I’m having a Caravaggio problem

I cannot, for the love of god, imagine Jaroussky as Caravaggio. There, now, I said it. But no worry, I’ll start with a lengthy introduction, to give you a chance to follow my confusing thoughts.

So I have a problem. Caravaggio was a genius, this goes without saying. He was reasonably handsome, and preferred to wear black. He wasn’t all nice – in fact, he wasn’t nice in any case ever reported, whether his court-files are many. Even if I would know nothing about Caravaggio, some traits could be derived from his paintings alone. He had a merciless eye for detail, and his way to highlight things and blot out others is clearly a way of setting priorities, one could also call it very judgemental.

I adore his paintings, but his mind was a dark place; I dread to even try and let my mind wander where his might have been. When violence is happening, he doesn’t look away, he stabs the dagger – or in this case, the razor – in another time:

Michelangelo_Caravaggio_021 wilipedia commons

The beheading of St. John the Baptist. Source: [x]

(What I find most appalling in this picture is the bystanders, some involved, some not quite, the executioner completely down to business, unsheathing the razor to cut the last pieces of tissue connecting the head to the body.)

So I just watched this clip, a BBC documentary about Caravaggio, all spun around the mystery of his death:

Who killed Caravaggio?

I knew a little about Caravaggio’s life before, I have to say, but some facts and some locations were new to me. Especially some of his statements upon his frequent arrests cracked me up. (“I fell on my own sword.”) Otherwise, the documentary was little informative, and awkward in places. I still recommend skimming through it.

Tiny points of critique, to get it over with:

  • The presenter is one who clearly likes himself to be in the picture. However, it gets tiring.
  • Caravaggio is called a “gay idol” or something, and it is conceded that he had an eye for male beauty, and that he most likely was bi. Yet, no threads are picked up from there that could have led to his murder – if it really was one – and the only point the topic emerges again is his time in Malta, when he was put into a cell, which he escaped from. Some have the theory that this might have been for sodomy, but there seem to be documents that prove it to be otherwise, that it was in fact about a brawl among the knights. Apart from this, the whole circumstance was excluded; this narrows in the complexity of a complex person, I find.

A vital clue, because the event led to a whole very influential family wanting to see him dead, was his duel with Ranuccio Tomassoni. The instant, oh so brilliant theory that was proposed was that this duel, which led to the opponent’s death was because of a woman – mainly based on the fact that Caravaggio apparently attempted to castrate the other, and accidentally killed him. (Oops).

Clearly, a woman. I mean, it’s obvious. Hm. I can imagine many reasons for wanting to hurt the other where it hurts most; to me, to blame it on a woman is a very simple solution. (In addition, the date of the investigator with the fencing master is just hilarious, along the lines of ‘show me how you’d go for me’ – the other: *bats sword away with one flick, mentions that if his opponent had a dagger up their sleeve, he’d pretty much fucked now, and adds a little awkwardly that otherwise, at this point, he could do about whatever he likes to do. Clearly, this information was worth half a day of filming.)

In total, Caravaggio is pictured as a violent man, who accidentally produced nonpareil pieces of art. However, no question of “why” was raised throughout the documentary. Also, his art was almost left out when it came to looking for clues, when his paintings are full of personal clues and innuendos. They are telling what he saw, what he dreamed of, and what he dreaded, and of course what he was hoping for, salvation, which gets less and less likely, the rays of light brightening up his paintings like no other’s getting less and less in intensity the more his life and trouble unfolded.

But now, to the music!

Excuse my rambling intoduction, but of course this brings me to Jaroussky. There has been a contemporary opera, by Suzanne Giraud, which was performed concertante, with Jaroussky singing Caravaggio. If I’m correct, the role was even written for him.

I haven’t seen it and I still bite my butt that the lack of time and money kept me from it. Still, it is a strange cast. For whatever it takes, I cannot picture Jaroussky as Caravaggio.

To put this straight – a character is not the singer/actor, and I can picture him very well as a mean, aggressive Tamerlano, for instance, even if I would advice him to not sing the role, but this is for vocal reasons. *Saying this in the full knowledge that he would never ask for my opinion on the topic.

Still, Caravaggio … Caravaggio … !

Okay, I am having a problem there.

The documentary tried to belittle Caravaggio’s aggressiveness, first by the lady who raises her arms in a helpless gesture like if about to say “boys will be boys” and blames it all on “honour!” as well as by the presenter, who refers to Rome of the time as a place soaked with testosterone, or something like it. Still, this is no complete excuse for the extent of cruelty and plain asshole-behaviour that Caravaggio was showing more than sporadically.

Just to highlight what I might mean with this, I may come to the delightful poem called “Gioan Bagaglia.” The BBC translated this to “Johnny Baggage,” but with my flimsy Italian … doesn’t “bagaglia” more align with “jerk?” I’m hoping to get feedback on this.

Now here’s the story: It started pretty harmless. Caravaggio had a fan, it seems; the painter was called Giovanni Baglione.  So Baglione made this painting, and one might imagine he was rather proud of it. It is called “Sacred love conquering profane love,” and there are two versions of it. Here’s the first:


Giovanni Baglione, Sacred love conquering profane love (1)

Now Caravaggio threw a fit. This man was clearly copying his chiaroscuro painting style, and on top of it, this was just shortly after Caravaggio had finished his famous “Amor vincet omnia”, so this painting might be picked up as if chaste love was scolding Caravaggio’s cupid. 
Amor_Vincet_Omnia wikipedia commons

Caravaggio, “Amor vincet omnia”

There’s a second version, where the painting style is even more Caravaggio-esque, and it’s containing Caravaggio – pictured as the devil, more or less.

Giovanni Baglione, sacred and profane love

Giovanni Baglione, Sacred love conquering profane love (2)

The exact course of events is unknown to me, namely if Caravaggio’s “poem” came  after the first, or the second version, but at any rate, the flame-war started.

Now here’s Caravaggio’s heart-felt response:

Gioan Bagaglia

Gioan Bagaglia tu no[n] sai un ah
Le tue pitture sono pituresse
volo vedere con esse
ch[e] non guadagnarai
mai una patacca
ch[e] di cotanto panno
da farti un paro di bragasse
ch[e] ad ognun mostrarai
quel ch[e] fa la cacca
porela adunque
i tuoi disegni e cartoni
ch[e] tu ài fatto a Andrea pizzicarolo
o veramente forbetene il culo
o alla moglie di Mao turegli la potta
ch[e] libelli conquel suo cazzon da mulo più non la fotte
perdonami dipintoe se io non ti adulo
ch[e] della collana ch[e] tu porti indegno sei
et della pittura vituperio.

Source: [x]

To sum it up – Caravaggio states that Baglione’s paintings would only be fit to wrap sausage in or to wipe one’s arse. Also he says uncharming and very specific things about Baglione’s c*ck, and makes allegations concerning another’s wife.

Alright, I’ll put the translation in, you may click on the picture for high res at your own risk.

john bags

Source [x], p. 58

Now keep this in mind, and then …

Okay, now picture Jaroussky. 

arpeggiata pj

Picture via arpeggiata.com

I think you begin to see my problem.

(I also bet that this poem was not part of the libretto, just by the way. If it was … I’d be dead.)

Just a personal note

(Well, all of this is personal, but this is even more personal.) I find it hard to discuss any of this with any one. I say “Caravaggio,” and most people think of his Cupid, or his Bacchus – completely blotting out the sickness in this picture – or of whatever else, but they want to see him as a poor, misunderstood person, or as a victim, and be it of murder, or they picture him having hot sex with his models, or whatever. That most likely, he was not a person even remotely bearable in one’s vicinity is a completely unpopular opinion.

In many cases, he was the perpetrator. He was the one who hurt, even if he took some blows himself. I think he was self-conscious about this, and more than a little self-ironic. After all, Goliath is not a character we harbour the deepest sympathies for, still his severed head is clearly a self-portrait. If it was murder … maybe, some David killed Carravaggio, thus ridding the world of a cruel man, and one of the greatest painters who ever lived.


David with the Head of Goliath

Then people hear “Caravaggio” and “Jaroussky” and say things like “He looks a bit like him, but he’s prettier!” or “Oh yes, wasn’t Caravaggio gay?” In those moments, I feel like …

cumberbatch crying

My deepest respect for even accepting the role in the first place goes to Philippe Jaroussky. He must have spent a lot of time twisting his head around Caravaggio’s mindset, in addition to preparing a world premiere performance with all its vocal and musical tasks. Fascinating, but getting into the character of Caravaggio is something I would find hard to enjoy. To even remotely manage is a huge achievement.


3 thoughts on “I’m having a Caravaggio problem

  1. Caravaggio was indeed a much better painter than Bagaglio, and that “poem” was great fun too. Perhaps PJ got tired of always being the angel, and felt like playing a villain for a change. It is quite possible to understand Caravaggio’s annoyance with those who were diluting his patent rights and trying to hijack his customers. Mozart vs. Salieri anyone?

    • Well, Mozart and Salieri … I don’t know enough about their relationship to be the judge, at least I don’t know any authentic sources. Their enmity might have been exaggerated. What Baglioni did was a cheek of course, as the cupid there is obviously Caravaggio’s. So this is not just plagiarism; the picture states that he is better than Caravaggio – well this is obviously not true.So it’s more than plagiarism, it’s a deliberate provocation as well. (I am not sure if I should write this here, but I sometimes imagine – even if I have no idea – how PJ might feel when other countertenors are crowned king by the media. I see some parallels ;))

      I very much like PJ as the villain, I like the variety of roles. I like his victim-roles as well, of course, or him as the overtasked Artaserse who would be lost without his Arbace.

      Villains … villains. Mostly, they have a huge weak spot, and sometimes it is shown, but its origin is shrouded in mystery. (John Claggart from Billy Budd is a great example here.) But there’s more, and it’s hard to sum it up or render it understandable. There are the Cardinal Virtues, and not to be able to fulfil them is seen as a sign of weakness, even more, back then in the Renaissance, and always really. E.g., Herodes, who (Biblically) sets out to kill all new-born males. A cruel action, but he obviously does so out of extreme paranoia. He is frightened to death, sure he will lose everything. This doesn’t excuse his deed, but it makes him appear weak as well as cruel. Or take Alcina (from Händel’s Alcina) who has so much pain inside her, and is such a suffering character (Just take “Ombre pallide”). Of course, there are other villains, like Klingsor, where the pain that causes their action is better hidden.

      But I digress … I like villains in opera because mostly they are fleshed out with even more care and detail than the good ones.

      What makes it hard for me to allign PJ and Caravaggio is not the meanness, not the overreaction, and not even the choice of words, but rather the un-intelligent way of looking for open conflict, and in total, Caravaggio’s aggressiveness, his cruelty, and also his vulgarity in parts. Of course, I don’t expect Halfvarson to show character traits of Hagen either, but this is still a greater clash, typewise.

      • Oh, and the “poem” – I think Caravaggio would be pleased to know that he can even cause people of the internet age to blush and bleep out some parts.
        “o alla moglie die Mao turegli la potta
        ch[e] libelli conquel suo cazzon da mulo più non la fotte”
        WAAAAAAA … I thought I read the worst insults of all time on youtube before, but this still takes the lead. Okay, it’s a tie, Caravaggio and Catullus 😀

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