The Madonna of Sant’Agostino

The Madonna of Sant'Agostino

Orinzia asked for the bench to be moved. When she walked out onto the terrace that morning she had noticed that the plumbago, now in full bloom, was not only covering the back and a large part of the seat with its outstretched tendrils of delicate mauve blooms, but that its advance was obscuring the view across the gardens and out over the city. Although it might have been easier to have the gardener cut it back, it seemed a much better solution to move the bench. That way the view, which was always there, would be available to anyone choosing to sit on that part of the terrace and the plumbago, whose life was limited, would also be preserved.

Now, as she watched through the open terrace doors as the two men strained against the solid stone weight of the bench, she wondered if a small amount of precise clipping might not have been a better idea. It was evident that the bench had not been moved for some years – possibly, indeed, since it had first been placed there who knows how long ago. Its feet appeared fused to the stone flags, connected by an umbilical of moss and lichen which, as the men began to master their task, remained as a kind of carapace – a small memorial to the immoveable.

Orinzia watched as the men tried different positions; one would place his arms around the end and, with knees bent would attempt to lift whilst the other stood by, ready to slide his hands under the foot and lever it into a position from which it could be easily manoeuvred. When this failed they both crouched down and applied their shoulders to the stone slab that formed the back, trying to tilt the bench forward to allow them to kick a thick plank of wood under it to act as a lever. Eventually the head gardener had been summoned and Orinzia’s request, which had begun as something quite idle and unimportant, assumed proportions beyond its worth. In the end, after a brief conversation, it was decided that dragging would be more effective than lifting and Orinzia watched as four of them; the two original men, the head gardener and one other who had been summoned from elsewhere in the garden, began to slide the bench across the flags, destroying the mounds of moss and leaving two white scars in its wake. Once it was in place, only a few feet from where it had started its journey, Orinzia was amused by the efforts to cover the scrape marks by much scuffing of the ground with the leather of their sandals. It was true that they managed to push some of the dislodged herbage into the wounds but the damage was done and Orinzia sincerely wished that she had left the bench where it was.

Turning from the window she made her way towards the kitchen. Although the Cardinal had told that it would not be necessary to provide lunch for the artist Orinzia was determined that he should at least understand that visitors to the house were always treated with the utmost courtesy and not to offer food seemed excessively rude. This resolve was strengthened by the Cardinal warnings that the artist was a man who she might find somewhat brusque, verging on the impolite, and not expect any concessions from her for her status or indeed for the commission that she had decided to offer him. There was part of Orinzia who saw mischief could be made from extending even greater hospitality to a man who was determined to resist it and so, as she made her way through the house, so her plans for what was originally to have been nothing more than a light lunch, began to develop into something altogether more exotic.

Having spoken to the cook Orinzia went back up to her room to complete her preparations for the visit. Standing in front of the window that offered the same view over the city as the terrace she instructed her maid to comb out her hair and to plat it and then wind it into a coil which was held in place with several pearl headed pins. It was already a warm day and, meaning to send just the right message about her knowledge of the latest Roman fashions and to impress the artist, she selected a pale blue, cotton dress and a length of pink cloth which she wore like a toga over one shoulder, leaving the other shoulder bare.

Just as she dismissed the maid it was announced that the visitors had arrived and were being shown through to the garden as she had instructed. Orinzia waited some minutes before descending. She did to want to appear too hasty but the same sense of decorum that had compelled her to arrange for lunch to be served also kept her from making her guests wait too long. One of them, after all, was a priest and although of no particular rank or standing, nevertheless, his status as a clergyman meant afforded him a certain degree of respect.

Stepping out of the garden doors Orinzia found her two visitors occupying separate parts of the terrace. The priest, short, round man dressed in a black soutane and wearing a cappello Romano had his back to the house and was gazing out of the city. The artist was on the bench, propped up on his elbow and with one leg up on the seat. As Orinzia approached they both moved smartly; the artist came deftly came to his feet whilst the priest span round and extended a small, plump hand from within the folds of his sleeve and directed it towards the artist.

‘Señora Duchessa, may I please present Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.’

The artist bowed deeply and with such a flourish that it was quite apparent to Orinzia that it was not intended as a respectful gesture at all. Had she been the type she might have pretended to have been offended, instead, hiding her face behind her fan, she managed to suppress a smile. As he brought himself back upright Orinzia studied the figure who now stood before her. It was an odd sight. Clothed, as he was, from head to foot in black he gave the impression of a kind of impish bat. His hair was dishevelled and a stubbly growth of beard indicted that it had been some days since he had shaved. As he had made his grand gesture Orinzia also detected a mild but none the less perceptible odour which hinted that it was not only his beard that required the benefit of soap and water. On closer inspection his clothes too were showing noticeable signs of neglect. Both the cloth and the cut suggested that they had once been expensive but a tear in the stocking, some fraying around the collar and, so Orinzia noticed to her distaste, visible stains under the armpits gave the impression of a man either down on his luck or simply neglectful of his personal toilet in general.

‘Señora Duchessa’ continued the priest ‘As you know Señor Caravaggio is an artist of some repute in the city …’

‘Some repute indeed’ echoed the artist in such a tone that reinforced the impression that he had little respect for the position of his hostess or, indeed, much interest in taking the proceedings seriously.

‘Er yes, some repute … Señor Caravaggio has undertaken commissions for his Holiness the Pope and has long worked for a number of important figures and his masterpieces hang in some of the most important churches in Rome. I understand that it is indeed for a chapel, er your husband’s family chapel, that you wish to, er commission the artist?’

Amused by the priest’s evident discomfort and not yet ready to come to matters of business, Orinzia motioned towards the stone bench and suggested that the artist and the priest sit whilst some cool drinks were served. She herself settled back in a wooden carver that had been brought out onto the terrace and then beckoned to the servant who had been standing by with tray containing an earthenware jug of pressed lemon juice, three glasses and a bowl of ice. The servant poured the drinks and placed a piece of ice in each. As he did so the artist turned to the priest and spoke into his ear. The priest flushed and tried to dismiss the artist with a wave of his hand but he was met with a gesture that implied that the artist would not be denied so lightly.

‘Señora, er, I apologise but Señor Caravaggio was wondering if it might be possible to have er, a glass of er wine.’ At which point, brought on by his shame at having to make such a request so early in the morning, the priest began a coughing fit which he attempted to soothe by sipping some of the lemon juice but only succeeded in spluttering the contents over his surplice and then dropping the glass. Orinzia, seeing more trouble ahead as the priest then attempted to apologise, clean up his robe and gather up the broken pieces of the glass simultaneously, leant forward and eased the priest back onto the bench. She then turned to the servant, who had already re-appeared on hearing the commotion, and requested that he fetch another glass. All the while, so Orinzia noticed, the artist was making little attempt to hide his amusement.

Once they had re-settled Orinzia turned to the artist and began to question him on a number of matters concerning his art; where he had learned his craft, where he found inspiration, what commissions he had most enjoyed and those that he had found the most difficult to fulfil. Having only witnessed the artist’s recalcitrance in all the time that he had known him, the priest began to fidget nervously as Orinzia posed her questions but he soon relaxed as the artist was remarkable forthcoming. Not only did he listen but his replies were considered, it was apparent, thought the priest that the artist had rather taken to his new patron.

Finally it came to the matter of the commission itself. Not for the first time that morning the priest was surprised as it was the artist who actually raised the topic. When it appeared that Orinzia had exhausted her enquiries, or perhaps more accurately when the artist tired of them, he clapped his hands together and, rather in the manner of a carpenter asking how he might fix a chair, demanded to know how he could help.

Orinzia sat back in her chair and paused before answering. Although she seemed to have struck up a fine rapport with the odd young man in front of her, now, as it came to business she grew more serious. She stared for a brief moment at the artist who, unusually for him, was wrong-footed. He realised that he had been somewhat softened up by his new patron’s relaxed style and was inwardly cross that he had allowed his guard to be become lowered.

Finally she asked ‘Do you know the Sant’Agostino chapel near the Piazza Navona?’

The artist said that he did not and immediately the priest leant forward, claiming that he knew it well and began to talk of it such overblown and saccharin terms that Orinzia was tempted to quell him with a firm swipe across his fat cheek with her fan. Instead she bid he be silent by firmly showing him the up-turned palm of her hand. Turning once again to the artist she continued

‘Well then, you must visit it. I am sure that your friend the priest can arrange this.  As you may already know it was built after a commission from my late husband as a place of family worship and, ultimately as a place of family interment. He is of course already buried there, between the stalls of the choir and before the altar. One day, naturally, I intend to join him there.’

‘Oh, er surely not’ interjected the priest, drawing as he said it, a fierce and disdainful look from Orinzia, who immediately realised that what he had meant but was determined not to give up the opportunity to watch him suffer.

Turning back to the artist Orinzia continued ‘When you visit, you will notice that there is an area immediately above the altar which is need of filling with a grand painting. My husband had hoped to commission Mancici (at the mention of whom the artist’s nose perceptibly wrinkled) but I understand from friends that I have in the city that your style is much more suitable.

The artist nodded, not so much in agreement with this sentiment, but by way of generally acknowledging what Orinzia had been saying.

‘Do you have a subject Madame?’

‘Not exactly but I suspect that as it is to be the centre-piece of a chapel that the theme should be somewhat religious?’ Orinzia turned and smiled sarcastically at the priest whom she had now begun to rally despise.

‘Indeed Madame, but beyond this – you have no ideas?’

‘Oh I have plenty of ideas but I would prefer it if you would chose something you would like to paint.’

‘Perhaps the Cardinal could suggest something …’

‘I’m quite sure he could Father but it is my wish, and I am sure it would have been the wish of my late husband, that Señor Caravaggio chose something that truly inspires him.’

Beads of sweat had broken out on the Priests brow which now began to dab at with a handkerchief which, having recently been used to mop up lemon juice was now rather sticky. Before he had left this morning he had had a meeting with the Cardinal who had made it quite clear that under no circumstances was Caravaggio to be encouraged to act with any degree of latitude. It was, so the cardinal had said, the responsibility of the priest to ensure that the Duchessa was to be discouraged from this path. Thrusting the handkerchief deeply into the pocket of his robe he leant forward to attempt to interrupt the conversation.

‘My Lord the Cardinal has, er, many good and fitting subjects for your divine chapel which I am sure the Señor Caravaggio would, er, appreciate. I will discuss this with him on our return to the City.’

‘Oh no Father, I quite insist that whatever is hung above our altar will be a subject and image of the artist’s choosing. It is his work, his expression, his interpretation of the space – it is only he who can do it justice. How can we with our untrained eyes determine what would be fitting? No, no, it must be Señor Caravaggio’s decision or no one’s.’

‘But surely it would be helpful for him to receive some, er, guidance from those who have a greater knowledge to the will of our Lord? This is a holy place, a place where you beloved husband is laid to rest and the place where, dimitte me, you yourself, er, will one day lie in peace. It is the house where your family worship and where many others will seek relief from the physical world in contemplation of the, er, ethereal and everlasting. This painting must not only be a worthy tribute to your husband and his good works but it must also reflect its beauty, serenity and, er, solemnity …’

‘And so it shall Father … when Señor Caravaggio has chosen the subject and the style of its execution.’

The priest once again withdrew his handkerchief and began to dab at his forehead but rather than ease his tension it only served to add to it as the sticky residue of the lemon juice mixed with the dampness of his skin. Then, in an attempt to improve things, he rubbed swiftly back and forth with the sleeve of his robe which only served to spread the stickiness to his forelocks which now stood upright on his head like a spiky cockerel’s comb.

In the end, despite Orinzia’s insistence, the priest made his apologies and left feeling that he need to take immediate advice from the Cardinal himself on the rather unsatisfactory outcome of the morning’s dealings. The artist stayed behind, having keenly accepted an invitation to lunch.

Once back in the City that afternoon the artist made straight for the via Sant’Agostino. He had declined Orinzia’s offer of the trap to take him back down the hill; although it had its attraction on what was now a very hot afternoon indeed, he felt that the walk would be good for him. In truth he had enjoyed rather more of the Duchessa’s Frascati wine than had been entirely wise and had been even less wise in agreeing to a tumbler of Grappa after they had left the table and returned to the terrace. A gentle ride, even a short nap, whilst being pulled along by one of the Duchessa’s little pony’s had been remarkably tempting but he had been overcome by an uncharacteristic urge to take some exercise for its own sake and now, as he passed by the Pantheon, was largely regretting having not listened to his better instincts.

When he eventually reached the Piazza Navona, just two streets from his intended destination, he rather startled the few citizens who were in the square in the late afternoon heat, by clambering onto the edge of the fountain and allowing himself to fall face forward into the water. He lay there for a few minutes, floating weightlessly and allowing his black cloak to spread out either side of him, until his peace was disturbed by a sharp tapping on the back of his leg which, on sitting upright, turned out to come from the short wooden club held by the lieutenant of police who was suggesting that he move on before being arrested for drunken behaviour.

By the time he had sat in the sun for half an hour or so he was quite dry and, feeling quite refreshed, he continued on his way to the chapel. The building was rather unremarkable. Compared to many of the more ornate baroque buildings that were now rising up all over the City the somewhat plain façade seemed rather dated and as he stood considering it the artist began to harbour doubts that this was a suitable home for one of his great works. Once inside however he soon changed his mind. It was the very simplicity of the architecture that made such a perfect location. As he stood looking up the nave towards the altar shafts of early evening light shone through the windows above the altar illuminating the very setting for his painting. For the moment, of course, is was nothing more than bare brick flanked by two marble columns but the artist immediately began to fill the space with his imagination.

He was now pleased that he had accepted the commission. Not only was his patron a rather charming woman of undoubted taste and learning, it was seldom that he was given such freedom. He knew already what it was that he wanted to do – it had been forming in his head for some time – but until now the opportunity to realise it had evaded him. It would be grand undoubtedly, it would be fine and noble and a fitting tribute to his patron and her family. But it would also shock. Some would be awed by it, some drawn to prayer, others stirred by emotions that would be unable to fully explain. It would revive and restore as much as it would unsettle and disrupt. It would undoubtedly offend those of conservative taste who wanted nothing more than the elegant, respectful hand of that old nonce Raphael. Above all it would be new and, as such, it would propel him, Caravaggio into, into … well, the Pantheon of course.

The artist chose to ride to Loreto. There were Stages but he had no time for them; not only were they abominably uncomfortable but they were, more often than not, stuffed with fat, impoverished merchants who could not afford their own coaches and who would insist on engage fellow travellers in dreary conversations about their misfortunes whilst belching and farting their way along the road. No, he would sooner have walked. Instead he chose the company of his old friend Minniti who was good company on a long journey for no better reason than he knew when to remain silent and deciding only to speak when her had something truly interesting to say – which has the added bonus of being rarely.

It would take them a full five days and so, leaving Rome on Saturday morning they expected to be at their destination early on Thursday morning. This would give them the entire day on Friday to complete their research and set off back the following Saturday. The hilltop town of Loreto had long been a source of fascination for the artist. For the greater part of its one thousand year traceable history it remained no more than a convenient location to build a church and a few stone house above the plain of the Marche and away from the plagues of mosquitos that rose up from the Musone river in the summer months. To far from any of the great city-states of the rest of Italy to either benefit from them financially or to suffer under them politically, life went on there from day to day with no change other than rising and the setting of the sun. And so it would have remained had it not been for a rather remarkable event that had apparently occurred there a little over two hundred years ago and which was now the cause of the artist’s journey.

According to the testimony of the faithful, during the times of the Crusades the humble dwelling in which the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from carpentry to divinity was uprooted from where it had remained for twelve centuries in Nazareth and was born aloft, away from clutches of the Muslim hoards, to the safety of Croatia. However, this it seemed, was not quite far enough and when Islam’s outstretched hand threatened once again to envelope it, the angels were on hand once more to perform another miraculous flight. After a no doubt somewhat tiring crossing of the Adriatic they came to rest, not in the Holy City, seat of the descendant of the St Peter, supreme among the Apostles, but on the first elevated piece of land they encountered being once again over dry land  – namely Loreto. It was the very Holy House which the artist was now travelling to see.

Had he been asked the artist would probably have confessed that his relationship with the divine was an odd one. Odd that is, in the sense that it conformed to none of the conventions set out in the liturgy or the Bible; not so odd however when compared to most people of the artist’s acquaintance. The fact was that he, like most of his friends, found themselves unable to escape the force that religion exerted upon the populace through its theatre and its compelling and magical stories. Artifice they may be, but nonetheless beguiling and there was always the slightly troubling voice, that spoke somewhere in the back of your mind, that it must just all turn out to have been true.

As a child he had often walked the Sacro Monte at Varallo and had been both literally terrified and awed by the terracotta tableaux depicting the most well known stories from the bible. Many’s the time he had found himself transfixed, peeping through the wooden grills at emaciated, naked saints in their martyred death throes, black, wingéd devils tempting the innocent, and, most shocking of all, the bare breast of the Virgin mother as he stooped to feed the Christ child in the stable; both gently maternal and yet faintly arousing. These figures had lodged in his imagination, carrying with them a certain potency, like an addictive narcotic, whose pleasure is undeniable but whose tyranny was absolute.

Although the weather when they had left Rome had been fine if typically hot for the time of year, as they approached Tivoli on Sunday evening it had turned sultry and heavy. Great Cumuli Nimbi were gathering over the Apennine hills which resolved into heavy storms by the middle of the night. In the morning the worst had blown over and it was several degrees cooler so, as they rode up the dirt track that wound up the side of the valley, they were feeling a significant chill. By Tuesday they had reached L’Aquila and from there they began their long descent to the Marche and the coast arriving in Loreto, as they had predicted, on Thursday evening, taking lodgings in an in near the basilica.

The artist had come to see one thing and one thing alone. The basilica itself was fine, as was the grand marble sarcophagus that now encased the Santa Casa, but these were things that he could see every day in Rome. What was unique to Loreto was the manner in which the pilgrims paid homage at the shrine.

Rising early Caravaggio made his way to the basilica, he had explained to Minniti that it was likely to be a long day and although he might appreciate some company at some point (in fact he was indifferent to this), Minniti was to feel under no obligation to join him. Accordingly he was alone when he eventually settled onto a bench outside the Lady Chapel at a location that afforded him a perfect view without being so close as to attract attention.

When he arrived there were several pilgrims already embarked in their painful supplications. Around the shrine was a single file of pilgrims, shuffling forward on their knees, hands clasped together in prayer, engaged in the ritual of offering themselves to the Holy Mother of God, around whose house they were currently parading. As the hours passed still more pilgrims came, each waiting patiently for their opportunity to genuflect and join the ritual.

The artist studied them hard learning what poses they struck, how their heads tilted and what expressions they wore. He looked for moments of transcendence, moments of awe and then, moments of despair and disappointment. He made no notes, nor did he sketch – he never did, it had never been his way. Instead he only wished to absorb what he observed, later to count important what he recalled.

Minniti joined him around midday but seeing that the artist was entirely taken up in his work and not the least interested in food or conversation, he sat with him for an hour, making a few sketches of his own before leaving him alone once more.

As the bell rang for Vespers the artist had seen enough. An hour or so previously he had felt the moment of conception; when the dart of an idea met with the orb of his imagination. At that point he knew what it was he had to paint. That is to say there was a phantom of an idea, a chimera that he had yet to contain, but he knew that it was there and so he knew that his work in the basilica was done. And so he left, anxious to return to Rome and begin.

Since leaving the home of Cardinal Del Monte the artist had been unable to find what he considered to be lodgings suitable for a man of his talent and status. For now he had to be satisfied with two top floor rooms in the Vicolo di Divio Amore. When he had first moved in it had been winter and there had been almost nothing that he could do to keep out the draughts. Now, in the height of summer, he would have been more than grateful for any breath of air. The one small skylight, which he had propped permanently open, made not the slightest impression on the stifling, airless heat. No place for a great artist to work but such was the way of Rome and its fickle patrons.

He had been back from Loreto for two days and was now sitting on top of a box that had recently been delivered from his materials supplier. He had received a fairly sizeable advance for the work that he was about to undertake and had taken advantage of this to replenish his dwindling stocks. Across the room, newly drawn across a stretcher, was an impressive canvas which stood against a trestle and, at significantly over twice his height, loomed ominously and blankly before him. It was a site that daunted so many artists; the void that threatened to consume, the emptiness that insisted on being filled, the shapeless that demanded form. How many had stared at similar sights with rising panic and a sense of peering into the abyss?

The answer for most was to sketch. The canvas would only be tamed by careful planning; first in simple lines in ink, then in red chalks, then in experimental daubs of oil on old and discarded paintings; working up the form and the structure, building the composition in their minds until the moment they were ready to apply the first, putative strokes that would be the basis of their final work.

This is not how the artist worked. Having no real, formal training he found himself unable to apply rules of composition for the very simple reason that he had never learned them. For him painting was a matter of instinct. To apply a loaded brush to a blank canvas was like a conversation; each stroke was a sentence that would be answered by the shapes that emerged, each shape another sentence demanding a reply, each reply another shape and so on until the picture emerged that was a perfect amalgam what he felt and what he saw. His was a dialectic form of creation, altogether organic, entirely unplanned, spontaneous, explosive and, of course, unsettling.

But for now, in spite of his eagerness to begin, there was something that was not quite right. Sitting on his box he inclined his head first one way then the next. He rubbed his chin, he paced the room, he re-arranged objects and items of furniture in an attempt to find the harmony that eluded him. And then, after nearly an hour of fruitless endeavour he saw exactly what the problem was. The light, so essential to his art, was not as it should be. Certainly there was plenty of it, by now it was nearly midday and the sun, at its height, poured in through the skylight and fell perfectly on the canvas, but the artist was not happy. There was something altogether too focused, too brilliant even, for the effects that he wished to create. It was necessary, nay essential that the situation be remedy and that the light become more diffuse.

Suddenly he saw what must be done. Taking up the pole that his landlady had provided for opening and shutting the skylight and standing on the small stool that he used to reach awkward parts of a canvas, he thrust upwards towards the ceiling. The first blow split the plaster, the second dislodged large section of it, the third burst through the pantiles to reveal the sky. For the next ten minutes or so he continued to work at the hole until is wide enough to admit sufficient light for his purposes. He was eventually disturbed in his labours by a sharp rap at the door.

‘Señor Caravaggio! What is that you are doing? It sounds as if you a knocking a hole in the roof. I demand that you let me in immediately.’

The artist stood down from the stool and crossed the room to the door where he propped a chair under the handle to make doubly sure that his landlady would be unable to open it.

‘Madame, as I’m sure you will understand I am, as always, engaged in important work which has been commissioned by one of the city’s most notable dignitaries. I am sorry if you have been disturbed but I assure you that everything is in order here. I ask that you please leave me in peace.’

The heard the sound of footsteps as the landlady turned to walk back down the landing to the stairs. Just as he estimated that she had made the top stair they stopped.

‘Señor Caravaggio, you know that I will expect full compensation for any damages that may have occurred.’

The artist did not reply and, having heard the footsteps continue on down the stairs, he returned to his hole in the ceiling to knock out the few last tiles that were preventing it from being quite perfect. Once done he was immensely pleased, not only with the quality of the light that filled the room, but for a gentle and relieving breeze that drew in cooling airs from the river just a few streets away. It was, all in all, a good morning’s work.

An hour or so later the artist left the his rooms. He had not begun to paint, he felt not quite read; instead he had passed the time sweeping the plaster and dust which had fallen from the ceiling under his bed and into the larger cracks in floorboards. The last half an hour had been occupied in preparing the large not that he now pinned to the door as he left. Drawn on parchment and with an impressive looking seal which he had created entirely from his imagination the document stated that the rooms had been sealed by order of the Cardinal Boscarini (another invention) so that the artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio could carry out, undisturbed, an important commission for the newly built church of St Hippolyt (also a fiction). It was this that greeted the landlady as she hurried to his door the moment the artist had left and, just as he suspected, she duly impresses by it and made her way back down the landing to brood on damage that she was certain, correctly as it turned out, that had been done to her property. What was the use, thought the artist, of having some talent for art, if one could not occasionally turn it to your advantage with a little forgery?

As he had left the artist had unhooked his sword from the back of the door and secured it around his waist, sweeping his black cloak over it to make quite sure that it would be visible to all as he made his way through the streets. It was quite against the law to be so armed and, in recent months, arrests for carrying a sword had risen sharply as the authorities attempted to clamp down on the growing tide of violence that threatened to spread even to the more gentile neighbourhoods. However, the more the law insisted that he go unarmed the more he determined he was to make an ostentatious show of his defiance. He carried about an impressive looking document which stated that he was on the business of the Cardinal Del Monte (this time a real person) and that his grace sanctioned the carrying of arms for members of his household. It usually worked, as long as that was, that no arresting Lieutenant bothered to check its authenticity. Anyone troubling to do so would learn that it had now been nearly three years since Caravaggio had been in the employ of the Cardinal and equal amount of time, therefore, that the document had any validity.

But it was not just for reasons of a snub to authority. For some years now the artist has supplemented his erratic earnings from commissions with an altogether more reliable and, currently at least, more profitable occupation. An artist is always in want of a steady supply of open minded women, not simply for carnal pleasures, although this naturally was an acceptable fringe benefit, but to model as fleshy goddesses, matchless female martyrs, doe eyed shepherdesses and the like.  More often than not these women would not only have to strike poses for long and boring hours but would have to do so either scantily dressed or, more often that not, not dressed at all. There was really only one group of women who suited the role; always available, always willing and, by definition, quite prepared to do almost anything for money – prostitutes.

When he first arrived in Rome the artist had had no particular difficulty in finding just the kind of woman he wanted but, as an independent minded type, it had always slightly rankled with him that acquiring exactly what he wanted had to be done through a middle-man; a pimp if you will. Not only was there a commercial disadvantage there was the irksome business of negotiation, in which it would be necessary, by degrees, to feign disinterest, to pretend that any one of several models would do, to leave and return later and generally to go through all the nonsense that striking a satisfactory business deal entails. It was not long, therefore that the artist decided to set up in business for himself – to cut out the middleman and to guarantee his own supply of willing flesh. Once having made the decision to strike out on his own the artist quickly discovered that he was a natural; so much so, in fact that he had not so much talent as a painter and not such an unquenchable thirst for the adulation that his talents brought him, he would have quite happily given it all up to run his girls and enjoy the spoils of his immoral earnings in a villa in the Roman hills. But for now he was part time; but even casual whore mongering has its responsibilities – hence the sword.

That morning he sought just one. Lena Antognetti was not perhaps the archetype of Roman beauty; for she was a little too large, even buxom. Whereas now the fashion was slender ankles and thinner wrists Lena conformed to a different mould and it was precisely this that made her so suitable for the artist’s purposes. Lena was to be his Madonna; on the one hand powerful, dominant, even awesome and yet, fragile, vulnerable and demure. The artist knew no one who combined these qualities so perfectly and he was now making straight for the house where he was confident he would find her. Sadly he did not make it.

He has travelled only three streets from his front door when he found himself surrounded by a group of men most of whom he recognised and all of who were clearly on a mission to do him harm. There was talk of a debt and an insult and then a scuffle in which the artist had been able to draw his sword and swiftly wound two of the assailants before escaping down a side street and into a barbers shop where he took refuge until he was uncovered by the guard and marched off to prison, charged with wounding and unlawfully carrying a sword in a public place. Not for the first time in his life the artist waited in a cell with five others, whilst the letters he had written did their work.

On the morning of the third day following his arrest they bore fruit and the Sergeant, who knew him rather well, unlocked the shackles from around his wrists, handed back his sword and saw him out into the street where a carriage awaited to bear him away.

Inside was Orinzia Cavalletti who greeted him with a charming smile as she motioned to him to sit opposite her before leaning forward and tapping firmly on the board behind him to indicate that they were ready to move off.

As they made their way through the streets, back to the Vicolo di Divio Amore, Orinzia spoke to the artist in a more business-like manner than he heard experienced up at the villa. She explained that she was aware of his reputation even before she had chosen him to paint the centre-piece of her chapel and, as a broad-minded woman of more experience of the world than most, she understood that artistic talent and moral character only had a relationship in as much as the latter drove the former to greater heights of creativity and imagination; and that was precisely what she was hoping for. She re-stated her conviction that the artist was the right man for the job but ended by stating the obvious; being that there would be little imaginative or creative work from within a prison cell.

The artist dismounted from the carriage with a rather awkward sense that he had just been addressed as an errant schoolboy – he was not accustomed to this and wanted to feel indignant and defiant. However, there was something about his new patron that was different from either the fawning idiots or the arrogant Clergy who were normally his masters. So, straightening out his cloak with a sweep of his hand, flattening his perennially unruly hair and smoothing down his patchy beard, he opened the front door, eased past his landlady who had cracked open her door to monitor his passage and climbed the stairs to his rooms more ready than ever to begin painting.

That was three weeks ago. Since then he had done little else then work on his Madonna. He had tracked down Lena who had readily agreed to sit for him although, as we find her now, she is, in fact, standing, slightly stooped, against an imaginary door jamb, clutching a bundle of rags which serve as the Christ child.

Across the room the artist is busy at his easel. A large mirror, which four men had hauled up the three flights of stairs to his rooms several days before, now stands at this side, propped on another easel and titled in such a way as to throw Lena’s reflection onto the canvas. It is midday and the light from the hole in the ceiling is brilliant and shadowless – he is working on the neck, on his palette is a mixture of Naples Yellow (made exactly to his specifications) and Iridescent White. He strokes the daub of paint back and forth, back and forth until he is happy and then, leaning on his maulstick, he begins to layer it on to the canvas. Often, so Lena has observed, his actions are frenzied, almost fiendish, but now, as he works on the exposed flesh of her neck as it stretches away from her just bared shoulder (an image reflected back to her in the mirror), he is gentle. His lips are pursed but his brow is relaxed; the movement of the brush is smooth, its passage from palette to canvas measured, the application of the paint just so.

The session last another hour and is finally interrupted by a knock at the door. It is Minniti with lunch. The artist places his brush carefully in the jar of spirit on the table which contains his paints indicating that the morning’s work is over. Lena takes the opportunity to undo the tight clasp of the her bun and shake out her hair whilst stretching her arms up to what is left of the ceiling.

The three of them sit at the table eating the food that Minniti has brought. Some dried ham, a loaf of bread, some olives and a jar of artichoke hearts in oil. He has also brought a fiasco of red wine which he has propped in the wire stand that the artist keeps on the table.

The conversation is of ordinary matters, of friends, the news of other artists and gossip on the street. No mention is made of the Madonna. Her presence is felt but Minniti knows better than to discuss an unfinished work by his friend. He did so once and witnessed for the first and last time genuine misery and sadness from the artist. It was as if something precious had been destroyed; there was something child-like about the sense of disappointment he displayed, as if some favourite toy had been taken away or a long anticipated visit from a favourite Uncle had been suddenly cancelled. For a while the artist had moped about, not so much in a sulk but in slough of despond. Eventually, when it was clear that he was going to return to his work again that day, he accepted a glass of wine and explained.

It was simple really. He was an instinctive painter, who worked both with himself and, occasionally against himself, but it was always personal; how else could he put his name to his work? What would be the point if the finished piece was just a montage of his thoughts and feelings mixed with the thoughts and feelings of others? It would be fraud. Not a painting by Caravaggio but some brush strokes assembled from bits of tittle-tattle that happened to float by. To talk about his work like this broke the spell; it was forever tainted, invaded, corrupted. He must finish the work but it would be poor, it would contain none of his soul, just a feeble representation of the movements of his hands. After this Minniti never so much as alluded to any work in progress, nor, for that matter did he discuss any finished piece – it became a rule.

After lunch Minniti stayed on. Lena resumed he pose and the artist once again took up his brushes. As the sun began to fall and its light began to turn from the brilliance of high noon to the richer and deeper yellows, ambers and oranges, the artist moved from the face and neck of the Madonna to the pilgrims. The two models he had chosen to play these roles were not due to come until next week and so, unable to work on their faces he worked on the clothes. That day it was the rump of the pilgrim nearest the central plain of the canvas. Here he drew on what he had seen during his day long vigil at the shrine. There were, of course, wealthy visitors who looked as though they would sooner have bid their servants make the kneeling journey around the Holy House than to actually genuflect themselves. But it was not these that the artist had been interested in. What had captivated him that day were the hoards of ordinary folk who had come from the villages and farms of Italy, bearing with them all that they owned and wearing the only clothes they possessed. It was exactly these people that he wished to represent and now, cleaning his palette of the bright colours he had used to give the face of the Madonna her divine iridescence, he began to mix umbers, ochres and siennas.

Once satisfied he set to work on the pilgrim’s britches, laying on the paint thickly to represent the stains of age and more lightly to give the impression that they were held together by the a few thin threads and the will of God. Minniti watched as the plump curve of the pilgrim’s buttock took shape, his shiny, worn trousers somehow just catching the light of the radiant Mother but now dulled by their mortality. As the artist worked Minniti watched the emergence of one of the artist’s greatest tricks; the trousers, worn with age, mired with the countless stains of use took on a fabulously ambiguous quality. They were at once made of the finest, softest cotton and, at the same time, resembled the highly worn leather of well used saddle. Which was it – or perhaps more importantly, who was it? Was this a poor labourer come seeking salvation form his worldly troubles or nobleman in suede culottes, once fine but now indicative of a humbler existence. Or were they, more likely, both?

Over the next few weeks Minitti was a frequent visitor. He sat silently watching as the pilgrims came and went and then as Lena returned for the artist to complete the central figure of the painting. He had been shocked by his friend’s work before – in fact he seldom wasn’t – but the painting that was now almost complete was a different manner of shock entirely. If it were to draw gasps, as surely it would, it would not be for severed heads, or gushing blood, or the face of a monster but the sheer effrontery of his composition. It was scandalous for sure but Minitti was even worried that it was a heresy; it was still possible in early seventeenth century Rome to burn at the stake for less. In the final days he had to fight hard with his urge to rush forward and destroy it and thereby spare his friend the ignominy of rejection or possibly even worse.

What stopped him was the evident delight that the artist took in what he had created. It was something that Minitti had not seen before. Normally the artist seemed indifferent to finished piece; the thrill was in the creation and not the completion. At the summit the only way was down. But today, as the artist wiped his hands on a rag dipped in spirit, Minitti noticed something new – it was just possible that he was witnessing the artists pride for the first time.

The artist turned to face Minitti and opened his mouth to speak looking, as he did so, from his friend to the canvas and then back to is friend once again. But he uttered no words. Instead he looked down at the floor and stopped wiping his hands. It was if he was collecting himself, knowing that he had been about to say something that he would have regretted. What was it Minitti wondered? Was he really about to ask his opinion?

He would never know. Placing the rag on the table the artist put his arm around Minitti’s shoulders and steered towards the door. It was time for a drink he declared and led his friend away, down the stairs, out into the street and towards their favourite tavern.

The artist was delighted. He had just closed the door to Orinzia’s servant who had been sent to tell him that Señora Cavalletti would not be requiring a private view. The note that he had brought explained that it was her express with that the first time that she would see the painting would be when it was already hung above the altar in the position for which it was intended. She could see no value, the note went on to explain, viewing the painting anywhere else – anymore, she had added, than a fine broach would repay inspection anywhere other than resting on the bosom of the lady for whom it was intended.

This last sentiment caused the artist to raise an eyebrow – he was quite certain that it had been his patron’s intention to place in his minds eye her own bosom, or at least he hoped it had as this would give some sense of propriety to the imagine that he now held in his head; a shame indeed that more of his commissions did not come from such inspiring sources.

Back in his rooms he began to make plans to have the painting hung. Minitti was with him and he asked if he would carry notes first to the Chapel to set a date for the installation and unveiling and then to the only carpenter whom he trusted to undertake the task of creating the framework on which the work would hang. This done he set out to visit the framers himself.

When he returned Minitti was pacing the room and in a state of considerable agitation. As the artist entered the room he was immediately grabbed firmly by the arm and steered towards a wooden stool at the table. Almost before he was seated Minitti had begun. He had visited the chapel and met with one of the priests who immediately directed him to the Cardinal’s residence. The priest had explained that he had no authority in the matter of when Snr Caravaggio’s painting was to be hung and that any arrangements must be made directly with the Cardinal.

Minitti was suspicious. As he made his way round to the residence his mind began to work on the possibilities. What alerted him to the coming difficulties was that it was quite apparent that the priest had been prepared for his visit. Generally, once a commission had been accepted and a timetable and fee arranged, this would be last that anyone above the position of clerical priest would care to hear of the matter. Such things were quite beneath the dignity of senior members of the clergy. So, as he entered the Cardinal’s rooms he was prepared for bad news.

He now showed the artist the note that the Cardinal had given to him after first explaining what his position was in the matter of the work commissioned by Señora Cavalletti, painted by Caravaggio and bound for a prominent position in the chapel of Sant’Agostino. The note was unequivocal; under no circumstances was the painting to be even moved to the chapel, least of all hung in position until the Cardinal himself, and others of the Cardinal’s choosing had been given the opportunity to inspect the work first.

The artist leapt to his feet. Just as Minitti had feared he flew into a towering rage. First the water jug, then the plates, then a vase all smashed to floor.

‘What does that ignorant fat boil know. How dare he! How dare he! It’s not even his fucking chapel. It’s not his fucking painting. I will NOT show to him or any other living soul until it is hung precisely in the position for which it is commissioned. No one shall see it – no one, until I say that it is ready to be shown’

The artist continued to pace the room whilst his friend followed him back and forth offering words of consolation. Eventually he threw himself down into a chair and, folded his arms and drawing his cape around him, descended into the kind of dark mood that Minitti knew only be raised after several hours and only then if he could be coaxed out of the house and into the tavern.

However after only a few minutes the artist leapt to his feet.

‘Minitti my dear friend – I have it’. As he explained his plan the expression on his face changed from rage to cunning to amused satisfaction. Minitti’s, on the other hand, betrayed his deep concern at what he was hearing; as the scheme was sketched out he was not so much troubled by its certainty of failure but the extent to which he himself was being drawn into the plot. However, the artist was not a man to be gainsaid and however ridiculous it may have seemed Minitti knew that it was inevitable that he would play his part.

The following afternoon it was Minitti who opened the door to the Cardinal and his retinue of priests. As the delegation made their way up the narrow staircase Minitti had a strong urge to turn and flee, it was only his loyalty to his friend and the greater suspicion that his flight might arouse that drove him on behind the advancing party.

At the door to his rooms the artist met the Cardinal with the same exaggerated bow with which he had first greeted Orinzia Cavalletti. He then beckoned them in and directed the Cardinal to a chair that he had placed in front of the canvas which was covered by a sheet hung over the easel.

Once the two priests had positioned themselves either side of the chair, the artist stepped forward and, without any words of introduction, swept off the cover to reveal the work. For a moment the cardinal remained unmoved. He then began to lean as far forward as he dared on his chair extending his neck towards the painting to a point where his nose was a matter of inches from the canvas. Raising himself slightly out of his seat he moved even closer before slumping back down. He looked first at the artist, then at Minitti and then at both of the priests before once again resuming his minute inspection. Then, instead of falling back, he stood up; first he took two paces back and studied the painting from by the door, he then moved to the right and finally to the left returning to a position behind the chair and resting a fat, ringed hand on the its back as he continued his contemplation.

What he saw before him was a good painting – good, but not great. The subject matter, as he has expected was of the Holy Mother and Child. The Madonna’s head was encircled by a bright halo and her head was tilted very slightly upwards. The Child was cradled in her arms with an outstretched finger pointing heavenwards. It was like so many other paintings of the same subject that adorned so many walls of so many chapels across the city. It seemed, thought the Cardinal, that Señor Caravaggio had come to his senses. There was none of the dark voids and terrible shadows that characterised so many of his other works. The Madonna looked suitably Holy, the Child suitably divine. There were no angry, troublesome faces, no fresh faced strumpets, no glinting swords, nothing in fact of the usual nonsense that, in the Cardinal’s opinion, anchored the artists work in the physical world and generally made it unsuitable material for the walls of a church. Turning to the artist he nodded and then swept out of the room and down the stairs followed by his two priests.

Hardly before the door to the rooms had closed the artist collapsed laughing into his chair.

‘Well, my friend, I think they like it and so we may expecting many more commissions – which will make you a wealthy man.’

Minitti remained standing deeply troubled by the proceedings. He was naturally a cautious man and the deceiving of senior members of the clergy was not in his nature. It may seem funny now to have passed off one his paintings as a Caravaggio but what when the time came to reveal the actual painting Minitti imagined that there would rather less laughing.

As was his custom the artist arrived late. It was nearly an hour since the drapes had been removed and the Madonna of Loreto exposed to the public. As he had entered the chapel he had been taken aside by the verger who had said that there had been such an intake of breath followed by such a collective exhalation that he was certain the all the candles in the chapel guttered in the agitated air.  The artist swept by hardly listening. He had already planned where his vantage point would be and made his way through a small wooden door to the left of the entrance porch and up the winding stone staircase that lead to the gallery at the rear of the church. From here he could survey the entire scene.

In the hour that had passed since the work had been revealed the crowd had grown from the original thirty or forty hangers on who customarily attended such occasions to two or three hundred who were now jostling and pressing for the best positions. The was a great deal of noise; a cackle, as Minitti described it, as the crowd discussed what they saw. Looking down the artist watched as heads turned first to the work and then to their neighbour and then to the work again. Some pointed, some stroked their chins, all stared wide eyed, others pushed their way to the back to hurry out of the church to find other friends with whom they wished to share this new experience.

And then she appeared. Some way back from the crowd, standing alone, dressed all in white, with white suede gloves covering her forearms and a wide brimmed hat concealing all but the line of her nose and chin, but Caravaggio knew it was her.

Like the artist Orinzia had waited a little while before entering the church. She wanted to witness not just the painting but the crowd’s reaction to it. But now she had arrived she had no sensation of the noise, the bustle and he press of people she saw just the painting and was utterly transfixed.

It was nothing like she expected but this was no surprise. The visions she had had were nothing more than an amalgam of all the holy works she had seen to date; gaudy, bright, sterile things filled with maidens with beatific smiles, unlikely looking angels and gazer-on who bore no resemblance to anyone she had ever met in any walk of life.

What she now saw was tantalisingly both secular and divine, at once of this world and of the next. It was grubby, with cracked plaster and exposed bricks that hinted at decay and walls mired with countless years of city grime. At its edge there was nothing but shadow descending into sepulchral darkness. At its centre stood the Madonna who, although clearly standing on a step in the doorway, appeared somehow to be floating just above it. In her arms the child, although far from being a tiny baby, appeared also to possess the same weightless quality. Her neck and head, the result of the artists clever blend of light paints, were radiant; the only real brilliance in the painting, catching the full shaft of heavenly light which, as it travelled downwards just lit the faces of the pilgrims that gazed up at her. And here was the greatest shock; kneeling in humble supplication were two of the saddest specimens of humanity that Orinzia had witnessed in any painting. Their clothes were threadbare and shabby, the man, bearded and with unkempt hair was no less sorry than his wife who, with a craggy face and hair tucked under a rag of white cloth, seemed as if she had come to this spot as her last act on earth. Their hands were steepled delicately together demonstrating both reverence and pleading, the shoulders were hunched forward, their heads turned upwards towards the object of their veneration.

But perhaps most shocking of all were the two feet that occupied the foreground to the bottom right of the scene. The soles, calloused, unwashed and slightly swollen, faced the audience in what might have been, in the work of any other artist, inappropriate bordering on offensive. But here they spoke of nothing more than humility.

Gradually the sounds in the chapel filtered through. Orinzia felt enveloped by the enthusiasm of the crowd and intoxicated by the originality of the artist’s masterful creation, and what was that? A sensation, a twinge, a thrill of elicit pleasure. Orinzia took a slight step back and placed a hand on her chest to calm her rising excitement. Suddenly she was enveloped by a powerful and palpable sense of her own death for which this great work would stand sentinel. At that very moment she wanted nothing more in life than to die, for dying must surely be the most glorious thing that she would ever do.

In the gallery the artist looked on – he took his patron’s step backwards as a sign of her delight at the work and felt, as he often did, intensely smug.

Somewhere at the back of the church the Cardinal, who had only just entered, was turning at once to leave. He was burning with rage and indignation, as much at his own disgust as the evident delight of the crowd. It would not be a good day thought the priest who accompanied him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Martin Roberts

Martin Roberts

Martin Roberts is the founder of TTSLP.
Martin Roberts

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