The Last Caravaggio

National Gallery (London), May-Jul/24

If you had to sum up the life and work of Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio in one word, it would be drama. A dramatic life, with equally dramatic paintings. And this display, featuring only two paintings from Caravaggio’s final years, doesn’t disappoint on this front. It is a display of pure drama, pure visceral magic. It compares the national’s own Caravaggio (Salome with the head of St John the Baptist, 1609-10) with a painting from Naples (The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, 1610) in a darkened room with subtle but dramatic lighting, along with various pieces of paraphernalia contemporaneous to Caravaggio or from near contemporaneous sources.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 'Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist', about 1609-10

To set the scene for these paintings, it is interesting to consider the circumstances of Caravaggio’s life at the time they were made. On 29th May 1606, Caravaggio had killed Ranuccio Tommasoni in Rome, ostensibly over a row about a game of tennis. Still, one discussion I was lucky to have with a Caravaggio scholar a few years ago led me to believe that Caravaggio was somehow involved with a prostitution ring and that was what the altercation with Tommasoni was actually about. It makes more sense; it seems unlikely that anyone would commit murder just over a game of tennis!

So after the murder, Caravaggio went on the run, ending up first in Naples (which had different jurisdiction to Rome at the time) and then in Malta, where he had gone in order to become a Knight of St John, a title which he seemed keen on obtaining. In Malta, things unravelled for Caravaggio yet again, this time after a fight with one of the other knights. He was imprisoned on the island, then he escaped and fled to Sicily, where he became increasingly paranoid about his safety. This paranoia was not unfounded, for he was attacked by affiliates of the Knights of St John and left disfigured. He died in 1610 in mysterious circumstances of malaria, after having actually obtained a papal pardon for the murder in Rome of 1606 but not being able to catch the boat back to the mainland due to a suspected squabble with a customs official.

Letter from Lanfranco Massa to Marco Antonio Doria, 11 May, 1610 © Archivio di Stato di Napoli
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 'Martyrdom of Saint Ursula', 1610. Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia Naples © Archivio Patrimonio Artistico Intesa Sanpaolo / photo Luciano Pedicini, Naples

So the two paintings are from the very end period of Caravaggio’s life, made when he was living on the run from the Maltese knights and trying to obtain a papal pardon for the murder he’d committed in Rome. The painting of Saint Ursula’s martyrdom contains a self-portrait of Caravaggio in the background. Both paintings are made using Caravaggio’s trademark chiaroscuro, whereby dramatic use of light and dark is made. Both paintings are quite filmic in their presentation. In the painting of Saint John the Baptist, the character of Salome visibly recoils from the severed head in a way that feels so convincing to the situation. Caravaggio stunned Roman audiences with his filmic realism early in his career and so continues to dazzle us today with these two paintings. The poise of the figures, their expressions, and the way in which so much tension is captured within the work is what makes these paintings so astonishing. As the review in the Guardian states: ‘London theatre may be pricey but here’s a dumbfounding drama of rage, violence, death and maybe guilt, regret and acceptance – and you can see it for free’. Going to see these works is a real treat, the display is indeed free (you just have to queue for a bit) so go and be mesmerised by a true troubled baroque genius!

Archie Franks for London Art Walk
May 2024