Friday, February 25, 2011

Caravaggio, until May 15 in the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome

An anonymous portrait of Caravaggio

Apparently Caravaggio was a very naughty boy, much more than previously known. An exhibition of his art and recently discovered and restored documents, which include his police record, offers further proof of this famous artist's roguish dark side.

Caravaggio appears to be almost compulsive in his lawlessness. For instance, the man was weapon-obsessed, sporting a sword, dagger, and pistol at various times. Twice jailed for carrying arms without a permit and known for beating strangers in late-night fights and pelting police with rocks.

The new evidence clarifies some of the details of the notorious brawl in which Caravaggio killed a man. The 1606 brawl during which the artist killed one Ranuccio Tommassoni, leading the artist to flee Rome and causing Pope Paul V to issue a death warrant, the documents reveal that the fight was over a gambling debt, and not a woman, as some accounts have suggested. The showdown was arranged in advance, with Caravaggio squaring off against four foes alongside a gang of three of his own comrades, including a friend who was a captain in the Papal army. One of Caravaggio's supporters was also wounded in the battle, thrown into prison, and subsequently put on trial.

Detail of a police report on parchment regarding a complaint that Caravaggio was illegally circulating in Rome with the sword and a dagger pictured.

One document on display features a drawing done by a judge of a sword and dagger seized from Caravaggio, who was arrested for carrying weapons without proof of permit. All this had been unknown until skilled archivists were able to examine the original records from Caravaggio’s decade in Rome. These records—police blotters, judiciary decisions, eyewitness accounts in the first person—were bound into ten volumes, each with up to 1,500 parchment pages of hand-written reports in Italian and Latin. The problem was that the parchment pages were self-destructing because the highly acid ink was eating up the pages. To save them, the archives director made a public appeal for sponsors. Thanks to articles in the Italian financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore, a handful of private sponsors were found, and the costly, time-consuming and painstaking restoration work could begin.

Other incidents include the written testimony of a waiter at the Moor's restaurant who had the bad fortune to be working when the irascible master painter came in for lunch with some friends:

"I brought them eight cooked artichokes, four cooked in butter and four fried in oil. The accused asked me which were cooked in butter and which fried in oil, and I told him to smell them, which would easily enable him to tell the difference. He got angry and without saying anything more, grabbed an earthenware dish and hit me on the cheek at the level of my moustache, injuring me slightly... and then he got up and grabbed his friend's sword which was lying on the table, intending perhaps to strike me with it, but I got up and came here to the police station to make a formal complaint"

Caravaggio also apparently cut a hole in the ceiling of his studio to accommodate some of his large paintings. Since he was a renter, this did not sit well with his landlady. After she sued the artist, Caravaggio and a friend decided to revenge themselves by hurling rocks at her window.

Apart from all of this, Caravaggio managed to to find time to paint many a masterpiece.

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