Thursday, July 7

Michelangelo Merisi before Caravaggio: a very talented 16th century ‘brawl’

What is clearly one of the best definitions that have been given of the figure of Caravaggio (Milan 1571-Porto Ércole 1610) is found in the pages of Caravaggio: a sacred and profane life, by British historian Andrew Graham-Dixon. He says: “Caravaggio’s life is like his art: a series of lightning bolts in the darkest night.” And the same happens with his childhood and his youth, if there was something else in his life. “He died when he was only thirty-nine years old,” said Cipriano García Hidalgo, professor of Art History and popularizer. ” Indeed, ” he continues, ” Caravaggio already had a bit of that black sheep profile in the family and, once he grew up, he became a quarrel, what today is known as a ‘fights’ ”. This is what emerges from the judicial archives of the time, practically the only information that has been preserved about the artist. All of that is the darkness that Graham-Dixon talks about. However, there are also the lightning, the light of his paintings: ” Without a doubt, he is one of the most influential painters and not only in painting, but also in photography, the performing arts and the cinema ‘ ‘, points out García Hidalgo.

Those court files and some other biographical data give enough information for posterity to have been able to draw a talented but rowdy character; fond of prostitutes, but accused of homosexual; dark, but bright. ” He throws rocks at his employer’s house, ” writes Graham-Dixon, ” and sings obscene songs under his window. It comes to blows with a waiter for the dressing of a plate of artichokes. Taunts a rival with graphic sexual insults. Attack a man on the street. Kill another in a sword fight. Together with his gang he inflicts heinous wounds on a knight of Justice on the island of Malta. ” In other words, Caravaggio was practically a criminal.

“He even had to flee Rome when the powerful families who used to protect him could not intercede for him,” says the professor. But it seems that Caravaggio’s particular lifestyle could have its origin long before he arrived in Rome. Perhaps you have to go back to your childhood. “His brother was the good one,” explains Cipriano García Hidalgo. In fact, he ended up being ordained as a priest. Instead, Michelangelo Merisi immediately adopted the role of black sheep: “ We even know that, although he was going to painting classes for four years in his teens, it seems that he did not take advantage of them much, that he preferred to dedicate himself to doing other things. ” What was fully recorded is that in 1592, when the young painter was in his early twenties, he went to Rome. There he arrived, as they say nowadays, with one hand in front and the other behind, “and surely he began to paint in a more serious way out of necessity.” In any case, the closeness of his family to some well-established lineages such as the Colonna and the Sforzas was for him a not inconsiderable kind of mattress both for entering the artistic circles of the Eternal City, and for avoiding the courts or the dungeon when their misdeeds and altercations came face to face with the law.

Lights and shadows, literally

Young Caravaggio soon began to stand out. Paintings like Card players (1595) or Boy bitten by a lizard (1596) they put it on the map, but both, and the rest of the works from that period, were commissioned works intended to decorate private rooms and, therefore, had no projection. “His rise to fame came with commissions for some important religious spaces in Rome,” said García Hidalgo. The works on Saint Matthew that he did for the Contarelli Chapel had a great influence on young artists trying their luck in the city. “The treatment of light and shadows is Caravaggio’s great innovation,” says the professor: “He achieves great verisimilitude in his paintings thanks to the sensation of light and darkness that he manages to print on the canvas.” Without any doubt, it is the maximum exponent of chiaroscuro, which in his brush is also known as tenebrism. However, there were pictures that he painted for the Church that did not enjoy great acceptance. This is the case of those he painted for a small altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. Quickly the religious institution withdrew The Madonna with the Child and Saint Anne. They considered the work “all vulgarity, sacrilege and disgust.” Something similar happened with The death of the virgin.

Today, both are two of the most important paintings of his entire production, but, at the time, they were a scandal. There were two more shadows in a life full of them, which ended, by the way, too soon. Of course, the flashes of light were the brightest in the entire history of art.