“Indeed, Caravaggio may be indicating his taste for homoerotic subjects through his androgynous male figures, figures at once muscular and yet recognizably “feminine” in some of their poses and expressions. Since antiquity, the androgynous had been associated with effeminacy and therefore bisexuality or homosexuality. This code might lead us to reconsider a favorite contemporary dogma about the differences between modern and premodern notions of sexuality. The identification of the androgynous male figure with homosexuality suggests not only that “the homosexual” existed long before nineteenth-century sexology elaborated it as an object of medical attention and social surveillance, but also that it already consisted in the form most familiar to modern definitions: a woman’s soul in a man’s body.”
“What in effect Caravaggio is doing systematically and deliberately, for the first time in the history of art, is destroying the space between the event in the painting and the people looking at it.”
Caravaggio was always in trouble. In 1592, when he was not yet twenty, he fled Milan after ‘certain quarrels’ and the wounding of a police officer. He went to Rome and was there, for the most part, until 1606, when he again had to flee. His life in Rome was of growing financial and professional success, but it was also punctuated with crime. In the years 1600-1606 alone, he was brought to trial no less than eleven times. The charges covered a variety of offences, most involved violence. It is significant that, despite his posthumous reputation for homosexuality, and his endless brushes with the police, he was never charged with sodomy, then a capital offence.
During all these years Caravaggio was painting daring, revolutionary works unlike anything ever seen before. Such paintings naturally aroused a great deal of controversy. Some attacked them as being vulgar and indecent, but a few critics and connoisseurs praised them highly.The early works of Caravaggio show him in full revolt against both mannerism and classicism. He rejected the elongations and formal curvilinear shapes of the mannerists and ridiculed the concept of the classicists that the subject of a painting should be idealized and carry a moral message. He was antinomian, despising all laws of life and art. But his fatal propensity to break all the rules, which turned his life first into anarchy, then tragedy, also made him an artist of astonishing originality and creative power. He destroyed the old order and imposed a new one. His revolutionary technique of tenebrism, or dramatic, selective illumination of form out of deep shadow, became a hallmark of Baroque painting. This was a new kind of art, which was to have momentous consequences….
“Italy the paradice of the earth, and the Epicures haven, how doth it form our young master?” asked Thomas Nashe, who would have known, having been there. His splendid picaresque novel “The Unfortunate Traveler”, finished in 1597 and so describing the very Rome that Caravaggio knew, left no doubt in his answer. “it makes him to kiss the hand like an ape, cringe his neck like a starveling, and play at hey passe repasse come aloft when he salutes a man. From thence he brings the art of atheisme, the art of epicurising, the art of whoring, the art of sodomitrie.” Granted, Nashe was not immune to the Elizabethan writers’ habit of exaggerating the bogey of Machiavellian guile and Catholic vice; still, there is no doubt that the austerities of the Counter Reformation failed to have much of an inhibiting effect on the private lives of the more corrupt and sophisticated princes of the Church.
One of these was Caravaggio’s first major patron, the Cardinal Francisco Maria del Monte. They met in about 1595, when the painter was twenty-four and the cardinal a robust and lubricous cleric in his mid-forties. Cardinal del Monte had great influence at the court of Pope Clement VIII; he was very rich and lived in Trimalchian ease in a palace on the Piazza Navona. His special pleasure was to give lavish banquets “where, as there were no ladies present, the dancing was done by boys dressed up as girls.” The youths Caravaggio painted, were, it seems, much to the cardinal’s taste: a round, fleshy face framed with a whipped cream pompadour of heavy, curly, dark hair; the mouth, usually a little open, expressing a narrow gamut of expression that runs from slightly vacuous yearning to lustful passivity.
At times, Caravaggio’s work is rescued from the edge of absurdity only by the sheer skill of painting, but somehow it is coherent and works. Perhaps the most extreme of all Caravaggio’s androgynous images is the “Lute Player”, painted about 1596 and now in the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad. For the last three hundred and almost fifty years, from a 1672 description to the entry in the Hermitage’s catalogue, critics have persistently mistaken its sex. Berenson considered it ” the most charming of all Caracvaggio’s that have come down to us, … a young Roman girl playing the lute.” The girl, as Caravaggio’s contemporary Baglione kn
is “a Boy playing the lute, so lifelike and true in appearance, with a flower vase full of water, and in it the reflections of a window excellently brought out, with other repercussions of that room in the water, and on the flowers the actual dewdrops exquisitely counterfeited. And this,( he said), was the finest piece he had ever done.”
Cardinal del Monte agreed. By now, Caravaggio was installed in the cardinal’s household and living off his patronage. One wonders about their relationship , since there is reason to suppose that the prototype for the sensuous young horn player, second from right, in “The Musicians”, was Caravaggio himself. Ottavio Leoni’s drawing of Caravaggio at about thirty years of age has the same heavy-lidded eyes, thick brows, flattened upper lip, and broad, flared nostrils.
In any case, the cardinal was not the only Roman who enjoyed the pederastic side of Caravaggio’s early work. The Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, one of the greatest of all seventeenth-century collectors, bought his “Love Victorious” and hung it, discreetly veiled by a curtain, in his villa. A prudish German collector, Joachim von Sandrart, had advised its concealment. Superficially, the painting looks like a straightforward version of cupid in one of his numerous manifestations; but it is not. The love god is not hovering round the bed, as in Titian or a Veronese, but climbing from its rumpled sheets with a raunchy grin; as he climbs, he tramples on a disorderly litter of objects symbolizing the heights of culture that Giustiniani so conspicuously valued; music, architecture, learning, and even military glory. Eros conquers all. The painting is an allegory, and, like most of Caravaggio’s work in these early years, it raises the question of to what extent, and in what way, he was a “realist” painter.
“…erotic soliciting is countered by a movement away from the solicited viewer, a holding back that complicates the idea of erotic availability. Or rather it is perhaps because of the movement away that we identify these looks and these poses as erotic. Inherent in this sort of erotic invitation is a concealment, and the concealment generates both what we recognize as the erotic invitation and possibly our own eroticized response to it. Sexiness advertises an availability that is somewhat opaque. The erotic here is a function of the noninterpretable address.
We should emphasize “here” because the word could, of course, be used to describe an invitation without concealment. In Georges Bataille, for example, the erotic refers to an unqualified openness, an availability uncomplicated by any reticence or secretiveness. Any such reticence might be the sign of an individuality resistant to that “communication” in which, for Bataille, the boundaries that define and separate individuals no longer exist. In this state of radical indistinctness, psychic and physical being is reduced to pure openness; being has become a receptive hole. While Caravaggio appears to “consider” this type of address, or solicitation, he seems comparatively indifferent to a wholly nonresistant openness. Even the frequently open mouths in Caravaggio’s work (think of the boy rushing away at the right of the scene from the martyrdom of St. Matthew, as well as the boy bitten by a lizard) are more frequently figured as a defensive cry against the world than as a readiness to be penetrated or invaded. What seems to interest Caravaggio more is a body at once presenting and withdrawing itself—a somewhat enigmatic body. The distinction between nonerotic and erotic address might be, not that the latter solicits greater intimacy or fewer barriers between persons, but rather that it solicits intimacy in order to block it with a secret. Erotic address is a self-reflexive move in which the subject addresses another so that it may enjoy narcissistically a secret to which the subject itself may have no other access. The subject performs a secret, which is not at all to say that he or she has any knowledge of it.” ( Leo Bersoni, Ulysse Dutoit )
In large part, the homoerotic elements in Caravaggio’s work are inferred from the way we think his contemporaries might have read his work. Indeed, perhaps all we can say with any confidence is that if viewers of Caravaggio’s time found his youths androgynous, they may have concluded that he was representing homosexual youths. And, whatever our suspicions may be, nothing really justifies our believing in an exact correspondence between Caravaggio’s interest in such subjects and a particular (homosexual) identity. Finally, even if such a correspondence were justified, it would be unfortunate. For it would ignore what we take to be the greatest originality of these paintings: their intractably enigmatic quality. Caravaggio’s enigmas are not meant to be read. At least since Oedipus, the enigma in Western civilization has been an epistemological challenge. Its unreadability has been fantasized as provisional and, far from blocking knowledge, the enigma holds forth the promise of new knowledge, of expanding the field of epistemological appropriations. Caravaggio resolutely rejects opportunities for such expansions.