Among the most famous artwork in Rome’s Villa Borghese are Caravaggio paintings spanning the career of this brilliant but volatile painter.
And each one of them has fascinating art history behind it.
Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio (1571-1610), was born in Milan, not in the northern Italian town of Caravaggio, as was believed until several years ago. In Milan, he studied with Simone Peterzano, a former pupil of Titian, but left neither personal history nor works of art there.
Caravaggio relocated to Rome in late 1592, and apprenticed briefly in the studio of the Cavalier d’Arpino and his brother, Bernardino Cesari, specializing in painting fruits and vegetables. Unlike the typical 16th century artist, Caravaggio rejected the current academic training that devoted years to drawing sculptures and copying artwork made by famous painters.
Instead, he recaptured realism in art and pioneered dramatic lighting effects now known as tenebrism.
Caravaggio paintings in the initial phase of his career feature still lifes and people often found on the street, like cardcheats or cardsharps, fortune-tellers, and beggars. His style was equally pioneering: Caravaggio made no initial sketches and painted directly on the canvas.
Regardless of his less academic and formal style, Caravaggio developed a core of faithful Roman patrons. Among these were the legendary art patron Scipione Borghese (1576-1633), whose uncle, Camillo Borghese (1552-1621), became Pope Paul V in 1605. Shortly thereafter, the new Pope gave his favorite nephew the title of Cardinal.
The remarkabe Caravaggio paintings in the Villa Borghese include these famous paintings:
Boy with a Basket of Fruit, ca. 1593-94
This early work (above, left) demonstrates Caravaggio’s mastery of realistic depictions of nature, imperfections and all. Highlights are captured on individual grapes, whose veined, mottled leaves drape over the basket. On the lower right, a dying leaf nearly floats; together with the browning fruit in the center, Caravaggio hints that the bounty and pleasures of life are fleeting.
The overt sensuality of the young man suggests that these pleasures also include the carnal. The cleft in the ripe, golden peach is repeated in the lad’s chin, while its lusciousness is echoed in his bare right shoulder.
Self-portrait as Bacchus (Sick Bacchus), ca. 1593-94
Many 16th century painters believed that moonlight offered optimal lighting for painting. This, according to the Borghese Gallery, likely accounts for the greenish, waxy pallor of Bacchus’ (or Caravaggio’s) complexion (above, right). The intent of the Bacchus iconography remains unclear, despite extensive art historical debate about it.
What is clear is that Scipione Borghese longed for this work, as well as Boy with a Basket of Fruit, which were both in the hands of the Cavalier d’Arpino. On the orders of Pope Paul V, these Caravaggio paintings were confiscated and the Cavalier was jailed — and was freed only when he “gave” the paintings to Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
Madonna of the Palafrenieri, 1605-06
Originally commissioned for the Saint Anne Chapel in St. Peter’s, Madonna of the Palafrenieri was heavily criticized for its alleged lack of decorum and dignity.
Mary teaches the young Jesus how to kill a menacing serpent, a symbol of heresy and evil. Both she and Saint Anne, the patron saint of the confraternity of the Palafrenieri who commissioned the work, are depicted as ordinary women. They, like Jesus, are not idealized by Caravaggio.
Although it isn’t known specifically why the confraternity refused to accept the painting, it hung in Saint Peter’s for a mere two weeks in April 1606 before Madonna of the Palafrenieri was re-gifted to Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
Saint Jerome, 1606
The joy of seeing this painting is discovering that Caravaggio painted the quill pen with one assertive brushstroke. That, along with lengthy brushstrokes in the white cloth and the roughness of the books, cloak and saint’s beard, have convinced some art historians that Saint Jerome is unfinished.
Although St. Jerome is typically portrayed as a penitent, Caravaggio shows him as a devoted scholar, reading and annotating scriptures.
Saint Jerome was commissioned by Scipione Borghese and was included in the Borghese Gallery inventory of 1693.
Curiously, St. Jerome was subsequently attribued to the Spanish painter, Jusepe di Ribera (1591-1652).
St. John the Baptist, 1610
One of the last attributed Caravaggio paintings, St. John the Baptist was a favored subject in Caravaggio paintings. Other versions include those in the Galleria Corsini, Rome; the Nelson-Atkins, Kansas City; and the Capitoline Museum, Rome.
Yet again, Caravaggio’s rendition of the subject matter is atypical. This Saint John is pensive, and looks more like a resting shepherd than a renowned saint.
David with the Head of Goliath, 1606
Like many Caravaggio paintings, David with the Head of Goliath has long been the subject of debate: in this case, the controversy focuses on dating the work and whether the heads of Goliath and David are self-portraits of Caravaggio.
The Borghese Gallery provides some clarity, dating it at 1609-1610.
Giovanni Pietro Bellori, the biographer (and curator to Pope Clement X), documented in 1672 that Goliath was Caravaggio’s self-portrait. Recent conjecture suggests that David was also a self-portrait, despite his similarity to Saint John.
The rapid brushstrokes in David with the Head of Goliath pay homage to late Titian paintings.
Known for his volatile temper and fits of rage, Caravaggio murdered a man, Ranuccio Tommasoni, in May 1606. Although his influential patrons had shielded him from other legal infractions, there was no recourse here. Ironically, Caravaggio was sentenced to death by Pope Paul V.
Many art historians believe that Caravaggio painted David with the Head of Goliath as a admission of guilt and remorse by depicting himself as the decapitated head of David. He presented David, along with St. John the Baptist, to the papal court as a (highly unusual) request for a papal pardon.
Tragically, Caravaggio died in exile before learning that the pardon had been granted.
Can’t get enough of Caravaggio, either? Explore:
- art paintings by Caravaggio made from 1600-1606;
- earlyCaravaggio paintings, The Cardsharps and The Fortune Teller; and
- St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy.