Caravaggio: The Criminal Record of a Genius Artist

Thug life with Caravaggio and his genius art

Okay, we were having a gander at Caravaggio’s art recently. We look at his genius now and imagine some profound, noble bloke who’d mastered the very nature of being from an early age.

Then we had a good old look at his biography.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? Turns out Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) was a genius. No denying that. A look at one of his paintings confirms it. But he was also a complete madman.

Caravaggio’s Hooligan Stats (and some mentions of his art)

Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio

Look at Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit (1599) above. Exquisite, eh!? All the work of a man under 30. And surely the work of an individual of the utmost candour and calm temperament…

The idea of intellects behaving in an unsophisticated manner can irk some pursuing intellectual refinement.

And to be clear, we’re not on about the idea of a tortured genius here (such as with Vincent van Gogh). More of a, “This person was brilliant, should have known better, but behaved like a bellend anyway.”

And it leaves a sense of vague disappointment, such as with Simone de Beauvoir’s flirtatious antics with her much younger university students.

And here’s another example, right here, with an artistic legend.

From the available records of his life, Caravaggio was constantly in and out of jail. And after frenetic periods of creative work, he would head back out into society to further his criminal record like some beer-swilling English football hooligan.

And this was no accident (or exaggeration from us).

Caravaggio deliberately went out into the streets of Italy to engage in fisticuffs. So, in time honoured fashion, we’ve cobbled together a list of his fighting exploits to detail what he got up to:

  • Became notorious for brawling by 1590 (standing out in an era renowned for it), typically targeting gangs of young men in Milan.
  • Circa 1590 killed someone (i.e. murder) whilst in Milan and had to flee the city. He fled to Venice and then Rome.
  • More brawling and violence continued, now with greater frequency, with Caravaggio becoming paranoid and claiming to acquaintances the “enemy” were closing in on him (although never stating who this was).
  • By 1600 was living in Rome’s Palazzo Madama (the upper house of Italian Parliament) where he assaulted the nobleman Girolamo Stampa da Montepulciano with a club. The local police force was notified.
  • Further episodes of arbitrary brawling followed, leading to his arrest and jailing in the Lungotevere Tor di Nona prison.

Okay… breather! He then left Tor di Nona in 1601 and worked on various legendary pieces. Notably The Taking of Christ (1602) and Armor Vincit Omnia—the former is below.

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

Behold the incredible talent this maniac possessed—the use of light on the armour (Caravaggio also included himself in this painting, holding the lantern).

Right, amazing as that is, he didn’t waste any time getting back involved in his number one passion—mindless fisticuffs. Starting with:

  • Getting arrested again in 1603 for defamation of contemporary painter Giovanni Baglione. Caravaggio had written offensive poems about his peer, which earned him a month of jail in Tor di Nona. However, this sentence was truncated and he was put under house arrest.
  • At some point in mid-1604 he was arrested again for possession of illegal weapons and for insulting city guards.
  • Caravaggio was then sued by a tavern waiter after the artist hurled a plate of artichokes into the guy’s face.
  • By 1605 he had to flee to Genoa for over a fortnight after he assaulted the notary Mariano Pasqualone di Accumoli and badly injured him. Caravaggio went at him with his blade, leading to major head trauma (the dispute was over the artist’s girlfriend).
    • To note, this particular incident was actually covered up by Caravaggio’s patrons so he didn’t face the consequences for this particular episode.
  • Caravaggio returned to Rome where he found his landlady (Prudenzia Bruni) was suing him for rent arrears. At night, the artist went round to her home and pelted rocks through her windows.
    • Prudenzia Bruni sued him over the rocks thing as well.
  • The artist was then injured and hospitalised—he claimed this was because he’d fallen onto his sword.
  • 29th May 1606 marked another murder, with Caravaggio slaying the young Ranuccio Tommasoni from a wealthy local family. Apparently, those two had argued many times already. The death was due to a street duel, meaning it may have been unintentional. But with a death sentence now out for him, Caravaggio fled Rome to south of the city before heading to Naples, Malta, and then Sicily.
    • This was a serious error by Caravaggio, as previously he’d escaped serious punishment due to his status (and his patrons covering up his antics). But the wealthy Tommasoni family now wanted the artist beheaded.
  • Due to this, Caravaggio’s artwork became increasingly disturbed and depicted many beheadings (particularly of his own severed skull).
  • Circa 1607, whilst in Naples, he completed famous works such as Madonna of the Rosary and The Seven Works of Mercy. He hoped to gain a pardon for Tommasoni’s murder, but had to flee to Malta. Despite being promoted to the status of knight by nobleman Alof de Wignacourt, Caravaggio continued brawling (this time with an aristocratic knight) and the artist was arrested (again).
  • Caravaggio was imprisoned. Then, of course, he escaped and fled to Sicily.
  • Whilst revelling with his old friend Mario Minniti, the artist won many lucrative commissions and his painting was prolific. Many art critics hail this as something of an epiphany for Caravaggio, but contemporary reports of his behaviour continue to pinpoint relentlessly bizarre antics.
    • For the record, that included going to bed whilst fully dressed and armed, destroying his paintings at the slightest hint of criticism, and jeering at local painters.
  • Caravaggio returned to Naples in 1609. Pursued by enemies, and people after his head, he still found time to paint The Denial of Saint Peter and his final work The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. That’s before being involved in another violent brawl in October 1609, which was apparently an ambush on him.

Grief… just putting that together was exhausting. And it’s far from a comprehensive list of what this guy got up to.

And it’s not exactly the most endearing list of achievements, is it?

Brawling, drinking, gambling, and sword-wielding recklessness. Giulio Mancini, an art dealer and critic of the era, described Caravaggio as, “Extremely crazy.” Another of his contemporaries, Floris Claes van Dijk, had this 1604 description of the guy’s lifestyle:

“After a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.”

Yet this is all the work of a man who also revolutionised art and painted masterpieces like The Calling of Saint Matthew (circa 1600).

The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600) by Caravaggio

As humans, we look up to these purveyors of remarkable skill and expect them to convey a peak of human conduct. People being worshipped for such talent can’t have flaws… surely?!

Many folks like to think of high art like this as a sophisticated arena from from the low-life shackles of the plebs (and what have you). But it’s nothing unusual.

Caravaggio was a very talented artist who also had a penchant for physically assaulting people. Right down to those petulant minor instances—insulting city guards and throwing a plate of artichokes.

But it’s the type of behaviour that sits ill at ease for some. Like with how Mozart’s behaviour has left some people baffled or in denial.

Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s former PM and remorseless robot overlord, had a major problem with Mozart’s depiction in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (and subsequent 1984 film adaptation). She couldn’t get her head around the idea someone who created great art could indulge in crude behaviour.

But Mozart’s scatological humour is well documented from his huge array of letters he wrote to friends and family. One of the more sensible assessments of this over the decades came from David Schroeder. He said the passage of time since Mozart’s day has:

“[Forced] us to misread his scatological letters even more drastically than his other letters. Very simply, these letters embarrass us, and we have tried to suppress them, trivialise them, or explain them out of the epistolary canon with pathological excuses.”

The difference here is there’s no record of Mozart going out into the streets of Venice to punch people in the face.

Meaning there’s not much confusion regarding what was up with Caravaggio.

He died at the age of 38 on 18th July 1610. It’s unclear what caused that. Some argue it was a fever. Others suggest a revenge killing from his (by that point many) enemies. Other historians think it was syphilis, malaria, or brucellosis.

Whatever happened, we’re sure Caravaggio’s place in heaven was guaranteed by the saintly, angelic marvel of his artwork.

And he’ll be up there right now punching archangel Gabriel in the face and jamming Uriel’s head down a toilet.

17 comments

  1. Hip!hip! One of your finest narratives. Hats off to you m8!
    It’s quite obvious our genius at the canvas was suffering from the all consuming and unrelenting symptoms of syphillis. There is it towards the end of your text ( or maybe he just like to stir things up) Amazing art and biography of this adorable scoundrel.

    Liked by 1 person

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