Caravaggio's deaths.

Author:Sohm, Philip
Position:Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio

Derek Jarman opens his claustrophobic, skyless Caravaggio (1986) with the feverish artist on his shadowy deathbed (Fig. 1). The film pieces together Michelangelo da Caravaggio's life retrospectively, from the vantage point of the dying artist. Death gives structure and meaning to Caravaggio's life. Mortality, for Jarman, explained the essence of his art. When asked why he made the film, Jarman responded obliquely by paraphrasing two early biographies of the artist, by Giovanni Baglione (1642) and Giovan Pietro Bellori (1672):

The beach at Porto Ercole stretches lazily into the heat haze; a crescent dune walling up stagnant and dank undergrowth, dense, infested with midges that brush you like nettles. It was on this beach that Michele ran, in a fury, to retrieve the souvenirs of his life, disappearing over the horizon in a fishing boat in lieu of his failure to pay his passage. He collapsed in the sun and was carried by fishermen to the Spanish garrison high up on the cliff face, to die the next day. (1)

The beach as a scene of desperation and death, the loss of "souvenirs," and the subsequent collapse in the sun were key elements in the seicento biographies that Jarman had read in Howard Hibbard's sexualized Caravaggio (1983). Although he never used the beach scene in the film (too bright, too furious, too Hollywood), a voice-over by "Caravaggio" at the beginning of the film tells us how he arrived at his deathbed:

Malta, Syracuse, Messina, Naples--four years on the run, so many labels on the luggage and hardly a friendly face, always on the move, running into the poisonous blue sea, running under the July sun, July 18 of 1610, adrift.... The boats are on the beach, the nets hung out to dry, the dog star creeps out to bark the raging sun into the west, Sole da Leone, the Lion sun, hunted into the dark.

Throughout most of Caravaggio, Jarman flouted historical objectivity by introducing motorbikes and typewriters, but a strict historicity marks the deathbed scene. The story that Baglione and Bellori narrated remains intact Caravaggio runs on the beach, desperate to retrieve his luggage, while the hot summer sun--the Sole da Leone--beams down. The wounded, dirty, dark painter struggiing under a bleaching summer sun survives in other modern fictional accounts, as, for example, when Enzo Siciliano evokes the sun to create an alien environment for the dying Caravaggio:

The fortress [at Fort'Ercole] bathed in the last burning rays of the sun. The heat of that July day was dying on the surface of the clearwater....There was too much light, so clear that it hurt your eyes...and made him wish with passionate, urgent longing for the torch hanging from the roof...for the closed room, the nocturnal atmosphere...(2)

Caravaggio's seicento biographers might have appreciated the narrative poignancy of the scene in similar ways, just as they probably believed in its historical veracity, but the persistence of the story can be explained in other ways. My thesis is that Garavaggio's biographers adjusted their stories of his death in order to characterize his life and personal style. His death reveals for them the essence of his art. Art imitates life, certainly, but so, too, does life imitate art, especially in biography, where fictional verisimilitude is used to attain the higher goal of truth. An artist's biography can be documented and factual, and indeed some seicento art biographers pushed archival research much deeper into their writing than had previously been the norm. But biography is also an artful construction of embellished or even invented "facts" that explains why paintings look the way they do. In various stories of Caravaggio's death, biography can be read as art criticism.

Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz introduced to art history the notion that early modern biographies elide the boundaries between fact and fiction in order to conceptualize the category of artist and to mythologize individual artists. (3) However, just because a "narrative cell," to use Kris and Kurz's term for the elemental building blocks of anecdote, borrows from a fictional tradition does not necessarily mean that it, too, is fictional. Paul Barolsky embraced their lesson, perhaps too heartily, in his conviction that Giorgio Vasari's Le vile de' piu eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori is "a masterpiece of Renaissance fiction," and extended the typological reading of Vasari's biographies as a higher form of truth: "Vasari's tales are never mere fiction, because such fictions tell us a great deal about how Vasari imagined 'reality,' which is part of the historical record. Knowing how to read Vasari, we come to see just how much history is poetically embedded in his tall tales." (4) Kris and Kurz and Barolsky read biography primarily as mythmaking where the literal truth is supplanted by a higher, poetic truth about art and the artist as hero or, in Caravaggio's case, antihero.

The stories of Caravaggio's death offer two corrective corollaries to their accounts: first, that historical truth can coexist with mythologized biography, and second, that biography can shape interpretations of paintings and, inversely, that paintings can shape biography. (5) I am interested in the borderlands where fiction bleeds into fact in the afterlives of his death, where the literary forms start to shape the biographical content. Scholars who aspire to document the singularity of historical events often turn to biographies as reasonable substitutes for more unbiased evidence. To say that they extrapolate plausible narratives from incomplete data and hence are complicit in accepting an early mythologizing mode of artist biography sounds like a condemnation of current practice. Actually, my intention is only to suggest that the migration of fact into fiction is a necessary and even desirable precondition of writing history, that all biography constructs a text from other texts. Biographers produce compl ex and allusive texts by importing such storytelling techniques as irony and narrative closure. Art history, as a relatively new literary genre in the seicento, needed to borrow from other dominant forms like hagiography, biography, poetry, and novelle. Because language is not a neutral medium but a densely allusive and subliminal one, writers can tell their readers many things at once. Historical narratives, as Hayden White argues, are effective not so much as a literary structure to convey information as a means to

test the capacity of a culture's fictions to endow real events with the kinds of meaning that literature displays to consciousness through its fashioning of patterns of "imaginary" events. Precisely insofar as the historical narrative endows sets of real events with the kinds of meaning found otherwise only in myth and literature, we are justified in regarding it as a product of allegoresis. Therefore, rather than regard every historical narrative as mythic or ideological in nature, we should regard it as allegorical, that is, as saying one thing and meaning another. Thus envisaged, the narrative figurates the body of events that serves as its primary referent and transforms these events into intimations of patterns of meaning that any literal representation of them as facts could never produce. (6)

Of White's four tropes of historiography (metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, and irony), the lives of Caravaggio, or more exactly the "deaths" of Caravaggio, lend themselves to analysis primarily by means of irony and metaphor.

Biography as Art Criticism

Because Caravaggio was a murderer, and because he often stabbed, battered, and molested, and because he populated his painted world with a high incidence, per capita, of beheadings and decapitated heads, biographers have seen violence and death as the central conceit of his life and art. Beginnings and endings, the dual portals of narrative, are often charged with portent and revelation. Most artists died inconspicuously of old age or unspecified causes. Some devoutly prepared themselves for death (Michelangelo and Bernini) or died in pious acts (Bandinelli); others worked themselves to death. There are also status deaths, such as Leonardo expiring in the arms of Francis I. However, a few artists died artistically in ways that bind the mode of dying to the style of painting, where death imitates life. (7) Spinello Aretino, ever timorous (like his figures) after being mugged, painted a bestial Satan so terrifyingly real that it escaped from the painting and appeared to Spinello in his sleep, a nightmare Pygmal ion scenario. (8) He awakened "half mad with staring eyes" and a few days later "he slipped into the grave," having frightened himself to death, killed by his own artistic success. Other artists died in the embrace of women or in hot pursuit--Giorgione, Raphael, and Domenico Puligo--and consistently these were artists whose styles were given feminine attributes: softness, grace, delicacy, and tenderness. Pontormo died of dropsy, a disease that deformed his body, making it look like the figures in his late, failed work, "without proportion," with a large torso and small arms and legs. (9)

Death, in other words, is the final act that reveals the ultimate truth about an artist's work. "Look at a man in the midst of trouble and danger facing death," wrote Lucretius, "and you will learn in his hour of adversity what he really is.... The mask is torn off and reality remains." (10) Death provides an explanatory mirror of artistic practice or, in Caravaggio's case, malpractice. What distinguishes Caravaggio's death from those in other early modern art biographies is the number of stories told and the variety of their signification. Every seventeenth-century poem and biography that mentions his death gives it meaning--in each case a different meaning--with evidence manipulated, sometimes wildly and fancifully, in order to prove a particular point. Baglione concluded that "he died as miserably as he...

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