“There was art before him and there was art after him. And they were not the same." #baroque #art #Italy #Caravaggio
Wanted for murder in Rome, hounded by creditors and cuckold husbands all over the Italian peninsula, and then finally chased across the Mediterranean by the Knights of Malta, Caravaggio must have felt some degree of relief when he arrived on the shores on Sicily.
Thanks to arrangements made by his old friend Mario Minniti, a roster of wealthy Sicilian noblemen had lined up to pay him handsomely for his considerable talents. Having double-crossed his former Maltese brothers, and using up the last of his political favors in Rome, his paintbrush provided him with one last chance at salvation in Sicily.
The two friends began their Sicilian tour in Minniti’s town of Siracusa, where the local consul had been convinced to overlook Caravaggio’s many transgressions against various laws, both of heaven and Earth. They commissioned him to paint a grand canvas of their patron saint, Saint Lucy, depicting her at the moment of her death—set on fire, covered in boiling oil, and stabbed through the neck, refusing to denounce her faith…and refusing to die until she was given holy communion. The painting is now quite worn with age, but can still be visited in her hometown of Syracuse today at the Basilica Santa Lucia al Sepolcro in Piazza Duomo.
Still feeling restless and becoming increasingly paranoid (it is said that he was sleeping with his sword at this point), Caravaggio left town even before the official unveiling of his masterpiece, heading north to Messina where the financial rewards promised be even greater. He traveled up the east coast of Sicily, all the while keeping an eye out to sea, where the galley ships flying the flag of Saint John were often visible in the near distance. The Knights of Malta were not about to leave him alone.
In Messina, he was awarded his biggest pay-out to date—triple the price he had been getting in Rome—by a wealthy merchant named Giovan Battista de’ Lazzari. Inspired by his patron’s last name, he commenced to paint an altarpiece for the family chapel called, “The Raising of Lazarus.” The finished product was as gloomy and dark as the artist’s mood in those days. Ninety percent of the canvas is black; the darkness of death from which Lazarus would arise. Caravaggio himself would not be so lucky.
A legend suggests that as a model for his painting, he had asked some workmen to dig up a corpse that was already in the beginning stages of decomposition. This sacrilege obviously did not sit well among the local Catholic leadership. Indeed, it was around this time that Caravaggio entered a church in Messina, accompanied by a few local priests who were keen to save his poor soul. They offered him a bowl of water.
“What’s this for?” Caravaggio asked impatiently.
“It is holy water,” replied the humble friar, “it’s to cleanse you of your venial sins.”
Caravaggio waved him off, “Then it’s of no use to me. All of my sins are mortal ones.”
Caravaggio painted one other grand altarpiece in Messina before setting off on the fugitive trail again. Today, both “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” and “The Adoration of the Shepherds” can be seen in Messina at the Museo Regionale.
From here, the remainder of the time for Caravaggio in Sicily gets even more murky. It is thought that he stopped in Palermo to paint the “Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence,” before jumping on a boat and heading back up the west coast of Italy towards Naples.
This last of his Sicilian paintings has a shadowy history of its own. For centuries it was displayed in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo. But on October 18, 1969 it was stolen from the church and has not been seen in public since. The most popular theory suggests that it was taken by members of the local mafia, but no arrests have ever been made. If it were to ever come to auction these days, estimates of its value are in excess of 20 million dollars.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio found an equally mysterious end. It is believed that he died in Port Ercole on the Tuscan coast on or about July 18, 1610. The cause of death is the subject of some dispute. Some say that he contracted malaria and died of a fever. Others are convinced that the Knights of Malta caught up with him at last and had their revenge. Either way, his life was cut short at the age of 38—but not before changing the way we see art forever.
In the words of one contemporary critic, “There was art before him and there was art after him. And they were not the same.”
The artist established his reputation (for better AND worse) in The Eternal City. The bulk of his masterpieces are on display in the churches and museums, most of which you can see for free.