Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) created a world of darkness and light through his paintings. What may appear as just another expression of art to the casual viewer is in actuality a true reproduction of his world. I have returned to the well of Caravaggio for another story from the artist’s short life, the influence of his patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633). Drawing from Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book, Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane, and M, the Man who became Caravaggio by Peter Robb, a portrait of sorts has appeared, detailing the obsession of the Cardinal and his ruthless collecting of the artist’s works. No accidents of fate can be attributed to their relationship, only a hot- headed painter and one of the many who manipulated him to their own rewards.
Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope John V, is someone fit to be called the Cardinal Nephew, willing to bend all opportunities to his desired machinations in the name of the papacy. Scipione built three major private estates: Palazzo Pallavcini Rospigliosi, the Villa Borghese and Palazzo Borghese. The Villa Borghese art collection is a testimony of Scipione’s drive to establish the Borghese legacy with other ancient Roman families such as Colonna and Orsini. Tireless and ruthless in his quest for art, the Cardinal considered extortion and outright theft to be tools of acquisition to complete his gallery.
The meeting of these men occurred in the Antechamber of Quirinale Palace, where Borghese was the papal representative of judicial administration. Caravaggio was caught up in the net of his own violent arrogance, having assaulted the notary Mariano Pasqualone, who brought charges against him. A settlement was the required agreement, and for this consideration, Caravaggio showed his gratitude to the Cardinal with a gift, Saint Jerome Writing. The deal was private enough that no record of a commission or payment survives, but the painting does appear in the possession of Scipione Borghese following this interesting event.
Soon after, Caravaggio found himself the latest flavor in the Roman carnival of fame. Commissions came his way from several sources, including a portrait of Pope John V, and a commission for the Basilica of Saint Peter; The Madonna and Child with St. Anne, 1605-06; for the altar of the Archconfraternity of the Papal Grooms. The dream of his fellow artists to be enshrined in this cathedral with the greatest names of the day was within his grasp, for two days.
“In this painting there are but vulgarity, sacrilege, impiousness and disgust… One would say it is a work made by a painter that can paint well, but of a dark spirit, and who has been for a lot of time far from God, from His adoration and from any good thought…” note from a Cardinal’s secretary of the time.
This was not the first of Caravaggio’s paintings considered unacceptable, but it was rejected by the College of Cardinals, from Saint Peter’s. Displayed from April 14 thru April 16, the painting was removed and purchased at a remarkably reduced price by Scipione Borghese. Recent archival research has revealed that the Cardinal was involved in obtaining the painting at a very early stage of the commission. Borghese was stepping up his collection of the temperamental artist, by fair means or foul.
The Death of the Virgin, commissioned by Laerzio Alberti for his chapel in the Carmelite Chuch of Santa Maria della Scala, was ultimately rejected by the Carmelites. The public reason is the portrayal of the Holy Mother is considered too secular, showing her bare legs. Accused by his contemporaries of using a local prostitute in the portrayal of Mary, sacrilege for the time, the church deemed it unacceptable, giving another wound to Caravaggio’s pride. The painting was immediately purchased by the Duke of Mantua, on the recommendation of Peter Paul Ruebens, who called it Caravaggio’s “best work.”
The next masterpieces came to the Borghese collection in 1607, through the settlement of a tax bill. Giuseppe Cesari, former teacher of Caravaggio, found himself an impediment to Cardinal Borghese’s obsession. Cesari had a considerable stock of paintings from various apprentices, with two by Caravaggio; Borghese made an insulting offer, which Cesari had the temerity to refuse. That mistake saw him arrested on false charges with a possible death sentence hanging over him; the payment came in the form of 107 paintings. The Pope gave them all to Scipione including Sick Bacchus, and Boy with a Basket of Fruit, advancing the Borghese family collection further.
I leave the story of Caravaggio for the moment, as he struggles between the love and hate of Rome, his ego filled with righteous indignation and praise. The events of his life are ready to collide with the murder of Ranuccio Tommassoni and the artist’s life on the run from papal justice. Scipione Borghese is not finished with Caravaggio, becoming a crucial figure in his final days.
Has Caravaggio influenced your view of art? Is his story typical of the tortured artist or are his actions compounded by the puppetmasters of the time? I would love to chat with you about this artist!
If you want to learn more about the artist Caravaggio, there are similar facets to his story posted here:
Caravaggio, by Octavio Leoni
Scipione Borghese, by Octavio Leoni
Saint Jerome Writing, by Caravaggio
Pope Paul V, by Caravaggio
Madonna of the Grooms, by Caravaggio
Death of the Virgin, by Caravaggio
Boy with a Basket of Fruit, by Caravaggio
Sick Bacchus, by Caravaggio
Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane
Peter Robb, M, the Man who Became Caravaggio