September 29, 1571– Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
The Husband and I have a fervent fondness for this painter. We stood in awe before his frescoes in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice and his paintings at the Uffizi Museum in Florence and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. A big book with color plates of his works sits on our coffee table.
During his short life and even after his death in 1610, he was dismissed as a populist. His paintings depicted insolent boys and rough peasants in the guise of Roman Gods or Christian Saints. The figures are often portrayed as if emerging out of darkness, with part of their faces and bodies strongly illuminated and the rest in black. He invented this style to get noticed. It worked; it works still.
Born Michelangelo Merisi in 1571, but better known to posterity by the name of the town outside Milan where his family owned property, Caravaggio.
The artist’s early works won him the support of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, a sugar daddy and one of the period’s most influential arbiters of good taste, a patron who seemed especially appreciative of, and whose own tastes encouraged, the homoerotic elements of Caravaggio’s painting style. Caravaggio’s other patrons were as much fascinated by his realism as they were offended by his refusal to idealize his religious subjects.
He quickly became one of the most important and controversial painters of his era. His personal life proved as original as his art. His involvement in a series of street fights and resulting legal problems ended in a brawl in which he killed a man. Caravaggio can’t be definitively described as gay; that designation did not even exist back in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the painter spent his time in this world painting the male body in the sexiest light possible. Plus, Caravaggio couldn’t be openly homosexual in an age when you could be burned alive for the crime of sodomy.
Still, in 1594, he met Mario Minniti, a 20-year-old dude, and took him home. Minniti stayed and lived with him for years. Caravaggio probably had flings with other guys, maybe the models he used for his paintings, but the relationship that Caravaggio had with Minitti is the only one where you might call them a couple. Minniti was most likely the model for his John The Baptist paintings. Caravaggio had a real thing for John T. Baptist.
From 1600-1606, Caravaggio was brought to trial eleven times for a variety of offenses, most involved violence. It is interesting that, despite his reputation as a homosexual, and his endless run-ins with law enforcement, he was never charged with sodomy.
After his trouble with the law, Caravaggio was forced to flee to Genoa, then to Naples, and eventually he sought refuge on the island of Malta, a place known to be friendly to guys who liked guys. There he was inducted into the politically powerful Order Of The Knights Of Saint John Of Jerusalem, which was not an indie band, but a secretive organization that protected him until another scandal involving a liaison with a male servant forced him once again to go back on the run.
Despite his always being on the run, he always managed to go on painting, often without a proper studio of any sort. His paintings show that he was a man of profound religious convictions, of a humble heart, and with a fanatical devotion to his art. His fundamental ideas were always clear, yet he continually changed and improved his techniques. He believed in realism, and he always painted from life, dragging poor people in from the street to pose. He became a great realist by painting flowers and fruit, in a variety of lights, sometimes just as still lifes, but usually with street boys, probably hustlers.
While Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo both made their passion for male beauty explicit and put it at the heart of their lifestyles, Caravaggio lived later and at a time that was more perilous. Still, his art reflects on theirs. He takes the noble image of idealized love for male beauty proclaimed by Michelangelo and Leonardo and makes it dirty and dangerous.
Caravaggio left this world in 1610. His exit was under murky circumstances while on a return journey to Rome, possibly dying of malaria, but maybe the victim of revenge from the family of the man who he had killed in Rome all those years before, whose forgiveness he may have been duped into thinking he had finally won.
Caravaggio lived much of his life surrounded by poor and ordinary people, when other painters were hanging out with Popes and Royals. He painted for them and from their perspective. In the end, he was buried among them, in an unmarked grave. He was just 36-years-old.
After he was gone, Caravaggio was mostly forgotten, only to be rediscovered in the 20th century. Post-Stonewall Gay Popular Culture embraced Caravaggio’s work. Why wouldn’t we? His aggressive male sexuality, that refuses to apologize for itself, has made the images from his paintings popular again. You can find them in museum shops on tote bags, tee-shirts and mugs.
Only about 80 paintings by Caravaggio have survived, but some lost works surface from time to time. You might want to check your grandmother’s basement. The Calling Of Saints Peter And Andres was recently authenticated and restored; it had been in storage in Hampton Court, mislabeled as a copy. In 2011, a previously unknown Caravaggio painting of Saint Augustine from 1600 was discovered in a Jesuit residence in Dublin.
In his 1986 film about Caravaggio’s life and creative processes, queer director Derek Jarman presents the painter as the quintessential gay artist, the cursed poet with brilliant yet unconventional artistic vision and with an intense personal life that outraged society. It’s a great film. Look at young Tilda Swinton! Seek it out.