I came to Italy for Pompeii, but I came to Rome for Caravaggio. I encountered my first Caravaggio painting at the Louvre when I came across his convincing depiction of the “Death of the Virgin.” There was something so three-dimensionally lifelike about the recumbent image of Mary that convinced me that this man named Caravaggio was someone to be reckoned with. I had to look at the date that it was painted at least three times before I finally assured myself that the year 1606 was not a misprint. The painting was so realistic, so emotional, so haunting, and so advanced. There was nothing flat about it; the picture had everything to do with how the light emerged from the shadows. This was a masterpiece in the truest sense of the term, and I was instantly enamored with this incredible artist named Caravaggio.
Naturally, I declared it my personal mission to spend all my loose change on illuminating every single Caravaggio painting that was to be found in the city of Rome. Lots of people come to Rome on pilgrimages, and my Caravaggio pilgrimage was not going to be that much different from a religious one, for we were going to be visiting quite a few churches. The majority of Caravaggio’s paintings were spread out amongst nine different locations, and we had two full days to hit each and every one. I didn’t want to leave a single Caravaggio unturned, so I learned where all the Caravaggio’s were ahead of time and did some serious strategizing. I planned to sneak in a Caravaggio wherever I could. From the Colosseum, it was a fifteen-minute walk to The Doria Pamphilj Gallery, where Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt was housed. From there, the Pantheon was along the way to the church of Sant’Agostino, where we would see Caravaggio’s The Madonna of Loreto. From the Pantheon, it was a three-minute walk to The Church of St. Louis of the French, where three major Caravaggio paintings were hanging in their original positions. Caravaggio thus dictated the itinerary, and I weaved ourselves all throughout Rome on a Caravaggio pilgrimage.
We unsurprisingly managed to hit them all, and I definitely did not declare a single one my favorite. Each painting was so individual, so poignant, and so illuminating in its own special way. There exists no gray in a Caravaggio painting; life, to him, was either black or it was white. His works were an expression of how he saw the world. Life, for Caravaggio, was either vulgar or it was saintly — there was no middle ground. On his part, he familiarized himself with the vulgar quite intimately. He was only as religious as a man who was capable of killing another man in a brawl could possibly be. He painted religious subjects because he had to make a living, but he manipulated the subjects so that they would outwardly conform to his personal worldview. My impression was that he was not someone who looked at the world through rose-colored glasses. He always managed to find something in himself in the religious stories that he was commissioned to paint. It was this darkness about everything that surrounded him in real life that greatly intrigues me. He was the bad boy of Old Master artists.
People are attracted to a Caravaggio painting in the same way that a moth is attracted to a flame. In any other context, that analogy would be annoyingly cliché, but with his paintings, there honestly is no other way to describe the pull that his works have on viewers. A Caravaggio painting is easily recognizable by how it moves out of the shadows and into a single blaring spark of illumination. Caravaggio was apt at seizing a pivotal moment in a subject’s narrative. By using his palette of contrasting darks and whites, he was able to freeze a snippet moment of someone’s transformation. He was insightful in a way that no other artist before or after him has ever been.
When he painted David presenting the severed head of Goliath, he used his own head to serve as Goliath’s model. Most of his head is bathed in darkness, except for the portion that catches some light that bounces off David’s heroic body. As an earthly plea for divine intervention, he sent this painting as a gift to a cardinal that had the power to pardon him for murder. He was traveling back to Rome in hopes of that pardon when he died en route, aged 38. Rumor was that quite a few people preferred him dead for a variety of reasons. Me, I wish that he would have lived forever.
This was an excerpt from the second installment of my “Memory Road Trip” travel series. The upcoming book will be called “Time Traveled” and I hope to release it by the end of the year. Until then, my first book is available now!