Caravaggio the Leader

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, detail of self portrait

In her biography of Caravaggio, Helen Langdon refers to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s “evangelical call to young artists,”1 welcoming and encouraging them to pursue his new and modern style. Historical documents paint a different picture, of a Caravaggio who fiercely guarded his style from imitators and frequently retaliated with violence or polemical paintings when artists copied his style or even received a commission he wanted. These two things, Caravaggio recruiting others to his new art, and Caravaggio’s protective nature, seem diametrically opposed. And yet, in art history, discussion abounds about Caravaggio the Leader, Caravaggio who consciously created this great movement of a new art, Caravaggio who welcomed others to emulate what he had created.

I don’t see Caravaggio as the conscious leader of a great movement. Perhaps this is an unconventional or unpopular viewpoint. There’s no denying that his art had an unprecedented  impact on the Roman art world,  but it’s difficult for me to subscribe to the idea that Caravaggio was willing to share his glory with others by allowing them to share in the style he had worked so hard to create. Rather, once Caravaggio’s art became “The Art” to have,  it behooved other artists to emulate him. His contemporaries would naturally be drawn to copy his style and to attempt to arrive at what made him great.

When twenty-one year old Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1592, he, like many artists before him, arrived a poor man with big dreams. He had received an inheritance, but, for reasons we don’t know, this money was basically gone by the time he arrived in the Eternal City.2 He began working for a priest, Pandolfo Pucci, an arrangement which may have been set up for Caravaggio by the powerful Colonna family. (Pucci was Pope Sixtus V’s sister’s steward, and when the pope died, she went to live in the Palazzo Colonna.) Caravaggio was unhappy in Pucci’s household and didn’t have the artistic freedom he desired. He was treated poorly (he complained his only food was salad and as such his nickname for Pucci was Monsignor Insalata) and during his stay he was made to paint copies of devotional pictures. When his patron was away, Caravaggio was “reduced to painting pictures for sale, of humble subjects beneath the dignity of Roman figure painters, and often the speciality of artists from Northern Europe.”3

Unfulfilled, Caravaggio left Pucci’s household and hopped between a number of Roman studios, including Lorenzo Siciliano’s studio where he met his lifelong friend, Mario Minniti. He and Mario still longed for more than what Rome’s studios placed them in, and, “[a]llies in hardship, both dissatisfied, spurred on by the spirit of emulation, they determined to win their independence and to aim higher and for some time (though it is not at all clear exactly when) they lived together.”4

Caravaggio continued to move between Rome’s studios and was consistently unhappy with their restrictive artistic environments. He needed to be independent, and attempting to make it in the large world of Roman art was difficult. Eventually, Caravaggio began working with an art dealer, Costantino Spata. Spata introduced Caravaggio and his art to the man who would become one of his most important patrons and help skyrocket Caravaggio to a life of fame and demand: Cardinal Francesco Del Monte. It was for Del Monte and his social circle that Caravaggio painted some of his most famous early works, lighthearted scenes of trickery and myth and music. Important as these early works were for Caravaggio (and are for us today), I must echo Walter Friedlaender’s sentiments from Caravaggio Studies:

“Caravaggio’s flower and fruit pieces, half-figures of frivolous boys and musical scenes are extremely charming and amusing, and their loss would certainly be perceptible. However, it should not be forgotten that after the few years in which he produced these youthful, bohemian canvases, he turned his attention almost entirely to the creation of monuments of devotion, all of which are permeated with the same desire to realize the unrealizable, to bring the miracle within the immediate grasp and understanding of everyone.”5

These early  genre pictures were the catalyst that brought about Caravaggio’s truest talent: displaying devotional scenes with mesmerizing quality. Caravaggio clearly continued to desire increasingly greater commissions for increasingly powerful patrons, most of whom were so thrilled with Caravaggio’s works that once they commissioned his art, they also became his lifelong advocates and protectors. I want to point out that though Caravaggio’s dedication to devotional scenes can be seen as a product of the time in which he lived, where churches and other religious organizations were commissioning artwork left and right, I also think his dedication to revolutionizing religious imagery was more than simply a quest for money, fame, or merely because he received continual commissions from princes of the Church. Plenty of patrons in Tridentine Italy were still commissioning mythological albeit moral scenes, and Caravaggio himself painted the rare mythological scene or two. Once Caravaggio found his niche, he didn’t turn back. He was a man dedicated to his art who continually rethought religious scenes and told these stories on a new and personal level.

Nowhere can his dedication to his art be seen better than in his inclusion of himself in many of his paintings. He painted himself many times throughout his career, including multiple times as an observer in religious scenes. His self-portraits were a mark of pride in his work, a stamp, an immediate signifier that Michelangelo da Caravaggio made this. His inclusion of himself in religious scenes also has religious and artistic precedent,6 but there’s one particular interpretation that I would like to focus on.

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, c. 1602

In Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ, Caravaggio can be seen  on the far right of the painting, holding up a lantern to illuminate the scene and looking at the activity before him with fascination. Inserting oneself into one’s paintings wasn’t unheard of and can be read as a sort of signature;7 however, Caravaggio’s inclusion of himself within the painting is also in line with popular seventeenth century devotional practices. Just as Caravaggio placed himself in this scene of Christ’s Passion, so too should the faithful. This is part of Caravaggio’s genius: he, so prone to pop up in Roman streets and have violence follow, was now a participant in the Taking. But could the lantern that he holds up be more than just an object of illumination for the scene?

Langdon observes that in most representations of this scene, the lantern lies on the ground, dropped in the commotion.

“Caravaggio, however, holds the lantern, emphasizing that he, the painter, has brought light to the scene. The light from the lantern falls most brightly on the painter’s hand and eye, and the position of Caravaggio’s hand, at the painter’s angle, as though holding a brush, emphasizes this point. This is the divine hand of the artist, which brings light to nature, and the painting is a celebration of art rooted in nature. It is a polemical work, a defense of hand and eye, a response to the idealising doctrines of Federico Zuccaro, and one which Caravaggio was to make less subtly in the trial of 1603. His holding of the light was an evangelical call to younger artists, a revelation of the truth path to follow, a symbol of the rebirth of painting.”8

Langdon suggests that Caravaggio’s lantern serves a greater purpose than illuminating the scene. His presence is an invitation for the next generation of artists to follow in his footsteps and embrace his style of unrelenting naturalism. The reading is clever and for that I admire it. I don’t, however, think this reading is the ideal analysis for this painting. Regardless, it does raise the bigger question of Caravaggio the Leader.

As has been discussed, Caravaggio fiercely valued his independence and his reputation and spent several years building up his reputation in Rome, leaving studios when the work was not ambitious enough or was demeaning, until he came to a point where he had powerful patrons. Even after this, he continued to desire bigger and better commissions, evidenced by his pining for a Papal commission (which he finally, after years, received — an altarpiece that no longer hangs in the Vatican). He wasn’t afraid to challenge visual traditions, rethink vision as a form of devotion, or portray events the way his mind thought them best seen. There are many examples of this, including Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, his first Raising of Lazarus in which he painted a decaying corpse from life (now destroyed by his own hand9), and his first St. Matthew and the Angel. Caravaggio created a new art which attracted a large following in Rome and abroad — and he was aware of the demand for and impact of his art.

He had always been wary of artists who got too close to him stylistically, but once he was one of Rome’s premiere artists, he became increasingly protective of his style. He did count Zuccaro and others among Rome’s famous pre-Baroque artists as “good” artists (whatever his motives), and at the same time he lashed out against those who arrived close to his style and his humble interpretations. In Rome’s competitive art world, Caravaggio’s style set him apart. Why would he openly encourage others to copy him?

Caravaggio was clearly some type of leader. He was a leader in the sense that he forged a new artistic path and others followed, whether he liked it or not. He never founded a workshop or a school.10 He had many friends, and many more artists looked up to him. He certainly counted a number of the Roman Caravaggisti as his friends, and they frequently went to Rome’s taverns, borrowed props from each other, and sometimes got into trouble together. Caravaggio had great animosity toward a few of those who would infringe on his style, but with others, art together was playful competition. Perhaps Caravaggio didn’t feel threatened by some of these artists, knowing they didn’t have the connections he did to surpass him in greatness, or knowing that they dabbled in other modes of representation.11 I’m not sure. Whatever his reasons for liking some Caravaggisti and despising others, I think what Caravaggio appreciated more than anything in his circle was good art. He counted very few of the artists in Rome as good artists, as Creighton E. Gilbert has said:

“A number of artists in Rome — Zuccaro, Baglione, Gentileschi, and Caracci — all involved in one way or another with Caravaggio, are thus found criticizing by painting or being criticized in paintings by others. Did Caravaggio paint such a polemical work? This has not been suggested, but it would be a likely extension of his known verbal, if not physical, attacks. A common thread in the stories cited is thy the paintings criticize artists of high repute at least equal to the attacking painters. Lesser artists would probably hardly merit such efforts, as distinguished from instant verbal responses or the drawing of a sword. We know from his words at the trial that for Caravaggio few artists were his equals.”12

The trial Gilbert is referring to is the 1603 trial where Caravaggio was sued for libel by one of the Caravaggisti, Giovanni Baglione.13 Caravaggio’s testimony focused mostly on who created good art and less on defending his innocence. He also probably blatantly lied about being associated with his closest friends, also involved in the suit. The artists Caravaggio lists as good artists do not approach his style and were immensely popular, established Roman artists well before the time that Caravaggio came to Rome.

Guido Reni, Crucifixion of St. Peter, c. 1604-5

Some artists were clear threats, such as Annibale Carracci. No one posed a greater threat than Guido Reni. Reni, a Bolognese artist, was present in Rome by 1601 and had close ties with Cavalier d’Arpino (in whose studio a young Caravaggio spent some time in). d’Arpino had big plans for Reni, and it has been suggested that d’Arpino meant to provoke Caravaggio by bringing Reni to Rome.14 He promised Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini that Reni would “transform himself into Caravaggio and would paint the picture [of the Crucifixion of St. Peter] in Caravaggio’s dark and driven manner [quella maniera cacciata e scura].”15 And transform into Caravaggio he did. Reni used Caravaggio’s painting of the same subject as inspiration, which enraged Caravaggio to the point that he threatened Reni’s life, forcing Reni to flee Rome for some time.16 The skill that Reni displayed with his St. Peter — so immediately beloved for its lyricism — made him an imminent threat to everything Caravaggio had made for himself and of himself. This near-violent episode with Reni is met with some skepticism by scholars17, but its existence is important nonetheless in presenting a fairly tangible (if problematic) idea of what Caravaggio thought about plagiarism, and what Rome’s patrons thought of other artists’ abilities.

Perhaps it was the best thing for his fame, that,  in 1606, Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome and was welcomed and celebrated as a renowned artist in every place he went — Naples, Sicily, Malta. His art attracted and received an international audience during his exile, and true to his nature, Caravaggio was still protective as ever. His patrons longed for his presence back in Rome, and longed even more for his art. With Caravaggio’s departure, the artistic world in Rome had a void it needed filled, and Caravaggio wasn’t there to defend his art:

“If Caravaggio initially controlled and protected his ‘brand’ rather successfully, following his flight from Rome late in May 1606 and even moreso after his death in July 1610, an increasing number of painters adopted his manner as they attempted to fill the vacuum and take advantage of the demand for Caravaggesque works.”18

Alienated and unable to defend his art in person, Caravaggio’s powerful style was left undefended for Rome’s artists to profit from. What would Caravaggio have thought, coming back to his beloved Rome alive in the late summer of 1610, seeing his style plagiarised? How would his career have progressed? Would he be welcomed as an internationally famous star, or welcomed with trepidation and uncertainty about what to do next? I wonder if he would have been emotionally prepared for his homecoming. I wonder if he would have been welcomed with a lot of pomp, or if he would be forever branded as Caravaggio who murdered someone but was pardoned four years later — an unpredictable, unbalanced genius. And yet, when Caravaggio was in the South of Italy, his biographers there consistently described him as mad. Did leaving everything he had worked for — despite all his success in the south — drive him over the edge? If it did, I think he reached his breaking point physically and emotionally by the time he reached Porto Ercole and realized that the ship he was on had sailed off with his possessions. He needed the paintings on the boat to gift to Cardinal Nephew Scipione Borghese, thus procuring  a warm welcome and a pardon, and among them were some of his most personal works, including his Borghese David with the Head of Goliath which he probably completed earlier in 1610. One story says that Caravaggio chased after the boat — nearly 100km upstream — running in the hot beach, surrounded by nothing but rock and wave, desperate to get his paintings back, and in exerting all of his energy and health chasing the wind, Caravaggio died.

To his death, Caravaggio remained protective of his art. During his exile, his patrons continued to hope that maybe soon he would return to them, but he never did. Upon his return, his style would have responded again, as it had so effortlessly ebbed and flowed with the different regions he visited, responding to their wealth, spirituality, poverty, sickness, and crowds, and he perhaps would have continued into further greatness. Caravaggio didn’t have many material possessions (we know this from inventories taken of his belongings), but he did have one thing that he prized above all else and that was wholly his own: his art.

Caravaggio was a revolutionary and an innovator whose art breathed new life into the aesthetics and mechanics of Catholic devotion. He was not leader or a mentor who welcomed or recruited others to copy what was his. Caravaggio was simply a man “of a fantastic humor … bizarre”19 and above all, a good man and painter “who [could] perform well in his art and … paint well and imitate natural things well.”20


1 Helen Langdon, Caravaggio: A Life, 1999, p. 235.
2The status of Caravaggio’s wealth upon arriving in Rome is somewhat ambiguous. He had connections – this is true, but he probably also ran out of his inheritance quickly. See Langdon, pp. 29, 30, 55.
3 Ibid., p. 57.
4Ibid., p. 61. Also interesting is that Minniti may have posed for Caravaggio and been among the first to make copies of his work.
5Walter Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies, 1955, p. ix.
6As Langdon,  Joseph F. Chorpenning (Artibus et Historiae), Walter Friedlaender (Caravaggio Studies, 1955), and others  have discussed, 17th century devotional practices emphasized picturing oneself visualizing and even participating in the scene being portrayed or discussed. There is much debate among scholars about which religious Orders’ influences Caravaggio’s works fall under and the extent to which these Orders’ teachings affected Caravaggio’s art and even his life.
7Langdon, p. 179
8 Ibid., p. 235; also see p. 252 where Langdon parallels Caravaggio’s “evangelical call” with Christ’s calling of St. Matthew in Caravaggio’s Calling of St Matthew.
9 Langdon, p. 371-373.
10 Sebastian Schutze, “Caravaggism in Europe: A Planetary System and its Gravitational Pull,” in Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome, 2011, p. 27.
11 Cf. Schutze, p. 33; Langdon, p. 254, 278
12Creighton E. Gilbert, Caravaggio and his Two Cardinals, 1995, p. 81.
13 Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, 2010, pp. 240-269; for circumstances and details surrounding the trial.
14 Richard E. Spear, The ‘Divine’ Guido: Religion, Sex, Money, and Art in the World of Guido Reni, 1997, p. 277-288; also see Langdon, p. 284-5.
15Ibid., p. 288; also see Langdon, p. 381.
16For Reni using Caravaggio as inspiration see Walter Friedlaender, “The ‘Crucifixion of St. Peter’: Caravaggio and Reni,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 8, (1945), pp. 152-160. For Caravaggio’s death thread, see Friedlaender, 1955, pp. 156-157 and Langdon, p. 384.
17 In Friedlaender (1945), Friedlaender suggests that Caravaggio’s c. 1601 St. Peter was a jealous response to Reni’s to show just exactly what he was capable of, but the dating is off — and justifiably so, since we know more now than was known in 1945 when his article was written. But even if Friedlaender’s article is a little problematic based on what we know today of dates, it still is important in examining the extent that Caravaggio’s jealousies could reach, and the  seriousness the threat Reni posed to Caravaggio’s career. Friedlaender suggests that, since others had used chiaroscuro in the past without death threats from Caravaggio, it is unlikely that Reni’s use of shadow was enough to “disturb his mind so deeply. … In fact, there was at this time a tendency toward deepening the shadows. It did not follow, therefore, that whenever black shadows were being used it was necessarily in imitation of Caravaggio, or that such imitation was resented by Caravaggio.” (p. 56) I have to disagree with Friedlaender. I doubt Caravaggio’s reaction was about canvas alone, but rather the whole situation.  Hearing that someone else can “become” you is perhaps one of the worst things a human can ever hear — that they are replaceable; that someone else can do what they do. Obviously Caravaggio didn’t personally hear that this was said, but he certainly saw it — Reni as Caravaggio is implicit in Reni’s painting.  I think it was more than enough to send Caravaggio reeling with rage and it is no wonder to me  that he threatened Reni’s life. Reni was an imminent threat to everything Caravaggio had made for himself and of himself.
18 Schutze, p. 37.
19A desciption of Caravaggio by Giulio Cesare Gigli qtd. in Langdon, 391.
20Catherine Puglisi, Caravaggio, pg 419. Excerpt from Caravaggio’s testimonty in the Libel Suit Brought by Giovanni Baglione (from Bertolotti 1881 II pp 58-60). 13 September 1603.

A shortened, casual version of this post appeared on the Caravaggista Tumblr.