Because of his short and violent life as much as because of his artistic innovations, Caravaggio has become a cultural icon at the turn of the millennium. Although many details of his life, and indeed death, remain shrouded, and questions of attribution similarly remain unresolved, biographies and other studies of the artist continue to issue from what has become a Caravaggio industry. One is reminded of the similar situation in the case of Caravaggio’s contemporary William Shakespeare, where lacunae in fact have encouraged speculation. Robb tells a fascinating story about his subject, and if some of what Robb recounts is not true, perhaps it should be.
Caravaggio’s resemblance to Shakespeare begins with his birth: In both cases the precise date is unknown, though the name Michelangelo suggests September 19, the feast day of St. Michael. The year is 1571, but the location again is lost. The Milanese records for the period are missing, and the birth is not noted among those in the town of Caravaggio, some twenty miles east of Milan, where the future painter spent his childhood. In 1584 he began a four-year apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano, who in turn had studied under Titian, though apparently with little effect. Also like Shakespeare, Caravaggio vanished for a period, turning up in Rome in 1592, the year Shakespeare is first mentioned as being in London. Robb maintains that Caravaggio went to Venice and saw the work of Giorgione, who painted from nature without preliminary sketches, just as Caravaggio would. Neither the sometime physician Giulio Mancini nor Giovanni Baglione, Caravaggio’s earliest biographers, mention this trip; the account first appears in the mid-seventeenth century writing of critic Giovan Pietro Bellori. In his manuscript Considerazione sulla pittura (considerations on painting) Mancini claimed that Caravaggio had to flee Milan in consequence of a misunderstanding between himself and a nobleman in which a policeman was killed.
Whatever wind blew Caravaggio to Rome was favorable. Robb, adept at providing historical background, notes that for an artist of this period, Rome was the place to be. The Catholic Church needed public art to spread the doctrines of the Counter-Reformation, while private collectors wanted to decorate their palazzi. For a few months Caravaggio lived with Pandolfo Pucci, but Caravaggio liked neither the fare—he referred to his host as “monsignor salad”—nor the work imposed upon him: copying religious paintings. By the end of 1593 Caravaggio had joined the workshop of the highly successful Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII’s favorite painter. According to Bellori, Caravaggio here executed various still lifes, a new genre for Italy.
In early 1593 Caravaggio began working for himself, leaving behind with Cesari a self-portrait and two paintings of a young man, the Sicilian Mario Minniti, six years Caravaggio’s junior. In keeping with the fashion of the moment, Robb treats this relationship as homoerotic, though Minniti would marry twice (at least—he may even have been suspected of bigamy), and Caravaggio showed a more than professional interest in at least one Roman courtesan. Among the paintings that included Minniti was the Cheats (c. 1594-1595), a slice of the Roman underworld. The work attracted the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria Bourbon del Monte. For the next several years del Monte housed Caravaggio and Minniti in his Palazzo Madama, where the artist executed various canvases for his patron. Del Monte would eventually possess eight Caravaggios. Across the piazza from the Palazzo Madama lived the rich banker Vincenzo Giustiniani, who would at his death own the largest collection of Caravaggio’s work. Already Caravaggio was both exciting and troubling Rome with his innovations. His Francis and Angel (1595) was the first painting to depict the saint’s religious ecstasy, an attitude that could easily be construed as deriving from a more carnal cause.
When artists needed female models, they turned to courtesans. Caravaggio used the courtesan Anna Bianchini for his Penitent Magdalen (c. 1593-1594), in which the Magdalen was more evident than the penitent. Bianchini also served for Mary in Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c. 1595). Here a naked adolescent angel attempts to entertain the Holy...
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