Tuesday, 6 July 2010
A Life less Ordinary
I mentioned in a previous blog (Dangerous and Brilliant) that the infamous and notorious Michelangelo Caravaggio is one of my all-time favourite painters. It’s not just the art that excites and intrigues me - it’s the life, or, to be more exact, it’s the death! He was only thirty-eight when he shuffled off his mortal coil in July 1610, though the precise circumstances of his particular exit have remained a mystery ever since.
Now, on the basis of some analysis of dry bones, Italian scientists are claiming that he may have died from lead poisoning from the paints he used, a somewhat speculative conclusion since they have since admitted that the bones tested may not be his at all!
So, the mystery remains, probably never to be solved. But as nature abhors a vacuum so, too, does history or, rather, historians, which really amounts to the same thing. To coincide with the anniversary Andrew Graham-Dixon has written Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, in which he reveals all sorts of salacious facts, which I take to mean that the art was sacred and the life profane!
Profane it most assuredly was. Graham-Dixon suggests that he was sexually adventurous – there is no great secret in that -, that he worked as a pimp, that he fathered an illegitimate child, and that his murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni, a notorious Roman pimp, in 1606 was the result of a dispute over the honour of Lavinia, Tomassoni’s wife.
After this Caravaggio fled to Malta to take refuge among the knights; but unfortunately for him his unstable temperament followed on. In July 1608 he was jailed for assaulting Fra Giovanni Rodmonte Roero, one of the Order’s most senior knights. He escaped closely pursued, according to Graham-Dixon, by the vengeful Roero, who caught up with him in Naples in 1609, attacking him outside a tavern and severely disfiguring his face. The tavern in question, the Osteria del Cerriglio, was a haunt of homosexuals, which has allowed the author to add a new speculative gloss to the artist’s mystique!
We know for a certainty that Caravaggio died in the Tuscan town of Porto Ecole the year after this attack. It’s Graham-Dixon’s contention that, weakened by his injuries, he probably died of a heart attack or exhaustion following a hundred-mile ride from Palo to Porto Ecole, where he was supposed to catch a boat carrying three of his paintings. The author says;
The latest lead poisoning theory just does not fit the facts. Caravaggio did not slowly deteriorate before his death as he would have done with lead poisoning, but was immensely physically fit, escaping from prison, running across Sicily and painting huge paintings right up until just before his death. I hope I have proven that his behaviour was not that of an irrational mad man, as been suggested, but of a violent man living in violent times whose tragic story is certainly the most extraordinary of any artist to have lived.
Of that I have not the least doubt.