People I consider genius have exceptional skills mainly in the capacities of analysis and execution. They are usually disruptive, could be called “game changers,” and their services become increasingly sought after. One could refer to them as anti-establishment where their central tenet is the successful challenge of a norm or accepted process. Those who defy existing power structures and introduce new techniques or technologies that change dramatically our life experiences are generally hailed as champions. However, there are those who have all the attributes of brilliance but additionally have some undesirable form of personality disorder that distracts from their crowning achievements. Ultimately, due to unsavory behavior, they end up throwing it all away. Self-destructive traits can involve excessive violence, substance or alcohol abuse, trouble with the law and general repeat stupidity. I’m not referring to the footballer Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne, the actor Charlie Sheen, or the singer Amy Winehouse, but to the magnificent Italian artist Michelangelo Merigi da Caravaggio, who is known solely as Caravaggio. However, by most reports, Caravaggio was more of a schmuck than a vag. He ended up veering off the rails and dying tragically at a young age in mysterious circumstances.
In the early 1600s, his paintings literally changed the artistic landscape (pun intended). Before Caravaggio, the “establishment” included the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Borghese, and Buonarroti. By comparison, contemporary works by his peers look as though a government commission or a local council sub committee designed them on one of those peculiar weekend offsite teambuilding sessions. For example, consider The Adoration of the Child by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, which is fairly typical pre-Vag. This composition contains no fewer than twenty-six over-dressed attractive adults, more than twenty cherub-like angels, including a small angel brass section and guitar duet, the subject baby, and about ten boats moored in the harbor in the background. It teems with extraneous detail as the artist endeavors to use every color on his palette: Only God and a parting sky are missing from this opus.
Enter the Vag: As Eddie Van Halen did for rock guitar and Steve Jobs did for mobile phones, Caravaggio turned his industry upside down. He dramatically eliminated backgrounds, focusing on photo-like action of a handful of central actors while minimizing science fiction in his arrangements. His proprietary techniques incorporating intense light and shadows combined with his vivid lifelike rendering of flesh and skin drew the viewer into the canvased scene like no one had before, as shown here in The Flagellation of Christ. His choice of models underpinned the unprecedented realism, featuring ordinary people plucked from the street, warts and all, in key character roles.
As his depictions gained prominence his unique approach drew growing criticism from some in the art world; for illustrating down-to-earth attributes such as dirty feet and grubby hands. All the while Vag was a bit of a handful, getting into violent encounters with his peers and frequently thrown in jail as he continued to paint and buck the establishment with his likenesses. He stealthily started including hidden messages and themes in his portraits and frequently featured his own image as one of the characters. His penchant for irreverence and individuality caused clients to reject his works on several occasions.
There are approximately sixty Caravaggio canvases in existence and I have been most fortunate to view about half of them in various venues in Berlin, Florence, Naples, New York, Paris, Rome, Sicily, and Vienna. While many are in prestigious museums, some are still displayed in their original locations where they were commissioned, representing fabulous opportunities to view these masterpieces in their intended settings.
My personal favorite, Madonna of Loreto, was ordered as the key alter piece for the prosperous Marquis Ermete Cavalletti’s family burial chamber in Rome’s Church of Saint Agostino. The requirement, as communicated to Caravaggio, was to honor the Marquis’s devotion and admiration of The Virgin Mary showing her divine presence with the Christ Child in a vision during pilgrimages to the Holy House of Loreto. Unfortunately for the Marquis, he died before the work was completed and ended up getting something slightly different: Himself and his mother represented as praying pilgrim peasants clothed in rags complete with dirty feet worshipping Lena the neighborhood whore, striking a solicitous pose while clutching her bastard child. Furthermore the doorway was that of the Vag located in Rome. The painting still hangs above the grave today and the joke has been on the Marquis for the past 400 years.
Here, in a dramatic reconstruction, my lovely wife plays the part of Lena the prostitute aka the Virgin Mary posing in the pockmarked doorway of Caravaggio’s dodgy apartment in Rome. It was my intention to kneel and pray like the Marquis for this rendering but there was dog shit everywhere.