Caravaggio was not a man of his time. As gay icon, father of modern painting and enigmatic artistic rebel, he speaks volumes to 21st century audiences visiting his current exhibition in Rome. The realism and drama that he transmitted onto canvas seem surprisingly fresh, while also connecting us with the feel and detail of life in the early 17th century.
But his portraits of youths – again, not typical of the early 1600s – seem to hark back to an era more than 1,000 years before his time. His sensuous appreciation of the male form, which scandalised his 17th century patrons, had more in common with Roman and Greek artistic traditions, which openly celebrated the male beauty, as well as pederastic relationships.
Classical statues showing gods, emperors or even ordinary youths were sculpted with the same awareness of male physical beauty that has been captured in many of Caravaggio’s paintings. There is also an intimacy to many Roman and Greek statues that was again taken up by Caravaggio, who painted youths in informal poses, doing ordinary things, while often sharing confidential eye-contact with the viewer.
Caravaggio may have taken the male portrait a step further than the Classical tradition (adding quirky realism to the mix) but there’s no doubt that he revived an appreciation for the male body (and undertones of a discourse on gay love) that had been pretty much stamped out since the late fourth century AD.
The artist’s appreciative eye for the male form becomes apparent quickly enough on a visit to the new Caravaggio exhibition in Rome. Of the 24 original paintings on display (that’s almost half of Caravaggio’s known masterpieces) at the Scuderie del Quirinale, many depict drop-dead gorgeous young men: muscular but fleshy, lithe and languid see the portrait of Bacchus, on display in the exhibition, to see what I mean.
The artist accentuates their smooth skin, dark eyes and curls of black hair. It’s not hard to see why one art critic described Caravaggio’s men as: overripe, peachy bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream.
A gay icon he may be, but there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was homosexual. His fascination for and sensuous depiction of the male body (far more naked or semi-naked male models populate his canvases than females) have led art historians and critics to debate Caravaggio’s sexuality but so far no one has pulled any definite proof out of the bag either way. Gay or straight though, Caravaggio remains a gay icon for several reasons.
The Makings of a Gay Icon
His art was revolutionary and daring for its time. He became famous for his use of light and dark in his paintings, placing sharply lit, ordinary-looking people on black canvases in biblical and sometimes horrifically violent scenes not previously seen on canvas. His artistic style, which was shocking and revolutionary in its day (he portrayed religious figures as realistic human beings warts and all) is recognised by most as the beginnings of modern painting.
Accounts of Caravaggio’s private life also read like the script of a Shakespearean drama. In fact a film has already been made of his life an avant-garde, art-house film by Derek Jarman, himself a gay rights activist.
As the most gifted artist of his time in Rome, Caravaggio rubbed shoulders with Italy’s powerful and rich arts patrons while at the same time keeping company with prostitutes, drunks and dissolutes.
His life is shrouded in mystery he was charged with killing a man, Ranuccio Tomassoni, in a pub brawl in Rome in 1606, although the exact circumstances are unknown. He has also been accused of sodomy, as was his patron, cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte.
He lived as a fugitive in Naples, Sicily and Malta and died in nebulous circumstances at the age of 38 near Grosseto. Perhaps it’s a combination of all these things his artistic vision, his flamboyant lifestyle and the drama surrounding him that have made him into something of a gay icon today.
The Fight Against ‘Immorality’
In any case, Caravaggio lived at a time when having a public gay relationship with another man was just about impossible. The Roman Catholic church created a repressive climate of fear by persecuting and trying anyone they accused of immorality during the 15th-18th centuries. As part of their fight against ‘immorality’, the Roman Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600 for heresy, and put Galileo Galilei under house arrest for his theories about the universe.
The iron fist of the church made any lifestyle or opinions considered ‘anti-Catholic’ very difficult. Nonetheless, art critics believe that some of Caravaggio’s work was painted for an underground homosexual scene that existed in Rome at that time, which included the rich cardinal del Monte and his artistic circle of friends. The Lute Player, The Musicians and Bacchus were commissioned by del Monte. These were paintings of young men done by a man and aimed at a privileged male audience. However, any homosexual eroticism was carefully hidden.
A hundred and fifty years before Caravaggio, Florence and Venice had become Renaissance cities where homosexual relationships between men were widely acceptable. But even then, the Roman Catholic church, through their Officials of the Night, tried to prosecute and imprison any male found guilty of having sex with another man/boy.
The Greek and Roman Golden Age
Since the demise of the Roman empire, attitudes to same-sex relationships (with certain conditions attached) had turned on their heads. By the 17th century in Europe, the liberality of the Romans and Greeks was gone, replaced by intolerance and marginalisation.
The Roman tolerance was drawing to an end by the late fourth century AD, when the Christian emperor Theodosius I passed a law in 390 condemning to death by being burnt at the stake if caught having gay sex. The law only applied to the passive partner in the act though.
It was probably with a great sense of justice and equality, that emperor Justinian modified the law in 558 AD – by extending the death sentence to include the active partner as well.
Do Caravaggio’s Sexy Men Show a Classical Appreciation of Male Beauty?
In fact, while Caravaggio’s males are beautiful, sensuous creatures, they are presented very much as the early 17th century patrons (often churchmen) wanted to see them set in biblical scenes, or engaged in innocuous activities (playing
music, carrying fruit or playing cards). Even so, some paintings such as the Conversion of Saul were rejected by the patron who commissioned the work, perhaps because the artist had presented a scene that was too unusual and too challenging for that time.
But how would his figures have appeared if he hadn’t been living in such a repressive time and place, and if the openness to homosexuality found in Greek and Roman art was still present in Baroque Italy?
Many Roman artworks openly show gay relationships between men. The Warren Cup, now in the British Museum, is engraved with an image of an older man penetrating a youth portraying the ideal pederastic relationship, with a young male (no older than 20) penetrated by an older man. Sex between two adult men was still seen as unacceptable though.
Other works of gay art from the Greek and Roman worlds include the Bell Krater (showing sex between a young man and his older ‘tutor’ or ‘protector’), which is also in the British Museum along with a fragment of Roman art painted onto a glass cameo. The scene is of a male couple making love the heads have been lost.
These Roman and Greek artworks show the openness to and acceptance of pederasty. They reflect the fact that most Roman emperors had young male lovers as well as a wife the most famous example is the emperor Hadrian and his young lover Antinous, who was publicly deified after his tragic death in the Nile. Hadrian even built Antinopolis to commemorate his lover.
To get back to Caravaggio though, his work may well have depicted similar scenes if he had lived in a different time. As it was, he lived in a time and place dominated by a conservative and authoritarian church, which ironically became his main patron. His art represents for many the suppression of homosexuality, while perhaps secretly celebrating it because who could look at a painting such as Bacchus, or Saint John the Baptist, without feeling that here is a celebration and appreciation of the male form? These 400-year old paintings will ensure Caravaggio keeps his status as gay icon.