Did he or didn’t he?

Are you up for an argument that isn’t about politics? This dustup is between two Art historian, Clovis Whitfield, a London art dealer and Keith Sciberras, a University of Malta professor. Their clash is over whether painting great Caravaggio was a murderer. Spoiler alert: this writer sides with Sciberras who sees the painter as a slayer of men. Whitfield calls Sciberras’s view an interpretation of the facts. But by all the mixed accounts, isn’t all art history an interpretation? Eyewitness narrations yo-yo so much in this case, it comes down to a he said-he said.

Reaching the boiling point

While Whitfield acknowledges that Caravaggio was involved in disturbances that led to death, he excuses the artist’s fierceness as the result of seeing the world differently.

But taking into account reports by historians who lived in or close to the artist’s time, it’s a stretch to see him as innocent of anything. For example, Giovanni Pietro Bellori reported in 1672 that Caravaggio had a violent nature and was forced to escape from Milan, and later from Rome and then from Malta. And while hiding in Sicily, he also was under threat in Naples. You don’t need to flee town after town for just having a bad temper. And to hear Bellori tell it, Caravaggio had to flee Rome after killing a companion in a quarrel over a bet on a ball game.

What’d you do that for?

And in 1724, Francesco Susinno cited a telling incident when Caravaggio was watching school children at play for his art and their teacher asked him why he was hanging around. The question bothered the painter so much that he hit the teacher in the head.

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Because of this, he had to leave yet another town - Messina. In Susinno’s words, wherever the artist went he’d leave the mark of his madness. Again it’s hard to interpret this episode as just a display of what Whitfield characterized as a case of seeing the world differently. Susinno added another revealing circumstance: When Caravaggio’s patrons came to watch him paint “Raising of Lazarus” in Messina, he drew his dagger (said to always be at his side), and aimed several furious blows at the painting. After venting his anger, he told his visitors not to worry, that he’d paint the picture again.  

What, me worry?

“Raising of Lazarus” provided Susinno one more give-away occurrence. In the painter’s zeal for realism in the central figure of Lazarus, he told his model to dig up a corpse to take his place and set it in the arms of those modeling the surrounding figures. But the models balked at the smell and asked to be excused. Caravaggio with his “usual fury,” raised his dagger (again with the dagger) and jumped on them, forcing them to get the job done. Summing up, when an ill-tempered painter totes a dagger, it isn’t hard to imagine that he took someone’s life.