Caravaggio: A genius, a murderer, a fugitive

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It's difficult to think of any other artist whose life was more steeped in controversy and scandal than Caravaggio (1571-1610), the famous Italian painter of the late 16th, early 17th century. He loved boys, he celebrated men's sensuality, he had a violent temperament, he killed a man in a sword fight, and he spent the last few years of his life on the run. Caravaggio offered a more realistic interpretation of religious scenes in many of his paintings. His dramatically lit figures emerge from a dark background, like actors basking in the spotlight onstage or characters in a gritty film noir.

Caravaggio,"Boy with Basket of Fruit," c. 1593-94
Oil on canvas
Ministero de Beni e delle Attivita Culturali e del Turismo-Galleria Borghese
Image courtesy the Getty Museum

All that, and more, comes to focus in the new exhibition Caravaggio: Masterpieces from the Galleria Borghese at the Getty Museum, presenting three major paintings by Caravaggio that are on an extremely rare loan from the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Caravaggio's life was relatively short – he died at the age of 39. These three paintings follow his career from his early years, when he attracted attention by emphasizing realism in his genre scenes and still lifes. In "Boy with a Basket of Fruit," you see an attractive young boy holding a remarkably realistic basket of fruit – some with early signs of decay.

Caravaggio, "Saint Jerome," c. 1605-06
Oil on canvas
Ministero de Beni e delle Attivita Culturali e del Turismo-Galleria Borghese
Image courtesy the Getty Museum

In Caravaggio's mid-career painting of Saint Jerome, we see the Saint as an aging scholar, reading and making notes, his naked body draped in red fabric. The whole scene is lit in a very dramatic, theatrical fashion – chiaroscuro – a style for which Caravaggio became famous among European artists throughout the 17th century.

Caravaggio, "David with the Head of Goliath," c. 1609-1610
Oil on canvas
Ministero de Beni e delle Attivita Culturali e del Turismo-Galleria Borghese
Image courtesy the Getty Museum

The third and last painting by Caravaggio in the exhibition, "David with the Head of Goliath," is the most attention-grabbing, thanks to its "psychological naturalism," to quote David Gasparotto, Senior Curator of Paintings at the Getty Museum. Out of the darkness come the semi-naked figure of young David, holding in his hand the decapitated head of Goliath. As shocking as this scene is, it's even more dramatic when you learn that the face of dead Goliath is a self-portrait of Caravaggio himself.

Caravaggio, detail of "David with the Head of Goliath," c. 1609-1610

The expression on his face shows some kind of pain and remorse, which might be attributed to his sense of guilt for the murder Caravaggio committed and for which he was charged, forcing him to be a fugitive toward the end of his life.

Guido Cagnacci, "David with the Head of Goliath," c. 1645-50
Oil on canvas

After seeing these three masterpieces by Caravaggio, it was particularly intriguing to walk through the Getty's collection of Baroque paintings. Two of them captured my attention, each featuring a decapitated head. In the portrait "David with the Head of Goliath" by Guido Cagnacci (Italian, 1601-1663), you see the slightly overdressed David as if he is posing for the 17th century cover of Vanity Fair, with all the attention on him – not on Goliath.

Bartolemeo Manfredi, "Head of St. John the Baptist," c. 1610-20
Oil on canvas

And, here is the other show-stopper – this time, the head of St. John the Baptist on a platter, with a sword resting next to it. This painting, by Bartolomeo Manfredi (Italian, Ostiano 1582 – Rome 1622) , is on loan from a private Los Angeles collection.

Façade of the Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy
Photo by Alessio Damato

So, my friends – if all the above piques your curiosity, be sure not only to see these great paintings at The Getty, but also be sure to put Galleria Borghese on your must-see list next time you're in Rome.

All photos by Edward Goldman unless otherwise noted.



Benjamin Gottlieb