Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), who died 400 years ago this week, was one of the greatest painters ever. He was also a violent and lawless individual, who famously murdered a man in Rome in the summer of 1606. A myth has grown up that he was a psychotic gay outsider in thrall to the dictates of his own illicit sexuality. The truth is more complicated, and more interesting. Here are five things not many people know about him:
1. His tragic childhood
The artist lost most of his family to the plague that ravaged Milan when he was aged six. In October 1577, the artist’s father, his paternal grandfather and his unnamed grandmother died within a day of each other. The art of Caravaggio’s maturity would be saturated in the ineradicable memory of night terrors.
2. His violent lifestyle
There was invariably a logic behind the violence Caravaggio displayed in later life. He was highly dangerous but he was not mad, and he lived his life by an elaborate honour code, with specific insults punishable by particular injuries. When a Roman waiter questioned Caravaggio’s taste, he responded by smashing a plate into the man’s mouth. When a young painter insulted him behind his back, Caravaggio stalked him by night and then attacked his rival from behind with a sword.
3. His duel to the death
The pivotal event of Caravaggio’s life, the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni, was itself dictated by the logic of vendetta. The origin of the quarrel between the two involved a woman, almost certainly Tomassoni’s (probably unfaithful) wife Lavinia. The fight between Caravaggio and Tomassoni was a prearranged duel, in the course of which the painter not only killed his enemy but may also have sought to castrate him.
4. His artistic rivalry
There are subtle traces of the same vendetta mentality in Caravaggio’s paintings. One of his greatest works, “The Conversion of St Paul” in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, was painted in direct competition with Annibale Carracci, whose saccharine “Assumption of the Virgin” still hangs over the altar. To stress his disdain for Carracci’s brand of vapid magnificence, Caravaggio contrived a cunning insult: the rump of St Paul’s proletarian carthorse is pointedly turned to the face of Carracci’s Madonna.
5. His bloody demise
Caravaggio’s violence eventually caught up with him and, in the autumn of 1509, he was attacked by a man seeking revenge for an earlier assault who slashed the painter in the face so badly with a knife that he was almost unrecognisable. Caravaggio never recovered from the wounding and died months later while attempting to return to Rome, aged 38.
‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’ (£30, Allen Lane), by Andrew Graham-Dixon, has just been published