Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)
Born in Milan in September 1571, the artist Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, ranks amongst the most influential painters in the history of art. His paintings combined a new form of realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional with a theatrical use of light infusing that gave his works a dramatic character. He was the archetypal rebellious artist who led a turbulent life. In May 1606 whilst working successfully in Rome, one of his many brawls resulted in Caravaggio killing a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni during a duel. The pope hastily issued a bando capitale against him. Fearing for his life, Caravaggio fled and headed for Naples, outside the Roman jurisdiction. After just a few months, despite a successful period in Naples where he was given a number of important church commissions, Caravaggio left for Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, arriving on the island aboard a vessel of the Order on 12 July 1607. Caravaggio was encouraged to travel to Malta knowing that The Order was seeking a court painter. On 14 July 1608, after a year on the island, Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, accepted Caravaggio in the folds of the Order as a Knight of Obedience.
Documents show that the Grand Master was fully aware of Caravaggio’s heinous act, which should have impeded the artist from entering the Order. The Grand Master, however, had obtained a unique papal permission to accept the artist within the Order. Whilst in Malta, Caravaggio painted ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ and ‘St Jerome Writing’, both of which are preserved in St John’s Co-Cathedral. During his Maltese sojourn, Caravaggio also painted ‘Sleeping Cupid’ and ‘Portrait of a Knight of Malta’ (Fra Antonio Martelli) both of which are today exhibited in The Pitti, Florence, and ‘Portrait of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt with a Page’, displayed in the Louvre, Paris.
This period of relative calm in his life was short lived, and by late August 1608, Caravaggio was in trouble once again, this time causing damage to the house of Fra Prospero Coppini, the organist of St John’s Church and wounding a Knight of Justice, Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, Conte della Vezza. Subsequently, he was arrested and imprisoned in Fort St Angelo. Disgraced and unable to paint, Caravaggio did not wait for his trial but escaped from the fort and abscond from Malta. In a meeting of the Public Assembly held in the Oratory of St John’s Church on 1 December 1608, Caravaggio, in front of his masterpiece, the ‘Beheading of St John the Baptist’ was “expelled and thrust forth like a rotten and fetid limb” from the Order, in the absence of the artist who had already fled the island.
Caravaggio’s works in Malta ushered a new phase in this artist’s life. This last phase shows a man who feared death, especially by beheading, an introspect soul in anguish, fully in command of a mature depiction of space and pushing the art of light and chiaroscuro almost to the limit.
After a nine-month stay in Sicily, during which time he was trying to secure a pardon from Pope Paul V, Caravaggio returned to Naples where he suffered an attempt on his life. Lured by a possibility of a papal pardon, Caravaggio travelled to Rome. Close to the eternal city, in Porto Ercole, Caravaggio fell ill and died on 18 July 1610. What exactly happened is still debated but a death certificate states that the artist ‘morse …per malattia.’ His burial place has not been traced.
St Jerome Writing
The Beheading of St John the Baptist