Top 5 Places to See a Caravaggio

A new biography of the Italian painter provides an excellent roadmap

By / February 2013

Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane is a whopping yet highly propulsive biography of the Italian master. The book presents Caravaggio as an irascible genius who was the most important painter since Michelangelo, a major influence on Rubens and Rembrandt and Martin Scorsese, a self-taught wunderkind, in all probability a pimp, a militant realist, a shameless provocateur, an Augustinian penitent, a homicidal maniac, and a first-class fugitive who managed to skirt papal justice and later escape from prison on the island of Malta, all the while completing works on canvas that revolutionized the medium.

A mashup of history, criticism, investigative journalism, and hardboiled suspense, the book, which the novelist Peter Carey called “a thrilling lesson in the art of seeing,” left me short on breath and Cragganmore single malt. It also left me pining to book a flight to Rome, the city where Caravaggio won his first big commissions and in whose churches and museums many of his masterworks still hang, to get a look at the paintings up close. To that end, Caravaggio provides an excellent roadmap. Here’s a list, culled from Graham-Dixon’s tome, of the best places in the Italian capital to see a Caravaggio:


1. Contarelli Chapel

This chapel in the San Luigi dei Francesi, France’s national church in Rome, plays host to three large Caravaggio masterpieces, each of them a scene from the life of St Matthew. In The Calling of St Matthew, Caravaggio imagines the commissioning of the Jewish tax collector taking place in the back corner of a low-lit room, perhaps a bar, perhaps a brothel, in turn-of-the-17th-century Rome. An assassin disguised as a new convert turns on the apostle at the lip of the baptismal fount in The Martyrdom of St Matthew, an unnerving work whose background features one of many Caravaggio self-portraits. St Matthew and the Angel, which pictures a winged seraph helping the disciple pen his gospel, nevertheless marked a low point for Caravaggio. His first version of the painting was rejected due to its ruddy, bare-footed depiction of the saint. “That was,” Graham-Dixon writes, “precisely Caravaggio’s point: Christ and his followers looked a lot more like beggars than cardinals.”


2. National Gallery of Ancient Art

The Palazzo Baberini campus of Italy’s National Gallery of Ancient Art boasts Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. In the 1400s, Donatello had taken on Judith in bronze. Caravaggio’s 1598 take is infinitely more visceral. Judith, the heroine who entices then kills the despotic Assyrian ruler in the Catholic Old Testament’s Book of Judith, is played by Fillide Melandroni, a prostitute whom Caravaggio also painted as Mary Magdalen and St Catherine. Fillide was gorgeous; she could also be brutal. She was once taken to court for threatening the life of Prudenza Zacchia, a rival whore whose hand she later slashed with a stone. The leap from stone to sword, such as the one she saws into the taut neck of the tyrant’s head in Judith Beheading Holofernes, seems rather slim. “Caravaggio,” Graham-Dixon says of the painting, “had imagined the whole scene as a fantastically extreme version of the kind of violent incidents in which he and his companions were often embroiled. ‘I want to cut you! I want to cut you!’ Fillide would yell at her rival Prudenza. Here the threat is fully carried out.”


3. Cerasi Chapel

Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul have been hanging in this small chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo for more than 400 years. The St Paul is particularly radiant. The blinded apostle lies helplessly enraptured, his face and body flooded with light. “It is like a hearth,” writes Graham-Dixon, “inviting cold bodies to gather round and warm themselves in the act of devotion.” The painter Annibale Carracci, best known for his Love of the Gods frescoes in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese, might have won the commission for the chapel’s altarpiece, but Caravaggio had the last laugh. The left side of The Conversion of St Paul is dominated by a large horse, the haunches of which are aimed squarely at Carracci’s Assumption of the Virgin. This was no coincidence. Carracci’s Raphael-influenced work, flush with plump cherubs and triumphant colors, typified the High Renaissance style Caravaggio despised. But with the Cerasi canvases, Caravaggio had even bigger fish to fry. The only other artist to have painted Paul’s conversion and Peter’s crucifixion side by side was Michelangelo, a half-century prior. “Cerasi,” writes Graham-Dixon, “was implicitly setting [Caravaggio] in competition with the ghost of the most celebrated Renaissance artist of all.”


4. Doria Pamphilj Gallery

No one was better than Caravaggio at bringing narratives from the Bible and Greek mythology back down to earth. At putting flesh on them. At staining that flesh with dirt and worry. In Rest During the Flight into Egypt, now hanging in the Doria Pamphilj, he painted the holy family in hiding beneath the faltering shade of a roadside tree. Update their clothes and Mary and Joseph could be refugees fleeing Syria for Turkey if not Mexican immigrants hoping to steal across the Arizona border. They are tired. They are poor. Herod’s henchman, charged with massacring the first born of Bethlehem, cannot be too far behind. But providence, presented in the form of an angel playing the violin, is with them. Caravaggio modeled his angel on the figure of a near-naked woman in a painting by his rival Annibale Carracci. In Carracci’s painting, called The Judgment of Hercules, the woman signifies vice. In Caravaggio’s, says Graham-Dixon, “Vice has been sanctified.”


5. Borghese Gallery

In December of 1606, Caravaggio killed in a duel his nemesis Ranuccio Tomassoni and made for the Alban Hills. Shortly thereafter, the artist, badly injured in the sword fight and now wanted for murder, painted David with the Head of Goliath and sent it to Scipione Borghese. Borghese, an admirer of Caravaggio’s work, was the pope’s nephew, the man responsible for meting out papal justice. In the dark painting, a young, disconsolate David brandishes the ghastly head not of Goliath but of Caravaggio himself. Graham-Dixon: “The David and Goliath was Caravaggio’s darkly ingenius plea to the one man who could save him: his way of saying that Borghese was welcome to have his head in a painting, if only he would let him keep it in real life.” Among the other Caravaggio’s housed in the Borghese Gallery, the Borghese family’s villa-turned-museum, is the tenebrous St John the Baptist and Madonna of the Palafrenieri, a picture of the virgin helping the young Jesus crush the serpent that was quickly pulled from the walls of St. Peter’s, writes Graham-Dixon, “probably because of the Madonna’s full cleavage.”


Drew Bratcher edits and produces EthnoTraveler.