My brush with Caravaggio


I recall a day in Rome when I encountered a violent, volatile, brawling, murderous cutthroat of a man. I went through a door, a door that I later learned I should not have entered. And then, beyond that portal: the sword, the blood, that man.

There he was. Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. The painter. Suddenly and unexpectedly.

To be honest, this was not someone in the flesh, or even the ghost of the painter who died 400 years ago.

This was, nevertheless, a forbidden shock-and-awe encounter, with a different kind of presence, a physical presence in paint and on canvas, by Caravaggio’s own hand, and was likely his own self-portrait in the form of a bloody severed head.

Such things do possess an aura of authenticity said Walter Benjamin, the great modernist literary and art critic. When one occupies space in the same room as a famously great work of art, there is a presence that never accompanies reproductions. And yet, it’s almost always the reproduction through which these works live in the minds of most of humanity.

While¬†well-known works of are not living things of themselves, biologically speaking, they operate as entities at play in a world-wide culture. They are at play through both the recollections of those who have traveled to be in their presence, and in the minds of those who know them through the mass media. In this way these art works are as alive as Humanity’s collective consciousness.

One is never alone in the presence of something like that.

Until that moment, I had no idea what was beyond the door, not until after I had made an unauthorized entry and had stolen into the place, feeling like I had come like a thief in the night.


Visiting the Villa Borghese and seeing Rome’s most magnificent collection of paintings and sculpture is always by reservation. You go to the website, pick a two-hour time slot some weeks in advanced. Next, you pay for your ticket by typing in your credit card number.

I had no reservation this day. If I had had a reservation, and had purchased a ticket, the guards would’ve made me check my bag. They are strict about that. One cannot walk around willy-nilly into a room full of priceless art with a bag you can zip open and close at will.

So, that day I was only intending to walk around the gardens and contemplate the art the guidebooks say is inside, and that I would see on another day. Meanwhile, I’d watch waves of ticket holders come and go, some no doubt talking of Caravaggio.

The Villa Borghese is situated in the middle of a large park, the Borghese Gardens. Everything around it is open to the public. Old men play bocce ball, couples mosey around in rented pedal cars. The Villa and surrounding gardens were once owned by the Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of the Pope, Pope Paul V (1605-1621). The cardinal was a compulsive collector of Classical, Renaissance and Baroque art, as well as the patron to the painter Michelangelo Caravaggio, and the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

In the gardens around the villa, wild parrots fluttered from the ground to the trees’ lower branches. Green parrots with long tails. Psittacula krameri In the front of the building, and up the first flight of outside stairs, I was seeing what appeared to be a patio and sculpture garden behind an open gate. The loggia. Two guards stood beside the iron gate, talking, engrossed in a conversation I could not follow. I climbed the stairs and wandered past them without incident, in plain sight, with my pack strapped to my back, fully expecting to be stopped if I was stepping into an off limits zone. I examined the carvings for a few minutes. The guards continued to talk to each other.

From there I passed through an unguarded doorway, casting a glance over my shoulder to see if perhaps my movement raised any alarm. This too must be public, I was thinking. Perhaps this was some preview of what’s inside. Maybe the gift shop was just beyond that, perhaps the cafeteria.

Here’s where I found myself. Alone. By most art gallery standards this was a small room, but one with lavishly frescoed baroque ceilings, and walls cluttered with framed paintings. As my eyes adjusted to the indoor light, and as I scanned the pictures, I felt the little hairs raise on the back of my neck, and a kind of chill that the French would say accompanies the drop of the guillotine blade. I looked up, and there was the severed head, or at least a ghoulishly detailed painting of a severed head, a depiction of Caravaggio’s own head, according to many art historians.

The story of this painting is that around 1606 the painter rendered his own likenesses as the “Head of Goliath.” A sword wielding David holds the head by a tuft of hair. Blood drains from the neck. What’s more, some Caravaggio scholars say the David is a likeness of the painter in his youth.

Now get this: The young Caravaggio-David presents the head of the older Caravaggio-Goliath in a painting that Caravaggio, the painter, presented to Cardinal Borghese. We think this painting was Caravaggio’s payment to the Cardinal for sparing the painter’s head. Caravaggio had been convicted of murdering a man in a brawl. The influential Borghese arranged a papal pardon.

So that was two faces of Caravaggio that I was alone in the room with. Could there be others? Yes. That would be the painting, “Young Sick Bacchus”, or as it is often called, “Self-Portrait as Bacchus.”

Bacchus clutches a grape cluster. The grapes are pump, ripe, at their peak, as is the rest of the fruit on the table. In contrast, Bacchus is jaundiced, his complexion yellowed and baggy. His eyes have set deep into the unnaturally dark hollows of his face. The story of this picture is that Caravaggio painted himself as the sickly Bacchus while recovering from an extended illness in 1593, at Rome’s Santa Maria della Consolazione Hospital. He asked for a mirror, and someone brought him one.

I turned to other paintings hanging about me in the small room. There was also Caravaggio’s “Boy with Basket of Fruit” and “St. Jerome Writing,” and “Madonna with Child” and “John the Baptist in the Wilderness.” All of them famous. This was becoming really too much for me. Clearly I had inadvertently stolen into a place I’m not supposed to be, and like the Bacchus, I too am a little ill and over-indulged.

Sick Bacchus

I felt light-headed, detached from the ordinary here-and-now, in a place where I seemed to be invisible to the guards stationed to stop people like me. I wouldn’t go further within the Villa.

At this point, I was grateful for what ever spell that permitted me to saunter invisibly past the guards on my way out. I made my way beyond Cardinal Borghese’s gardens, and toward the busy cross-town traffic on the Viale del Muro Torto. Stairs led me underground to the subway stop.

The car was packed. Here was humanity. Most of us were standing in each others’ breath. We pressed against each other, our combined presence in the isle held each other up where the rails and straps were beyond reach. At the station stops, we did our best to make paths for those who needed squeeze out. We were in this together, making this work.

I was thinking how we are together in another way. Most everyone there would at some time have seen some of the famous pictures I had seen that day, even if only pictures of the pictures. They could say in their languages, “Ah, yes, Caravaggio” “Oh, such light and shadow.” or “He killed a man, you know.”

It’s knowledge we share.

This is how our train sped through that tunnel that day.

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