From Model To Subject: Caravaggio And His Self-Portraiture

An examination of the self-portraiture of the Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio. This article addresses changing concerns in the artist's painting, from his early to later works.

The study of self-portraiture or of any work of art considered in some way to be autobiographical is from the start a serious and often perilous undertaking. Even the best of arguments may be disputed, criticized for lack of visual evidence, or proved decisively incorrect by a newly discovered document or work of art. With a minimum of exposure to self-portraiture in general, even the inexperienced viewer may observe that works of this genre are far from easily legible and less than straightforward. This is, without question, due to the fact that many such works record their creator's feelings about himself, his notion of his role and function in the world (both of art and of men), and his concept of how others perceive him -- all in a subjective, rather than objective, mode. Such information is difficult enough to understand from a perspective other than the artist's own (particularly, in this case, from a viewpoint nearly four hundred years after the creation of Caravaggio's works), but further, it often seems that the artist is intentionally ambiguous in his presentation of himself. Thus, the twenty-first century viewer is confronted with works deliberately subjective and less than accessible. It is no wonder that their meaning is so frequently questioned and misunderstood. As is patently obvious, none of us living today actually knows Caravaggio personally. We have complete knowledge of and access to neither the details of his life, nor his complete oeuvre. However, somewhere in our limited knowledge of his life and tentative understanding of his surviving paintings, the answers to the questions raised by his self-portraits are to be found -- or at least cautiously hypothesized.

It is Caravaggio's conception of himself as an artist, his changing view of what it means to be an artist, which shall be the focus of this article. Although one could certainly find relevant and insightful material in works outside the category of self-portraiture, it is this genre which seems inherently suited to the task, as Barbara Rose explains so eloquently in her article, "Self Portraiture: Theme With a Thousand Faces," in Art in America, January 1975:

Because looking in the mirror is a primal act of self-consciousness, the theme of the

self-portrait is a natural origin of the artist's initial consciousness of himself as a creator,

with all the joy and misery that role implies, and of his art as deliberate illusion.

Caravaggio's self-portraits span the greater part of his artistic life, and across the three phases into which his surviving works can be divided and categorized, the artist presents clearly differing conceptions both of self-portraiture and of himself. As outlined by Rudolf Wittkower in his Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750, 3rd edition (Penguin Books, 1973), the three phases are "[1] the first Roman years, about 1590-99, during which Caravaggio painted his juvenilia ... [2] the period of monumental commissions for Roman churches, beginning in 1599 and ending with his flight from Rome in 1606 ... [3] the work of his last four years, again mainly for churches and done in a fury of creative activity, while he moved from place to place." In fact, Wittkower even goes so far as to say that if all that survived were only Caravaggio's earliest and latest pictures, it would be preposterous to assume that they were painted by the same man.

In the early Roman secular works considered to contain self-portraits, Caravaggio uses himself as a model to serve the intentions and programs of others, primarily patrons such as Cardinal Francisco Maria del Monte. Throughout his middle and later periods, he creates intensely religious works -- martyrdoms, death scenes, and the like -- in which his face appears as an indirectly involved observer (or possible participant). Finally, in his last period, particularly in his most genuine and powerful example of self-portraiture, the David With the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio is not merely model, but also subject: he, himself, becomes the painting's theme. In all of his self-portraits, Caravaggio, of course, plays the role of artist, but only in his final works does he actually confront his own character and reveal some of his deepest and most tragic feelings about his own nature and existence. This differentiation between "model" and "subject" in Caravaggio's self-portraiture is crucial to a full understanding of his changing conception of himself as an artist.

From what is known of Caravaggio's life, it is not surprising that his artistic development proceeds in this manner. The high spirits and general lightheartedness of the early works begin to disappear in his middle period, and after 1600, are ultimately replaced with intense seriousness and austerity of approach. Not surprisingly, Caravaggio's notorious police record, his series of violent acts, does not begin until after 1600, as documented in Walter Friedlaender's Caravaggio Studies (Princeton University Press, 1955). After this date, he was said to carry a sword and dagger regularly through the streets; he was often wounded, and eventually, he murdered a man. As his life borders on tragedy, so does his art, and through his various self-portraits, this may be glimpsed.

Caravaggio's early Roman works are problematic primarily because there has been so much dispute over which are genuine and which simply reputed self-portraits. This disagreement seems to stem initially from some remarks made by Giovanni Baglione, including his statement that after leaving the house of Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari d'Arpino, Caravaggio painted some portraits from his own reflection in a mirror. Given that even the most recent distinguished scholars have either disagreed among themselves or carefully avoided the issue, it is not likely that this particular examination will prove conclusively any one painting to be a portrayal of Caravaggio's own face. However, since it is very likely that a few, if not many, of the early series of juvenilia -- that is, of early androgynous boy portraits -- include Caravaggio's self-image, it is not impossible to draw some conclusions concerning this early period of self-portraiture.

The most important point in regard to this early phase is that Caravaggio's face, when it did appear, primarily served as a model rather than as a point of departure for a painting that was deeply involved with the artist's feelings and personality. Indeed, the simple fact that there is so much controversy concerning which early works include his self-image contributes to the argument that Caravaggio did not specifically intend for the viewer to recognize his face, and thence, to assume that the work was in any significant way about him. For example, in the Bacchino Malato (Self-Portrait as Bacchus) (1593-94?), Caravaggio presumably employed his own image at least in part because it was the most readily accessible. Howard Hibbard in his monograph, Caravaggio (Harper and Row, 1983), suggests that, because of this shortage of models other than himself, "it may not be necessary to consider it a piece of profound self-analysis by a narcissistic twenty-three-year-old..." and that Caravaggio's greatest concern at the time was perhaps simply to create a painting which would be sure of sale.

Although, as one might expect from the evidence, there is much scholarly debate over the issue of Caravaggio's sexual preferences, it appears that two of the most consistently objective scholars, notably Howard Hibbard and Richard Spear, agree that, from a modern perspective, one simply cannot be sure whether Caravaggio was exclusively homosexual, more inclined to bisexuality, or what. (See Richard Spear's Caravaggio and His Followers, revised edition (Harper and Row, 1971). Whatever the case, as with Benvenuto Cellini, bisexuality was not as unusual during the period as some viewers might imagine. Therefore, to assume that Caravaggio was notoriously and unquestionably homosexual, as Donald Posner has done in "Caravaggio's Homo-Erotic Early Works" (The Art Quarterly, Vol. 34, Autumn 1971), is perhaps going beyond fact and into speculation. It is precisely this disagreement over Caravaggio's sexuality which leads one to suspect that his early androgynous boy self-portraits may use the artist's face merely as a model, and not as subject. Granted, androgyny was commonly equated with homosexuality in the Renaissance, and the paintings are convincingly homo-erotic in themselves. However, there is not enough evidence to prove that the works particularly reflect Caravaggio's own interests and passions. That they echo Cardinal Del Monte's inclinations and desires is far more likely.

Del Monte, Caravaggio's first major patron, was a sophisticated lover not only of music and art, but also of pleasure. While he was Caravaggio's patron, he was particularly interested in boys. Thus, it is not surprising that he commissioned works such as the Concert of Youths (ca. 1595) and Bacchus (ca. 1595-96?). (The artist's likeness has been found in both paintings; in the Concert, both the lutenist and the horn player have been considered self-images, but the latter is more widely accepted as such.) As self-portraits, these works may reflect some of Caravaggio's own meaning, but it is equally, if not more, probable that they may not. As Hibbard suggests, they are perhaps "the realization of a poetic mode as perceived by the artist, a reflection of Del Montean taste and atmosphere rather than evidence of homoerotically autobiographical content." Certainly, it would not be surprising if Del Monte, as the artist's first great patron, were to significantly influence the content of the works which he had commissioned. That is, even though Caravaggio may have been portraying his own face in these paintings, it is certainly likely that that was as far as the "self-portrait" was to go during the period of the androgynous boy paintings: simply a physical rendering of the artist, not one with multiple layers of meaning on a psychological level.

One of the last of Caravaggio's early Roman paintings, the Medusa (1597?) clearly and conveniently falls near the end of this period of self-portraiture. Actually a shield or "a decorated piece of parade armor," as Hibbard describes it, rather than a simple picture, the work was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte as a gift for Grand Duke Ferdinand of Tuscany. Shocking, if not horrifying, upon first impression, the Medusa is of a decidely different nature than the sensuous and effeminate boys exhibited in works such as the Bacchus and Concert of Youths. With her wide, screaming mouth, bulging eyes, and writhing snakes in place of hair, it might be most appropriate to view the Medusa as the first of Caravaggio's series of "symbolic self portraits," to adopt Roger Hinks' terminology (see his Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: His Life - His Legend - His Works, Beechhurst Press, 1953). That is, this self-portrait is possibly the earliest in which the artist becomes more than model.

Certainly, it was not by accident that Caravaggio painted the head to look alive, even though it was much more in keeping with the tradition of such shields for the head to be rather stylized. Perhaps it was this work which was the moment of self-revelation for the artist: he may have begun by using himself merely as a model, but upon seeing his own face staring horrifically back at him in the guise of the Medusa, realized that the subject had greater relevance to his own life than he had previously noticed. Again, Caravaggio might have been painting some of his own feelings and fantasies into the earlier homo-erotic works. However, it is his homosexuality which is disputed, not his violence; thus, it is far more likely that the violent, rather than the homo-erotic, self-portraits are actually autobiographical. Beginning a series of painted decapitations which ranges from Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-99) to the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (1608), and finally culminates in the David With the Head of Goliath (ca. 1609-10?), the Medusa "picks up ... [the] thread of horror that runs all through Caravaggio's work..." as Hinks so succinctly explains. (In fact, it has been speculated that the series itself may represent Caravaggio's own fears of decapitation and even castration.) That is, with the Medusa, a new and deeper, a more genuinely autobiographical, type of self-portraiture may be said to begin.

The middle and later "observer" self-portraits, of which the most widely accepted example is the Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600), form the second category of Caravaggio's self-portraiture. The confirming evidence for the self-portrait contained within the painting is a portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, which is remarkably similar to the image in the Martyrdom. However, as Hibbard and others have found, Caravaggio's emotions and even his role in the painting are unclear; quite possibly, they are intentionally ambiguous. All that Caravaggio unquestionably reveals is that he is contemplating and searching himself for responses to the scene to which he is witness.

In the other presumed "observer" self-portraits, such as the Burial of St. Lucy (1608), the Resurrection of Lazarus (1609), and the Martyrdom of St. Ursula (1610), the same stance and attitude are apparent. All become Caravaggio's own meditations upon death or upon the dramatic tension between death and life, as well as examples of the artist's identification with violence and sin, which seem to have been frighteningly central to his life at this time. Granted, the content of these paintings, the themes of mortality, like the content of the early Roman works, was certainly specified by the patrons who commissioned them. However, in the words of S. J. Freedberg in Circa 1600: A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting (Harvard University Press, 1983), "the feeling about death that Caravaggio paints into them is all his own."

The first of the two reputed self-portraits of Caravaggio's later period, which was dominated by themes of violence and death, is the less well-known St. Francis in Prayer (ca. 1606). The painting is significant to this study primarily for the deep introspection and self-expression displayed by St. Francis, with whom Caravaggio must have identified spiritually, "almost as though the artist were transferring to the saint his own wish to expiate his sins and do penance," as is written in The Age of Caravaggio (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985). Such self-questioning and introspection on the part of the artist is all the more obvious when one recalls one of Caravaggio's earlier depictions of the saint, the Ecstasy of St. Francis (1595?), in which the focus was upon the saint's stigmatization, rather than upon his contemplation of the crucifix, with all of its Christian symbolism, and of death, in general.

The final culmination of Caravaggio's self-portraiture is without question the David With the Head of Goliath. According to Giovanni Pietro Bellori, it is the head of Goliath, rather than of David (the more traditional example of artists' self-identification) which is the self-portrait. Of course, the most important point to be made in relation to the study of the changing nature of the artist's self-portraiture is that the work is intensely autobiographical. In this instance, Caravaggio is not only artist and model, but also subject. Although interpretations vary widely, and in fact, Caravaggio may have wished his meaning to be multilayered, Spear's simple and straightforward conclusion is the most believable: "As if writing the epilogue to his own life, Caravaggio presents the tragic consequences of rashness and violence." The artist's identification with evil, his fear of -- or perhaps even desire for -- punishment and death, is a likely conclusion both to Caravaggio's turbulent life and to his passionate and often explicitly violent art.

Again, the dramatic change in spirit of Caravaggio's art, which took place during the relatively short, twenty-year span of the artist's creative life, must be emphasized. As his life became more complex, so did he -- both as a man and as an artist. His style and technique changed, as did his content and approach. Most importantly, however, his attitude toward and conception of himself as an artist changed. From narcissistic and hedonistic representations of youthful boys (which may or may not have been reflections of Caravaggio's own tastes), his art evolved to a manner which was deeply self-analytical and self-critical, tragic and profound. By the final decade of his life, the horrors and tragedies which he showed himself observing (and perhaps even participating in) had affected him; he realized his own shortcomings and weaknesses, failures and sins. Consequently, the innocence (of spirit, if not of body) displayed in the early Roman works disappeared forever, as did Caravaggio's "simpler" conceptions of self-portraiture -- in which the artist was merely a physical, rather than a psychological or emotional, model, Clearly, at the end of his life, Caravaggio had come to a deeper, more profound understanding of what it meant to be an artist. He must have discovered that, in the eloquent words of Pascal Bonafoux, "To paint oneself is to put oneself on trial..." (Rembrandt: Self-Portrait, Rizzoli, 1985).

© High Speed Ventures 2011