A Caravaggio-Related Poem on Life and Death

Caravaggio Blog

A Caravaggio-Related Poem on Life and Death

So many of my ideas and assumptions during this inquiry seem to be based on coincidence. This is partly explained by the entourage I am focusing on, the circle of figures who are known to have served as patrons or mentors of Caravaggio, and who may have been motivated to have a painting produced that would create sympathy for their favourite artist after the crime he committed in 1606. The same names crop up time and again. As a consequence, I stumble on angles that are potentially interrelated. The fate of the researcher is marked by the prefix ‘re’. The quest for the truth is characterised by trial and error, by rash conclusions after which you need to ‘re’-trace your steps and ‘re’-appraise potential evidence. I tackle the next discovery with renewed energy. At present my excitement is caused by a poem in the essay ‘Ammirate l’altissimo Pittore’, included in Fulco’s volume La meravigliosa passione mentioned earlier. It concerns a short poem which probably alludes to the killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni at the hands of Caravaggio in 1606.

Marzio Milesi

If Bracciolini’s account in his Lo Scherno degli Dei of the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis match, and its aftermath, can indeed be interpreted as reflecting relevant fragments of Caravaggio’s own life – as I argue above- , we may wonder how he accumulated facts about the painter’s whereabouts and activities from 28 May 1606 onwards. It has been claimed recently (source: DBI on Milesi) that the lawyer Marzio Milesi (1570-1637) may well have acted as Caravaggio’s legal adviser in the numerous court cases the painter became entangled in. If there is one figure who may have inspired Bracciolini in his employment of the Caravaggio-Tomassoni conflict, it is Marzio Milesi. He was an intellectual who befriended Caravaggio and became one of his most passionate admirers. He was a keen collector, had a small museum and a rich library. As a token of the intimate relationship he established with Caravaggio, Milesi received the painting Sebastiano e Roch from the painter. The lawyer-poet dedicated at least ten poems, in Latin and in Italian, to the painter’s life and work. Although his short poems remained unpublished, they circulated within his wide cluster of literary friends.

Milesi’s Poems on Caravaggio

In describing Milesi’s sequence of poems we will be guided by Fulco’s ‘Ammirate ‘l’altissimo pittore’ essay. Milesi has arranged his short verses dedicated to Caravaggio more or less chronologically. The amateur poet thus acts as a spectator for us, as he witnesses Caravaggio’s struggle to attain artistic status. Gradually Milesi becomes the interpreter of the painter’s road to success, glorifying him as the most illustrious (‘altissimo’) artist of his age. In eulogy number two the ‘still young’ painter is already heralded as the eventual ‘vincitore’ over the grand masters ‘Arte e Natura’, stupefying the world. The name Milesi uses for his idol is particularly evocative, ‘Michel Angiolo’, comparing Caravaggio both with his famous predecessor and with an angel. In poems three and four Caravaggio’s work is extolled as art that supersedes the art and poetry of mythology:

Let the ancients make way for you, Angel Michele, painter of our century ...,
Let somebody else imitate things .., you make them live and true ...;
O, happy century of ours, in which we actually see what since ancient times we have only written and thought ... ”. 

We have reached the briefest poem of Milesi’s collection of verses, which according to Fulco was composed just after the 1606 tennis match. He calls poem five (an epigram) a brilliant, enigmatic tribute to Caravaggio. In the light of our inquiry, the epigram contains intriguing allusions. In his essay the author connects Milesi’s text, line two in particular, with the most traumatic event of Caravaggio’s life:

‘He can give life to thousands of forms,
he saw himself also giving death to live bodies (“si vide a vivi corpi ancho dar morte”),
Nature was stupefied that if She can give both life and death,
also he (= Caravaggio) can do the same’.

Milesi’s Wordplay on Life and Death

According to Fulco, here Milesi is trying to demonstrate what the potential was for a re-enactment of the 1606 homicide, either in poetry or in art. The terminology is complex, and centres around two ambiguous words: ‘vita’ and ‘morte’, life and death. Caravaggio and Nature are competing with each other on equal terms, in providing both life and death. This should be seen against the background of another of Milesi’s qualifications of Caravaggio’s art, mentioned above, in which he describes ‘Michele Angiolo’ giving life to canvas, spirit and colours, in competition with Nature. The words ‘vita’ and ‘morte’ alternate in the four lines, neutralising the effect, and in Fulco’s view, thus aiming to annul the crime Caravaggio committed in the Via di Pallacorda tennis court in May 1606.

Fulco interprets from Milesi’s clever word play that Tomassoni can be revitalised again. This intricate play of words is especially intriguing in the light of the sequence Milesi has opted for. Poem five, with the apparent reference to Caravaggio’s life (according to Fulco written in late 1606), is followed by number six, which may be just as biographical. It is entitled ‘Giovanette Pittore, Allevo (sic, ‘allievo’ meaning ‘pupil’) del Caravaggio’. In this poem Milesi urges the talented pupil to continue as he started, with works by the hand that Mother Nature has given him. He advises Caravaggio’s disciple to follow his master’s method wherever he goes. In the next poem the praise for the young painter becomes even greater. He has reached the status of an “eccelente” painter now, generally acclaimed and respected. The poet does not identify who this pupil of Caravaggio’s is, but we can be certain Milesi is referring to Cecco del Caravaggio, commonly known as Francesco Boneri, already mentioned before.

A Possible Literary Source

Marzio Milesi’s epitaphs end a long spell in which the poet was focused on the course of events after 28 May 1606. After that the painter seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth, even for his most loyal supporters. Fulco conceived an appropriate term for this period: Caravaggio’s ‘meditatio mortis’. Can Milesi’s relatively obscure sequence of poems dedicated to the painter have been the original source of inspiration for the creation of Bracciolini’s Apollo and Hyacinth episode, and subsequently of the The Death of Hyacinth? We remember the ‘Maestra Natura’ in Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno who had very diligently painted the beautiful Hyacinth, making an improved version later. If we can identify Milesi’s “Giovanetto Pittore, Allevo del Caravaggio’ as Cecco del Caravaggio, we have found the prime candidate for having produced The Death of Hyacinth, at least for one of the two pictures.

Milesi’s vividly coloured literary portrait of Caravaggio’s life and art would not be complete without mentioning a touching poem he dedicated to the portrait of Fillide Melandroni, which he entitled Cortigiana Fillide: ‘Only an angel could portray you, the beautiful Fillide, Creating your lovely face, because you are an angel from Paradise’. Milesi’s authorship of Cortigiana Fillide is generally accepted, but not conclusive. If this poem was indeed written by Milesi it would support the view that it inspired Bracciolini to conceive his compassionate version of the Fillide civettina at the time of Fillide Melandroni’s imminent death in 1618.

The Umoristi Academy

For the first time I get the impression that a cohesive sequel of interrelated events is evolving in my search, angles pursued that automatically develop into new discoveries. They seem to centre around literary figures in the intellectual environment of the Accademia degli Umoristi, of which Marino, Milesi, Ferro and Bracciolini were all members, the first two being close to Caravaggio. This is the intellectual setting in which the literary Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme, including disguised references to Caravaggio’s most tormenting moment, gestated. My presentation at Rome’s Istituto Olandese has gone down quite satisfactorily with the audience, which whets my appetite to try to establish a wider scope for my findings. It is through Maria Cristina Cabani and the assistance in translating Bracciolini’s tennis-related texts that I received from a Marino scholar at Bergamo University, Clizia Carminati, that my projected The Apollo and Hyacinth Tennis Theme in Baroque Poetry essay will be accepted by the editorial staff of Studi secenteschi, an authoritative Italian journal addressing seventeenth-century literary culture. I need to submit the final text before 1 May next to be included in the journal’s 2013 issue.

What a clever ploy Milesi has used to depict Caravaggio as both the creator of life and of death, and according to Giorgio Fulco, also as master over Ranuccio Tomassoni’s fate. Is this how we should interpret the two figures in The Death of Hyacinth: Apollo holding the dying figure of Caravaggio in his arms? The rackets allude to the ill-fated tennis match, which indirectly caused Caravaggio’s death. A posthumous celebration of the rebel painter, featuring the God of the Arts and ‘Michele Angiolo’, who as a contemporary Apollo also gives life to figures. Although I do not yet rule out the Caravaggio-Tomassoni identification in our Death, the Apollo-Caravaggio interpretation is the angle I am now pursuing in my quest to establish who may have been the best motivated to have such a picture produced.