Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’
Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

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1.2 The myth of the artist

Consider Howard Hibbard's analysis of Caravaggio's The Martyrdom of St Matthew in the Contarelli chapel (Langdon Plate 19 – see the Web Gallery of Art at http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/c/caravagg/04/index.html) from his monograph, Caravaggio (1983). Hibbard identifies the figure at the rear to the left of the semi-naked executioner as the artist's self-portrait: ‘a bearded, saturnine villain who is none other than Caravaggio himself’.

Caravaggio's face looks precisely like Ottavio Leoni's portrait of him [Langdon Illustration 1]. We recognize the arched eyebrows, flaring nostrils, and somewhat hostile expression of the mouth. (Bellori said Caravaggio was ‘brutto di volta’ – he had an ugly face.) The emotions of this witness to the martyrdom are hard to read; is he angry or horrified? The most plausible explanation would make him King Hirtacus, who ordered the slaying of Matthew. The concerned glance back would thus be explained, as would the fierce but perhaps ambivalent expression on his face. We sense here a beginning of the fatalistic or tragic self-image that can be deduced from some of Caravaggio's later works, his identification with violence and evil, which seems to have increased with time. He must have expected to be recognized here, and his presence is a form of signature that was known in Italian Renaissance art.

(Hibbard, 1983, p. 108)

The ‘form of signature that was known in Italian Renaissance art’ refers to a convention whereby artists sometimes included portraits of themselves in their works to raise their professional status as intellectuals, rather than as mere craftsmen. That being said, Joanna Woods-Marsden in her book, Renaissance Self-portraiture (1998), specifically excludes Caravaggio's ‘portraits’ from her study because, she writes, ‘many of the issues addressed by Caravaggio's self-images are of a different nature from those that concerned artists in the previous 150 years’ (Woods-Marsden, 1998, p. 6). She does not explain how Caravaggio's ‘self-images’ are distinct (if they are in fact self-portraits): what is important in this context is the fact that she, like Hibbard, creates a ‘hostile’ character and singles Caravaggio out as an outsider.

Activity 1

Look at a detail of the The Martyrdom of St Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel that was considered above. This is taken from the cover of the first hardback edition of Langdon's Caravaggio.

Click to view Colour Plate 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , showing detail from The Martyrdom of St Matthew, from the front cover of Helen Langdon's Caravaggio: a Life, Chatto & Windus, 1998, hardback. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Ltd.

  1. What assumption is being made about the relationship of the artist to his work on both the cover and in Hibbard's description above of the painting?

  2. What evidence would demonstrate that this assumption is accurate?


  1. The cover of the hardback uses a ‘portrait’ of Caravaggio, which is a relatively small detail within the large picture. The assumption is that Caravaggio is in some sense ‘present’ in his art. Langdon says in her ‘Introduction’, ‘Often Caravaggio included a self-portrait, reflecting the new self-consciousness of the seventeenth century, and his art seems bound up with the stormy events of his life’ (Langdon, 1998, p. 7; see also pp. 151, 234–5 and 388).

  2. Other than through a comparison with Ottavio Leoni's portrait of Caravaggio, as Hibbard proposes, there is no conclusive evidence – such as the artist's own admission that these were self-portraits – to confirm whether these figures are self-portraits of the artist. Based on expectations of the kind of elements artists at the time might include in their works, and on the likeness of these figures to Caravaggio with his dark hair and beard, there is only a possibility that Caravaggio included a likeness of himself in some of his paintings.

The assumption that Caravaggio is present in his art carries with it considerable implications for writing about art and about the relationship of an artist to his or her art. Caravaggio's apparently dramatic art and life, tantalisingly absent in parallel historical material, has even led some historians to ‘embellish’ primary documents. In 1994 Caravaggio assassino was published, a now notorious monograph which although ‘presented as fact, was largely fictional’ (Langdon, 1999, p. 19). ‘It has already inspired other biographies, and details have seeped out even into some scholarly publications.’ Readers beware!

When Hibbard wrote his biographical monograph about Caravaggio in 1983 there were relatively few modern books already written about the artist. Recent years have seen a large number of books, including Langdon's, dedicated to the artist and his art. Writing about Caravaggio began during his own lifetime, in 1604, when Carel van Mander wrote the first literary source for his art and life. A further eight ‘Lives’ followed in the next century, the last of them written by Francesco Susinno and published in 1724 (you can find one of these writings under the 'View document' link below, and two further writings in Section 1.4). By that time a great deal of apocryphal detail had been added to the Caravaggio story. Thereafter Caravaggio fell out of fashion and from the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth there was very little written about him. He was not even included in guide books to Rome until well into the twentieth century. Since the 1970s in particular, Caravaggio has returned to favour and he has become one of the most written about artists of any period. (Look at The British Library online catalogue to survey recent books about him.

Click to read Carel van Mander's writing on Caravaggio's life

Activity 2

Langdon in the introduction to her book outlines the reasons for the many modern publications about Caravaggio and reviews some of the literature on him. Please read the ‘Introduction’ now and answer the following question.

What factors does Langdon suggest have shaped writing about Caravaggio in his own lifetime and the present day?


Langdon suggests that the main factor in his own lifetime that attracted attention was his style of painting, his naturalism (p. 5). Later, this style was seen to be a threat to painting. In the twentieth century, interest focused on his social role as an artist – as a rebel rejecting contemporary conventions and ideals, with a personality and sexuality demanding psychoanalytic and existentialist interpretation.

Caravaggio's personality and physiognomy have always featured in writing about him. This is something which makes him an ideal subject for modern methodological developments, particularly those that focus on psychology and psychoanalysis.

New approaches to art history appeared in the 1960s and 1970s which encourage very different books written about essentially the same subject matter.

New documents have been found and are still being found that relate to Caravaggio's art and life. This has happened relatively recently because of easier travel, more archives opening their doors to scholars, and the history of art as a discipline accepting a wider range of sources.

Part of Caravaggio's attraction for his contemporary biographers and for modern art historians is precisely the mix of art and artist that Hibbard highlights in his analysis of The Martyrdom of St Matthew. Leoni's portrait of Caravaggio is the first illustration in Langdon's book because it is as much about the artist as it is about his art.

Hibbard's reference to Caravaggio as a ‘saturnine villain’ further exposes assumptions he is making about Caravaggio as an artist. The description ‘saturnine’ refers to one of the four humours or temperaments, each of which was linked to a planet (for a definition of the humours see Barker, et al., 1999, p. 153). The saturnine humour is melancholia, suffered most in the evening when the planet Saturn is in the sky. It was particularly associated with creative individuals such as poets and painters. Melancholia was certainly associated with artists at Caravaggio's time (Wittkower, 1961, pp. 293–4): Cardanus in 1561 described painters as ‘fickle, of unsettled mind, melancholic, and changeable in their manners’; and Michelangelo wrote these lines in one of his sonnets,

Melancholia is my joy

And discomfort is my rest.

Some artists even pretended to be mad to impress clients with their genius. Giovan Battista Armenini, in his Dei veri precetti della pittura (1587), wrote that

An awful habit has developed among common folk and even among the educated to whom it seems natural that a painter of highest distinction must show signs of some ugly or nefarious vice allied with a capricious and eccentric temperament springing from his abstruse mind. And the worst is that many ignorant artists believe to be very exceptional by effecting melancholy and eccentricity.

(Quoted in Wittkower, 1961, p. 299)

Ever since the sixteenth century the idea of the artist – ‘a highly individualized professional type’ (Wittkower, 1961, p. 295) – as melancholic or outsider has prevailed, not least because it gave painters the same character, and thus status, Aristotle had ascribed to poets. Later it achieved renewed effect during the Romantic period in the idea of the ‘bohemian’ artist or poet. Still to this day the paradigm that artists are in some way ‘different’ persists. ‘Paradoxically’, Wittkower wrote, ‘the untrammelled individualism of twentieth-century avant-garde artists, their personality and social problems were ultimately derived from the Italian Renaissance, the period in history on which they heaped the fullness of their scorn’ (Wittkower, 1961, p. 199). Not only are artists traditionally stereotyped as ‘different’ but biography further separates them from ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ people simply by singling them out for literary attention.

The literary genre of biography relies on narrative. The narrative form structures the information in the book and it also makes the book appeal to the reader. Hayden White explains this appeal: ‘far from being one code among many that a culture may utilize for endowing experience with meaning, narrative is a metacode, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of shared reality can be transmitted’ (White, 1980, p. 6). This narrative structure explains why it is difficult to pick out only parts of a biography (and why, shortly, you will be asked to read the book all the way through). The biographical narrative is constructed with a beginning, a middle and an end to tell a good story about an individual's life – all the more readable if it were about a ‘saturnine villain’.

So was Caravaggio actually a melancholic or does Hibbard describe him as such because that is how artists were – or are – expected to be and because it helps create the dramatic figure Langdon identifies in her introduction? Behind this lies a bigger assumption: that we need to know what kind of person Caravaggio was or what mood he was in when he painted to appreciate his paintings. I will return to this assumption in more detail in the next section.

I asked Helen Langdon how she came to write about Caravaggio.

I have always been interested in Caravaggio, but the idea of the book came to me when I was working as editor of the Italian Baroque at Grove Dictionary of Art. I had edited several articles on Caravaggio's patrons, and then I received one on the Sicilian painter Mario Minitti, who shared Caravaggio's rowdy life in Rome, and then welcomed his old friend years later to Sicily, when Caravaggio was on the run. This story struck me as such a vivid and concrete detail, that stood out with such sharpness amongst much stylistic analysis, that I had the idea of writing a book which should be a narrative, that should be full of such details; I wanted to write a book about characters, about people, about the real places and streets of seventeenth-century Rome and Naples which are still so recognizable. It seemed to me that Caravaggio's life had something of the quality of classical tragedy, a sense of inevitability, of hastening onwards towards doom, and I wished to create a strong narrative. But I also wanted to avoid twentieth-century myth and speculation, and as far as possible use seventeenth-century source material, so that the voice of the times should speak out.

(Helen Langdon interview, February 2002)

Langdon refers to her sense of Caravaggio being a tragic figure, and therefore an attractive subject for a biography that will make a good story, appeal to readers and – ultimately – sell. But Caravaggio's appeal to the biographer appears to be part of a circular process: artists are traditionally portrayed as melancholic or tragic figures with dramatic lives; Caravaggio was portrayed as a tragic figure; biographers are typically attracted to the tragic figure; therefore Caravaggio makes an ideal artist-subject for a biographical treatment. The publication of the problematic Caravaggio assassino, ‘which slips so dizzyingly between fact, fantasy and hypothesis’ (Langdon, 1999, p. 19), exacerbated the situation because of the spectacular, but falsified, material it contains about the allegedly murderous artist. Many recent writers have failed to question the reliability of this study, instead preferring to repeat its outrageous claims. The book has only added fuel to the fire of the Caravaggio cult.

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