In a review of Andrew Graham Dixon's new book on Caravaggio in the Economist, it's stated that the book came too late to take account of the recent CSI revelations about Caravaggio's remains. Judging by AGD's remarks in a coda to his T.V. programme Who Killed Caravaggio?, first shown in 2002 and repeated on BBC 4 last night, I doubt if the critic would have had any time for this approach at all. The only way to understand what happened is "to get inside Caravaggio's head, and we don't even know where that is," mused AGD wryly. The Caravaggio CSI team would say they have that part of the body now, but real Caravaggio scholars and informed critics like AGD are far from convinced.
WKC was made before the forensic art history era, but AGD was playing with the overlap of crime and art back in 2002. Turning his hotel room into an incident room papered with maps, photos and diagrammatic representations of his thinking, AGD portrayed the enigma of Caravaggio's death as a murder mystery. We retrace Caravaggio's footsteps to the alley in Rome where he killed the gangster Tomassoni; watch him spar with a fencing master who owns books illustrating horrible ways to maim your opponent- try skewering him through the eye with your rapier. According to AGD, Caravaggio aimed much lower- he had castration in mind, but his opponent slipped and the wound was fatal. Interviewing "witnesses" like Peter Robb (author of M, a book on Caravaggio) who believed that M's, or should that be C's, hasty flight from Malta had its origin in sodomy, AGD balanced a film noir travelogue with hunches about the fate of this "violent man who lived in violent times." One of the most memorable scenes was AGD's interview (beneath the Martyrdom of St Ursula, C's last painting) with Vincenzo Pacelli, who goes one better than Robb in seeing Caravaggio's death orchestrated by a high-level conspiracy consisting of the Colonna family, the papacy and Cardinal Scipione Borghese, all because C was too secular and "proto-communist" in his views! AGD rightly dismissed this daft hypothesis, pointing out how profoundly religious C was. I remember feeling much the same when I visited the late Caravaggio show at the London NG in 2005. You'll find my review of the exhibition here Download Caravaggio review.
Caravaggio comes in waves with me. A few months ago at the R.S.A. conference in Venice I had the privilege of sitting down to dinner with some baroque scholars, including Helen Langdon who wrote an excellent book on Caravaggio, and contributed to the recent exhibition in Rome. Inevitably, the conversation turned to Caravaggio and I recalled an intriguing article written by one of my doctoral supervisors, Thomas Puttfarken, tragically taken from us a few years ago. Thomas argued that the figure who is supposed to be the executioner in C's The Martyrdom of St Matthew (unforgettably called by Robb 'Matthew Killed') is, in fact an innocent bystander who has found the body of the dead cleric. Thomas went against the principle found in whodunits that whoever finds the body is likely to be the murderer. Could Caravaggio himself be implicated in this murder; his face, indescribable in its expression, looms out of the gloom at the back of the painting. None of us could reach a conclusion about this 17th century homicide, which is just as it should be: everybody has their own idea of this troubled genius.
I'm looking forward to getting hold of a copy of AGD's new book, especially as he said last night that he thinks he's solved the mystery of Caravaggio's death. Well, I'll reserve judgment on that. Whatever ingenious theories are concocted and advanced to account for Caravaggio's demise, the death remains an unsolved mystery and the painter an enigma as far as I'm concerned. We don't know why he came to be on a sweltering beach on that fateful day. Perhaps we never will.