15 Mar But while I was in Rome, I gained a better grasp of the meaning of guilt from another image, a timeless painting in a museum. (GIOVANNI FRAZZETTO)
A restless genius
From Piazza del Popolo, I climbed the many steps of the Pincian Hill. Before my trip to Rome, a sculptor friend of mine, who had a passion for the painter Caravaggio and had developed an interest in guilt, suggested I go to see some of the master’s paintings at the Galleria Borghese. In particular, he recommended I should look at David with the Head of Goliath, a canvas depicting the biblical story of David’s triumph over the Philistine giant Goliath (Fig. 5), which hangs in a relatively small room packed with many other works.
After a long queue outside, I finally made my entry into the building and was happily thrown back in time among extraordinary pieces of Renaissance and Baroque art. Tourists swarmed in the hot rooms, pacing the magnificent marbled floors and walking around statues. When I reached my intended destination, a small crowd was gathered around the painting, so I waited until it vanished and I could stand in front of the picture by myself. The view is difficult to erase from one’s mind. It is a dark, intensely penetrating picture you sense is hiding something sinister. Caravaggio’s renowned mastery of chiaroscuro – that is, the sharp contrast between light and dark – works perfectly here. A sombre meaning emanates from every inch of the canvas. A severed head still dripping blood swings by the hair from the hand of David, who holds the gleaming sword with which he perpetrated the decapitating blow.
Art is extremely powerful at summoning emotions and at instigating a dialogue between an object and its viewer. The effect on me of that viewing was immediate. I was enraptured by it and found it resonated with some of the difficult thoughts I had entertained that morning. This became all the more evident after I learnt more about the circumstances of its creation and the life of this extraordinary master of painting.
Born in Milan and raised in a small town called Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi (1571–1610) – who later was simply named after his village of origin – arrived in Rome when he was about twenty, keen to find success and the appropriate milieu in which to develop his talent as an artist. Within a few years, he became the most famous painter in the city.
Caravaggio was definitely not an easy-going chap. He was arrogant, uncompromising, irritable and touchy. No stranger to the courtroom, Caravaggio had a criminal record that rivalled his artistic achievements, for it seemed that when he wasn’t painting he was getting himself into one brawl after another. During his life in Rome he was accused of harassing women, messing with guards, attacking waiters – he once threw a plate of artichokes at one. He was also put on trial for libel.
The painting of David and Goliath originates from a crucial specific episode in Caravaggio’s life. On the night of Sunday, 28 May 1606, at the age of thirty-five, this genius of the Roman artistic world became involved in a sword fight that culminated in his opponent’s death and left him a hidden fugitive for the rest of his life.
A capital sentence – a bando capitale – was imposed upon Caravaggio as the murderer. This sentence meant that anyone who found him was entitled to report him to the authorities or even kill him and deliver his head – his caput. While away, Caravaggio never ceased longing for a return to the bustle of the city of Rome. During this period, he also painted incessantly. The exile was one of the darkest and hardest phases of his existence. In spite of that, or indeed because of his gloomy desolation, he created some of his most expressive images, among them the painting I stood in front of.
A very important detail about the image must be revealed. Before Caravaggio, several artists had painted themselves as David. Caravaggio’s version of this celebrated scene of good victorious over evil is unique in that it is the severed head of Goliath that is Caravaggio’s self-portrait. In Caravaggio’s painting, David bears a candid appearance and shows no exultation in his victory, but rather expresses compassion and pity. Caravaggio’s face is tormented and heavily disfigured by death.
By serving his severed head to the viewer, Caravaggio is expressing his repentance for his actions and attempting to assuage his sense of guilt.
On David’s sword, on the side of the hilt, is an acronym, barely readable unless you move close to the painting: H. OC. S. These letters stand for the Latin words humilitas occidit superbiam, that is: humility kills pride. It is supposed to be a sentence taken from St Augustine’s reflection on Psalm 33 in which he compares David’s victory over Goliath to Christ’s triumph over the devil.21 Good prevails over evil. In one painting we have a whole host of moral emotions. Guilt, backed up by humility, promises to restore good conduct.
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