Caravaggio the criminal: The violent life and crimes of an artistic genius

by Ezra Buckley on September 8, 2017

Caravaggio was a genius, that’s undisputed. He was also a killer and a street gang menace (and a terrible tenant)

Caravaggio lived a hot, violent fist of a life. Brief, full of angst, upset, blood, death and a total revolution in painting on a scale only rarely approached in other periods in the history of art. Michelangelo Merisi, who got his nickname from having grown up in Caravaggio, near Milan, is one of just a handful of artist who completed changed art, shifted the continuum in a new direction. Along with Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, Michelangelo, Turner, Picasso and Duchamp (let armchair art historians in the audience suggest who else should be on this list), Caravaggio was a game-changer, invoking a level of naturalism, drama, dramatic use of lighting, and surprising interpretation to religious scenes that turned the art world on its head. But while his art is, rightly so, the subject of enormous quantities of scholarly and popular writing (I once heard that his “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” is the most-written-about painting in history), in preparation for a talk at the National Gallery in Ljubljana, Slovenia, I was struck by the fact that Caravaggio was perhaps art history’s most notorious criminal. We often hear of how he was a difficult character, and of course know that he fled Rome after having killed a rival, Ranuccio Tomassoni, in a fight (possibly over a tennis match, certainly due to gang rivalries, and probably because they were both in relationships with the same women, a prostitute), and spent the remainder of his brief life traveling in hopes of a papal pardon for the murder, rarely is his life as a criminal the focal point.

As a professor specializing in art crime, I usually come to Caravaggio from the standpoint of crimes in which his art was the object. The famous 1969 theft of his “Palermo Nativity” from the church of San Lorenzo, Palermo, which prompted the foundation of the world’s first art police unit, the Carabinieri TPC. Then the amazing, cinematic story of the Dominican priest, Father Marius Zerafa, who almost single-handedly recovered “Saint Jerome” when it was stolen from the cathedral in Valetta, Malta, and held for ransom (told in this magazine). But when I teach art history, I teach Caravaggio paintings as whodunit mysteries. Particularly his “Calling of Saint Matthew” and “Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” fit into the Agatha Christie tradition, the question of which figure is Matthew haunts the former, and who murdered him the latter. Caravaggio inserted “red herrings,” meant to lead the viewer to the wrong conclusion — it likewise led many a tour guide and guidebook writer to the wrong conclusion, as at least half of the guidebooks I read, a portion of the art history books, and even the wall copy in the church beside the paintings in question give the easy answer, and solve these puzzles by pointing to the red herrings. Know enough about Caravaggio, and you’ll see that this cannot be the case (but let the Saint Matthew mysteries be the subject of a different column). Approaching the study of art in terms of detective stories, and then studying detective stories involving works of art, has been my academic focus. But Caravaggio allows in a third component: Artist as criminal.

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