SHADES OF DARK

The Argentario Golf Club features 18 panoramic holes who dominate the sea and the lagoon of Porto Ercole.

Golf_Porto_ErcoleOctober 31st, 2013 - By Kyl Chatwaal

At the height of summer, 1610, a man was walking through the

malaria-infested region of the Maremma, when he collapsed on

a beach near Porto Ercole, Italy.


He later died in a local monastic hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave on the outskirts

of town. News of his death quickly reached Rome. This man, the painter Caravaggio, was already

famous for revolutionizing Italian painting.

He was also infamous for his knack at making enemies of both powerful and lowly men.

Violent, abusive, and unpredictable, he once assaulted a waiter for not knowing if

the artichokes on the tavern menu were cooked in oil or butter. “Do you think you’re

talking to some regular bum?” Caravaggio asked. He then pounced on the poor man,

pinned him against the table, and threatened him with a knife.

Few artists have been as full of contradictions as the tempestuous Caravaggio.

Known for their gritty realism, Caravaggio’s paintings are almost exclusively

religious in theme. During the Italian Counter Reformation of the 16th and 17th

centuries, the Vatican was building new churches at break-neck speed, filling them

with pious art designed to win back souls from Protestantism. Though Caravaggio

fought for these lucrative church commissions, as any ambitious artist would, he

nonetheless refused to paint the standard religious iconography of the time: fluffy

white clouds and blushing cherubs, for example. Instead, his saints and martyrs

were barefoot, unwashed Romans, painted directly from life employing models from

the streets. He famously used the drowned body of a local prostitute as his Mary in

The Death of the Virgin. Though his “vulgarity” gained him his share of detractors,

Caravaggio’s genius was nonetheless hugely admired. So many young artists started

copying his style that they were eventually called “Caravaggisti.”

To capture the grit and filth of a street-level existence, Caravaggio had to live this

existence. His befriended the low-lifes of Rome: gamblers, sinners, prostitutes,

and criminals. After intense, week-long bouts of painting, Caravaggio was known

to swagger from tavern to tavern for a month, drinking, brawling, and generally

behaving in a way that made him, in the words of a contemporary, “most awkward

to get along with.” Scholars have posited that Caravaggio suffered from lead

poisoning, a condition marked by violent behaviour and aggression. Whether or not

this was true, his short temper eventually got the better of him. In 1606 he killed a

man in a duel, fleeing Rome with a price on his head.

In exile, Caravaggio’s painting turned darker, as though the act of painting itself

became his repentance. He put himself in most of his canvasses, often in the role

of villain or powerless onlooker in typically violent Biblical scenes. On at least two

occasions he used his own face as a model for decapitated heads: in Salome with

the Head of John the Baptist, and David with the Head of Goliath. The latter was one

of the last paintings Caravaggio ever executed, meant as a gift for the influential

Cardinal Borghese in exchange for a Papal pardon. It shows a virtuous, heroic young

David holding the severed head of Goliath/Caravaggio. The image was the painter’s

singular strategy of offering his head in art rather than in life. It was on his trip to

Rome to deliver his peace offering that Caravaggio contracted malaria outside Porto

Ercole, dying before he could be forgiven.

Famous in life, Caravaggio was quickly forgotten after death, and it wasn’t until

the early 20th century that his reputation was resurrected. These days, he’s mostly

remembered for his use of the technique chiaroscuro (from the Italian words for

“light” and “dark”). Though Caravaggio did not invent chiaroscuro, he nonetheless

radicalized it by placing his subjects in theatrical, heavenly beams of white light,

surrounded by “seas of shadow,” yielding that Caravaggian element of the mythic in

the profane. In his first great masterpiece, The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio

gives us a Biblical episode set in a dingy bar in 16th century Rome. A spot enters

through a high window, like something in a stage play, lighting up the face of the

gambler and moneychanger Matthew. In the shadows stands Christ, his face almost

entirely obscured. Only his outstretched hand and finger are illuminated like a

beacon, the gesture of a higher power calling the sinner to his cause.

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