It’s hard not to love Caravaggio.
What’s not to love about Caravaggio? He was talented, considerably wealthy, popular, and maintained a sultry bad-boy image. He created an in-demand artistic style that attracted the most powerful patrons in Rome and numerous followers. For all his merits, he had demons to match. He was known for his temper, he once murdered a young pro-Spanish socialite in a rage over a small bet (though the intention behind the probably-accidental murder is now being disputed by current scholarship — perhaps the duel was over a woman), and, despite his high profile commissions, he kept company with social pariahs.
Caravaggio was, for the most part, faithful to his commissions, although wealth wasn’t everything for him. On occasion, he lost money on completed commissions because he could not abandon his artistic imperative (three of his paintings were outright rejected during his career and many more accepted paintings still caused outrage). He was also a busy man. In 1605, Genoese Prince Marcantonio Doria, who collected Caravaggio’s work, offered the reputable artist 6,000 scudi to paint a fresco in the loggia of his Genoa palace. Payment records suggest that Caravaggio, who five years later painted The Martyrdom of St. Ursula for the Prince, was probably too busy with other important commissions to accept the generous offer, or, perhaps he refused the commission because he wasn’t experienced with fresco. Caravaggio had an affinity for the artistic hub of Rome, only leaving the city long term after he murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni in a street fight. He was forced to flee lest he lose his head like a nobleman or hang like a common criminal.
Caravaggio’s realistic and dark style attracted many artists, especially while he lived and worked in Rome. Followers of his style, dubbed the Caravaggisti, were propagators and defenders of their founder’s style, and many were inventors in their own right. Some of his most famous Italian followers include: Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio, Mario Minniti (one of Caravaggio’s former models), and Giovanni Baglione. In Italy, the influence of Caravaggio’s arch nemesis, Annibale Carracci (and family) triumphed. The Carracci brood was not so lucky to the North and West, however. Caravaggio’s fame spread internationally, and his followers include such personalities as Peter Paul Rubens, Georges de la Tour, Valentin de Boulogne, and Gerard van Honthorst. Spain boasts impressively popular Caravaggisti: Velazquez, Ribalta, Ribera, Murillo, and Zurbaran. Many Caravaggisti established and deserve fame and recognition in their own right.
One Roman Caravaggisti stands out for his tumultuous relationship with Caravaggio and the other Caravaggisti: Giovanni Baglione. Although Baglione’s style implicates him as one of the Caravaggisti, he despised Caravaggio. In the late summer of 1602, some nasty, scatological, sexually inappropriate poems about Baglione circulated Rome, defaming Baglione and his art. The poems were possibly inspired by jealousy of Baglione’s now-completed, highly coveted commission for the altarpiece of the church of Gesu. Balgione sued Caravaggio and some of his acquaintances for libel the following summer. Caravaggio’s testimony sheds light on what he thought of Baglione’s art, specifically his depiction of Christ’s Resurrection:
I have seen nearly all the works by Giovanni Baglione … I do not like this painting because it is clumsy and I regard it as the worst he has ever done and I have not heard the said painting being praised by any painter…
Caravaggio denied the allegations of libel. Nevertheless, he was found guilty and spent a couple weeks in jail. Perhaps this is due to the passiveness of his defense, which, upon reading, seems almost unrelated to the question of libel. As Francine Prose so excellently summarizes:
All [Caravaggio] really wants to talk about is art: who are the good artists in Rome, … what constitutes a good artist, what good art is. The question of whether or not he libeled Baglione seems to him to be inconsequential compared with the fact that Baglione is a terrible painter and that everyone knows it.
Baglione returned Caravaggio’s distaste for his art by producing an acrimonious biography of him. The two were bitter rivals in words and art. Their art clashed on a more biting and jealous level than, according to Orazio Gentileschi, the comparatively playful competition exhibited by other Caravaggisti.
In 1601-2, Caravaggio painted a happily naked Cupid in Love Conquers All. The painting was made for a powerful Genoese patron, Vincenzo Guistiniani (whose family had ruled Chios until its capture – learn more here), probably on occasion of a family wedding. He used one of his favorite male models for Cupid. This caused some controversy, because the model (possibly Caravaggio’s most beloved model, Cecco), had modeled previously for religious scenes (e.g., The Sacrifice of Isaac). Now he was nude, flamboyant, and mythological! Andrew Graham-Dixon describes Cupid as being “devoid of conscience of piety,” and yet this was exactly the message that Caravaggio meant to portray for this celebratory piece:
the objects of art and culture have not merely been conquered by love, they have given themselves up to passion. .. it is a mythology shot through with a raucously erotic and life-affirming sense of comedy, a fantasy of learning and knowledge suddenly caught up in the throes of sexual self-abandonment.
Vincenzo and his wife displayed and enjoyed the work. Primary sources discuss how this piece was the prize painting – the coup de théâtre – in Vincenzo’s collection, something that Baglione and other self-proclaimed morally conservative artists must have found maddening.
The next year, Baglione completed a conservative painting for Vincenzo’s equally powerful brother, Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani. The painting was a direct attack on Caravaggio’s merry Cupid. While some artists would choose to refute another artist’s work using an opposite style, Baglione used Caravaggio’s own style to send a message.
Baglione’s imposing, subtly angry figure of Sacred Love conquers Caravaggio’s flamboyantly joyous Cupid (Profane Love). Sacred Love towers over the small boy Cupid, who looks up at his vanquisher in fear and trembling. The arrow he so proudly clutched in Caravaggio’s work is now crushed in his own left hand, and his right hand braces for the blow from Sacred Love’s thunderbolt. Cupid’s body appears to be scrambling upward, as if leaving the canvas could save him, but he is wound up and cornered by Sacred Love. Sacred Love looks down at the terrified Cupid, his expression a mixture of seriousness and disgust. He doesn’t seem to pity the smaller creature underneath him. Cupid’s fate is entirely of his own doing and he’s about to get the reward for his misrepresentations and mucking up of Love. Although the figures of Sacred Love and Profane Love look nothing like Baglione and Caravaggio, I can’t help but surmise that Sacred Love (Baglione) is doing to Profane Love (Caravaggio) on canvas what he longs to do to Caravaggio in reality. Like Caravaggio, Baglione had a sharp tongue. Unlike Caravaggio, he did not have a reputation for violence and cared about his reputation in this respect, so becoming violent with Caravaggio wasn’t a viable action for him.
Baglione’s response to Caravaggio’s Love Conquers All was not as effective as he intended. His patient patron Benedetto was oblivious to or shrugged off the politics behind this painting, and he was one of the few who enjoyed it greatly. In fact, he was so pleased that he awarded Baglione with a gold chain – a coveted possession that was, according to Prose, “an important public symbol of accomplishment.”
The award of the gold chain, on top of Baglione’s important Gesu commission, was enough to anger the Caravaggisti. Save his devotee Salini, the group had no congratulations for Baglione. In fact, they taunted him and his trophy-winning work. The poor artist was so afflicted by his fellow artists’ criticisms that he remade the entire painting and gave the devil in the bottom left corner Caravaggio’s face! This has more serious implications than being a mere joke or morally ugly caricature, because in this second painting, the devil was purportedly caught in immoral acts with the young Cupid, interrupted by the righteous figure of Sacred Love. Graham-Dixon rightfully and eloquently suggests that Baglione’s second painting was a visual accusation of sodomy. Baglione repeated that charge verbally, and in public. He and his friends talked openly about Caravaggio keeping company with a bardassa [slang for an adolescent male prostitute]. As Graham-Dixon notes:
Whatever the reality, Baglione’s accusations were damaging and dangerous. … Once an artist was smeared as a pederast, his work was smeared too. People were liable to stop taking it seriously, seeing it only through the lens of its creator’s presumed sexual aberration.
Baglione was artistically faithful to the Caravaggisti for the entirety of his career. I find it interesting that his dislike for Caravaggio as a person did not translate into him abandoning his artistic imperative, which was to paint in Caravaggio’s deeply dark, emotional and dramatic style. Artists were drawn to Caravaggio’s style because it was popular – maybe – but perhaps moreso because of its pictorial honesty and, in religious scenes, displayed a certain depth not found in the equally popular style of artists like the Carracci. Patrons commissioned Caravaggio and his style because it was effective and, hanging on the walls of their home, gallery or sacred spaces, Caravaggio’s art demanded attention, recognition and thought. It was difficult to not embrace the gravitational pull of Caravaggio’s style, especially when the hands of the master themselves were still coursing with blood and able to paint, his lips still able to speak, and his eyes still able to translate his mind’s imagination onto the canvasses before him. It is only natural that he attracted a following, and Baglione’s resentment toward Caravaggio’s art and person provides insight into both artists’ morals and personalities. Baglione found success with Caravaggio’s style, and chose to stick with what earned him money, praise and reputation until his death.
For all of Caravaggio’s shortcomings, his humanness and honesty are refreshing. He was a loyal friend, quick to defend not only his own reputation but those of his friends and beloved models. He painted scenes that carry a unique and intense emotional weight. Centuries later, his religious scenes still provoke devotion and contemplation. His genre and mythological scenes promote joy, playfulness and merriment. He is undeniably, for me, the Baroque painting master.
It’s hard to not love Caravaggio. The man has style.