Art’s Bad Boy: Caravaggio
Ah, the lure of the bad boy. The temptation of excitement, of danger, of…artistic talent?
In all of Western art history, there may be no bad boy as tantalizing as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Recognized even in his own day (born 1571; died 1610) as a brilliant artist, an innovator who fused the nobility of Baroque painting with the passion and drama of theater, Caravaggio was also famous for his scandalous personal life: a brothel habitué, a street brawler, even a murderer.
But was he gay?
A number of his paintings would indicate that Caravaggio did indeed pursue the flesh of young men. Take, for example, the painting Boy with a Basket of Fruit. The young model, Mario Minniti, at the time just 16 years old, is a beautiful youth whose shirt is provocatively falling from his shoulder, exposing smooth, muscular flesh. In his arms he carries a basket containing a variety of voluptuously ripe fruits. His full lips are sensuously parted. Are they parted in anticipation of the sweetness of the fruit, or the sweetness of Caravaggio? Mario Minniti was a favorite model of Caravaggio’s, who would depict him in several paintings.
Perhaps even stronger evidence of Caravaggio’s sexual tastes is found in 1602’s Amor Vincit Omnia. Here we have a naked youth seated half on/half off what may be a table or bench draped in white cloth or a bed swaddled in bedsheets. The boy is depicted as Cupid, his wings fully unfurled. He smiles a “come hither” smile. But after we’ve acknowledged the wings and noticed the smile, Caravaggio, by means of carefully constructed light and shadow, slides our gaze down Cupid’s tenderly muscled body to the young man’s penis. It is dead center of the painting, the star of the show.
Even Caravaggio’s religious paintings bear strong homoeroticism as they bare the flesh of biblical figures. Among the artist’s many depictions of Saint John the Baptist, several of them tempting nudes, one in the Capitoline Museum in Rome is perhaps the most outright erotic. Listed in the museum’s catalogue as San Giovanni Battista, once again Caravaggio guides our gaze down to the youthful John’s penis, though in this case somewhat discreetly. It is, however, again placed dead center of the painting. Moreover, the painting hints—well, more than hints—at eroticism and sexual adventure gone wild: the naked saint, a grinning, streetwise boy, is embracing a goat, horns and all.
Make of that what you will.
Not all of Caravaggio’s paintings depict male nudes or homoerotic themes. Many are masterpieces of biblical drama, free of any hint of sex. But several of the paintings do indeed put sexuality front and center—so many they constitute their own body of work. Is this conclusive evidence that Caravaggio was gay? Current scholarly and art historical opinion is generally in favor of the interpretation that Caravaggio was gay, though not every scholar has bought in. Without the discovery of, say, a diary or letters recounting Caravaggio’s sexual affairs, we may never know for sure. Still, if one accepts that art does not lie, that art is based on truth, then the idea that Caravaggio was gay or at least bisexual holds weight.
But oh—I mentioned murder early in this essay. It was among Caravaggio’s long list of transgressions. He was arrested and tried in court at least 11 times for assorted crimes against society. Among the more amusing was when he hurled a platter of artichokes at a waiter. In 1606, though, Caravaggio’s aggressive behavior finally reached its apex: a brawl over a game of tennis resulted in Caravaggio killing his opponent, Ranuccio Tommasoni. He escaped the clutches of the law, and the likely death sentence demanded by Tommasoni’s influential family, by fleeing Rome.
He found refuge in various Italian cities, shielded by wealthy patrons who championed his art and continued to commission paintings by him for their palazzos, villas, and churches. Indeed, before Caravaggio was forced to escape Rome, he was admired as the most famous and talented painter in that city. In 1610, however, Caravaggio now age 39, tired of the provinces and yearned for the cultural excitement of the Italian capital. He arranged to travel back to Rome in the hopes of seeking a pardon for his crimes from none other than the pope.
He never made it. He died along the way. The circumstances of Caravaggio’s death have not been settled. There is evidence that he died of a fever in Porto Ecole, but there is also evidence that he was killed by Tommasini’s family while on the riverboat taking him back to Rome. Documents in the Vatican support the latter theory.
Oh, Signor Caravaggio, you were such a bad boy, but oh, the art you made! ▼
Ann Aptaker is the author of short stories and the Lambda & Goldie award winning Cantor Gold series. Her latest book, A Crime of Secrets, was released July 4, 2023.