A painting presumed to be by the 17th century painter Caravaggio is central to the plot of The Garden of Evil. The work found (which is purely fictional) is purported to be the artist's copy of an actual oil by Annibale Carracci, entitled Venus with a Satyr and Cupids.
Caravaggio is one of the most fascinating and influential artists of the early Baroque era.* He was born Michelangelo Merisi, in Milan on 8 September 1573. The family moved to the small town of Caravaggio in Lombardy in 1576, and it is from this city that he took his name. After the death of his father, a master builder, in 1584 Caravaggio was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano, a painter in Milan of the school of Titian. His apprenticeship expired five years later, and he subsequently made his way to Rome.
Desperately poor, Caravaggio hired himself out doing odd jobs in various painters' studios. No job lasted long, perhaps due to his explosive temper. He was eventually hired by Giuseppe Cesari (also known as the Cavalier d'Arpino) to add flowers and fruit to d'Arpino's larger works. He developed close friendships with several influential artists, as well as the sixteen year old Sicilian painter Mario Minniti (who served as a model in several of Caravaggio's paintings). This employment allowed Caravaggio the luxury of working on his own material, and his unique style quickly became evident.
Caravaggio's well-connected friends brought his talent to the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who became his patron and ardent supporter. In 1599, del Monte assisted him in securing his first commission for a public work panels for the Contarelli Chapel (part of the San Luigi dei Francesi church in Rome). He provided three paintings: The Calling of St. Matthew, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, and The Inspiration of St. Matthew. The paintings caused an uproar. The works' heightened sense of realism and the dramatic use of chiaroscuro (the contrast of light and dark in a painting) were both hailed as innovative and condemned as vulgar. Inspiration was rejected as impious and indecent because the saint was portrayed as a common workman with bare, dirty legs. It was replaced in 1602 with a more politically correct version of the same subject, also by Caravaggio. The original version was purchased by del Montes friend, Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani (sadly, only black and white prints now exist of the original painting, as it was destroyed in the bombing of Berlin during WWII.)
Caravaggio's reputation continued to grow over the next several years, as did the controversy surrounding his paintings. Many were rejected by the institutions that commissioned them, who objected to both the realistic nature of his painting as well as his choice of models, which included working-class people and, frequently, two well known courtesans: Anna Bianchini is featured in the Penitent Magdalene and Rest on the Flight to Egypt (both of which are described in detail in The Garden of Evil), and Fillide Melandroni (also mentioned in the novel) is the subject of Saint Catherine, Judith Beheading Holofernes and Portrait of a Courtesan.
Caravaggio's name appears frequently in Italian police journals from 1601 onwards, recording at least six arrests in four years for instigating fights. In 1606 he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a street brawl, forcing him to flee Rome for Malta. He so impressed the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta (an aristocratic military order) that they took the unusual step of making Caravaggio a member of the Knights. Caravaggio, however, quickly wore out his welcome, starting a sword fight with a superior officer for which he was jailed in 1608. He escaped and fled the island, but was pursued to Syracuse, Messina, Palermo and eventually Naples. Remarkably, Caravaggio continued to paint, producing some of his finest works during this period.
He was captured in Naples in 1609, and the resultant beating left him disfigured almost beyond recognition. He recovered, and, assured of a papal pardon by his influential friends, decided to return to Rome. During the journey he came down with a fever at Porto Ercole in Tuscany, where he died on 18 July 1610 at the age of 36. While his paintings had a major impact on the emerging Baroque movemen Caravaggio was effectively forgotten for centuries. Art scholar Roberto Longhi is credited with re-establishing the importance of Caravaggio's work in the 1920s.
*Baroque, originally meaning 'misshapen pearl', describes a European artistic period from about 1600 to 1750. Well known artists from this period include musicians Vivaldi, Handel and Bach; writers John Donne and John Milton; architect Sir Christopher Wren (who designed St Paul's Cathedral in London) and painters such as Rubens and Vermeer.
A mini-tour of Caravaggio's work
This article was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the
February 2009 paperback release.
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