Caravaggio: The Desired Body Flares Like an Apparition

In 1984 Pantheon published a book by British writer and critic John Berger titled And our faces, my heart, brief as photos. It was a small personal book of poems, prose fragments, short essays, notations on time and space, or more particularly, time and place. It’s a told book, loosely a first person narrative on friends and lost friends, on nature, love, politics, inequities, work, social class, emigration, homelessness. This quiet book quietly became a touchstone. If you’d read it and were meeting people, no further introductions were necessary. As much as anything, it was about writing in such a way that the writer was present even when the subject wasn’t personal, and when the subject wasn’t personal–was political or about landscape or raking hay–it was nonetheless passionate and embodied. Too stringent to be described as transparent, it was at the same time never occluded by serving a second agenda. To me, the book and, most especially, the brief and profound section on Caravaggio said live passionately. It might as well have been the painted finger beckoning Matthew. And inside that disquisition was a confession, because Berger’s writing about the painter was delivered in an almost confessional manner, certainly with the intimacy of that enclosed cabinet where truths are revealed. He begins, and he is speaking to his wife, “One night in bed you asked me who was my favourite painter. I hesitated, searching for the least knowing, most truthful answer. Caravaggio. My own reply surprised me.” Berger goes on, and you hear him speaking to the dark and to his lover, to explain how he’d found himself in the late 1940s in Livorno, a poor and damaged city. With implied admiration, he speaks about beginning to learn of the ingenuity of the dispossessed, the poor. He writes, “It was there too that I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power. This has turned out to be a lifelong aversion.” For me it was as though a large, inked banner had just been unfurled. It tied me metaphorically but holding fast to the writer and to his understanding and sympathy for Caravaggio, revealed in his very brief biography.

July 2010 was the 400th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo Merisi, who grew up in the town of Caravaggio and was so named. This painter who worked in Italy at the height of the Counter-Reformation and who faithfully and indelibly made visually manifest its tenets, whose painting influenced many of his contemporaries and whose influence was subsequent in Spain, France and in Dutch painting, and who is still and now being embraced by film and photography, died suddenly and alone in Porto Ercole, a place to which he had no previous ties, unattended and, because alone, buried there in an unmarked grave. He was 38 years old. To note the death and celebrate the life’s achievements, exhibitions have been mounted throughout Italy. Michael Fried has written a book, The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton University Press, 2010), and a biography by British writer Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, has been issued by Allen Lane (Penguin Books, London, 2010). Graham-Dixon’s is a fine, expansive book showing thorough research. At its conclusion I was sick at heart for the tragic, short life of this genius painter, engaged equally by the persuasion of facts and the sensitively and empathetically drawn conjecture necessary to flesh out a life lived so long ago, by intention and necessity, in half light.

Unlike the painters whose work he influenced, whose subjects were also the disenfranchised, Caravaggio was not painting genre paintings to show this life to others. What he was doing, Berger reminded, was a matter of sight. He was painting what he was seeing as he was living it. For his fellow night travellers and the people who lived provisionally on the street, the inhabitants of the underworld, chiarascuro–the play of light and shadow–was not a painterly device but instead a necessary condition for survival. “Shadows,” Berger wrote, “offered shelter as can four walls and a roof,” and whether the paintings were indoors or out, it was interiors Caravaggio painted. Light falls from above, usually from a single, unspecified source and shines on the actor who requires our attention. Even when some depth of space is alluded to, the figures have stepped to the apron of the canvas stage and the space is shallow, enclosed. Graham-Dixon suggests a practical reason for the interior preference beyond physical and psychic security. The artist worked with live models painting the people he knew–lovers, colleagues, passersby–in a space like a theatrical set where he could contain and control the action and mount the piece.

Capturing precisely the sense of the life that Graham-Dixon reports on and accounts for, and for which he provides a knowledgeable and vivid social and historical environment, Berger, through sharing the painter’s skin (none other to whom he feels closer, he’d said) can write about the painter simply and with convincing certainty: “He only felt at home–no, that he felt nowhere–he only felt relatively at ease inside.” In a synaesthetic transport, Berger describes such an interior place. “His darkness smells of candles, overripe melons, damp washing waiting to be hung out the next day: it is the darkness of stairwells, gambling corners, cheap lodgings, sudden encounters.”

In 1600 Caravaggio received his first major religious commission: two paintings for the side panels in the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. The first was The Calling of Saint Matthew. It shows a dingy interior, the office of Matthew the tax collector. Spare wooden furniture, dun-coloured rough plaster walls gilded diagonally by a shaft of light that also unevenly picks out five men seated around the table engaged in a financial transaction. Coins are being handled by Matthew, who has received them, and a gloomy individual who counts what few remain his. Fur trim, hat plumes and fine fabrics make up their costumes. They sit out into the room only to the depth of the small table set against the wall. They have a conspiratorial closeness, one to the other; it could have been a game of cards or a plot being sketched. They are interrupted by the entrance of two figures, barefoot and plainly clothed. The figure with the softly extended right arm–but make no mistake about the resoluteness of the gesture even though the curled finger appears only loosely directional–is distinguished from the ordinary by his ascetic, lean face and the faint circle of gold hovering above his head. Matthew accepts that the gesture is directed toward him, and his eyes give evidence that he has recognized the inevitability of the call. Berger carries on the description of the painting. “And behind the drama of this moment of decision in the room at the top of the stairs there is a window, giving onto the outside world.” He explains that traditionally in painting, windows were light sources or framing devices for exterior landscapes. But this window is neither. It is opaque, allowing no light and no view beyond, which he says is fortunate because nothing that lies outside it would be anything but threatening. Berger reads the window metaphorically. Graham-Dixon, equally accurate, brings factual description: “The window’s shutter is open, but little light penetrates through its four dull panes, which are made not of glass but of oilskin held in place by crossed strings.”

In 1605 Caravaggio received a commission he had long coveted–to paint an altar for St Peter’s. The subject would be the allegory of St Anne confronting the devil in the form of a serpent. The Madonna of the Palafrenieri or *The Madonna with the Serpent *is a large canvas, ten feet by six. Three figures occupy an unadorned interior space. St Anne is aged, frail and dressed in a dark, draped gown. The Virgin wears a coral-coloured dress with a low decolletage, and her ample bosom is barely touched by a sheer veil drawn across the bodice. She bends toward the serpent under her foot while the scaly creature loops and curls as it dies. The Virgin supports in front of her a tall Baby Jesus who is unclothed. His plump foot presses safely on hers as she crushes the reptile. Thin gold halos circle the wrapped head of St. Anne and the abundant deep auburn hair of the Virgin. On April 14 the painting was installed in the chapel for which it had been commissioned. On August 16 it was removed, carted away and sold shortly after to Cardinal Borghese in which collection it has remained, shifting it in apprehension from the realm of the sacred, in a church, to the secular in a private collection. The objection: the model for the Virgin was a woman named Lena who, court records indicate, could be found standing in the Piazza Navona. And the Baby Jesus was naked and fully visible.

Continuing to work, Caravaggio, completed an overdue commission in that same year for an altarpiece for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. The Death of the Virgin was delivered to its intended location and directly rejected.

The model Caravaggio had used when he painted the Virgin was allegedly a known prostitute, and if she’d once been one of Caravaggio’s lovers, then he would have looked at her with fondness and care. As Berger points out, if the model were a prostitute who may have drowned, and therefore Caravaggio was accurately modelling a dead woman, the real scandal lay in the painter’s presenting the dead Virgin laid out in the way that the poor lay out their dead. The humility of the work was a shock to the Church.

In distinguishing Caravaggio from the painters who followed him, Berger is clear. “He does not depict the underworld for others: his vision is one he shares with it.” In this it could be said–each of his paintings is a self-portrait. Many in fact were: Medusa, Self-Portrait as Bacchus, Goliath in David with the Head of Goliath and the many others where he also represents himself directly, as one in the crowd on the canvas, including his final painting, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, where his face appears chalk white and spectral behind Saint Ursula. That he was truthful in his painting and consistent was never questioned. The faces and bodies, the spaces he represented, the dirty bare feet, blackened fingernails, the wary faces, the exhaustion, the immediate emotional responses on the familiar, working faces, their earned canniness were all composite parts of his own person.

Angered and humiliated by the rejection of two significant paintings, isolated by the negative reception his work was receiving, irascible and short-tempered by nature, a condition that was possibly aggravated by the toxic material in the paints he used, quick to take offence and easily provoked, he was indeed provoked and, in the course of a fight with an old rival, mortally wounded him. He fled Rome directly and lived the remaining four years of his life in anxious flight. All the while he painted.

The kindred feeling Berger has for Caravaggio followed directly, in his intimate confessions, upon the recognition he’d had in Livorno, of his strong aversion to power. That was when, he said, the complicity (choosing his words well) he felt for the artist began. Graham-Dixon also addresses the issue of power as it relates to Caravaggio. He notes that in spite of the admiration and support of wealthy, influential patrons, and even highly placed family who offered him refuge and care, he was never able to locate himself securely inside those safe structures. “He painted as if the rich and powerful were his enemies, as if he really did believe that the meek deserved to inherit the earth.” So close, once, to achieving real status, on the eve of his being invested as a Knight of St John of Malta, he engaged in what was surely an act of self-sabotage. As if, Graham-Dixon comments, “he could not bear the thought of truly belonging and of walking the corridors of power.”

Berger identifies Caravaggio as the painter of the underworld. He was also, Berger says, the profound painter of sexual desire. There are two moments, he suggests, in the dialectic of desire–the desire to take, which then becomes the desire to be taken, “to lose oneself within the desired.” That moment is one of abandonment, of letting slip, and it’s that moment that Caravaggio often paints. Think of John the Baptist from 1602. A naked youth rests on a fur robe, his skin against the soft skin on which he sits. The air is still, the light golden and warming, the youth’s skin glows, absent the reluctance skin registers in the cold. He supports himself on his left elbow; with his right arm he draws close a small ram whose flat brow and nose mirrors his own. The animal’s soft muzzle is a scant inch from the round cheek of young St John, and it looks at the boy with kind interest as if they were about to exchange a secret.

Berger says there is an expression he finds only on the faces in Caravaggio’s paintings. It is an inwardness, an intense concentration, and is as taut, I would say, as a coiled spring wound to the edge-moment before release. He says he finds it similarly on the face of animals before mating or a kill. He describes them as “the faces of the fallen–and they offer themselves to desire with a truthfulness which only the fallen know to exist.” Again he says, “to lose oneself within the desired” and in painting those bodies who have fallen or live there in the underworld, Caravaggio has recognized what they know: that “on the other side of their skin is a universe.” Berger reads this, knows it, this extraordinary quality that is unique in Caravaggio’s paintings. The darkness he paints, and the light, “the desired body flaring like an apparition.” His chiaroscuro a place of shelter, even briefly.