Caravaggio and the Modern Conservative Movement in the West: a biographical essay
As Ranuccio Tomassoni lay bleeding to death, the man who had dealt the fatal blow understood what his triumph meant. So the murderer fled Rome — the city where there was but a fine line between sinner and saint. He ran, as he would do for the rest of his life. Yet still, he longed to return to Rome. Who was this man, this criminal who had just taken the life of one of Rome’s elite, this same man who created art that embodied the ideals of the counter-reformation, the man they called Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio?
In 16th century Milan — the capital of Lombardy — a fiery counter-reformation archbishop, Charles Borromeo, cried that the Catholic Church had lost its way. According to him, it needed to return to Jesus through his most basic teaching: that of humility. The Church was in the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts. For in their commonplace misery, humble hopes, and mundane dreams, was to be found the face of Christ. In Milan, the 12-year-old Caravaggio found himself apprenticed to Simone Peterzano. Caravaggio was an orphan, having lost his family to the bubonic plague that had struck the city. He had, in a sense, no one. It was he, and the world around him, of whom Charles Borromeo spoke of when he spoke of the face of Christ. Borromeo had little patience for the grandeur of the renaissance — of its highfalutin ideals and pompous mannerisms.
This was because art in the late 14th to early 16th century was Renaissance. The renaissance period pulled Europe out of the middle ages and saw the marriage of classical Greek and Roman thought with Christian theology. New technologies were emerging, new continents were being discovered, which developed a new system of astronomy. In the arts, it was reflected the purity and structure of such a period. The Renaissance boasted of masters such as Raphael Sanzio, whose face grins at us from beside Zoroaster and Ptolemy in The School of Athens, and Leonardo Da Vinci, whose brushstrokes created a smile that captivated the world. The spirit of the renaissance was one of lofty ideals, proportion, balance, and ideal beauty.
While Mannerism (sometimes referred to as Late Renaissance) often exaggerated these qualities, the baroque period — of which Caravaggio will become known for — ushered in a new era the likes of which Europe had never seen. Whilst ‘Renaissance’ is a French word meaning ‘rebirth’ — ‘Baroque’ came from a Portuguese word meaning ‘misshapen pearl’. No other moniker could be more fitting for an art movement that was to take everything the Renaissance stood for and pull it down to the dirty reality.
The archbishop’s preaching had a profound influence on Caravaggio. In the Crucifixion of St. Peter, both depicted above in the renaissance style of Michelangelo Buonarroti and the baroque style of Caravaggio — the difference is stark. St. Peter’s look in Michaelangelo’s artwork is defiant. The colors give a sense of otherworldliness. St. Peter resembles a Greek hero of old, his face noble and strong. In Michelangelo’s depiction, even the composition is balanced and symmetrical. In Caravaggio’s version, on the other hand, the colors are darker, which adds to the drama. The dirt on the ground makes it feel like the event occurred on the earth familiar to us. St. Peter’s face it’s the face of someone you know. It’s not a Greek hero or a myth; it is the face of a human being filled with emotion. There is a sense of imbalance; positioned in such a way the cross makes us wonder if it will topple over. It is unstable. The picture is an unpolished glimpse at humanity, and Caravaggio asserts that it is here where we find the divine.
The election of Pope Clement VIII ushered artists to Rome from all over. The new pope’s ambition to transform the city into a visible representation of the Catholic faith was no secret, and he needed artists to make his dream a reality. Caravaggio left Milan to find greatness. But the promise of fame and fortune did not always attract the most honorable to Rome. It was a city of migrants seeking a better life, and often they attempted to copy mannerisms they saw in the upper classes without fully understanding them. Thus in the streets there developed a butchered code of honor, whereby even the slightest provocation could be seen as an insult.
It is easy to look at Caravaggio’s life and judge him through our modern frame, but he was very much a product of his time and surroundings. He was a violent and temperamental man because such was the environment; one could not expect to survive otherwise. A story that’s often told about the famed artist is the one about his scuff with a waiter. As the tale goes, while the waiter was serving him a plate of artichokes with butter, Caravaggio, in a fit of rage, smashes the plate at the server’s face. It’s easy to hear of this and dismiss Caravaggio as a berserk madman. But, unlike the waiter, Caravaggio was from Northern Italy. Artichokes were best served with olive oil; something both the waiter and Caravaggio believed. However, because of Caravaggio’s origins, the waiter thought of him as a, as famed art critic Andrew Graham Nixon puts it: “a cheese-eating vulgarian”. In other words, it was a racial insult served as a dish.
Caravaggio’s early years in Rome were as rocky and unpredictable as the rest of his life would become. He flitted from place to place, lodging first with a Sicilian painter then with a priest he called “Monsignor Salad”. During this unstable time, he produced works such as Boy with a Basket of Fruits and Sick Bacchus. Caravaggio was undeniably talented, but in 17th Century Rome talent could only get you so far. It was who you knew that spelled the difference between genius and obscurity, and this homeless vagrant had no connections. But, as luck would have it, two of his works caught the eye of the eminent Cardinal Del Monte: The Fortune Teller, in which a young man gets his ring stolen distracted by the beauty of a fortune-teller, and Cardsharps, in which an ongoing game of cards sees one of the players hiding a cheating card with a dagger tucked in his belt. These were scenes from every day, and they delighted Cardinal Del Monte who found them honest and refreshing. Caravaggio found himself under the cardinal’s patronage, and his career began to rise.
In 1599, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint two large paintings for the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi, his first major public commission. He did not disappoint. Out of it came The Calling of St Matthew and The Martyrdom of St Matthew. In true Caravaggio fashion, he took the redemption of a sinner — an essential element of the Bible story — and brought it to the present. This is what the counter-reformation stood for: upholding traditional values but applying them to modern times. For while the world changes, our values should not. In his painting, the characters are dressed in 17th Century Italian garments, and the setting was somewhere familiar to the ordinary Italian of that time. In The Calling of St. Matthew, the look of bewilderment on St. Matthew’s face tells us he cannot believe that a ruffian such as himself is being called to salvation. The surrounding people are astounded. They look at Jesus incredulously, unwilling to believe he could have chosen such a sinner. In The Martyrdom of St Matthew, as St Matthew is being martyred, at the back running away in horror is the artist himself. Perhaps Caravaggio is letting us know that redemption comes at a price: suffering. And it was a price he was, as of yet, unwilling to pay.
Just as Caravaggio’s fortunes finally turned for the better, his habits reversed them. You can take the artist out of the streets but you cannot take the streets out of the artist. Caravaggio’s quick temper and rebellious streak found him often at odds with the law. He would strut around Rome with a sword, despite such being illegal, where he developed a rivalry with Giovanni Baglione. The former wrote satirical poems at the latter’s expense, which landed Carravaggio in trouble for libel. He would throw stones at policemen and curse at officers. His landlady took his furniture as he hadn’t paid for several months. Yet, somehow, while indulging in all this troublemaking, Caravaggio produced the sweet Madonna di Loreto, also known as Pilgrim’s Madonna. The painting had originally caused a stir for a reason that may seem odd to us today: the pilgrims’ feet were dirty. This outraged the religious critics; such lowliness did not fit into their ideal art. But the painting was a tremendous success with the masses, and pilgrims flocked to see it — perhaps because they best captured their experiences. It depicts them on their knees praying to the Madonna and the baby Jesus. The pilgrims are both dirty and tired, it’s clear that they have traveled far to see the Virgin. This is perhaps what resonated most with them. That was the forgotten message that the counter-reformation needed to bring back; no trial is too lowly for sanctity. It was rewarding for the pilgrims in Caravaggio’s painting to see their counterparts kneel at the Madonna’s feet with a look of absolute awe and joy as she and the child gaze at them tenderly.
On the evening of May 28, 1606, Caravaggio became a murderer. In an illegal duel, he pierced Ranuccio Tomassoni’s femoral artery until he bled to death. There have been speculations as to the cause of the duel. Some say it was because of a tennis match. Art historian Andrew Graham Dixon thinks otherwise, and suggests that Caravaggio may have been sleeping with Tomassoni’s wife. Caravaggio had to flee Rome. He was convicted of murder and punished with a bando capitale (which meant that anyone in the Papal states had the right to kill him and be granted a reward). To claim the reward just the severed head would suffice. Perhaps the thought of his possible fate would constantly dance around Caravaggio’s mind. On the run, he painted David With the Head of Goliath: the severed head patterned after the artist’s own.
During these years, the artist came to Malta, where the famed Knights of the Order of St John had their fortress. The Knights waged guerrilla warfare against Islam, and to be accepted to the order would mean an automatic pardon, and the redemption Caravaggio so desperately sought. Here, he impressed the knights so much with his paintings that the grandmaster Wignacourt petitioned the pope for permission to make him a knight. And so Caravaggio became one, and for the Knights, he produced one of his most famous works: The Beheading of St John the Baptist, in which something almost theatrical is perceivable despite the realism. Some credit Caravaggio with coming up with this technique in paintings. What is interesting about The Beheading, is that, although depicting the death of a martyr, there are no angels, halos, or any other supernatural elements depicted. Space around is a subdued color around the action, which achieves the contemplative look his paintings have.
Right before the unveiling of the painting, that evening, Caravaggio assaulted a more senior knight. For such reason, he was thrown in jail. But the worst punishment one can inflict on an artist is to contain him, and so Caravaggio escaped the four walls of his prison, leading the knights to expel him. The artist was once again on the run.
Having a death warrant on his head didn’t stop Caravaggio from producing art. In his flight, he produced The Resurrection of Lazarus and the Adoration of the Shepherds. The latter’s scene is calm and peaceful. Regard the looks of pure ecstasy on the shepherds. Behold the beautiful virgin, lovingly contemplating the child Jesus. The Virgin’s position depicted in the Adoration of the Shepherds, on the floor holding the child, is a symbol of humility. Poverty surrounds her, yet we know she is the Mother of God through her grace and innocence that Caravaggio so masterfully imparts through his brushstrokes. The spiritual expressiveness in the painting was so unlike the reality he was facing as a wanted man. Was this a tiny glimpse of a peace he wished to obtain?
In 1610, Caravaggio created his two last works: The Denial of St. Peter, and The Martyrdom of St Ursula. While painting, he tried to negotiate a pardon with Cardinal Scipio Borghese. Hoping for such pardon, he set sail for Rome with works he wished to offer the cardinal. At the port of Palo, he was detained for unknown reasons, and his paintings carried away in the ship to Porto Ercole, which would become the ultimate destination. Excited to go to Rome and receive the redemption he craved, Caravaggio continued the journey on land. He died soon after arriving at Porto Ercole. Whether from exhaustion, from fever, from food poisoning, or if they murdered him — remains unknown. He was buried in an unmarked grave, and for three hundred years, the artist faded into anonymity.
Caravaggio’s name in recent times has reemerged, along with a reputation of being a ‘bad boy’. But he should not be remembered for that. Whether or not he intended to, Caravaggio was an artistic genius whose artworks reflected a new period of thought: the counter-reformation. While Martin Luther’s fought the abuses of the Catholic clergy by separating from Catholicism, the counter-reformation sought to fight the same battle by reviving instead forgotten values — such as humility.
Today, in light of the many known cases of abuse, those supposed to vanguard traditional principles have left us disillusioned. The increasingly popular notion that the right is ‘reactionary’ is only half a truth; in that, while it is a reaction to the far-left, conservative core principles are unchanging — and we must fight for them. This doesn’t mean Conservatism cannot adapt to its time. What it means is that it must hold true to its core principles, taking into account at the same time the changes produced by the environment. The Calling of St. Matthew serves as the best illustration. Whilst it depicts a modern scene, the message behind it is timeless. The same timelessness of values modern conservatives have forgotten by replacing them with corporate worshipping, while the fringe online side with a strange fixation on race.
But Conservatism is not about sticking to the status quo, and it certainly isn’t about profit or racial superiority either. That many on the right would rather turn a blind eye to the abuses being committed just to “own the left”, is appalling. Just as Martin Luther himself had legitimate criticism on the abuses of the clergy, the modern left has a point. In this sense, they are a reaction to soulless corporate greed: a culture of materialism, and a society that places ‘utility’ as the highest value. Somewhere along the line, conservatives lost sight of their core principles, thus making such criticism valid.
Conservatism needs its own counter-reformation. It’s not enough to simply brand oneself as simply ‘not of the left’. While still trying to change the status quo that has deviated from the values we hold dear, we must defend our principles. The left has gone mad, but the current state of the right isn’t looking a lot better. Let’s not let this discourage us, or make us lose sight of what we are fighting for. Art is a glorious reminder. While Martin Luther saw it as a regrettable vanity, Caravaggio shows us it can both inspire and remind us that our struggles have meaning; for despite our state, salvation is possible.