Claire Milbrath’s Love Letter to a Cardsharp

By Claire Milbrath

Banished from Rome for murder, Michelangelo Caravaggio packed up everything he owned and boarded a ship sailing far from trouble. The boat took a pit stop on a remote island, and Caravaggio hopped off to stretch his legs. While strolling along the beach, a Spanish garrison officer mistook him for an escaped convict, and hauled him off to the island’s prison. In the two days that it took to clear up the error and release Caravaggio, he contracted malaria in his cell. Feverishly, he walked back along the beach, only to witness the ship, with all of his possessions on it, sail away. He died there on the beach at age 38, and three days later his pardon from Rome was finalized. Some say Caravaggio died of a mistaken identity.

Caravaggio is arguably the most famous painter in the world, and this discussion of his life and his work serves as a love letter. Fanfare for Caravaggio waxes and wanes over the centuries, peaking in the 1990s with “Caravaggiomania” when major art galleries started giving him top billing to lure a public disinterested in the art world. In 2010, six hopeful descendants of the painter had their DNA tested to see if it matched with his bones and teeth.

The story of Caravaggio reads like a Greek myth, a soap opera, full of scandal, vice and virtue. He is the first incarnation of the violent outsider artist we’ve come to roll our eyes at. He’s a revolutionary underdog, a queer icon, and the man who painted the femme boy on my bottle of red wine vinegar that’s full of fruit flies. He might be happy to hear that, as the painter of “fruits and boys” so ripe they were rotten.

Caravaggio’s paintings were full of blood and guts, see Judith Beheading Holofernes for a blood-spurting decapitation which trumps any samurai film I’ve seen, or David with the Head of Goliath, a severed-head self-portrait featuring Caravaggio dripping with blood. In some cases his work feels 3D, with objects threatening to pop out of the painting; see the portrait of Saint Matthew, in which his stool seems to tip out of the canvas. The magic of Caravaggio is his ability to capture the three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface.

It’s ironic that a man known for championing the grotesque and snubbing authority built his name on the backs of the clergymen. During the 16th century, the Church was in fear of becoming unhip. Counter-reformation in the Church meant an effort to reach “ordinary” individuals. Caravaggio’s work was seen as so suitable to this aim that his many crimes were excused by papal pardon. Operating a lot like Hollywood, the Church used his blockbuster paintings to subdue the unhappy, impoverished masses. Sometimes perhaps working too well: In the first chapel of Saint Augustine, Caravaggio’s painting of Madonna of Loretto presented a pair of awfully muddied feet right at eye level. It was said to invoke laughter from the common folk who visited.

Of course, just like the hypocrisy of Hollywood Hays Code era, where sex and violence flourished under a set of phony rules, the Church banned Caravaggio’s work only when it too blatantly crossed a line. His first Saint Matthew portrait was removed from the Church, with citations that Matthew looked like an idiot, and that the naked angel whispering in his ear was too erotic.

Caravaggio pushed the envelope, hiring beggars and prostitutes to model as saints and virgins. In his painting Death of the Virgin, which was eventually removed from the Church, he painted the virgin’s body from the real life bloated corpse of a well-known sex worker who had been fished out of the Tiber river. Seven Acts of Mercy has been referenced as a masterpiece of social realism; the painting, commissioned by the Church to depict the seven pillars of charity is, to say the least, crass. We see a disgustingly desperate old man suckling a breast of a dumb-faced woman, a foul corpse being carted away, and two naked male angels embracing in the sky, self-absorbed and sinful. Was everyone in on the joke? Art historian Margaret Walters writes of an openly homosexual subculture in Rome during his time, “sophisticated, confident and wealthy enough to indulge its fantasies and to develop its own codes and ironies.”

Enter Cardinal Del Monte, just one of several popes and high-ranking Italian cardinals who bankrolled homoerotic art in the Vatican during this period. Many attribute Caravaggio’s success to Del Monte, who invited the artist to live with him for six years while commissioning portraits of his favourite boy lovers. Caravaggio became like a prince to the Church, living in Del Monte’s palace and attending his lavish drag balls which have been documented through surviving letters of party guests.

Del Monte’s taste in lovers became the most defining feature of Caravaggio’s early portraits: puffy-lipped, curly-haired, sweetly naive and effeminate boys. Lute Player figured a young boy, misidentified as a girl for centuries. The portrait of Bacchus, Del Monte’s then-boyfriend in costume, challenged gender norms—Caravaggio was taking cues from female nude paintings and applying them to male subjects. The boys in these paintings are an object for a gaze (originally Del Monte’s), a robe sliding off to reveal gleaming, ripped muscles, a passive, lusty look on a dopey face. Perhaps the most erotic work of Caravaggio’s, Victorious Love which depicts a naughty naked cupid, was famously hung on a wall behind a velvet curtain.  For how queer Caravaggio’s Del Montean period works are, it’s a surprise that many scholars insist the work is not homoerotic, and whether or not the artist was gay himself is a contentious point. The 1950s sparked vicious defence of Caravaggio’s heterosexuality, mainly by (closeted) art critic Roberto Longhi, who attacked anyone who claimed Caravaggio was anything beyond bi-sexual. In my research, I found many modern scholars zealously arguing that Caravaggio was not gay, as if it even matters.

All we actually know about Caravaggio’s personal life is from the many police logs and legal courtroom papers which contain his name. We know that after his young friend Mario Minniti (model for Lute Player) moved out of their shared room, Caravaggio announced passionately to a full courtroom that he would never speak to him again. We know that he threw a plate of artichokes at one sassy waiter, wounded a police officer, and was sued by his landlady. In 1605, he was arrested for carrying a dagger without a licence. And exactly one year later, he stabbed and murdered a man over an argument about a tennis game.

Caravaggio was bold. He mocked the Church and got away it, painting scenes from the Bible as visceral, bloody dramas starring “unholy” people who lived on the street. He was an early example of the still life genre, and will forever be the lord of ephemera, of ripened fruit and sweet boys on the verge of adulthood. One thing that stands out to me, is that not one sketch or draft exists for any of the paintings he produced, this was an artist that worked without preliminary designs. I soon realized I wasn’t the only one surprised by this fact. In Secret Knowledge, David Hockney illustrates a theory that the old masters were cheating, using the precise help of a curved lens and a camera obscura to create never-before-seen realism.

In demonstration, Hockney set up a lens projection in a dark room to recreate Caravaggio’s Cardsharps, a scene of deceit and cheating. Hockney is faced with the challenge that a lens could only project one model at a time. This explains why Caravaggio used the same model for two of the three characters in the scene.  After realizing that Caravaggio’s Bacchus is a left-handed wine drinker, Hockney discovers that most subjects of the time were left-handed. In some scenes, entire groups of people are shown as left handed. Was Jesus left handed too? Hockney’s camera obscura theory is bolstered by this discovery. I remember the shock I felt as a child when holding up a piece of text to a mirror and finding it to be backwards.

The beauty of Hockney’s three-dimensional scenes projected onto two-dimensional space is magical, and oddly reminiscent of the mystification I feel when looking at Caravaggio’s paintings. While it’s difficult, almost impossible, to replicate the glistening shine on a bunch grapes with a naked eye, anyone can trace a photograph.

Caravaggio earned everlasting fame for his astonishing eye for realism, and his deluxe religious scenes, but it seems both were ruses. Just a few years ago, after restoration technology emerged that could wipe away antiquated dust and grime, art historians delighted in their discovery of a tiny Caravaggio floating in the wine chalice of Bacchus. He is shown holding a tiny paintbrush. It would seem that the painter continues to play games with us long after his death.


Read more from Claire HERE