Artists Who Are Murderers: Caravaggio

It’s now seven days till the broadcast of Series 2 of THE ART OF DECEPTION, my drama about the world of art fraud and forgery.  It tells the tale of Daniel Ballantyne, the greatest forger of art and antiquities in the world, who forged his own death at the end of Series 1 (see blog below this) and is now back for more.  TX date for Ep 1 is Monday 20th December; there are 5 x 15 minute episodes and so the final episode is on Christmas Eve. 

My director Toby Swift has done a superlative job; and the remarkable cast is led by David Schofield (Daniel Ballantyne) and Hattie Morahan (Jessica Brown.) 

As my research for this piece, I spent much of my free time this year reading books about art and artists and making slideshows of my favourite paintings.  And from time to time I’m going to feature Paintings of the Weeks about some of my favourite artists, including and especially the wicked ones.  As Ballantyne explains in Ep 5: 

 BALLANTYNE: Oh of course.   I love artists who are evil.  Caravaggio was a bastard and a murderer.  Gilbert Reynolds was a shit.  Picasso used people.  Michelangelo crucified a boy then painted him as he died. 

 JESSICA: Did that really happen? 

 BALLANTYNE:  Yes. I have a letter from Michelangelo in which he talks about his feelings as the boy died.  It’s in my Swiss vault. I’ll show you one day. 

 JESSICA: Yeah?  What else do you have in your Swiss vault? 

 BALLANTYNE:  Treasures. Many treasures.  It’s a gallery in miniature, in the basement of a Zurich bank.  It’s an experience. 

 JESSICA: Next month. Take me. I insist. 

 BALLANTYNE:  As always, your wish is my command. But I digress. Bernini, as you know, slashed his lover’s face.   Sickert may or may not have been Jack the Ripper.  But for sheer unrequited evil – Cellini is your man. 

 JESSICA:  Murderer, liar, fraud, cheat. 

 BALLANTYNE:  Altogether a man after my own heart.  

So today I will explore the misdeeds of one of these aforesaid evil bastards . 

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 

Like Don Corleone, Caravaggio was named after his home town. He was the master of chiarascuro, and his paintings have an incredible cinematic intensity. He arrived in Rome in 1592 and within a few years had revolutionised the world of art with his realistic scenes of low lifes, and his searing sensual depictions of the sacred.  

He also spent a lot of time in bars, mixing with whores, and getting pissed. Two of his best friends were Fillide Melandroni and Anna Bianchini, both practitioners of the art of the courtesan, with a reputation for getting involved in violent assaults.  Helen Langdon* writes of the ‘raucous life of street battles with the Roman whores, where beating and kicking down doors, throwing stones, yelling rude insults was routine. In one incident, Fillide attacked a woman who was sleeping with her lover; she left a sfregio, a mark on the woman’s face, carved with a knife, as well as stabbing her in the hand.  Fillide became a wealthy woman; and Caravaggio often used her as as a model – she was Mary Magdalene and St Catherine in two of Caravaggio’s most celebrated paintings. 

Like many bravos of the time, Caravaggio lived two lives; he mixed with refined society, attended soirees,and was the protege of a cardinal.  But he also mixed with low lives, carrying a sword and dagger, and had a ferocious temper.  And as his fame grew, his temper worsened.  The Dutch artist Carel Van Mander described how Caravaggio would work in a frenzy for weeks then  sally forth ‘for two months with a rapier at his side…going from one tennis court to another, always ready to argue or fight.’   Caravaggio was also intensely jealous of other painters, including Federico Zucarro; and Caravaggio and his friend Longhi shockingly attacked one of Zuccaro’s pupils (Marco Tullio) in the street. Insults were hurled: ‘Let us fry the balls of scum such as you’, then punches were thrown and stones were hurled.  

The following year, in 1601, Girolamo Spampa, a young pupil at the Accademia di San Luca, was knocked down in the street and beaten with a cudgel – and identified Caravaggio as his attacker, though the motive for the attack is unclear.  But it cannot be denied that the ‘youth of today’ are a mild, moderate and peaceful bunch compared to the youth of yesteryear.  I mean-  Caravaggio and his gang were a bunch of bullying shits! 

In 1605 our man was in trouble again, firstly for carrying a sword without a licence, and then for attacking the home of two women.  Then he got into a dispute with a notary called Mariano Pasqualone.  According to one account (Langdon),  Caravaggio was spurred by jealousy of a model of his called Lena, who was seeing Pasqualone.  According to another account (Schama**) Caravaggio was offended by comments met by Pasqualone about Lena, which cast doubt upon her virtue:  Pasqualone alleged that Lena was known to ‘stand in the Piazza Navona’, a subtle way of  saying she shagged around with little or no discrimination.  Because Pasqualone didn’t carry a sword, Caravaggio was unable to challenge him to a duel. So instead, he attacked him from behind and hit him on the head with a sword.  A witness describes the attacker: ‘a man with an unsheathed weapon in his hand. It looked like a sword or a hunting knife He turned around at once and made three jumps and turned towards the palace of the Cardinal Del Monte…He wore a black cloak on one shoulder.’  The witness added: I only heard the wounded man say it could not be anyone but Michelangelo da Caravaggio.’ 

This wasn’t the end for Caravaggio; he fled to Greece, paid some bribes, and returned to his life of fame and glory.  But then he killed a man.  It’s a miracle, really, that this hadn’t happened earlier; but even in Rome in the early seventeenth century, a murder could not be ignored. 

In fairness to Caravaggio, his act of murder was probably one of the LEAST shabby things he had done in his life – in that the death occurred in a fair fight, a duel – rather than involving, as in the past, the artist sneaking up on an enemy and  clubbing them from behind with a cudgel or sword.  The duel was with Ranuccio Tomassoni, whose family dominated the neighbourhood, and who was also a keen player in the street brawling milieu.   As Caravaggio passed Ranuccino’s house, Ranuccio grabbed a sword and a rumble ensued.  Caravaggio and Ranuccio fought one on one for some time, then Ranuccio fell – and the sword thrust that had been aimed at his thigh caught him in the stomach.  His brother Givoan rushed to protect him and Caravaggio tried to kill HIM too, but was dragged away. 

Ranuccio died and Caravaggio fled, yet again.  But he was never brought to justice; his fame was too great, his talent too important to the Catholic Church – whose power over the people was enhanced by the visceral sensuality of Caravaggio’s sacred paintings. He fled to Naples, and then to Malta, where he sought redemption by applying to become a Knight of St John.  After he painted for them a magnificent version of The Beheading of John the Baptist, the Knights decided to make Caravaggio one of their own. Corruption yes; but at least they had taste. 

Then the darned rascal screwed it up AGAIN by getting into yet another fracas, after which he was interned in a dungeon.  After a daring escape, he fled to Naples, where he was attacked by unknown assailants and left for dead.  No one knows who was responsible; friends of the Tomassoni family, perhaps, or allies of Pasqualone? Or, some suppose, this was revenge by the offended party in the Maltese fracas. 

Frankly, he had a lot of enemies.  Caravaggio died, sad and alone, in suspicious circumstances after being abandoned by ship ship in the port of Palo 

It’s an astonishing life; because in between being a bully, a carouser, and a killer, Caravaggio transformed and enrichened the world of art by creating three-dimensional tableau of astonishing sensuality. You can feel these paintings, as well as seeing him – when Doubting Thomas puts his finger into Christ’s open wound – Yuk! It’s like being there.  And very often the paintings tell a story – you are lured into imagining what happens next… 

* CARAVAGGIO: A Life by Helen Langdon (Pimlico) 

** THE POWER OF ART by Simon Schama (Bodley Head) 

Young Sick Bacchus

Boy Bitten by Lizard

The Crucifixion of Peter

Judith Beheading Holofernes

The Decapitation of John the Baptist

The Stigmatisation of St Francis

David and Goliath


Supper at Emmaeus

The Incredulity of St Thomas - yuk!

The Taking of Christ

The Card Sharps

And finally, here are Caravaggio’s women:

Mary Magdalen, as portrayed by Anna Bianchini, a whore

Fillide Melandroni, notorious brawler and whore, as Judith

Fillide again as St Catherine, whose appalling demise inspired the Catherine Wheel

Mary Magdalene in esctasy; model unknown, but she seems to be enjoying herself

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