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The Trouble with Caravaggio: The artist's first eighteen months in Rome explored
Cardsharps. An early work that seem to have been sold in Spada's shop.

By: Clovis Whitfield

LONDON.- This article concentrates on understanding the course of Caravaggio’s first eighteen months in Rome, and attempts to review the environment in which he gained recognition by dint of the support of the few who tolerated him, despite a character that was fundamentally at odds with all around. Only a few people found out about his invention before Cardinal Del Monte, his first major patron, and that was because not only did he arrive in Rome no more than eighteen months before he was taken under his powerful protection, but also because the artist himself had not fully realized his sensational abilities. A vulnerable individual who obviously had many problems that would never go away, it was his facility with imitation that meant that he was initially used to make multiple images and icons, and then likenesses of famous people, in the industry of souvenirs that flourished in the city, then as now. Alienated from his family and from his people in Lombardy, he came to Rome as a refugee with no means of support, probably leaving behind a chaotic existence matching his subsequent behaviour. Like his own reticence about what he was doing, the subjective reading of his art gives few clues as to the phenomenon of his personality, he viewed people and things in a fundamentally different way from his contemporaries, and latched on to the idea of imitation, at first applied to portraiture, rather than the idea del bello because of an almost savant-like ability to capture what he saw. . The realization that he arrived in Rome only towards the end of 1595, at the earliest, actually brings a welcome order also to subsequent events, and brings the man himself into more intelligible focus. It also demonstrates that his artistic development was radically different from that of other major painters of his time, who fashioned their images from their recollection and imagination . He was not the first painter to work from life as is usually claimed, for many others attempted a serious naturalism; he captured his imitation from a real image.

It is only appropriate for someone as down-to-earth as Caravaggio that the record of his first presence in Rome should have come down to us through the sworn testimony of a barber’s boy, pressed into telling the truth by being thrown into the cells overnight. The authors of the discovery of the record at the Archivio di Stato in Rome have rightly substantiated the accuracy of his statements in the face of those who have judged him to have been ‘a person of little account’ . Perhaps this Pietro Paolo Pellegrini had genuine fears of giving away someone as intimidating as this man to the authorities. The narrative has implications in terms of the artist’s own attitude to his peers and demolishes some myths not only about his loyalty to the Milanese world he left behind, but also underlines the speed of his rise to fame. The idea that such an irrepressible character could have somehow laid low in Rome and produced sensational masterpieces without anyone noticing is not the only consideration, the nature of the man himself was unpredictable, and this side of his character has not been explored sufficiently even to understand the comprehensive revolution in perception that he achieved. In reality we have all been led down the garden path by Mancini’s estimate of his age when he stayed with Mgr Pucci, which he thought was when he was about twenty. We have also (in the main) misjudged the nature of the latter’s hospitality, and that of Mgr Petrignani, which appear more in the nature of a roof over his head than any artistic direction, while the solicitous protection of Prospero Orsi and his brother-in-law Gerolamo Vittrici seems to have been a really productive combination.

If we set this aside we can see that all the other leads point in the direction of his reaching Rome at the end of 1595, just before Pietro Paolo first recalled seeing him, and he cut a memorable figure. It is not at all clear that there was any contact with Costanza, Marchesa di Caravaggio, nor is there evidence that any of the artist’s paintings made their way to his home territory or that he had family support. Not everything that bears the name of his village is relevant to the artist. The fame of his art at the end of the Roman stay seems to have made more impact on her relative Marzio Colonna than any family association, when he fled the city on his way to Naples, penniless once again. There is no tangible evidence either of any ‘early’ works preceding his activity in 1596/97, while there are instead indications that the discovery of his technique was something of a sudden revelation. Whether or not it was the case, it was perceived that he did not devote himself to the training, preparation and application that the profession of a figure painter demanded. He was of a cervello stravagantissimo, and the time was actually right for such a follia to be observed and given some rein. And the strangeness of his behaviour was somehow linked to how he solved the problem of representation.

The date of Caravaggio’s arrival in Rome, probably not long before he is recalled, during Lent of 1596, as working as a day-worker in the Sicilian Lorenzo Carli’s shop by San Luigi dei Francesi, was revealed in the recent exhibition catalogue at the Archivio di Stato in Rome, and it leaves a timescale that fits with what we learn of his movements in the surviving documents. It is however quite a different sequence than that which used regularly to be applied subjectively to the creation of the works, one or two per year, when he was supposed to have arrived in the metropolis in 1592. Although it still leaves some time and quite a lot of events that are referred to from before the employment with Lorenzo Carli, his artistic development must now be seen as starting from this modest beginning in what was essentially a souvenir shop. And while the document from July 1597 only mentions the SS Trinità dei Pellegrini as the institution where Caravaggio’s companion Prospero Orsi was living at ‘casa mia alla Trinità de Ponte Sisto’, this foundation was the most obvious port of call for a refugee from abroad in the chaos of the capital.

It is important to review the historical basis on which the story of Caravaggio’s life is founded, because his success was not actually accompanied by a blow-by-blow narrative, and many of the gaps were filled in with inventive fiction. He was from fairly humble beginnings, and had little to do with the noble family of his native town in Lombardy. So his background tended to be embellished, even by contemporaries like Mancini, and Bellori who came from a different artistic generation subscribed to the myth of his ‘noble’ origins, while still inclined to diminish his stature. His admirers did not come from the established painters, because the way that he tackled the technique of representation disregarded time-honoured methods, preparation and etiquette that had been developed over generations. Above all, Caravaggio himself did not care to tell his story and so his journey to notoriety is only mapped by those public moments that are on record; he was a loner who did not confide in others. Even the beginning of his breakthrough is barely recorded the role of his supporters like Onorio Longhi (a wild card from Lombardy who had lived nearly all his life in Rome) and Prospero Orsi is only beginning to be understood. While it was obvious that Cardinal Del Monte was a key figure in his recognition, the nature of this patron’s interest seems to have more to do with his inventive practicality than with literary or artistic excellence, and the eclipse of his persona in the age of the Barberini left little trace of his relationship with the man who made him most famous. It was also natural that the role of the chief custodian of the most significant group of pictures in Rome in the 1620s, Vincenzo Giustiniani, who was a late convert to this new naturalism, should have been regarded as a vital force in the actual patronage of the artist. But he seems to have been interested in other things during the crucial years, and basically inherited the works or collected them after it fell to him to take charge of Palazzo Giustiniani in 1621. There was no intercourse between them , while the role of his elder brother Cardinal Benedetto, who inherited the palazzo, actually commissioned Caravaggio to work for him and was passionate about his style, does not figure in the critics’s accounts. Above all it is important to rein in the tendency to consider Caravaggio’s images in terms of our reactions today., rather than what they meant in his own time.

It is Bellori in notes (probably written in the decade of the book’s publication) in the margin of his copy of Baglione’s Vite of 1642 who picked up the real story that he had arrived in the city estremamente bisognoso et ignudo before finding a haven in the workshop of the Sicilian Lorenzo. It is repeated again in Bellori’s account (1672, p. 202) in his biography of Caravaggio’s arrival in Rome, where ‘vi dimorò senza recapito e senza provvedimento’ in other words as a homeless person, with no means. It certainly doesn’t tell us where he was for those missing years since 1592 when he was still in Lombardy, but Bellori does also say that he left his town because he had killed a fellow worker ‘un compagno’. He had sold most of his modest inheritance before the death of his mother in November 1590, and the rest by 11 May 1592, which is the last we hear of him before Rome four years later. The idea, promoted by Bellori, (ibid) that ‘alcune discordie’ led to him leaving Milan for Venice, is surely based on a projection of the Venetian element in his art, which was the beginning of many explanations of the novelty of his revolutionary approach to representation. Mancini's notes recall his previous problems with the authorities, referring to a year spent in prison in Milan, with references to the wounding of a girl and policemen killed , so documenting his involvement in two fatalities prior to his duel in 1606. The idea that his rise to fame was very recent is quite obvious from Van Mander’s account, published in 1603 but evidently based on reports relayed to him by a painter who left Rome shortly after the Contarelli chapel paintings were seen in 1600. ‘He overcame poverty with great effort by dint of assiduous work’ and the observer, Florijs van Dijck, also relays traits of his character that do not have the benefit of hindsight, but are the eyewitness testimony of someone truly impressed by this force of nature. It was not even fellow Lombards who rescued him, Caravaggio steered clear of them at the outset and in fact had little contact with their community in Rome. He seems to have had nothing to do with his younger brother, Giovanni Battista, who was evidently in Rome in 1596 , and probably until 1599. In fact the idea that Caravaggio arrived penniless in the city is a recurrent theme of the early accounts, and when Bernardino Cesari took pity upon him as he presented himself in rags - comparisce malvestito in Mancini’s words, before being given a straw mattress in an attic to sleep on, to take him essentially off the street. Even when he was living in Del Monte’s house he was still careless about his appearance - Pietro Paolo tells us ‘che va vestito di negro non troppo bene in ordine, che portava un paro di calzette negre un poco stracciate...’

This was better than for most of the forestieri who arrived in Rome, and there were many of them. The declining revenues of the Church from the Protestant schism meant that there were fewer resources to deal with what became an immense social problem, and immigration was completely out of control; forty percent of the population are said to have been destitute , and the problem was at its worst at the end of the Cinquecento. Pius IV in his Bull of 1561 Illius qui pro dominici responded to the problem of ‘the poor who were exposed to snow and cold, sleeping in the grottoes of the ruins, even dying from the cold and hunger’ . Sixtus V dealt with it in a trenchant way, not only encouraging the various communities to give hospitality and build appropriate ’national’ facilities, but also gathering up the beggars and vagrants and confining them in similar way to the prostitutes who were enclosed in the gated ghetto of the Ortaccio. This was a time of many processions, and following the publication of the papal Bull Quamvis infirma of 1587 eight hundred and fifty of these fanciulli discoli, che inquietano la città (unruly young people who trouble the city) were brought in a sorry spectacle to San Sisto Vecchio, by the Baths of Caracalla. These were the plurimi pauperes fame, frigore, nuditate rerumque omnium inopia conflicti ac variis morbis et incomodis conflictati, and we can recognize the terms used by Bellori to describe Caravaggio when he arrived in the city, in extreme need and naked. Sixtus V soon realized that the facilities there were insufficient for the purpose, and acquired land by the Tiber at Ponte San Sisto to build the Spedale di San Sisto dei poveri Mendicanti, the Ospedale dei Poveri . The inmates were under no impression that this was a free ride: there were many places where the mendicants were put to work and there were sanctions against those who did not co-operate. The statutes provided ‘facoltà a gli Amministratori dello stesso Spedale di poter punire con ogni sorta di castigo corporale, fuori che di pena capitale, tutti quei poveri, li quali per malizia di non voler procacciarsi con industrie oneste, e con faticare, il vitto, vanno accattando per la città . The Ospedale was run with the active participation of the neighbouring Confraternità dei Pellegrini e Convalescenti, the institution founded by Philip Neri’s Oratorians that prided itself on the immense number of pilgrims it received and cared for, up to 175,000 in the jubilee year of 1575 and perhaps twice as many in 1600. The social conscience that emerged in the Church at the time of the Council of Trent found its greatest expression in this area of Rome, and it was a signal effort to reach out to the refugees in their midst, although many expatriate communities also looked after their own in their particular parishes. The site around Ponte Sisto was huge, apart from the Pellegrini, the adjacent Ospedale dei Poveri at Ponte Sisto was next to the Conservatorio dei SS Clemente e Crescentino, an institution for the rescue of orphan girls who were at risk of walking the pavement when they were discharged - so named Zoccolette for the clogs that they wore. This had a capacity of easily two thousand at a time. In front of the hospital of the Pellegrini was the Pio Monte della Misericordia, another institution expanded in Clement VIII’s reign, to provide affordable finance to the poor and reduce the threat of the exploitative usurers who flourished in the Rione and charged rates up to twenty four percent, by providing loans at a maximum rate of 5% . One half of the building which stands in front of the Pellegrini was devoted to pawns that were pledged, the other half to the operation of monies; eventually (in the eighteenth century) the institution expanded to incorporate the former Palazzo Barberini ai Giubbonari, which in Caravaggio’s day was the residence of the young Maffeo Barberini, future Pope Urban VIII. Round the corner off Via dei Giubbonari was the house of Giuseppe and Bernardino Cesari, the most successful painters in the city.

But it was not only because of his assiduous efforts to work that Caravaggio escaped being confined in an institution in Rome: in Clement VIII’s reign the attitude toward the mass of poor and mendicants who flooded the streets and churches was one that considered them as an opportunity for the expression of alms and piety. The inmates confined in the Ospedale dei Poveri Mendicanti had diminished to a hundred and fifty, while thousands sought temporary refuge at the Trinità dei Pellegrini, where the princes of the church and patrician notables flocked for the ceremony of the Lavanda dei piedi, so that they could be seen to be sympathetic to the plight of the homeless and footsore pilgrims, and give alms to beggars who arrived in Rome and importuned everyone at every corner and particularly at and inside all the churches. It was Gregory XIII who had begun to tackle the problem of ‘questa molesta turbe d’inutile, e perniciosa gente. Li quali havendo visto, che per Roma andavano molti poveri forestieri che per non haver luogo alcuno che li ricevesse, erano costretti la notte di dormire sopra i banchi delle botteghe de gli artigiani poichè non era ancora conosciuta l’opera dello spedale della Santissima Trinità de Pellegrini, & convalescenti. Giulio Cesare Capaccio saw the same thing in Naples, where the overcrowding led to people living in whatever grotta or doorway they could find, or under the counters of shops. Many of those who came from elsewhere in Italy slept on the benches of artisans’ workshops, and if they had any talent for work they applied themselves, as Van Mander says of Caravaggio and ‘è faticosamente uscito dalla povertà mediante il lavoro assiduo, tutto afferrando e accettando con accorgimento e ardire, secondo fanno alcuni che non vogliono rimanere sotto per timidezza e pusilanimità, bensì si spingono avanti franchi e senza vergogna e dappertutto cercano audacemente di loro vantaggio; il che avviene jn modo onorevole e senza pregiudizio della cortesia, non è poi tanto da biasimare: la fortuna infatti spesso non si offre a noi, bisogna rovesciarla, stuzzicarla, tentarla . (Het Schilderboek, 1603, translation from S Macioce, p. 309)

What started in 1548 as the Confraternità della Santissima Trinità del Sussidio, after 1562 called the SS Trinità dei Pellegrini e Convalescenti, was one of the most significant public institutions in Rome, catering primarily to the periodic influx of pilgrims particularly in Holy Years. When Philip Neri was based at San Girolamo della Carità he talked regularly at a neighbouring church where fifteen lay brothers set up the Confraternità: this was the medieval church of San Salvatore in Campo Domnio, and they used a nearby house as accommodation for the good works they did to meet the problem of hospitality for pilgrims in the Holy year of 1550. This church, and the casetta that Philip Neri’s confessor, Persiano Rosa, gave to the confraternity, was the centre for the organization even when Gregory XIII gave them (1587) the dilapidated church of San Benedetto in Arenula (to the east of the Hospital site on Via del Conservatorio). The next ten years were spent in building the church of SS Trinità but there was an interruption in the construction, probably after the death of the architect Martino Longhi in 1591, and work did not begin again until 1603 , and it was not finally consecrated until 1613. The medieval church of San Salvatore in Campo (the Campo may well originally have referred to the open field where the church of SS Trinità and Hospital were built) was demolished in 1639 to make way for the further expansion of the Monte di Pietà, which had already incorporated (1603) the site of Palazzo Petrignani. It was actually half-way from the present Piazza del Monte di Pietà along Via dei Pettinari, at the level where the (18th century) Arco del Monte is situated, as we can see from a plan made in 1638 when it was about to be razed.

San Salvatore was later rebuilt in the neighbouring piazza that now bears its name, but it was originally the dominant edifice looking down the Via dei Pettinari to the Ponte Sisto, with its graveyard in front of it. Both these buildings therefore faced towards the site of the present church of SS Trinità, and so Prospero’s Orsi’s quarters next to S. Salvatore, almost within the Trinità, were much closer than previously thought, and the room that Caravaggio was later given in Palazzo Petrignani next door may also have looked over the hospital. When they left court in July 1597, Caravaggio made his way to the residence of Cardinal Del Monte, and Orsi accompanied him part of the way as he went back home, having dined at the Osteria della Lupa a hundred yards from Carli’s bottega , as he was commorans ad Trinitatem Pontis Sisti (staying at the Trinità of Ponte Sisto). This it emerged was above a bettola or tavern by San Salvatore in Campo, and it is here that he is recorded in the Stati d’ Anime from 1602 right through till his death in 1630. Almost 70% of the confratelli (lay brothers) of the SS Trinità in the sixteenth century were artists or artisans, and so this would naturally have been an organization that an impoverished artisan refugee from another part of Italy would gravitate, and although he would have initially only had a few days’ hospitality at the Trinità itself, he would have found colleagues who might find a use for his handiwork, and patrons who were disposed to provide accommodation. The Confraternity was seen as guiding force behind the Ospedale, (which was regarded as a public entity) and also for the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, but also as a separate foundation run by the elite of Rome. Many of Caravaggio’s early patrons - like Tiberio Cerasi, Giovanni Battista Crescenzi, Ermete Cavalletti , the famous Mattei brothers (Ciriaco, Asdrubale and Cardinal Girolamo) - were associated with the Trinità dei Pellegrini, as Marco Pupillo has underlined in his recent study on the institution . The Crescenzi, later such a presence in the Roman art scene, were intimately linked with Philip Neri and the SS Trinità, and it was Pietro Paolo Crescenzi who is most likely to have been the arbiter of taste to choose Caravaggio for the Contarelli chapel commission in 1599 . In reality there was another important Mattei palazzo between SS Trinità dei Pellegrini and Ponte Sisto; this probably belonged to Fabio Mattei from the Paganica branch of the family, who was Guardiano of the confraternity and one of its principal figures around the turn of the century . Fabio and Muzio Mattei were of the same generation as their more famous cousins Ciriaco, Gerolamo and Asdrubale, being the sons of Ludovico II Mattei from his marriage in 1541 to Lucrezia Capranica. Ciriaco (b. 1545) married in 1560 their joint cousin Claudia, Giacomo Mattei’s daughter, and Fabio inherited the Palazzo Nuovo (Palazzo Mattei di Paganica) on his father’s death in 1566, while his elder brother Muzio got the Palazzo Vecchio, with the cousins living in Palazzo Mattei di Giove, all in the same city block. Fabio had married Faustina Orsini, daughter of Vicinio Orsini and Giulia Farnese, and he remained close to Cardinal Odoardo Farnese . It was with Fabio Mattei that the latter commissioned Annibale Carracci to paint the Pietà installed in the Mattei family chapel in San Francesco a Ripa at Easter 1603 (even though the chapel itself was not completed for a number of years), and Fabio bequeathed some works of art to Odoardo when he died in 1612. He evidently devoted himself to charitable pursuits within the SS Trinità after the death of his wife in 1594.

The Mattei residence at Ponte Sisto is visible in Giovanni Paolo Maggi’s 1597 plan with the annotation Casa delli SSi Matthei , and it was later incorporated in an extension of the Ospedale, as we see from Letarouilly’s plan of 1868 . We do not know of any commission that Fabio Mattei might have given Caravaggio, but it is a distinct possibility, he had employed other artists from the studio of the Zuccari to decorate his Palazzo Nuovo. Both Fabio and his elder brother Muzio were as active as their cousins in artistic patronage, Muzio building the ambitious palazzo (now called by the names of later owners Albani and Del Drago) by San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, as well as commissioning from Taddeo Landini the famous fountain in front of his residence in the Palazzo Nuovo. Fabio evidently embraced the pauperistic ideals of Filippo Neri in his own life, but his activity at SS Trinità seems to be part of the collective interests of the whole Mattei family, which had been given a powerful impetus by the marriage of his parents, which had ensured that the wealth of two heads of Mattei families should be consolidated .

Caravaggio was evidently alienated from what might have naturally been his support base in the Lombard community, and although much has been written to associate him with his uncle’s presence earlier in the decade in Rome, over towards St Peter’s, there is no paper trail to indicate this dependence. There were three categories that the Pellegrini accepted for hospitality: the needy pilgrim for at least three days, the convalescent patients discharged from hospitals - che se li portavano giornalmente da tutti gli Spedali di Roma - (they were brought there on a daily basis from all the hospitals in Rome - Fanucci, p. 268) throughout Rome for as long as needed to recover their strength, and released prisoners . Carlo Borromeo himself made a donation to the foundation in 1575 for its accoglienza di pellegrini milanesi. At any one time there might have been as many as three to five thousand who were so accommodated. So although Caravaggio might have received only a brief stay in house, the support that this community, and the confratelli composed largely of fellow artisans, would also be important as a key forum for work opportunities and to encounter potential patrons; in 1602 they agreed to ask the now famous artist to paint an altarpiece for the branch of the Compagnia della SS Trinità in Mexico City. Prospero Orsi lived nearby: his other major fan (from the summer of 1598 onwards) was the son of the architect of the new church of SS Trinità, Onorio Longhi, who was trying hard to to take over his late father’s commissions .

Sicilian support and paintings for sale
But he must first have spent some time on the street and sleeping rough on benches, as unwelcome as the hundreds of other immigrants. And it is cold in Rome in winter, when he must have arrived there. The immediate circle that he had found some help from was the Sicilian community, and particularly Lorenzo Carli , the owner of a bottega near S. Agostino, on the Via della Scrofa, where he did painted portrait heads, according to Baglione. These were copies of existing models, there being a great demand for likenesses of famous people, and Caravaggio worked fast, apparently doing three a day for which he earned a pittance - un grosso l’uno (twenty grossi to a scudo). Susinno has it that Mario Minniti, the painter from Syracuse, also worked with Caravaggio in Carli’s shop as a day worker, in other words without accommodation, so both would have slept on benches or under the counter of one of the many workshops around the Via della Scrofa. For an aspiring painter this was very much at the bottom of the profession, poorly paid and without any of the benefits of being part of the business . Nonetheless Carli, who oversaw a production line of souvenirs by the dozen , was a respected figure in the Sicilian community around S. Maria Odigitria, which had been rebuilt by a prominent Sicilian priest from near Syracuse called Matteo Catalano; his close ties with the SS Trinità are underlined by his leaving half his fortune to the foundation when he died in 1614 . Carli is the ‘pittore Siciliano, che di opere grossolane tenea bottega’ referred to by Baglione, and he came from Naso in the vicinity of Messina. Much is now known about Carli’s business, and it was not a forum for artistic invention so we can understand why Federico Zuccari despised the inventive possibilities of someone with this pedigree. Another early contact was the Tarquinio who is referred to in Mancini’s notes - and this is not the Tarquinio Ligustri who worked with Prospero Orsi on several projects at Palazzo Massimi alle Colonne, Palazzo Altemps - in the 1590s, but a Tarquinio from Milan who had osterie, one on the via della Scrofa at Monte di Brianza, and the other on the Via della Serena, under the Trinità dei Monti . Mancini’s note reads ‘nella...andò con Tarquinio et alloca (for ‘alloggia’) nelle botteghe’ (He went with Tarquinio and lodged in the workshops). This is an important note, for it is a reference to what must have been his first accommodation in the city, sleeping rough on the benches of artisans’s workshops as we know so many new arrivals did. It is Bellori’s source that gave him the reference that Caravaggio had worked for Antiveduto after Lorenzo Siciliano; poi lavorò in casa di Antiveduto Gramatica mezze figure manco strapazzate, (then he worked in the house of Antiveduto Gramatica painting half-length figures in chiaroscuro). Gramatica (whose studio looked out over S. Agostino, next to the Scrofa) never seems to have done original portraits but supplied many such likenesses, as Baglione details in his biography of him ( 1642, p. 292/93), so much that he was famous for being a ‘gran cappocciante’, a business not very different from Carli’s. The facility that Caravaggio had with replication, and copying the models and patterns in front of him, gave him what was to be the first intimation of his artistic gift.

This was initially in portraiture, and the first we know of is that of this Tarquinio, the oste that Mancini refers to in his main account along with the mention of one of Caravaggio’s earliest known designs, the Boy peeling fruit ‘et il ritratto d’hoste dove si ricoverava’ (the portrait of the innkeeper where he stayed) , which is referred to as coming from the time of his stay with Mgr Pucci, with the implication that he painted it to pay the bill for his stay at Tarquinio’s inn. Doubtless the first paintings of his own that he sold found buyers through the rigattiere di quadri vecchi (dealer in old paintings) Costantino Spada, who had a shop in front of San Luigi dei Francesi and figured in the court proceedings in July 1597 (he is referred to by Baglione as ‘Maestro Valentino’ ). And we can surmise that it was the experience of repeating likenesses, satisfying the fashion for images of famous people, that made Caravaggio realize the gift that he had for reproducing facial features. Recently Laura Teza has teased out of Mancini’s postille the information that the Borghese Bacchus was with Spada before Cesari, so it must have struck him too as a new kind of image and worth investing a small sum in. The idea of capturing actual likenesses from a camera obscura probably came at this period. Contemporary accounts speak of more than twenty portraits that he did, almost all of which have yet to be found, although it may be that the Corsini Maffeo Barberini recently shown in the Caravaggio e caravaggeschi show at Palazzo Pitti, (2010, No. 1) is an early instance of a demonstration done of and for Orsi’s close neighbour at the Palazzo Barberini ai Giubbonari . His stay in Tarquinio’s inn was surely paid for with the portrait that he painted of him, and when he went to the Ospedale della Consolatione (because he could not pay the doctor’s fee for attention to his injury) he did the portrait of the Prior, Luciano Bianchi - and several other paintings that later he se li portò in Sicilia sua patria . He evidently had a facility for taking likenesses, rather like Ottavio Leoni , and there is mention of those of people from his known circle, like Onorio Longhi and his wife Caterina Campana, Melchiorre and Virgilio Crescenzi, the lawyer Prospero Farinacci, Bernardino Cesari, Pietro Vittrici, the poet Marino, that of the courtesan Fillide Melandroni (formerly in Berlin), and as it happened Giuseppe Cesari inadvertently admired that of Luciano Bianchi, the Prior at the Consolazione, when it was exhibited in the procession for Rogations in the spring of 1597. I have suggested elsewhere that Leoni’s portrait of a young man in the Ashmolean is possibly a likeness of Caravaggio at the period of their first acquaintance, and Leoni’s method ‘alla macchia’ must have had something in common. Caravaggio’s dependence on the model and a new technique for capturing likenesses dates from this period , but people did not know how it was achieved. Just as Della Porta had to use the word lentil to refer to a lens, there being no existing optical terminology , so we see that contemporaries struggled to describe the new technique. Mancini speaks of the 'ritratto semplice - senza azione' to mean straightforwardly working from the subject (not necessarily a portrait) but when he speaks in particular about Caravaggio’s technique, and 'that light from a single window' he uses the term osservanza del vero, a term associated with the strict observance of some religious orders, and compares it with the creative imagination needed in history painting, to capture the exacting nature of this dependence . Bellori, in one of the very frank notes he wrote in his copy of Baglione’s Vite, underlines how the artist did not relate to other painters ‘è degno di gran lode il Caravaggio che solo si mise ad imitar la natura contro l’uso di tutti gli altri che imitavano gli altri artefici.’

After some time of sleeping rough, he had ‘alcuni mesi’ ( a few months) with Mgr Pucci, when he started to do pictures he could sell on the open market. Much has been made of Mancini’s anecdote about Caravaggio’s stay with the man he dubbed ‘Monsignor Insalata’ (he is the only source to refer to his stay with Pucci) , and of the possibility of the artist’s exploiting the relationship the latter enjoyed with the Peretti household, with cameo performances by Caravaggio’s uncle Ludovico who was in Rome in the early 1590s . But although it may well be that Pucci had some of the copie di devotione of the kind that Caravaggio must have painted while he was with Lorenzo Carli, and could have taken them with him when he returned to his native Recanati in June 1600, it is only Mancini who refers to this, and he makes a point of saying how little Pucci appreciated his art. He had been maestro di casa to Sixtus’s V’s sister Camilla Peretti, but this employment ended in 1591, and far from being an important source of patronage no works by Caravaggio are associated with this name - at least before 1605, and Pucci himself lives on with the fame of his salads rather than by owning any of Caravaggio’s new paintings. The picture that gains credibility is that the artist was alienated from his family background and arrived in Rome completely impoverished, estremamente bisognoso et ignudo as Bellori reports, around the end of 1595. It is not out of the question that he might have been confined in prison before leaving for Rome, escaping as he would later out of Malta’s Fort Sant’ Angelo. Far from relying on his family connections, he made his way despite the disadvantages of his personality, which continually hampered his progress. The stay with Mgr Pucci, and the devotional icons that he is said to have done for him, taken to Recanati, are consistent with the artist’s first year in Rome, and with Pucci’s known links with the Trinità dei Pellegrini. It may well have been then that the painter did the Boy bitten by a Lizard and the Boy peeling fruit, as Mancini suggests, among works that he did per vendere rather than being commissioned or remaining with his host; he sold the former for fifteen giulii or one and a half scudi according to Mancini (Considerazioni, p. 140). It was this sale ‘che fu causa che, vendutolo, e preso animo da poter viver da se, si partì da quel suo scarso maestro e padrone, (which after it was sold led to him having a mind to make his own living, and so he departed from this mean master and boss) as Mancini relates.

Although it does nothing to solve the problem of where Caravaggio was for the years between the summer of 1592 and the winter of 1595/96, it makes it more obvious that his discovery of a new technique was a dramatic development, a break with tradition instead of a continuation of what came before. Rather than distributing the early works over a period of eight years before the Contarelli chapel, fame came along with Caravaggio’s notoriety. Mancini’s account gives more substance to the months after his first weeks in Rome, but the idea that this happened when Caravaggio was actually ‘d’età incirca 20 anni’ (which would imply about 1592) is simply a miscalculation of his age, which Pietro Paolo in 1597 judged to be about 28. It was however a crucial time, for as Mancini says, he found that he could paint independently and make sales of his own work. In the past it has been confidently presumed that Caravaggio’s depiction of fruit relates to that of other Lombard artists, but these formal comparisons do not take into account the optical element in his working process that is more and more evident in his inventions. The absence of commissions made by either Pucci or Petrignani strongly suggests that their hospitality was an extension of charitable affiliation with the SS Trinità, a more practical sponsorship than the financial contributions of people like Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani, who made regular donations to the institution for the hospitality given to pilgrims in the Jubilee year of 1600 . The confratelli there were used to finding people accommodation - the nature of the periodic arrivals of crowds of pilgrims made it essential - and they themselves had a variety of premises in the area, like the one given by Elena Orsini at the Terme di Agrippa, between the Pantheon and Largo Argentina. It may well be that the day-work at Lorenzo Carli, and then at the neighbouring shop of Antiveduto Gramatica, was done when Caravaggio got lodging with Pucci and then later with Petrignani, rather than their being particularly involved with his artistic inventions. The stay with Mgr Fantin Petrignani has a likely start, as we have already noted, after the latter returned from Forlì between March and April, 1597, after two years absence from Rome .

The various versions of the Boy peeling a fruit are to be seen mostly as originals by Caravaggio. Most of them are manifestly by the same hand, with the minor variations expected from a skilled copyist; they represent the proving ground of his new technique. Having established that he could make such an image out of a still-life of fruit and a posed figure, the experiment was such a success that he repeated it many times (and there are at least a dozen versions of the same figure). The attempts to read a great deal into the subject-matter are not supported by an iconographical tradition or by the author’s learning, and the sales were probably generated through Costantino Spada’s shop. The earliest reference is to the one owned by Cesare Crispolti, the well-known intellectual from Perugia, who came to meetings of his Accademia degli Insensati in Maffeo Barberini’s palazzo on the Via dei Giubbonari. Although one might expect him to have an emblematic intent if it had been a commission, it is described in the inventory that Laura Teza has recently discovered (14th May 1608) of Crispolti’s collection drawn up just after his death simply as ‘un putto in camicia’. Another list, drawn up in August the same year , gives a fuller description ‘quadretto di Michel Angelo Caravaggio vivo, cioè una figura d’un giovane dalla cintura in su che monda un persico a olio’ asserting that this was actually by Caravaggio who was then still living. Persico evidently is a term for the ‘Persian’ fruit, in other words a peach (although the word is that for a fish - perch), but the fruit that the boy is peeling is variously described by Mancini as an apple or a pear. The valuation given in the May 1608 inventory is still modest - only three scudi - and the implication is that it was not invested with any considerable narrative or financial value. It is the kind of image that Caravaggio had found that he could not only sell through Spada’s agency, but also because of his practice of repetition at Carli’s and Gramatica’s shops, could do multiple versions of. These sales gave Caravaggio independence, and rather than viewing them for iconographic invention we should try and see their creation as the product of a new technique of imitation of a real image, a mosaic of reality, and produced in multiple versions. The few subjects with a single figure - the Boy Peeling Fruit, the Boy with a Vase of Flowers, the Boy Bitten by a Lizard, the Borghese Bacchus - are part of a personal speculative production rather than commissions by individuals. As decorative items they did not, it seems, have the great inflation of value that befell commissioned works from the following years. This is not the place to discuss each painting separately, but to relate them to the production that preceded his development with Del Monte’s protection, the innovative technique as much as the unfamiliar subject-matter.

But these were also produced while he was harboured for some eight months in the relative security of the Cesari’s loft and house . It may well have been that this was at the Cesari’s house off the Via dei Giubbonari at the beginning of Via dei Chiavari, just round the corner from the SS. Trinità, rather than their studio at the Torretta, as Mancini actually makes this differentiation, noting that Bernardino gave him a paliasse in a bunk at the Torretta, and then was taken ‘in casa’ . Mancini refers to the compassion that the Cesaris had for Caravaggio, but it seems in the passage that precedes it that he was still dressed in rags , and had been turned away: ‘Fra tanto comparisce malvestito et andò con questo lo messer fuore etc‘ (meanwhile he turned up badly dressed and he went and with this he was turned away) so Bernardino [Cesari] gave him a straw mattress, and G [iuseppe] si atterisce - ie takes pity on him, gives him work on copies vuol che ritratti, and it might be that the next passage refers to Caravaggio’s thwarted wish to do figure painting et fuga a ciò non figure. Orsi worked with the Cesaris, seemingly contracting to direct and undertake the decorative parts of their commissions; he was a key figure in the artist’s promotion, and it makes sense that having spent some months in the vicinity of the Scrofa, around San Luigi dei Francesi, Caravaggio’s next quarter is in effect in the Rione Regola, around the SS Trinità dei Pellegrini.

In any case it was an untreated wound from a horse’s kick that led to Caravaggio being taken, by a un bottegaro siciliano amico alla Consolatione , the hospital the other side of the Capitoline hill (Mancini. p. 227) . This event was probably at the end of 1596, because Lorenzo Siciliano - who is probably the Sicilian shopkeeper Carli who took him to the hospital - was ill for two months before he died during Lent of 1597. This was the injury to his leg from a bucking horse, said to be of a Giustiniani or Pinelli family groom, first dressed by Luca Benni, the barber’s son, for whom Pietro Paolo worked (and this is probably the injury that Mancini referred to) that eventually led to the Sicilian shopkeeper taking the artist to the Ospedale della Consolazione, because the lack of proper treatment meant that it had got worse. We now know that the priore there was another Sicilian, Luciano Bianchi who was like Carli himself, from Messina, and actually had close links with the church of Sant’ Agostino just a few feet from Carli’s shop (he planned to be buried in the church). Caravaggio had alienated Bernardino and Giuseppe Cesari; they not only never came to see him, but they were not on speaking terms even years later (at the time of the Baglione libel trial in 1603), and Mancini’s note makes it clear that they thought Prospero Orsi was also a troublemaker: Poi .... et così disser male B & G. che Prospero fosse un tristo. In his most need Caravaggio had no recourse to his family connections, or even his Lombard roots, and indeed he does not seem ever to have sought any of these contacts for commissions either private or institutional. The early references of Caravaggio in Rome are consistent with the desperate situation that Bellori and Van Mander described, making it most unlikely that he had enjoyed the support of Mgr Pucci from a date of arrival in Rome in 1592, as has usually been assumed. But the alcuni mesi that Mancini says he spent in his house must have been in 1596, preceding the longer period with the Cesaris. At the Consolatione he had time during his convalescence to do ‘many paintings’ for the Prior, who took them with him to his native Sicily. As Guercino recalled, the portrait of the Prior (Luciano Bianchi) was exhibited and after Caravaggio had recovered, ‘...il suo ritratto il che sanato fece essendo poi questo esposto per le rogazioni fu venduto...’ and so his stay in the hospital was over around Easter 1597 (Easter Sunday was April 6th)

Caravaggio could no longer return to the Cesaris, they had ignored him when he was ill, and in any case he was convinced by now he could work on his own. After this point Mancini in a postilla mentions ‘si volse metter con Asdrubale’ that can only mean Mattei , and indicates that someone, probably Orsi, will have proposed this client of his and active supporter of the SS Trinità, as a host; Prospero was certainly working for the Mattei in 1600, and his brother Jacopo had long been Treasurer to the family . Costantino Spada, the brocanteur and picture dealer whose shop was next to Palazzo Madama on the corner opposite S. Luigi dei Francesi, had already supplied Asdrubale Mattei with paintings in 1595 . The Mattei were intimately linked with Filippo Neri and his Ospedale and of course were also in the process of rebuilding, and decorating the family palazzi in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure in the 1590s, and Ciriaco especially the ambitious Villa Celimontana. But instead it was Mgr Fantin Petrignani ‘che gli dava commodità di una stanza’ (Mancini p. 224); he had returned to Rome in 1597 between April and May from Forlì where he had been Governatore della Marca . Mancini says that at this time (scilicet during the stay at the Cesaris and with Petrignani) he did several paintings, mainly it seems for Orsi’s brother-in-law Gerolamo Vittrici , including the Doria Mary Magdalene and Flight into Egypt, and the Louvre Fortune Teller, for which Mancini says he was paid eight scudi. After some time in Palazzo Petrignani at the end of spring / early summer 1597, (and probably shortly before 11 July 1597) he is noticed by Cardinal Del Monte, in whose palazzo he is recorded as living, in the court proceedings following the assault on Angelo Tanconi in July, the first time he is referred to in Rome. Del Monte had bought a painting of a carafe of flowers, without knowing who it was by, and then saw the Card Sharps, probably in Costantino Spada’s shop at the back of Palazzo Madama. Up till this point, apart from the single figure subjects done ‘per vendere’ and some portraits, Caravaggio’s more important subject pictures had the destination of Orsi’s family, as Prospero’s sister Orinzia had married Gerolamo Vittrici (in 1586). And although Gerolamo’s modest house would be in the Borgo, over the river near San Spirito in Sassia, the couple lived for an extended period at this time in the house of their wealthy uncle Pietro Vittrici in the Via dei Chiavari off the Via dei Giubbonari . L. Sickel has suggested that the Louvre Fortune Teller is virtually a companion to the Cardsharps, which would place it in this time frame, as Mancini indicated; while the model of the Mary Magdalene looks to be the same as the Madonna in the Flight. But the latter is Caravaggio’s most ambitious composition to date, and the elements in it of music and natural philosophy suggest that it may belong, or have been completed in the period with Del Monte. The relationship with the Vittrici continued, for it was for the Cappella della Pietà that Pietro Vittrici had in the Chiesa Nuova that Gerolamo secured Caravaggio’s Deposition, after his uncle’s death (26 March 1600) at the venerable age of 97.

A wild and unpredictable character
However one regards it, Caravaggio made remarkable progress over a short period and a small number of works. It was a technical achievement to be able to make pictures without the drawing and design process that everyone else respected, even more challenging than achieving a photograph without first making a negative, in our own times. There was manifestly a limit, in the medieval workshop procedure that still dominated the profession of painting, of acceptance of new ideas, even though many individuals had personal interpretations of such fundamental innovations as geometric perspective and the new medium of oil painting. As the technical mastery of this kind of likeness advanced, the more laborious was the course of assimilation of the techniques, so that the young apprentice might spend years before actually applying what he had learnt in the creation of an actual painting. But this was the beginning of a period of problem solving that would revolutionize the understanding of our environment, the nature of materials and forces that could be manipulated to advantage. Caravaggio did not wait his turn, his command of appearance was clearly already regarded as phenomenal by those who had seen it, and the novelty of it appealed to a patron who was professionally on the lookout for talent to impress his major backer in Florence, the Grandduke Ferdinando de‘ Medici.

The cryptic notes in the Biblioteca Marciana copy of Mancini’s Considerazioni (ed Marucchi & Salerno 1957, p. 223/27) have not been fully explored; they represent ‘shorthand’ jottings of recollections evidently from contemporaries who knew the artist when he first arrived in Rome. The most detailed episode is one where Mancini devoted a whole page to the account of Caravaggio’s refusal to even recognize or otherwise acknowledge his brother, (probably Giovanni Battista Merisi, still in Rome in 1599 ) who had come to see the artist in Rome when he was in Cardinal Del Monte’s house. This alienation is part of a pattern which is evident from the contacts that he had in Rome, which make it improbable that he was in any way dependent on his uncle Ludovico, documented in Rome in the early 1590s, and indeed he seems to have very little to do with any people from Lombardy. He certainly does not seem to have reached out to the community around Sant’ Ambrogio dei Lombardi, which was also renovated and expanded in Clement VIII’ s day to accommodate people from that part of Italy (it was radically rebuilt after the canonization of San Carlo Borromeo in 1610 and renamed after the latter saint, so becoming San Carlo al Corso). Caravaggio was twice arrested in 1605 in the vicinity, but he does not seem to have had the campanilismo to appeal to these people, perhaps because of his already checkered history before arriving in the city. His name only appears once in the parish records of the Stati delle anime, when he rented the house in the Vicolo San Biagio in 1605 , and marriage and even friendship seem foreign to his nature.

Orsi seems to have been a comrade in arms, as it were, from the first days in Rome, but he was an established painter a generation older than Caravaggio - he was born in 1558 - who had a long history in his profession of decorative painting. He and Onorio Longhi, son of the architect Martino, are repeatedly recorded in Caravaggio’s company, and evidently saw his potential very early on. And Orsi’s association with SS Trinità would have drawn his needy acquaintance to the community, just as it must surely have been the opening for Caravaggio to so many of the potential patrons who owed allegiance to this institution. This older painter had a reputation for helping younger people ‘who came to court with some talent with no outlet for it, to support and help them he wasted time and annoyed his friends as has been seen in many cases’ as Mancini noted in his notes on Prospero . His passage to the room he was given in the house of Mgr Fantin Petrignani must be due to Orsi’s introduction , for the latter had been working for him in Amelia earlier in the 1590s, and in Palazzo Petrignani in Rome later in the decade, and we have seen that the introduction to Gerolamo Vittrici and that latter’s uncle Pietro was key to his developing his new capacity for more ambitious subjects. Orsi’s interest in his protégé worked out later with the Mattei, for through his introduction Caravaggio secured ‘many hundreds of scudi’ for the work he did for Ciriaco (Baglione, Vite, p. 137). His collaboration was fruitful: he had the licence to paint numerous versions of Caravaggio’s paintings (for example for the French Ambassador, Philippe de Béthune) but also came to own some originals, like one of the Boy bitten by a Lizard and the Lute Player with a carafe of Flowers described in Duca Angelo d’Altemps inventories of 1620 , which were in all probability bought from Orsi in 1611.

Philip Neri had welcomed so many artisans at the SS Trinità because he respected the way that work with one’s hands was a means to reach out not only to God but a practical way to integrate newcomers into the fabric of the city. The independence that Orsi showed when he fell out with Giuseppe and Bernardino Cesari over Caravaggio reveals the confidence he had in the extraordinary talent his protégé was showing. It is not so obvious today that this talent was widely recognized, mainly because there was no forum for its display - and Orsi’s brother-in-law Gerolamo Vittrici kept works like the Flight into Egypt now in the Galleria Doria under wraps, applying an instinctive censorship to these revolutionary paintings. However in a time when the naturalism of images was the pursuit of many working in conventional techniques, his likenesses and detail stood out as being on a wholly different plane. Van Mander, whose information comes from a correspondent in Rome no later than 1600, was struck not only by the marvel of his work, but the way that he had raised himself from abject poverty to the fame that he already enjoyed. That he had only recently emerged into the public eye is evident not only from the judicial records, where we find no mention of him before 1597, but all attempts to anchor early works to the period before that time have found no firm evidence.. In eighteen months he had made it to patronage that realized that his was an extraordinary talent, that he had a cervello stravagante. In any case the Rome Caravaggio is associated with in the documents is overwhelmingly that of the area around the Scrofa, the Trinità a Ponte Sisto, and Campo Marzio; at no point are there indications that he was at home around the Vatican and around the address there in the Borgo of Mgr Pandolfo Pucci, and it is likely that his hospitality was closer to the SS Trinità. But from Mancini’s account we can discern that Caravaggio’s independence began when he was living with Pucci, when he painted the Ragazzo morso dal ramarro ‘che fu causa che, vendutolo, e preso animo da poter viver da se, si partì da quel suo scarso maestro e padrone’.

After his stay in the Ospedale della Consolazione Caravaggio found that that Del Monte had bought one of these pictures that he had done ‘per vendere’, probably in Costantino’s Spada’s shop by San Luigi dei Francesi, which was probably one of the shopfronts visible in Falda’s 1665 print of San Luigi dei Francesi , and only later encountered its author, as the anecdote Guercino relayed to Malvasia indicates . From Bellori’s account of his purchase of the Cardsharps, it seems likely that this was also from Spada’s shop that was at the back of Palazzo Madama, and at the prompting of Prospero Orsi. By the summer of 1597 the painter was living in the house of Cardinal Del Monte ‘servidore del cardinale Del Monte’ as Orsi would say in court on 12 July (Macioce p. 63); and ‘che io ho la parte dal cardinale per me et per il servitore et allogio in casa et so scritto al rolo’ as Caravaggio himself would attest the following year (4 May 1598, Macioce p. 71). In 1599 when he witnessed a contract in the house of his picture dealer Costantino Spada he was addressed with the respect he had earned, magnifico domino Michelangelo Marisio de Caravaggio, and fame was beckoning. Fifteen years later the Fortune Teller would change hands for 300 scudi a far cry from the pittance he had earned for copying portraits when he first arrived in Rome.

His invention of a new way of painting was the fruit of discoveries that he made in Rome, so there is no chance that there are yet-to-be found forerunners of the astonishing performances he produced within months of arriving. They were instead the almost unbelievable revelations of a new procedure of painting, one where Caravaggio reversed the usual course of producing an image. We can still today recall the way that a typewriter produces one word after the last and the unfamiliar territory of the page that is only printed by the word processor when the appropriate key is pressed instead of the individual letter key. Nothing was more arresting than the possibility of fixing the fleeting image that could be seen in a camera obscura, and relying on this as evidence of perspective. Only someone with no commonsense could achieve this extraordinary reversal of the usual process of making images. And most people seeing a real image in a camera obscura for the first time assumed that it shows objects as painters portrayed them. This image was in any case partial and difficult to view. The process of recording it nello specchio ritratti as Baglione refers to Caravaggio’s early attempts, was painstaking and required the artist to piece together the picture, section by section, like a mosaic. It was the combination of these parts that suddenly came to life and captured the amazement of the viewers. Nothing prepared them for this uncanny revelation of how things really looked.

But there were fault lines in his achievement, and his association with people that Sandrart would later characterize as having nec spe nec metu - neither hope nor fear - was already apparent in Van Mander’s account. It is not only this association with the ne’er-do-wells of society that defines his legacy, although already Van Mander recognizes that his was a method that was marvellous for young people to follow; it was the very instability of his character that is a clue to his novel approach to representation. He was very difficult to approach, as Sandrart recalled ‘although he was held in great repute and was praised by many, he was very difficult to get to know not only because he had no consideration for other masters’ work (even though he did not publicly glorify his own) because he was very litigious and strange, and quarrelsome’ . The first report we have of him in Rome is of his role in the attack on a musician who was on his way to sing in Santa Maria Maggiore . The account we have of the incident is inconclusive and incomplete, but he was obviously a principal suspect, with hindsight it must be said that the random nature of the beating of Angelo Zanconi in July 1597 seems to have the hallmarks of other events that seem to punctuate the judicial reports throughout Caravaggio’s career in Rome. It is also accompanied by the realization that there were powerful figures who somehow recognized that this was an exceptional individual whose contribution to their lives was so outstanding that in some way they had to protect him. No-where is this more evident than in the appeal made to Paul V in 1607 by the Maltese authorities to allow this individual, who was subject to a capital sentence in Rome, to be awarded a knighthood per non perderlo desideriamo in estremo di consolarlo con darli l’Abito di Cav[alie]re del Gran M[aest]ro. (so as not to lose him we want desperately to console him by giving him the habit of a Knight of the Gran Maestro). At every stage there was the risk that he would lose concentration and leave the task in hand: Ora egli è infatti un misto di grano e di pulo; non si consacra di continuo allo studio, ma quando ha lavorato un paio di settimane, se ne va a spasso per un mese o due con lo spadone al fianco e un servo di dietro, e gira da un gioco di palla all’ altro, molto incline a duellare e a far baruffe, cosicché è raro che lo si possa frequentare .

He had an eccentric dislike of some colours, as Bellori reports, as he found red and blue ‘il veleno dei colori’ , rather like some today who seeing four red cars in a row will have a bad day. The critical reception his painting of the Raising of Lazarus in Messina provoked, for which he was to be paid a thousand scudi, caused him to fly into a rage and cut the painting to ribbons with his ever present sword, only to say that he would paint another version more to his critics’ liking within short order . The unpredictability that Van Mander recalls was part of the phenomenon, his work was like an extra-terrestrial appearance that was uncontrollable but of immense fascination, or a product like a photographic image, a hologram, or an iPad, that consumers did not know that they had a use for, but which immediately became a norm, as Mancini observes in his first words of his biography, that the colouring he introduced had become widely accepted Deve molto questa nostra età a Michelangelo da Caravaggio, per il colorire che ha introdotto, seguito adesso assai comunemente. ( We owe much in our time to Michelangelo da Caravaggio, for the colouring that he introduced, now commonly followed - Considerazioni, p. 223).

It is possible to argue that it was his lack of experience in painting figures or calculating perspective, that made it possible for him to tackle the problem of translating a real, or projected, image onto another two-dimensional surface. This was the work not so much of an entrepreneur, as of the innocence of someone who translated literally what he saw with the novelty of a natural magician. It was to make a complete transformation of how people viewed their surroundings, as Mancini recognized. However he spent the years between 1592 and late 1595, when he surfaced in Rome, he did not extend the basic training in artistic materials that he had received in his apprenticeship with Peterzano. Considering the lengthy preparation that serious figure painters had to go through before being trusted to use paint brushes and expensive colours, this must have been the basic training that Bellori describes ‘macinava i colori in Milano, et apprese a colorire’ ; rather than a full course in history painting as we might think was the norm. In reality the vast majority of pittori were versed in the materials that were at the disposal of the decorator rather than attempting to represent subjects that told a story, and Caravaggio must have learnt in Milan just to assimilate a working formula that would answer the limited prospects that his fractured personality could cope with. Peterzano, in the only other contract with an apprentice that we know of, Francesco Alicati, records he did work ‘ala arabesca’ and was taught to copy ‘illum istruire in arte pingendi maxime ut vulgo dicitur de far ritratti’, prefiguring the kind of work Caravaggio did in Rome when he first sought work with Carli, doing copies and arabesque decoration. Rather than depending on his family connections, or continuing a figurative tradition that he had only started preparing for by gaining a basic familiarity with artistic materials, he tackled the problems of representation in an inventive, entrepreneurial way. This was quite different from a painter like Orsi, who strove valiantly to match Giuseppe Cesari’s style; by contrast Caravaggio was never able to be a convincing assistant in this studio because he could never make use of another’s figurative invention. By the same token we cannot discern any hint of d’Arpino’s style in any of his work.

The realization of Caravaggio’s lack of means, that he was indeed estremamente bisognoso et ignudo when he reached Rome, has an impact on what his cultural background can have been, and the nature of the artistic revolution that he performed. Bellori remarks on his lack of interest in the work of his predecessors and competitors, citing the accessibility of subjects in the world around him, Van Mander reporting è uno che non tiene in gran conto le opere di alcun maestro. And his lifestyle leaves no room for library study and iconographic research, although he evidently had an intuitive understanding of what his patrons were looking for. Ever since interest in his art has been revived, in the past century, this has been denied because of the need to relate these new images to the cultural tradition that he is supposed to have come from, effectively diminishing the sensational nature of his innovations. And instead we should recognize that this was a kind of innovative disruption of an industry that was ripe for change. While he was dismissed in the centuries following his time, because he lacked the sophistication that was increasingly associated with his profession, in modern times his art has always been not so much compared with, but seen as derived from his predecessors. But this was the trendiest thing that had happened in representation, a method that was marvellous for young people to know, as Van Mander tells us. Such a transformation of visual perception had not happened in thousands of years, for in a world where professions had quite rigid procedures and apprenticeships, improvements of technique were incremental rather than radical. But we also have to look at Caravaggio’s instability not simply as the explanation of his aggressive behaviour, but also as being the reason why he could achieve such a massive breakthrough in a profession that he had no real training for, and at the age of twenty six. Such extraordinary individuals have a hard time coping with society, but without them we would not have broken the Enigma code, or invented computers, and resolving visual conundrums in particular has presented tremendous challenges that great minds have met without always gaining recognition for their achievements. Caravaggio’s was not a gradual advance in a profession where he respected his teachers and surpassed them by dint of hard work: he made the realization that it was possible to achieve a likeness by an entirely different procedure unrelated to their working methods. He did not express himself to posterity with much of a verbal explanation of what he believed in, although the statement he himself made during the libel trial brought by Baglione articulates the straightforward nature of his approach to the problem of representation, ‘Quella parola valent’huomo appresso di me vuol dire che sappi far bene dell’ arte sua, così in pittura valent’huomo un pittore che sappi depinger bene et imitare bene le cose naturali’ (13 September 1603) . Caravaggio had the ability to understand or know immediately, without conscious reasoning; if he had had common sense he would have listened more respectfully to his betters like Giuseppe Cesari and Federico Zuccari. The idea of using a real image, instead of trying to fashion one in his mind, was not a deliberate challenge to the profession he was on the fringes of, it was something that happened to him and it was precisely because he had no training in representative imagery that he was able to see pictures in all the multitude of people that he encountered in Nature rather than the models his colleagues were taught to follow, as Bellori tells us. And as Hans Asperger observed, it seems that for success in science or art a dash of autism is essential.

His was a fractured personality; for Baglione it was per soverchio ardimento di spiriti - for an excess of spirits that he was un poco discolo (a little unruly) , and he would often chance his arm or throw another’s life into confusion, one suspects without deliberate malice but because of what Del Monte would describe as his cervello stravagantissimo. It seems to be taken for granted that he was mad, and he inspired fear and apprehension among those who had to deal with him, but also a genius. A Sicilian patron from Messina who knew him, Niccolò di Giacomo, wrote in 1609 that ‘Questo pittore ha il cervello stravolto’ and Susinno would later conclude that he was ‘così scimunito e pazzo che non può dirsi di più’...’un folle che ove andava stampava l’orme del suo forsennato cervello’ , an inquietissimo cervello, di natura impaziente e invidiosa . He was his own worst enemy, for he was drawn by his own nature dal proprio temperamento, come ne’ costumi era torbido e contentioso (His own temperament and his way of life was troubled and quarrelsome - Bellori, Vite, p. 214). His appearance was unexpected for a painter, it was said that he looked more like a bouncer (sgherro ). The commission of a major painting in 1600 needed warranty, which Onorio Longhi stood in for to confirm that the artist would actually deliver . The years in Rome are punctuated by episodes of violence and trouble with the authorities, and the judicial reports seem to represent only the tip of the iceberg of his conflictual behaviour. Even at the outset there are signs that he was shown the door despite his willingness to work, and Bellori parodies him for always wearing the same ragged clothes, finery that he wore till it fell to pieces, and for eating from an old canvas for a plate, and he reports that he was negligentissimo nel pulirsi (1672, p. 214), suggesting severe self-neglect. Even in the first years in Rome he was always unpredictable, and Van Mander’s account is of his working hard for a couple of weeks and then taking off for a month or two, and hanging out with people that were trouble. And though he may have had reasons for throwing stones at his landlady’s shutters, or simply lost his temper with the waiter when he threw a platter of artichokes at him, there were many other episodes when he drew his sword and struck out, or claimed that he had fallen on it and injured himself that way. He was also often ill, apart from his stay in hospital after being with the Cesaris he was in a poor way again in October 1600, hardly able to stand, and he is frequently recorded suffering from febre maligna or was degente, recovering from some severe malady - to which he succumbed at Porto Ercole . Illness was the occasion for Mancini’s acquaintance with him, for he tells us that he had hoped to secure the Sdegnio di Marte that was instead claimed by Cardinal Del Monte, when the artist was ammalato, in the way the doctor had of seeing his bill paid with works of art . And yet despite the rebuffs and being cold-shouldered by the established professionals, Caravaggio seems to have had powerful protectors and dedicated friends. Prospero Orsi may well have steered him towards his neighbours and colleagues at the Trinità dei Pellegrini, where there was not only care offered for those who arrived footsore and destitute in the city, but also the solidarity of the artisans’ professions. The overall impression is of an unstable character who had issues of alienation, unpredictability and aggressive behaviour, and was difficult to get on with, uncontrollable as Cardinal del Monte reports to the Duke of Modena’s agent seeking the completion of the work he had ordered and paid for, he was a cervello stravagantissimo . He needed, or felt like perhaps few artists before or since, to defend himself against aggression, as he was repeatedly observed going around armed, and even when he was too ill to carry his sword he had a servant trail him with it, and Susinno reports that he was so fearful he slept fully dressed and with his sword at his side. This would today be considered as evidence of a condition of extreme anxiety. And although his behaviour was provocative it may well have been more unconventional than hostile; the initial report of the fatal encounter with Tommassoni in 1606 spoke of the artist having been provoked . His real friendship seems to have been with his dog Cornacchia from which he was inseparable and which he had taught to perform various tricks . The records show him in the company of tradesmen like Carli and the rigattiere Costantino Spada, pittori doratori like Tarquinio Ligustri and Avanzino Nucci, Marco Tullio Onofri, Filippo Trisegni and others who have left little trace of their activity, copyists Antonio de Madiis , Prospero Orsi and Gramatica (before his rise to fame), the tailor Gerolamo Crocicchia, the bookseller Ottaviano Gabrielli, the profumiere Alessandro Tonti, the barber Petronio Troppa who was at his side in the fatal encounter with Ranuccio Tomassoni - rather than associating with the ranks of professional artists at the Accademia di San Luca. The completely unconventional imagery that he produced was another indication that he was working from another premiss, and there are signs that he had to alter characters he had introduced in his pictures, like the woman present under the composition of the first Taking of Christ, showing he was unfamiliar with accepted iconography. Unlike his rivals, he did not approach representation from a dedicated Christian viewpoint. In contrast to his contemporaries it is a mistake to think of Christian hagiography as being the starting point of his creative idiom; it seems for example to have been an afterthought to add the attributes of Mary Magdalene to the Galleria Doria painting, begun as an observation of a girl seated in a chair. Del Monte would be more interested in what else he could do rather than imposing traditional themes on him, and there was more than a little reticence in exposing his ‘dipinti privati’, against the background of censure from ecclesiastics like Gabriele Paleotti that there should be an Index of acceptable images. There is a certain perception of a loosening of the order and discipline that the painters’ profession saw in this period of reform, in the spirit of the Renaissance respect for virtù and craftsmanship, so that a relative nobody could challenge the establishment - but public commissions were still scrutinized much more closely , and the conventions of representation were easy to flout if the artist was effectively not brought up in that tradition. The Amor Victorious, which may have been produced during his time with Del Monte rather than for the client who ultimately bought it, seems to mark a markedly literal response to the kind of aesthetic that his patron had, as ethically challenging as Balthus’s Guitar Lesson, and completely without an iconographic precedent. It is an extraordinary offering of ultimate naturalism. Others of his unconventional subjects were subsequently given other titles, like the Shepherd Corydon that became known as a St John the Baptist once it had left its original setting in Del Monte’s studiolo.

This was also a time when there was at least the beginning of a recognition of the positive scope of mental instability in the pursuit of the divine. The experience of Giovanni di Dio, who went through a period of madness in Granada before returning to his mission to found the hospital mission of the Fatebenefratelli, was profoundly affected by the experience, regarding it not as a passage through darkness but as an illumination . Rehabilitation had been the intention of Pius IV in establishing (1563) the Ospitale dei poveri forestieri e pazzarelli (later called S. Maria della Pietà dei Pazzarelli) in Piazza Colonna, where the inmates got better and returned to normality ‘guariscono et ritornano all’ esercitii loro’ .The achievement of returning some of these patients to their senses gave a new perspective to the adventure of exceptional behaviour. . Carlo Borromeo also had patience with the world of the insane, passing nights awake in the ospizio dei folli to seek enlightenment from the ranting of the patients there. So it was the beginning of an enlightenment that not only questioned establishment wisdom, it was open to new inventions and even unconventional thinking. The revolution of perception that Caravaggio operated in capturing the fleeting impression of the image was an entrepreneurial breakthrough, an intuitive solution to a pressing issue of representation. It was achieved by the different kind of approach that would lead Eadweard Muybridge, in the later 19th century, to question how movement can be observed: in his case we know that the frontal lobe injury that he had sustained did alter his thought processes, and may have been instrumental in enabling him to find the method to record what we now accept as true appearance of forms in motion. The well-documented difficulties that Caravaggio had with social interaction contrast with the confidence that he displayed in visual understanding, where he was in control of the nature that he could observe and chart. It is not surprising that some individuals do possess unusual visuo-spatial abilities, almost in compensation for other deficiencies. We see in his work a superlative technical aptitude, tremendous attention to superficially unnecessary detail, while reading of successive unemployment, hostility and rejection of his work and abrasive personality. This was evidently a character who withdrew from the presence of others, refusing as Bellori reports to come out of his cellar to work in the light of day, and was in some way incapable of maintaining friendships, like he was not dependable to finish a commission even when he had been paid for it.

Inventions are frequently regarded as the right of posterity, and we do not remember the circumstances of their introduction - can we say when the bicycle chain was first made, or recall that the electric drill is less than a hundred years old ? The adaptation of the real image in the process of forming a picture is one of those tremendous advances that seems to have been always with us despite so much evidence to the contrary. The digital image seems to be so similar to the photograph, until we think of the process being used to print an object in three dimensions. It was not obvious that Caravaggio’s particular abilities and technique would have been easy to recognize, especially as he had difficulties of forming friendships. He might even have been regarded as handicapped, and so would have been trapped in a menial profession - the kind of repetitive work that he was engaged upon when he first arrived in Rome at an age when it would be expected that the limitations of his abilities would already have become apparent. He needed the support, the encouragement that he found in the capital to bring out the huge potential of an intellect that was simply very different from that of his colleagues. Caravaggio seized on the transposition of the accidental arrangement of form as a substitute for calculating how it should look like. It seems a natural solution, as obvious as using a digital medium for reading newsprint, as we now take for granted with Steve Jobs’s anticipation of what would be needed in a modern age. Caravaggio’s was an intuitive recognition of appearance whose truth-to-life was seamlessly adopted, even if his work was at the same time regarded as artless. And yet he had such difficulty with communication, and was so unpredictable, that no-one actually knew how he had captured this naturalism. It was an achievement without collaboration, and there were no companions who could see what he did, or even how he got to it; the descriptions of his technique concentrated mainly on his unusual studio lighting. In his paintings one can discern his tendency to focus on the details instead of a larger design or concept, and an attachment to nature that is repeatedly quoted with accurate observations that are unprecedented among his predecessors. He was as Scannelli said ‘portato dal proprio istinto di natura all’imitazione del vero’ (drawn by his own instinct to the imitation of nature) and this attachment was an essential part of his condition that made thinking ‘inside the box’ an impossible choice. Today, if we recognize them, we value such exceptional individuals because they may provide solutions to problems that cannot be resolved by normal thinking processes; in his time it was rare that an individual could have the scope to challenge traditional forces by dint of his own obsessive personality. It is not possible to hypothesize on the exact nature of Caravaggio’s disorder, but it is useful to take account of his unusual behaviour.

It was in the environment of lay catholicism, in particular that of Philip Neri, that this kind of empirical advance could take place. Although he died in the year prior to Caravaggio‘s arrival, it was his curiosity for all of God’s creation that seems to have encouraged the investigation of so much of the natural world, and the sentiment ‘siate buoni se potete’ that was his enduring motto seems also to have much to do with the new tolerance in the Church, today. His father had been an alchemist, and he himself kept a botanical garden, so he would not have been hostile to the novel results of such a seemingly undisciplined mind who had so little patience with the past so that as Baglione reports of Caravaggio ed usciva talhora a dir male di tutti li pittori passati, e presenti per insigni , che si fussero; poiché a lui parea d’haver solo con le sue opere avanzati tutti gli altri della sua professione (he would talk ill of all painters from the past, however famous they had been; for it seemed to him that he alone had made advances in his works beyond all the others of his profession - Vite, 1642, p. 138). The mystery of his lost years lies in a consideration of his troubled personality, but the difficulties he had been through on the road to Rome only made his neediness greater. And although the social reform that was one of the practical results of the deliberations of the Council of Trent undertaken by Gregory XIII, Sixtus V and Clement VIII was inadequate in response to the tremendous problems of poverty and privilege in Rome, it did nonetheless open the door to the inestimable modernism first of Caravaggio, Federico Cesi and then Galileo.

© Clovis Whitfield 2014



1 Site of Palazzo Petrignani (since 1603 that of the Monte di Pietà)
2 Cappella di S Maria (Sacro Monte di Pietà) 725a
3 Piazza del Monte di Pietà (then called Piazza San Martinello) 724
4 Chiesa di San Martino (già della Confraternità della Dottrina Cristiana)723
5 Original site of San Salvatore in Campo Domnio
6 Present site of San Salvatore in Campo 738
7? Prospero Orsi’s house above taverna
8 House of Bernardino and Giuseppe Cesari
9 Palazzo of Pietro Vittrice (Via dei Chiavari 632)
10 Palazzo Barberini ai Giubbonari, home to Maffeo Barberini 11 SS Trinità dei Pellegrini 726
12 Ospedale dei Pellegrini e Convalescenti
13 Oratorio della SS Trinità 727 Oratorio e Confr. di detta Chiesa destroyed 1940s
14 Site of San Benedetto in Arenula (from 1587 church of SS Trinità)
15 Casa dei Sig i Matthei
16 Via dei Pettinari 728
17 Ospizio dei Poveri Mendicanti on corner, with Cappella di San Francesco (731), and the fountain of the Acqua Paola (1613) 18 731 Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi now demolished Lungotevere santo dei poveri
19 S. Clementino e S. Crescentino (Le Zoccolette) 733
20 Via dei Giubbonari 721
21 722 Chiesa dei SS Teresa a Giovanni della Croce, Carmelitani Scalzi 22 734 Chiesa di S. Paolo Apostolo, S Paolo alla Regola
23 718 Piazza di Spada (Piazza Capo di Ferro)
24 716 Palazzo di Spada già Palazzo Capo di Ferro
25 717 Strada, e Vicolo di Capo di Ferro
26 736 Piazza degli Specchi
27 737 S. Maria in Monticelli
27 704 Via Giulia
28 730 San Salvatore in Onda






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