woman lecturing on fine arts, and there was at least one Caravaggio in a local church – I forget which one it was, but I was overwhelmed and have loved him ever since. But that’s my theory. Shakespeare was as sane as they come, I think.

    Reply

    • Hello gert,

      Caravaggio certainly was not normal: everything I read about him seems to suggest that he was unbalanced in some way. But these great artists come in all shapes and sizes. Caravaggio may have been unbalanced, but there have been so many who seem to have been perfectly sane and level-headed, that it’s impossible to generalise. But his paintings – well, they really are something else! I will be in Sicily for a week late this year, and I am very much looking forward to seeing the Caravaggio paintings there.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  3. I’ve read similar observation about Alexander the Great. He’s a murderous conqueror who reveled in brutal ancient warfares, however, on one occasion, he’s moved to tears when some of his soldiers who’re disabled as result of injuries asked not to be sent back to Greece cos they didn’t want to be treated as invalid by the rest of the community. I guess some souls are just blessed with both sensitivity and aggressive impulses. Or maybe Caravaggio’s better angels only surfaced and triumphed when he’s painting.

    Reply

    • Hello Kirsty,

      Your post reminded me of the opening chapter of Fielding’s Jonathan Wild. Jonathan Wild is a petty and vicious criminal, but fielding insists in that chapter that Wild is as “great” as Alexander. If, says Fielding, we think of Alexander as “great” because he wept when there were no more lands to conquer, no more innocent people to murder and to enslave, then Jonathan Wild could also claim to be “great”. not as “great” as Alexander, admittedly, but “great” all the same!

      But yes, humans are endlessly intricate. Caravaggio’s “better angels”, as you say, surfaced when he was painting, and, thankfully, he left as his legacy to posterity the best part of himself. Who knows what went on in a mind such as his!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  4. Himadri,

    Thanks for writing this. I think I was one of the people who asked you to write about this great painter; sorry it took me so long to get round to reading it.

    Reply

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