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CARAVAGGIO AND HIS MODELS Dr. Marie Anne Mancio Tuesday 14 January 2020

At the first meeting of 2020, the members of The Arts Society Farnham were treated to a lively exploration of “Caravaggio and His Models” given by Dr Anne-Marie Mancio.  With detailed  knowledge of, and a clear delight in her subject, Dr Mancio highlighted the originality, power and naturalism of his “new style” of painting, showing how it was very much a product of Caravaggio’s passionate engagement in life, the intensity of his vision and determined realism.

He was born in 1571 in the small town of Caravaggio near Milan, into a lowly family with good connections; and Michelangelo Marisi da Caravaggio seems to have had to deal with contrasting fortunes throughout his life. In an age of violence and bubonic plague, Marisi was an orphan by the age of eleven. He survived in Milan as a jobbing artist, before being apprenticed to Simone Peterzano, who encouraged him to go to Rome, where its many churches were vying with each other for the most magnificent interiors. He is reputed to have travelled to Rome via Venice, where he probably saw paintings by Titian, Giorgione and Tintoretto. The latter’s dramatic Crucifixion may have influenced Caravaggio as the power of the scene was partly achieved by the use of a dark rather than the traditional light background, which meant that the figures leaped out at the viewer.  As the illustrated lecture unfolded we could see this technique being developed by Caravaggio throughout his life.

Arriving in Rome around 1592, unknown and impoverished, Caravaggio’s models were either friends or the poor surrounding him, often prostitutes and minor criminals.  One of his first successful paintings was Boy with a Basket of Fruit: a beautiful boy, bursting with life, holding an exquisitely painted basket of luscious fruit, a reminder of the fleeting nature of youth.  But the attention Caravaggio lavished on the contents of the basket suggests that the artist was as attracted to the actuality of the fruit not just its potential symbolism.  His early paintings were much admired by the elite of Rome and one of them, Cardinal Del Monte, became his powerful patron, opening many doors for him.  For one of his aristocratic admirers he produced the much praised The Lute Player (1596) featuring another beautiful boy, probably a castrato from the papal choir; and eventually, in 1599 he received his first public commission – three paintings for the French Franciscan Church in Rome.  Caravaggio was really on his way, all the more remarkable because the popular Mannerist style – full of exaggerated, even distorted movement - was not for Caravaggio.  He always focussed on the reality of life and the simple truth of powerful emotions. The drama came from this and his continuing use of chiaroscuro – painting from dark to light, with one intense light source leading the viewer to the core of the story. The lecturer illustrated this through a variety of church commissions, including the first, illustrating scenes from the life of St Matthew, and later ones, including The Ecstasy of St Francis (1600), where Del Monte himself seems to have modelled for the saint, also The Conversion of Saul and The Sacrifice of Isaac where his assistant Cecco may have been the model for both paintings.  Though the rich and powerful were happy to sit for him, Caravaggio continued to use the poor.  The beautiful boy with his basket of fruit could have been friend and fellow artist, Mario Minniti; but he would also use a prostitute, Anna Brancini, to show a Penitent Magdalen (1596/7) as well as Martha in Martha and Mary (1598), the Virgin in Death of the Virgin (1606) and The Madonna and Child with St Anne; while the courtesan, Fillide Melandroni, first appearing in Portrait of a Courtesan (1597), also modelled for the Madonna, St. Catherine, The Martyrdom of St Catherine  and Judith, Judith and Holofernes.  At a time when hierarchy was so important, any association of the Madonna and Saints with prostitutes was an outrage and would lead to trouble. 


So his paintings were sometimes rejected and one in particular led to a great scandal.  A commission from Vincenzo Giustiniani in 1602 Amor Vincit Omnia caused uproar, for the cheeky, naked, young Cupid was clearly flaunting his sexuality and rejecting the gentler Arts.  An indignant cardinal commissioned a rival painter, Giovanni Baglioni, to paint a pendant to Caravaggio’s image: Sacred Love and Profane Love in which a more mature and powerful angel representing Sacred Love prevents the serpent from mating with Cupid.  When Caravaggio mocked him for this, Baglioni created a second version in which the serpent is replaced by the devil, whose monstrously grinning face was remarkably like Caravaggio’s.  There were already rumours about the artist’s possible homosexuality, so this painting added to the scandal. To make things worse, Caravaggio and Horatio Gentileschi posted scurrilous verses about Baglioni risking mortal punishment if found guilty of libel, just as the artist would have been condemned if sodomy had been proven.  Del Monte was able to save Caravaggio this time, but a duel in 1606 with Ranuccio Tomasini, leading to Tomasini’s death, was a step too far for the Cardinal who abandoned his erstwhile favourite.  So he fled to Naples, a very different place from the international sophistication of Rome and under Spanish rule.  The fierce devotion of the latter led to many commissions, such as The Head of John the Baptist (1607), in which the artist appears to have used his own head to model that of the decapitated saint.  Later he used himself as model again in David with the Head of Goliath but he is not the triumphant David, but again decapitated as the vanquished Goliath.

Although he constantly moved around to avoid the authorities he was relentlessly pursued and finally fled to Malta in July 1607, where he was given sanctuary by the Knights of Malta. Much admired there he was soon painting a portrait of the Grand Master, Olof de Wignacourt, who was clearly delighted, for Caravaggio received a host of commissions, both private portraits and religious subjects. His success led to his being welcomed into the Order, which would have given him an automatic pardon, but he assaulted a fellow knight, was expelled from the Order and imprisoned.  He must have had some friends left for he escaped an impregnable prison and sailed for Sicily, where he adorned many churches with his vivid storytelling.  He was pardoned but was again involved in a serious brawl, in which his face was disfigured.  The scar is clearly visible in the face of Samson, where again he used himself as model.  After a further time in Naples he decided to appeal to the Pope directly and so took ship for Rome.  Unfortunately he was arrested en route and imprisoned again. Though he was soon released, his poor health and the energy needed to continue his journey to Rome was too much for him and he died at Port’Ercole on 18 July 1610, aged 38.

His comparatively short life was as conflicted as his paintings were dramatic.  In spite of the violence there was a fierce honesty and vivid engagement in life; and perhaps a profound sense of sin.  Referring back to some of Caravaggio’s tormented paintings, such as The Beheading of John the Baptist where the artist had signed the work in his own blood and The Martyrdom of St. Ursula (1610) where he places himself behind the martyred saint. Dr Mancio suggested the possibility that the artist was recognising his guilt for his sins and begging for forgiveness.  The lecture revealed an enthralling if enigmatic figure who created unforgettable images in which the viewer is just as powerfully engaged today as they were in Renaissance Italy; and his intense naturalism and use of chiaroscuro would inspire many later artists.  An enthralling morning.

Written by Kate Siebert

Dr Mancio trained as an artist before gaining a PhD in Art and Critical Theory from the University of Sussex. Has lectured in art history for the City Lit, Tate Modern, the Course, Art in London, London Art Salon, Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Nth Degree Club and many private art societies; also runs art history study tours abroad. 


Posthumous Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio . 1621