Saturday, May 2, 2009


The Cardsharps, c. 1594, oil on canvas

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (29 September 1571 – 18 July 1610) was a brilliant, violent, rebellious artist who strode through the piazzas of Rome, Naples and Sicily dressed in black and carrying a sword. And he used it. In 1606 he killed a man in a brawl and had to flee Rome with a price on his head. Caravaggio got into another swordfight in Malta, and yet another in Naples, and not surprisingly he died a violent death. At the same time, he was the first great painter of the Baroque period, and received commissions from the Pope, among others. Despite being a badass, he was the most popular painter in Rome.

Shocking at the time, Caravaggio's art was peopled with lowlives and criminals--not your standard religious fare. When he took on religious subjects, he often painted them with grotesque violence, such as the decapitation of Goliath shown below. Look at the severed head, which is a self-portrait. Click on "The Cardsharps" above, and examine it in detail. The con game is beautifully rendered, a fine art masterpiece depicting the low art of card cheats.

David with Head of Goliath; a self-portrait

We're heading for Italy in a couple weeks, and in preparation we've been soaking up Italian art and history like bread soaks up olive oil. As an artist, I've always been inspired by the Italians even if they seem out of fashion in this era of timid conceptual art--much too sanguine for this pale anemic age. Caravaggio would run a sword through First Thursday artspeak like so much paper-thin prosciutto. You can hardly blame him. He was a ruffian, and while I don't exactly condone swordplay I find it kind of refreshing as I survey the contemporary scene. Don't worry, I won't be brandishing a sword on this trip to Italy--not even a Swiss army knife, thanks to post 9-11 airline rules-- but I'm bringing a little watercolor kit and a brush and look forward to retracing some of the same time-worn steps as Michelangelo Marisi da Caravaggio.

The following episode of Simon Schama's excellent series, "The Power of Art," focuses on the fascinating artist Caravaggio.

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