The Pinacoteca di Brera picture gallery is certainly an international high point in Milan. Commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, then passed to the French who erected in the courtyard the statue by Canova portraying Napoleon as a god, it is now headed by the Anglo-Canadian James Bradburne.
This revolutionary director likes to put works in the collection ‘in dialogue’ with works from abroad to give visitors an opportunity to form their own opinions and be part of new art research. Alongside the Brera’s own masterpiece, the Supper at Emmaus, he is currently showing selected works attributed to or copied from Caravaggio, an artist who continues to pose crucial questions to historians and even thrills the general public.
But who was he really? An unfortunate genius, a slightly crazy painter, an angry emotional person going against everything, a victim of his times that left clear strokes on his restless life?
His well-off family was living in the Marquis of Caravaggio manor near Bergamo, at that time a domain of the Serenissima Republic of Venice. His father, to work as an architect on the Duomo, moved to a Spanish dominated Milan where the Diocese was run by Carlo Borromeo, engaged to face the Protestant Reformation, and support the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Into this context, on 29 September 1571, Michelangelo Merisi named Caravaggio was born. The period was critical, turbulent, full of political repercussions throughout Europe, and, between 1576 and 1577, oppressed by a heavy plague, pushing the Merisi family to go back to Caravaggio, where alas the father died.
Meanwhile Michelangelo had already shown signs of artistry, and being only thirteen, his mother sent him to Milan to live with the famous Venetian painter Simone Peterzano, paying a reasonable fee for her son’s housing and apprenticeship. Certainly, Simone in 1578 must have involved the boy in the important frescoes of the Certosa di Garegnano (Via Garegnano 28 • FS Passante Ferroviario Certosa).
The artistic debut of Caravaggio was therefore the best, and he was defined as diligent, albeit extravagant.
However, after his mother’s death and the conclusion of his apprenticeship, nothing restrained his exuberance, which may have forced him to change scene and seek his fortune in Rome. Here in taverns, gambling dens and brothels, he found lascivious models among prostitutes and commoners, preferring among all a guy called Mario Minniti, who is often depicted playing music, as an expression of love, or eating fruit, as a symbol of sexual fulfillment.
Caravaggio starts his career producing famous oil portraits of Mario, such as Boy with a Basket of Fruit, The Fortune Teller, The Cardsharps, The Musicians, Bacchus, Boy Bitten by a Lizard and two versions of The Lute Player.
Being appreciated by major patrons, such as cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte and the marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani, he sold many works including the sensual nude Amor vincit omnia, replicated for both of them.
The cardinal urged Caravaggio to create religious themes such as three more complex paintings regarding Vocation, Inspiration and Martyrdom of St. Matthew. But on a further canvas, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, he reverted back to a sort of lust, painting a foreground angel playing the violin, who turns his back half-naked to the audience. This unleashed strong controversies which led to protests over famous works such as the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, Crucifixion of St. Peter, Conversion of St. Paul, which were criticized as scandalous by the more conservative and ecclesiastical circles.
Caravaggio reacted badly.
At Cardinal del Monte’s home he clubbed a noble guest; then seriously injured a notary because of a woman; he was imprisoned for illegal possession of weapons and insults to the city guards; then he was sued by a cook for having thrown a plate of artichokes in his face; and sued by his landlady for not paying the rent and throwing stones at her windows…
Some friends protected him and covered up the cases, until the situation exploded on 28 May 1606, when during a game, he was wounded and killed his rival.
Caravaggio was sentenced to be beheaded by anyone who recognized him even on the street!
He fled from Rome helped by Prince Filippo Colonna, who hid him for four months in his fiefdoms, where Caravaggio produced several paintings, including the famous Supper at Emmaus, in the version which is now exalted at Brera.
Shortly after, hidden in the Spanish Quarters of Naples, among the soldiers who tolerated crime and prostitution, his rage found expression in the Flagellation of Christ, and, to explore the theme of decapitation, painting Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, and David with the Head of Goliath.
The Colonna family returned to his aid, sending him to Malta where he could have gained immunity by becoming a knight. Here he painted his biggest picture, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. But in La Valletta he was first arrested for an altercation with a higher-ranking knight, and then on discovery of his previous death sentence sent to prison.
In a crazy move he managed to escape to Sicily, becoming a guest of his beloved model Mario Minniti. Many admirers gave him other commissions that he painted with incredible speed.
In 1609, he returned to Naples as a guest of the Colonna, where he produced among others two different paintings of Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Here he was reached by the news that Pope Paul V was preparing a notice to revoke his death sentence! To finally solve his problems he embarked on a boat for Rome, but during a stopover in Porto Ercole, he sickened and within a few days died, on 18 July 1610. His body was buried in a mass grave.
There are two Caravaggio works permanently exhibited in Milan. Pay a visit to see them, and share in the passion of the incredible artist who created them.
Cena in Emmaus, Pinacoteca di Brera, Via Brera 28 • M2 Lanza, M1 Duomo
Canestra di frutta, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Piazza Pio XI 2 • M1/3 Duomo