Yes, they exist!
At the height of the Roman inquisition in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio ignored the rigid rules that guided what could be painted. Rather than follow the current style based on idealized human beings in ennobling religious stories, he used real people as models. More than that, he invented a genre based on daily life rather than on religious or historical stories. He taught people to see the holy in the everyday and the everyday in the holy. This alone was a tremendous act of rebellion and could have led to imprisonment, even death.
Caravaggio did go to prison, many times, but not for the crime of pictorial heresy. His first arrest was for carrying a sword without a permit— yes, you needed a sword license then, much as you need a gun permit today. His second arrest happened when an officer stopped him for carrying a weapon. Though Caravaggio had the permit, he refused to show it. The third time he was spotted carrying his sword, he showed the permit. The officer thanked him, but Caravaggio couldn't resist cursing out the policeman, so he was arrested for insulting an officer.
But the best arrest was for assault with a vegetable. This is the official deposition, taken 18 November 1599:
It was around five in the afternoon and the aforesaid Caravaggio, along with some others, was eating in the Moor of the Magdalene where I work as a waiter. I brought him eight cooked artichokes, that is four in butter and four in oil and he asked me which were cooked in oil and which in butter. I told him that he could smell them and easily know which were cooked in butter and which were cooked in oil, and he got up in a fury and without saying a word, he took the plate from me and threw it in my face where it hit my cheek. You can still see the wound. And then he reached for his sword and he would have hit me with it, but I ran away and came right to this office to present my complaint.
Caravaggio went on to be arrested many more times for more serious assaults, including murder. Now, though, he's not remembered as a criminal, but rather as an artistic genius who inspired generations of followers.
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599–1602) is the first of several paintings in which Caravaggio chose to depict the dramatic and gory subject of decapitation. Wikimedia
Basket of Fruit, c. 1595–1596, oil on canvas. Caravaggio's realistic view of things is exemplified in this still life. The bowl is teetering on the edge of the table, some of the leaves are withered, and the apple in the front is far from perfect. Wikimedia
Marissa Moss's book Caravaggio:Painter on the Run tells a compelling story that humanizes Caravaggio while describing the political and social atmosphere in which he lived.
Moss, Marissa. "Police Reports from the Sixteenth Century?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 24 01 2018, http://www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/police-reports-from-the-sixteenth-century6158812.
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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) came from humble origins, the son of a stonecutter. He moved from Milan to Rome while in his twenties, looking for painting commissions in the newly built churches and palazzi that were springing up there.
Caravaggio became known as a master of realism—populating his paintings with contemporary, ordinary people—many of them rogues and ruffians from the mean streets of Rome. People were shocked by his realistic paintings. They were used to looking at devotional paintings showing choirs of angels and golden shafts of light beaming down from heaven.
A big part of Caravaggio’s problem is that he felt (correctly) that he was underappreciated as a painter. He was hot-headed and quick to pick a fight, and kept getting into trouble. In 1594 he was arrested for hurling a plate of artichokes at a waiter, and he was forever getting involved in Roman street brawls.
In 1606 he really messed up. While he was playing an early version of tennis, palla a corda, with a close friend, a wealthy acquaintance named Ranuccio Tomassoni walked by with a couple of his relatives and challenged Caravaggio to a game. They played. Each thought he’d won. They drew swords. They chased each other around, hacking away. Caravaggio was slashed twice, but then buried his blade in his enemy’s stomach. Ranuccio died shortly thereafter, and Caravaggio’s friends dragged Caravaggio away to a nearby house to bandage him up.
The police came after him, and Caravaggio fled for the hills outside of Rome. He became a fugitive from the law. He was convicted of murder in absentia, and sentenced to death.
For the next few years, he continued to paint while on the run. His reputation as an artist was growing. Still pursued by the law, he fled to Malta in 1607, got in trouble there, and fled to Sicily. By 1609, he was widely known as a master painter, and he traveled to Naples to await word from the Pope that his petition to be pardoned might be approved. While there, he was ambushed by four assassins, who stabbed him around the face and neck. He managed to survive the attack, but was left disfigured.
When his papal pardon finally arrived, in 1610, he set sail for Rome but fell ill on the way with a fever—probably malaria. He died in 1610.
Sara Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines. , Vicki Cobb reviewed this fascinating book-- poisons are in more places than you can ever imagine. Get A Dose Of This!
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Renaissance Bad Boy." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 5 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Renaissance-Bad-Boy.
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