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Caravaggio
A Life

By Helen Langdon
Farrar Straus & Giroux. 432 pp. $30.00

  Chapter One
_

Chapter One: Milan

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On 4 December 1571 an enormous theatrical triumph was staged in Rome. Its hero was Marcantonio Colonna, scion of one of the most illustrious of all Roman families, and commander of the papal galleys in the triumph of the Holy League over the Turks at Lepanto. He progressed from the church of San Sebastiano, on the Appian Way, passing the Baths of Caracalla, and under the triumphal arches of Constantine and Titus, to the monastery of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, built on the holiest site of the Capitol, at the very centre of the old Roman Empire.

Colonna rode, unarmed, on a white horse. He was escorted by a glittering cortége of five thousand people, and 170 liveried and chained Turkish prisoners were driven before him. Before them the standard of the sultan was trailed in the dust. The procession pressed forward through tumultuous applause. `Here from every part', wrote an observer, `his name rang out. Everyone rushed to the street, clapping their hands. Crowds of people thronged together, crying out, while trumpets serenaded him. He was greeted from far and near, by people gesturing, shouting, waving caps and banner'. Ringed by twenty-five Cardinals, Colonna crossed the Tiber at the Ponte Sant' Angelo, and then rode to St Peter's and the Vatican Palace, where Pope Pius V received him in the Sala Regia.

His progress was modelled on the triumphs that were granted to generals in ancient Rome and it drew on the splendour of ancient myth. Yet it was also an intensely Christian event. The façade of the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli was decorated with captured Turkish flags. It bore the proud inscription: `The gratitude which, in their pagan folly, the Ancients offered to their idols, the Christian conqueror, who ascends the Aracoeli, now gives, with pious devotion, to the true God, to Christ the Redeemer, and to His most glorious Mother'. Colonna seemed to bring the new promise of a more joyful Christian era.


Lepanto had been a spectacular feat of courage and arms where the Catholic powers had united against the Turk and broken their supremacy for ever. It had been a terrible victory, with the seas running red with blood, and 8000 Christians killed. However, for the Catholic people of southern Europe who were threatened by Protesant heresy in the north and the Turkish infidel in the East, Lepanto was an ecstatic release. The visionary Pius V had long dreamed of a mighty war to reunite Christendom. A shepherd boy risen to Pope, he was an ascetic, nothing but skin and bone, and far removed from the princely popes of the Renaissance. To him the next world alone was real, and he yearned to re-create the sublime spirit of the medieval crusades. He had prayed and fasted for victory, and, with his ravaged, austere face and deep-set eyes, his flowing hair and beard of an extraordinary whiteness, he seemed to embody the charisma of a medieval saint. And so Lepanto soon became legend; a mood of exalted fervour spread and poets everywhere sang the praises of its heroes. Success had been won on the day the Confraternities of the Rosary held their processions in Rome, and thanks were offered to the Madonna of the Rosary, while in the next years very many churches and chapels were built to Santa Maria della Vittoria, Our Lady of Victory. The Madonna of the Rosary became the banner of the Counter-Reformation.

In late September, when all Italy was waiting for news of the Holy League's Armada, the painter, Michelangelo Merisi, was born, in the small Lombard town of Caravaggio, to the east of Milan, which was then under Spanish rule. His family waited for news of the Christian fleet with particular eagerness. His father, Fermo Merisi, was in the service of the Sforza da Caravaggio, a noble family who lived in Milan. The young Marchesa di Caravaggio, Costanza Colonna, was the daughter of Marcantonio, who was soon to ride in triumph as the Roman hero of Lepanto. Five years earlier, in 1567, she had married Francesco I Sforza da Caravaggio, but the marriage between the seventeen-year-old Francesco and the twelve-year-old Costanza had opened with great unhappiness. Costanza had threatened suicide, writing to her father: `If you do not free me from this house and husband I shall kill myself, and I care little if I lose my soul with my life.' Marcantonio, distraught, begged Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, to intercede, and arrange for his daughter to enter a convent. Their two families were closely united, for Anna Borromeo, the Cardinal's sister, had married Costanza's brother, Fabrizio Colonna. Yet somehow, to general amazement, given the apparent unremitting hostilities, and Costanza's youth, a child, Muzio Sforza, the first of six sons, was born in 1569, and the couple were reconciled.

Now, as Costanza awaited news of her father, and the Christian armada sailed to Corfu, Michelangelo, the son of her household steward, was born. His date of birth is unrecorded, but it has been brilliantly suggested that it may have been 29 September, the feast day of the Archangel St Michael, Caravaggio's namesaint, the symbol of victory over evil. It was a name resonant with the fears and aspirations of these days.

The Colonna claimed descent from Aeneas, the legendary founder of Italy. They were warlike and vain of their prowess at arms, and in the sixteenth century were famed as fighters against heresy. United as they were by marriage to the noblest Italian families, their power extended throughout Italy. Two of Costanza's sons, Muzio and Fabrizio, were, like Caravaggio, stormy characters. Their father, Francesco Sforza, died in 1580, but Costanza and her family were to watch over Caravaggio, their feudal subject, with touching loyalty. Perhaps his birth at the tense moment of Lepanto particularly endeared him to them. Their shadowy presence, running through a vast network of feudal relationships, will often be sensed in the background of his life.


Michelangelo came from a middle-class provincial family in Caravaggio (although his mother's side, the Aratoris, may have had some claim to nobility), not rich, but with some money and land, and with some of its members in the Church. His grandfather, Bernardino Merisi, had a modest house, on two floors, near the Porta Seriola, in the north-east of Caravaggio, and a small piece of land. He married twice, and the sons of his first marriage were Fermo, Michelangelo's father, and Pietro, while from his second were born Ludovico, who became a priest, and Francesco, Giacomo and Caterina. Bernardino lived and worked in Caravaggio, but his eldest son, Fermo, moved to Milan. There, in 1563, he married Maddalena Vacchi, the daughter of either a builder or a swordmaker from Caravaggio. But only two years later, having borne two daughters, Caterina and Margarita, Maddalena died. In 1571 Fermo, who had probably continued to live with his wife's family in Milan, married Lucia Aratori. Her family also came from Caravaggio, and the wedding took place in the small country church of Santi Pietro e Paolo, just beyond the Porta Seriola. Francesco Sforza paid them the honour of acting as a witness at their wedding, which suggests that Fermo's position in the Sforza household was of some importance. The Sforza lived mainly in Milan, in a splendid palace near the church of San Giovanni in Conca, in the Piazza Missori; Fermo's role there seems to have been as builder or site architect, though he remains a shadowy figure. Mancini tells us that he was `majordomo and architect to the Marchese of Caravaggio' and Baglione that he was `a mason, quite well off'.

After his marriage in 1571 Fermo first rented two rooms with an attic from Gabriele Varola, which he seems to have kept as a workshop after he moved to a larger apartment, with one Giacomo Rossi, in the Corso dei Servi (now the Corso Vittorio Emanuele), opposite the Servite monastery (since replaced by the church of San Carlo). This was the centre of medieval Milan, and in this parish the births of two of his children are recorded in the parish registers, Giovan Battista in 1572, and Caterina in 1574. (The first Caterina had died in 1567.) There is no record of Caravaggio's birth, either in Milan or Caravaggio, but he took the name of his native town, and it seems likely that his mother was sent to Caravaggio for his birth, and perhaps the family travelled frequently between Milan and Caravaggio. Regional loyalties were strong, and Michelangelo's name is strikingly unusual in this family context, since the other children were called after local saints. Bernardino and Fermo, in particular, were names closely associated with the town, where Fermo was the local saint, and where there was an Oratory of San Bernardino. As Bellori was later to write, Michelangelo doubled the fame of the small town, which had earlier boasted only of the celebrated Renaissance painter Polidoro da Caravaggio, who was murdered in Sicily.

Milan, where Caravaggio passed his infant years, was a Spanish dominion, subject to Philip II, King of Spain, who appointed a Spanish governor. At its centre stood the potent symbol of Spanish power, the vast brick Castello Sforzesco, facing it, in the still Gothic centre, the immense cathedral, the square cluttered with the shops of artisans, and, close by, the Archbishop's dour palace, and the elegant medieval tower of San Gottardo. A city renowned for the beauty of its setting in the abundantly fertile plains of Lombardy, where canals and gardens glittered between the walls, its circular plan seemed a symbol of perfection. It was a city of businessmen and artisans, famed for its luxury trades, and noble Milan indulged in sumptuous displays of wealth; Paolo Morigi, celebrating the city in 1595, delighted in `the numerous rich bankers, merchants and artists, who bring fame and glory to a city ...'; and the `very great number of priceless horses, the opulent and wealthy cavalcades of our gentlemen through the city, and the lavish decoration of rooms, of beds, the silverware for tables, and the very great opulence in all things ...' The Milanese had long been famous for their armour and for their prowess in arms; they were, wrote Morigi, `most valorous in swordsmanship and in the art of the dagger, and attained the highest celebrity through their great skill as armourers, competing with the most famous armourers of Europe'. But such luxury contrasted brutally with harsh poverty, for Milan had for many years been torn apart by war, while plague and famine had desolated the countryside. In the winter of 1570 snow had driven many from the outlying regions into the city, crowding the streets with destitutes, and in the following winter, just after Michelangelo's birth, many died of hunger. The diarist Giovan Ambrogio Popolano recalled `that in the year 1570 there was a great famine, with no food to be found ... after the famine the death rate soared, and more died among those who did not have food than among those who did, and suffered hunger; and this was the year 1571'.

Dominating this ravaged city was its Archbishop, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal Papal Legate of all Italy, whose austere features and sombre presence permeated Milanese life. He came from a noble Milanese family, and in 1560, then only twenty-two, had been summoned to Rome by his uncle, elected Pope Pius IV in 1559. There he had lived in the magnificent style of the great cardinals of the Renaissance, with a large household of 150 members, dressed in black velvet. But in 1562 his elder brother, Federico, had died, and Carlo underwent a religious crisis. He renounced all the worldly splendour of a Roman cardinal, and lived simply and with increasing austerity. On 29 November 1560 Pius IV had recalled the Council of Trent, formed in the early years of the century to rally the forces of a Catholicism shocked by the dissent in northern Europe. Carlo, at the side of his uncle, laboured tirelessly to ensure its success. Its last sessions were held in 1563, and it closed, in unexpectedly victorious mood, on 4 December. Trent claimed to restore a Catholic faith, for so long polluted and obscured, in all its purity and splendour. It recovered a sense of the Fall and redemption, reaffirming a sacramental confidence, and the belief that through good works and through a devotion to Christ's sufferings in the Passion man might re-create his lost union with God. The Protestant belief that the Fall was total, and that salvation was attainable through faith alone, was utterly rejected. Steeped in the atmosphere of Trent, the Cardinal, already famed for his asceticism, returned to Milan in 1565. His entry was triumphal, and to the Milanese it symbolised a new era. Carlo proceeded, for the first time, and with tireless passion, to put into practice the reformed ideal of the episcopate.

The Archbishop sought to breathe new life into a dull faith and to create a new mood of popular devotion that should bring all Milan together in a passionate search for salvation. Within the Archbishop's palace he and his household lived with utmost simplicity, Carlo himself inhabiting, amid sumptuous surroundings, only two little rooms, very sparsely furnished, with on the walls pictures of scenes from the Passion of Christ — `In his Archbishop's palace,' wrote Padre Negrone later, `you did not see carriages, or horses, or carpets, tapestries, or canopies, or curtains for the beds; but unfurnished rooms, bare walls, the bedsteads bare ...' The most fervent of the new Orders, the Jesuits, Theatines, Barnabites, dedicated to recovering a life of prayer, and of strict poverty, were called to the city, where the Capuchins, devoted to the absolute poverty of St Francis, were already established.

Carlo sought an ardent devotion to the passion of Christ, encouraging meditation on His life, and on the lives of the saints, and drawing on such richly imaginative spiritual works as the Dominican Luis de Granada's popular Brief Memorial and Guide to the Duties of a Christian (1561), which made the Christian mysteries visible and moving. The Christian, wrote Granada, should every day meditate on the life of Christ; `he should represent each mystery as present to him here and now. The representation of these mysteries is a function of the imagination, which knows how a painter would portray them.' An intense charitable concern, a desire to restore dignity to the poor in Christ, and to revive the Christian virtue of humility, lay at the centre of his faith. This concern was rooted in the writings of the Fathers of the early Church, from whom the Catholic Church claimed a glorious and unbroken tradition. Such moving passages as St Jerome's `He whom we look down upon, whom we cannot bear to see, the very sight of whom causes us to vomit, is the same as we, formed with us from the selfsame clay, compacted of the same elements. Whatever he suffers, we also can suffer' echo through the homilies of Carlo and many Tridentine preachers, although they sometimes sit uneasily with the growing fear of poverty and crime. Gregory of Nazianus, in `On the Love for the Poor', held that the main part of charity is `the love for the poor and mercy and compassion for our fellow brethren'. The poor were the earthly image of Christ, and the Lord `asks for mercy rather than sacrifice, large entrails of compassion rather than thousands of lambs. Offer them to him, then, through the poor and those Who are spread throughout the earth, so that, when we leave this world, we will be welcomed by them into the eternal dwelling with the same Christ, our Lord ...' In imitation of Christ, in an evocative ritual of abasement, Carlo himself washed the feet of the pilgrims who flocked to Milan for the Jubilee in 1576.


In this year, when Caravaggio was about five, and the city was crowded with pilgrims, the Milanese prepared to enjoy the lavish celebrations welcoming Don John of Austria, half-brother of Philip II, and the hero of Lepanto, to their city. But as he entered in triumph, ominous signs of the plague began to spread. Don John fled, and with him the Spanish governor of the city, and many of the Milanese nobles. There remained the Archbishop, Carlo, who over the next months, with unwavering courage, laboured tirelessly to bring comfort to the sick, to both their bodies and souls, winning the devotion of the poorest and most miserable. He visited those who were incarcerated in the leper house, whose terrible cries could be heard in the street: `As people walked outside, those within screamed, and beat against the windows, lamenting their calamities ... Carlo consoled those sick people with great humanity, as far as he was able ...' Bringing food and kindness, the Archbishop travelled tirelessly in the surrounding villages and hamlets, where the sick suffered, yet more horrifically, in makeshift straw shelters. His biographer, San Carlo Bascapé, describes the strange and pathetic sight of the poor, draped in garments improvised from the tapestries and curtains of the Archbishop's palace to protect them in winter — `so that crowd of poor people ... offered a sight both grotesque and moving, with those garments of purple, violet, green and black ...' Above all, Carlo, with immense rhetorical skill, transformed the city into a vast and highly orchestrated display of penitence and of ceaseless prayer. The Milanese, whom the quarantine laws forbade to go to church, worshipped at their doors and windows. Tabernacles and devotional images embellished the roadsides, while at the crossroads, and through the squares of the city, Carlo erected altars, where Mass was celebrated, and those confined to their houses could listen at the windows. And at the centre of this intense display of devotion Carlo himself, bearing aloft the relic of the Holy Nail from the cathedral, shoeless and oblivious to his bleeding feet, walked amid a dolorous procession of penitents. Bascapé later described how he wore `the purple mantle with the hood on his head, dragging the train on the ground. He had bare feet, a rope around his neck, like a condemned man ... The Canons were dressed in the same way ...' Carlo had become an emblem of Catholic charity, engraving in his own flesh the sufferings of Christ and re-creating the glories of the early Church, seeking a heroic martyrdom in the streets of Milan.

As the terror of the plague began, Caravaggio's father and mother, Fermo and Lucia, and their children, Margarita and Giovan Battista, are recorded in the rooms they rented from Giacomo Rossi, but neither Michelangelo, nor Caterina, nor a fifth child, Giovanni Pietro, whose name first appears in 1578, are mentioned, and they had perhaps already been sent to Caravaggio to live in greater safety with their grandparents. But they must shortly have been followed by the rest of the family, for on 20 October 1577, within a few hours of each other, Caravaggio's grandfather, Bernardino, and his father, Fermo, died at Caravaggio, presumably of the plague. Fermo died in the night, after his father, which was to have implications for the division of the property; Fermo's brother, Pietro, had died earlier in the year. The plague was already on the wane in Milan itself, but continued to flourish in Caravaggio, doubtless because those fleeing there, as the Merisi family had done, brought it with them. Michelangelo's mother, Lucia Aratori, was thus left a young widow, with a stepdaughter, Margarita, and four small children. In 1578 she assumed the guardianship of her own children, and over the next two years, apparently supported by her father, Giovan Giacomo, in whose spacious house at Porta Folceria, in the south-east of the town, the negotiations took place, she attempted to reach a just settlement over the property of her husband and his mother. In the end her debts were settled and she received some small pieces of land, while Caravaggio's uncles retained the house at Porta Seriola, and Francesco Merisi, Caravaggio's uncle, agreed to care for Margarita, his half-sister....

   
© Copyright 1999 Helen Langdon

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