Caravaggio's Rap Sheet Reveals Him to Have Been a Lawless Sword-Obsessed Wildman, and a Terrible Renter
  Resource:ARTINFO   2011-02-28 09:21:54  

An installation view of the Caravaggio exhibit in the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome.

Very few cultural figures achieve one-name status. Madonna. Björk. Britney. Among painters, that same icon status is reserved for Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio— the artist whom we just call Caravaggio. Now, a newly restored trove of police records and other historical documents on view at Rome's Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza offers fresh tidbits to feed his rock star-like legend, offering further proof, if any be needed, that the famous rogue had a dark side that extended well beyond his masterful use of chiaroscuro.

Arriving in Rome in 1595 at the age of 25, the hot-headed painter's police dossier — hand-written in Latin and vernacular Italian and bound in great volumes that were stored in the archives until now — makes Caravaggio come across as almost compulsive in his lawlessness. For instance, the man was weapon-obsessed, sporting a sword, dagger, and pistol at various times. He was twice thrown in the clink for carrying arms without a permit, and known for beating strangers in late-night fights and pelting police with rocks.

The documents add fresh color to well-known parts of the Caravaggio legend. Regarding 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. As the BBC recounts the tale, 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.

Lesser known incidents stand out as well. Particularly noteworthy is 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...."

In still another outrageous episode, Caravaggio 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.

Caravaggio died in 1610 at the age of 38, still in exile in the north of Rome, and the current exhibition is timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of his death. Also on view, besides the spicy documents, are several paintings by contemporaries of Caravaggio to give the flavor of the times, a portrait of Pope Paul V done shortly before the artist fled Rome — on view for the first time since 1951 — and a drawing executed by a judge of weapons seized from the artichoke-slinging Old Master.

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