THIS is the month of Caravaggio. Dead 373 years, he has become a kind of star.
His "Deposition" is by far the finest painting in the Vatican exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Five other Caravaggios rule the Naples exhibition at the National Gallery. Shocking in their own time, his paintings still astonish. Their unprecedented naturalism and dramatic chiaroscuro changed the history of art.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Caravaggio, Italy, near Milan, in 1571. He died in 1610. He was certainly a genius. He also was a street-fighter, a fugitive, a killer, a kind of protopunk.
His painting was sensational -- he horrified the pious by using as a model for his "Death of the Virgin" a young prostitute whose bloated corpse had been dragged out of the Tiber. His life was even more so.
"Within a short lifetime," writes John Canaday, who has traced him through Roman police records, Caravaggio "managed to fulfill his genius as a painter while establishing a record of lawlessness unequaled in the history of art and surpassed only in the history of brigandage...
"He brawled on the street, picked quarrels at swordpoint with acquaintances and strangers, once threw a platter of artichokes at a waiter he thought insolent, cutting his face, and threatened him with a sword; he was arrested for carrying sword and dagger without permission, 'gave offense,' unnamed, to one Laura and her daughter Isabella, was sued for rent and damages by his landlady and retaliated by stoning the windows. He precipitated a quarrel in the Corso over 'a girl called Lena who is to be found on the Piazza Navona,' an indication of another aspect of his activities. He assaulted a notary, insulted a constable. He was sued for libel. At least once he very nearly got his throat cut: found in bed with wounds on his neck, he was interrogated but avoided arrest with the tale that by accident he had fallen on his own sword in the street, although just which street it had been he said he could not remember."
Often, when arrested, he was bailed out by his various friends -- the French ambassador, a shoemaker. But violent Caravaggio kept getting into trouble. On one Sunday afternoon in May, 1606, he went a bit too far.
He had been playing tennis. It was an old form of the game with four players to a side. Caravaggio, unfortunately, did not take losing lightly. His manners on the court were far worse than John McEnroe's. He drew his sword and fought with one Ranuccio Tomassoni, the leader of the other team. Caravaggio was badly wounded. Tomassoni died.
Once before, the painter had been forced to flee from papal Rome -- to Genoa, in 1605. Now he headed for the Sabine hills. From there he went to Naples to await, in that port ruled by Spain, a pardon from the pope. He was painting all the time. The huge and intense pictures he made in Naples in the next six months -- Caravaggio was fast -- changed that city's art.
In 1607, Caravaggio went to Malta where Alof de Wignacourt, the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta (of whom he painted two portraits), received him with great honor, appointing him an adopted citizen of the island and a Knight of the Order. Caravaggio's good behavior lasted not three months. He quarreled with a superior, and was thrown into jail, from which, however, with the aid of a rope ladder, he managed to escape. He made his way to Sicily in a stolen boat.
When, at last, in 1609, he returned to Naples, he was set upon by enemies who, in vendetta fashion, horribly disfigured his once-handsome face. Soon his luck got even worse Told his papal pardon was about to be amounced, he decided to return to Rome. But he never made it. A false arrest delayed him, and when he was released he discovered that his ship had left -- with all his belongings. "Abandoned, friendless, unknown, helpless and desperate, and wild with frustration," writes Canaday, "he set out along the swampy shore." In the full heat of the summer sun, Caravaggio ran and ran. He collapsed in Porto Ercole. He was not yet 40. In a few days he was dead.