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First Letter from Rome.

Photo Credit: Chalk Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni

Caravaggio's Rome: A Chiaroscuro Tour: Caravaggio in Rome

There are many reasons to come to Rome. For one of the world's major cities, it is on a very human scale. I walk everywhere, but it is not necessary to wear out the soles of your shoes. (I like to pretend I live here. Pathetic.) Public transport is cheap and easy, taxis are clean and now highly regulated, all of them have meters and I find them the best way to get around if there are two or more people, but the metro, too, is efficient and always on time, apparently.

Once you have ticked off all the things you must do, there are still many quirky things to see and do. This time, I explored a couple of neighbourhoods - Monti with its bohemian, arty vibe; the market inTestaccio, gritty, unpretentious, very 'real' with amazing food, and then a revistit to a favourite neighbourhood, Quartiere Coppede'

PHOTO CREDIT: Atlas Obscura. This is the spectacular archway, corner of Via Tagliamento and Via Dora, which is the entry to an almost fantasy world of architecture where Art Nouveau bumps into Baroque and all styles in between. Dangling under the arch is an extraordinary chandelier. The architect, Gino Coppede' , worked on the district from 1913 until his death in 1927. Italians (well, Romans, at least), regard it as their Gaudi moment. I've been here a number of times but I always catch my breath.

Catch trams 3 to 19 to Piazza Buenos Aires. And there it is.

I also made a small pilgrimage to honour Caravaggio.

Because I wasn't going to visit the Vatican, this was as spiritual as it was going to get.

Michelangelo Merisi, 28 September 1571 - 18 July 1610, is better known just as Caravaggio after his birthplace, a small village near Milan.

As an artist, Caravaggio straddled two important art movements – as art transformed from the formal, neo-classical Renaissance into the more earthy, vibrant, and melodramatic Baroque style. We'll get more of that when I arrive in Lecce in a few days' time.

Caravaggio pioneered the chiaroscuro style of painting, contrasting dark, even black areas of deep shadow with shafts of colour lit by strong highlights, showing this off to great effect in the wrinkles on faces and folds in clothing. He called it “God’s light”.

There are stories about how he achieved this drama in his work. For “Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge”, housed in the Borghese Gallery, the rumour was that he cut a hole in his landlady’s ceiling. There are so many great stories about Caravaggio’s life that it is easy to dismiss this as apocryphal. But a search of the State Archives in the converted church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza confirms that, indeed, a document was lodged by the owner of a boarding house, accusing Caravaggio of wanton damage to her ceiling.

Photo credit: State Archives. Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Roma. BBC world news.

Here are some of the highlights of Caravaggio's arrest record (also in the Archives, allow at least 30 minutes.)

  • 4 May 1598: Arrested at 2- 3am near Piazza Navona, for carrying a sword without a permit

  • 19 November 1600: Sued for beating a man with a stick and tearing his cape with a sword at 3am on Via della Scrofa

  • 2 October 1601: A man accuses Caravaggio and friends of insulting him and attacking him with a sword near the Piazza Campo Marzio

  • 24 April 1604: Waiter complains of assault after serving artichokes at an inn on the Via Maddalena ​ (Pietro Antonio de Fosaccia, the waiter attacked in Caravaggio’s artichoke-induced rage, filed a police report about it. It reads: "About 17 o’clock.... the accused, together with two other people, was eating in the Moor’s restaurant at La Maddalena, where I work as a waiter. I brought them eight cooked artichokes, four cooked in butter and four fried in oil. The accused asked me which were cooked in butter and which fried in oil, and I told him to smell them, which would easily enable him to tell the difference". (Surly beggar, I'd have punched his nose too. RM)

  • 19 October 1604: Arrested for throwing stones at policemen near Via dei Greci and Via del Babuino

  • 28 May 1605: Arrested for carrying a sword and dagger without a permit on Via del Corso

  • 29 July 1605: Vatican notary accuses Caravaggio of striking him from behind with a weapon

  • 28 May 1606: Caravaggio kills a man during a pitched battle in the Campo Marzio area.

Caravaggio was perhaps always on the edge of violent madness. He famously killed a man over a gambling debt. Until recently, it was believed his short, chaotic life came to an end as a result of murder, but scientists in Ravenna who have studied his bones, believe he died of lead poisoning.

Many scholars have traced a dark, foreboding mood in his later paintings matching the disaster that his personal life had become.

His early works with ordinary people as his models and muses are

good-humoured, bright. His series of ‘boy’ paintings, particularly ‘Boy with a basket of fruit’ (1593 Oil on Canvas, Borghese Gallery) – are playful, almost teasing. But soon we are plunged into the darkness of Biblical stories, pain and suffering. In 1603 he painted Entombment with its dark despair. But, really, nothing prepares us for the horror of The Tooth Puller (1609, Pitti Palace, Florence) and the darkness of his last known work a year later, Martyrdom​ of St Ursula, held in Palazzo Stigliano in Naples.

Photo Credit: Martyrdom of St Ursula. Wikipedia. (public domain)

What was happening in his life to account for all this darkness? Caravaggio was a hard-living man, always getting into trouble with drinking, gambling, brawling, sword fighting and prostitutes, both male and female. In fact, he ended up in Rome after he had to leave Milan in 1592 following "certain quarrels."

Even having important patrons like Cardinal Scipione Borghese couldn't save him after he murdered a young man in a street brawl in 1606. He fled Rome and became an itinerant painter, moving first to Naples, then to the protection of the Knights of Malta (he had to leave after another fight in 1608), then to Sicily before making his way back to Naples.

He died in southern Tuscany, drinking himself into a stupor while waiting for his allies in Rome to try to get him a pardon.

They say that Caravaggio died, anonymously, on a tavern table, on a brutally hot day in July. His body was tossed into the pile of a paupers' pit grave at the edge of town. He was 38 years old.

Caravaggio has some major works in Rome and I spent a happy half day, going from gallery to gallery with one motive in mind - to see some grand works of a tortured, talented artist who saw the world in a troubled, and troubling, way.

The following list is by no means complete but it is what I managed in a leisurely half day with a coffee and brioche stop, a porchetta panino lunch and a fortifying negroni to do the last couple. I finished with an indulgent dinner, art on the plate, but more of that later.

Galleria Borghese This is the treasure trove of Caravaggio in Rome. Make this your first stop, but book online. Each visitor is allowed 2 hours and you'll need every minute. Here you’ll see Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (read my previous post), Madonna of the Serpent; Young Bacchus (this is an early work where, to save money, he used himself as the model), David with the Head of Goliath, St Jerome Writing, the famous Madonna and Child with St Anne and a Portrait of Pope Paul V.

(Stop now for a coffee and pastry - you'll need it. Coffee is good everywhere in Rome but it costs more to sit at a table. I like to stand at the bar and try to coax conversation from the inevitably brusque barman. It's a challenge I set myself daily.)

  • Santa Maria del Popolo in the Cerasi Chapel. In the far left corner of the church are The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter. His Conversion on the Way to Damascus is a dramatic, striking painting. Thrown off his horse by the shock of Christ’s apparition, Paul lies on the ground, arms outstretched, totally vulnerable. What scandalised the audience, no less his patron, is that much of the painting, ostensibly portraying a religious vision, is taken up by the rear end of the horse. Reportedly, it caused the "common people" to make a great schiamazzo, a wonderful old word meaning something between a clamour and wild chatter, probably from the Latin for 'exclamation'.

  • If you are visiting the Vatican Museums and I think everyone must, at least once in their life, then you’ll see The Entombment of Christ, amidst other treasures.

  • The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Visiting this Church is a charming experience in itself – the church is very dark and viewers need to pop some coins into the slot for viewing the St Matthew series of paintings - The Calling of St. Matthew, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, St. Matthew and the Angel.

  • The Church of Sant'Agostino’s Cavalletti's Chapel has works by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Sansovini. The chapel is in one of the corners of Piazza Navona—yet sadly few visitors call in to see the curious painting of the Madonna of Loretto, and while that's a great pity, at least you'll have it all to yourselves. The young barefoot Madonna holds a ridiculously huge Jesus. He has a very sweet face, but really, he is far too big to be carried like that.

PHOTO CREDIT: Madonna di Loreto 1604-06. Wikipedia. Remember 1 euro for lighting here as well.

  • Galleria Doria Pamphilj – This is a private gallery near the Spanish Steps and makes a nice pause from the crowds and the shopping close by in Via Condotti and my favourite shopping street, Via Frattini. At the far end of Via Frattini is the shop of Fausto Santini where I have purchased many a fabulous shoe and handbags so well made that they will be bequeathed in my will. On the way to this glorious shrine to leatherwork, have a coffee and a walnut gelato at Bar Frattini. But, I digress. Where was I? Ah yes, Mary Magdalene, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Young St. John the Baptist are housed in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj .

If you are really serious - set aside another half day and visit the Capitoline Museums - so much gorgeous art and gold frames, enough for a life time. There are Caravaggio paintings but so much more. I didn't go this time, but it is such a rewarding experience, if you don't rush it.

Then, if you are still not done, go to Palazzo Corsini to see another St John the Baptist, (you could skip this one, unless you are a tragic like me, but the ticket for Barberini includes Corsini - go on), then, have several Negroni cocktails to steady the nerves and pop into Palazzo Barberini for Narcissus, the truly horrific Judith beheading Holofernes and St Francis in Meditation.

I confess I blew the daily food and wine budget with a cocktail in the Stravinsky Bar at 'Otel de Russie. (They always serve food with their drinks, so it could be a light dinner as well, though you may need more fortification). Gallery hopping should never become a burden of self righteousness.

PHOTO CREDIT: wikipedia, as are these notes. Judith Beheading Holofernes,Caravaggio, painted in c.1599. The widow Judith first seduces and pleasures the Assyrian general Holofernes, then decapitates him in his tent. The painting was rediscovered in 1950 and is part of the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barbarini.

The model for Judith is probably the Roman courtesan Fillide Melandroni, who posed for several other works by Caravaggio around this year; the scene itself, and especially the details of blood and decapitation, were presumably drawn from his observations of the public execution of Beatrice Cenci a few years before.

Much has been written about the psychological torment on Judith's face but I love her steely maid, Abra. Violence meets determined virtue.

You see, you'll need more than a pizza to still the heart palpitations. I will give you three options. Cheap and cheerful? Taverna Barbarini. Modern twists on Italian classics? Close by is Il Nido del Pettirosso or if you need a fabulous treat, right there in the Palazzo itself is Sina Bernini Bristol. Change out of your walking shoes, throw on a Ferragamo scarf and make a booking.

More stories on Rome to follow.

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