Michelangelo da Caravaggio, 1672


Michelangelo da Caravaggio wandered on the beach of Porto Ercole in search of the felucca who, leaving Naples, had landed him at Palo, near Ladispoli. The gendarmes of that town had stopped him and locked him in the prison because of the suspicions that the dock outside the harbor had caused. He was released the following day. The painter went to Porto Ercole where he hoped to find the felucca that had that final destination in that town. Walking on the beach, he realized that the boat was gone back to Naples without waiting for him. He had lost the luggage he had left on board. Money, personal belongings and three of his paintings, which he brought with him as commodities for the favors he wanted to ask when he came to Rome.

He felt sick. Malaria had awakened. He had high fever. He, sick and free of money, went inside a boat that was dry on the sand. Sleep overcame him because of the night between landing and cell. The fishermen, who found him in the boat, realized his grave condition. They entrusted him to the nearby fraternity that cared for the poor pilgrims. Michelangelo Merisi, named “da Caravaggio”, died because of fever on July 18, 1610. He was buried in the mass grave of the foreigners’ cemetery of Porto Ercole. Some days later the decree of papal forgiveness, that abolished the death sentence of Caravaggio, was delivered to the marquise Costanza Colonna, the dearest friend of the painter.

Michelangelo Merisi was born in Milan (or perhaps in Caravaggio) on September 29, 1571. Father Fermo was a recognized architect involved in the construction of the Cathedral. The Merisi family returned to Caravaggio, home of parents, due to the plague of 1577. Fermo, who knew and had good relations with the Marquis Francesco Sforza, was a master of the house in the Marquis’s palace. After a few months Michelangelo’s father died because of the plague. In 1584, after the epidemic was over, the family returned to Milan. His mother put him to job by the painter Simone Peterzano, a student of Tiziano. After four years of apprenticeship, after the contract was expired with the master, the young painter left the job.

Michelangelo Merisi spent other four years in which he tried to further improved by attending the Lombard Mannerist painters. At that time he again met the widow of the Marquis Francesco Sforza, Costanza Colonna, whom he had known in the Sforza Palace in Caravaggio years ago. Costanza was the daughter of Roman prince Marcantonio Colonna, one of the leaders of the winning fleet in Lepanto. At the age of 12 she was married to the Marquis Sforza. She joined the husband only at the age of 15. She had many children, soon being a widow for the premature death of her husband. Michelangelo began a relationship with the mature Constance.

After his mother’s death, the painter sold his share of inheritance. the painter was forced to leave Milan due to threats received and perhaps for a murder committed by him during a dispute related to the gambling. He went to Venice. In the lagoon city he attended Giorgione’s workshop where he perfected his artistic abilities. Other historians point out a frequency with the Bergognone and Foppa, painters of Bergamo, who are called pre-caravaggeschi. The Caravaggio style, made of rays of light that illuminate only a part of the scene depicted on the canvas, matured by these meetings.

In 1592 Costanza Colonna left Lombardy and moved to Rome, at Colonna palace, where she believed that she could secure a better future for her children, thanks to the high relations that the family of Colonna princes enjoyed in that city. Michelangelo also left Milan and followed his mistress to Rome. He rented a room at the house of a priest living in the Colonna palace. By doing so, appearances were saved. The painter could meet Constance at any time.

For a while he wandered through various art workshops in Rome. He became a friend of Sicilian Lorenzo Carli, a modest painter, then attended the study of Anteveduto Gramatica and finally worked with Cavalier d’Arpino, a valued artist appreciated by the high ecclesiastical hierarchies. He managed to get in touch with the ecclesial world by getting acquainted with the mighty Cardinal Del Monte. The cardinal hired him who housed in his princely Madama palace. Del Monte was enthusiastic about the painting of Caravaggio and bought from the same numerous works. During this time, Michelangelo had the chance to know high prelates and nobles Roman. He began receiving commissions for paintings designed to adorn churches and convents.

His canvases had the prospect of a light source that created lights and shadows for the first time in painting of the time. They represented with extreme realism the figures of dramatic activities such as, for example, the decapitation of Holofernes from part of Judith. The models of his works were young people taken from the street or prostitutes. The preference of young naked men suspected that Caravaggio had homosexual tendencies.

There were many requests for paintings to which the Lombard painter faced with a surprising speed. He, using lights and shadows, was able to limit his painting to that piece of canvas that was illuminated, painting faces and figures. The rest of the picture, which was dark, almost black, was completed by his assistants. Many of his most renowned works date back from the Roman period: “Bacchino malato”, considered his self-portrait when he was admitted to hospital, “San Pietro crocifisso”, “Riposo durante la fuga in Egitto”, “L’amore vittorioso”, “Judith and Holofernes”. It happened that his paintings were rejected by the clients in some cases, usually churches or convents, because in their eyes they were particularly scandalous. The “death of the Virgin”, destined for the church of Santa Maria della Scala, was refused because the virgin was painted with a bloated belly of a pregnancy.

During the time he lived in the eternal city, the painter was hospitalized several times due to the fever, a consequence of the malaria he had contracted during the time he lived between Milan and Caravaggio. Those areas, due to swamps, were infested by mosquitoes transmitting the disease. Michelangelo spent his free time in the whorehouses and in the gambling-houses where he played cards and nuts with a lot of money. Very often the play ended with fights and duels in the street. His friendship with the Marquis Giustiniani often saved him from legal consequences resulting with his many fights. The Marquis had known the painter in Cardinal Del Monte’s house. He was enchanted by his paintings. He adorned his residence, Giustiniani palace, with numerous canvas painted by him.

May 28, 1606 a trouble took place. During a ball match at Campo dei Marzi between Michelangelo and a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni, a violent brawl took place for a presumed foul play. It also seems that Tomasssoni had already had with the painter other quarrels relating to some sums of money lent and not returned. Tomassoni was killed, while Merisi had a slight wound. The matter was serious and nothing could be done to avoid the process. The final judgment of the Roman court was extremely severe. Michelangelo Merisi was sentenced to capital punishment by decapitation. Anyone who met him could personally execute the sentence.

His friend and mistress Costanza Colonna hid the wanted man in property of her family in the Roman countryside. He took refuge in the various houses and castles owned by the Colonna at Zagarolo, Marino and Paliano. In the end of 1606 Michelangelo tired of wandering in the countryside, always with the fear of being discovered and entrusted to the authorities, moved to Naples.

The Marquise Costanza, which in the Parthenopean city was able to rely with numerous relatives formed by the Neapolitan branch of the Colonna family, came to Naples and was housed in some apartments at the Cellammare palace in via Chiaia, owned by the Carafa-Colonna. Michelangelo found lodging in the “Quartieri Spagnoli”, where he could better get confused with the various humanities that inhabited those neighborhoods: Spanish soldiers, prostitutes, people who were devoted to maltreating. However, he always found a cozy retreat in the bedroom of the Marquise, who had moved to continue to be close to his lover.

At that time Luigi Carafa-Colonna, niece of Costanza, was the administrator of Pio Monte della Misericordia. Pio Monte had been founded for a few years. Wanting to enrich the new site of some paintings, Luigi Carafa-Colonna commissioned Michelangelo da Caravaggio to paint a canvas for the main altar of the church of Pio Monte. Michelangelo painted perhaps his most beautiful painting. “Seven works of corporal mercy” so much to the commissioner that he established should never be moved from his seat above the main altar of the church, inside the complex of Pio Monte in Tribunale street. During the period when the painter stopped in Naples, he painted several other paintings: Judith decapitating Holofernes, the decapitation was the recurring subject of the painter because of the capital condemnation whose thought never left him, Salome with the head of Battista, David with the head of Golia, Madonna del Rosario, Flagellation of Christ, exposed at the museum of Capodimonte.

In 1607 Caravaggio decided to go to Malta. He wanted to be appointed Knight, believing that he, when entered into St. John’s Order, was automatically sheltered from the condemnation of the Roman court. He needed a lot of money to get the appointment. The painter sold many paintings and ordering the apprentices of his Roman studio to complete and sell all the paintings he had partially painted.

A canvas was among them on which Caravaggio had painted the head of a headless Holofernes. His disciples tried to complete the picture with poor results. The Holoferne’s body was stranger to the scene because of a mischievous light game. Artemisia Gentileschi, attendant of the painter’s studio, completed the scene with a wonderful Judith made in her image and resemblance, giving Caravaggesque dignity to the painting. The canvas, which was dispersed for two centuries, has recently been found in an attic of Toulouse from the descendants of an officer who had been part of the Napoleonic troops present in Rome at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

The painter of Caravaggio arrived in Malta accompanied by the son of the Marquise Costanza Colonna, Fabrizio Sforza, knight of Malta and owner of the boat with whom Michelangelo traveled between Naples and the island of the knights. He was welcomed by the Great Master of the order Alof de Wignacourt who joined him in the chivalry order. The Caravaggio painted several paintings destined for the various places of order, including the “Decollation of Saint John the Baptist,” still exposed today in St. John’s Cathedral in Valletta, and the portrait of the Great Master Alof de Wignacourt. But he did not stay for a long time in Malta. His quarrelsome character soon took over and after a clash with a top-ranking confrere. This clash did not result in a murder by change. He was imprisoned. He managed to escape from prison with his ability and corruption of his guardians, reaching Sicily. He was expelled from the Order of Malta. He was the guest in Sicily of his old friend, the painter Mario Minniti, known as the “Il Siciliano”. During his short stay on the island, having need of money, he painted several paintings for the churches of the place.

In 1609 he returned to Naples where he was welcomed by the Marquise Costanza, despite the bad figure he had done with the son of the same who presented him to the Maltese knights. In October he was the protagonist of another misadventure. He was in the famous Locanda del Cerriglio, located in the current street of Cerriglio, near Piazza Bovio, when due to a lite, probably caused by contrasts arising in gambling, was seriously injured in the face with a knife. The painter managed to go all over via Toledo and to reach Cellammare palace, where he was welcomed and cared for by his protector Costanza.

He was healed from the wound and devoted himself to the canvases. In the few months of the Second Neapolitan period were painted various canvases: Neglect of Saint Peter, David with the head of Goliath, Resurrection, which was destroyed in the 1805 earthquake of Naples during which the church of Sant’Anna dei Lombardi, where the same was exhibited, collapsed, Martyrdom of Sant’Orsola, the last picture painted by Caravaggio.

He had positive news about his grace, which had been presented to Pope Paul V by his friends, Cardinal Del Monte and the Marquis Giustiniani. He intended to go to Rome to follow closely the course of the grace. Despite being in a febrile attack following Malaria, he embarked on a felucca, which left from Chiaia Beach heading to Porto Ercole. He carried some money and some paintings he intended to use to facilitate the cancellation of the capital punishment. Disembarked near Ladispoli, a short distance from Rome, he was imprisoned for a misunderstanding. Released from prison he tried to reach the felucca which had reached Porto Ercole in the meantime, its final destination. He was hospitalized in the hospital of Porto Ercole in the fever where he died on 18 July 1610. The decree of grace granted by the Pope, which was delivered on the following days to the Marquise Costanza Colonna, came too late.

Recently, the remains of the painter have been identified in the common grave of the ancient cemetery near the beach of that locality. The DNA of the remains has been compared to that of the descendants of his brothers, resident in Caravaggio. This analysis has determined with certainty that the bones found belong to Michelangelo Merisi.