The San Luca Academy

Caravaggio Blog

This episode opens a window onto the artistic milieu in which The Death of Hyacinth painting must have gestated: Rome’s San Luca Academy, an association of painters, sculptors and architects. The years to focus on are roughly 1615-1620, when the image of Caravaggio still dominates the Academy’s proceedings, in spite of his death so many years before (1610).

It is soon after I start exploring the religious, artistic and musical activities of Cardinal del Monte, the Medici’s agent in Rome, that I stumble upon an aspect of the cardinal’s career that had escaped my attention: he served as the Accademia di San Luca’s Cardinal-Protector, from 1595-1624. San Luca was the patron saint of painters’ guilds. The Annuario dell’ Accademia nazionale di San Luca (2010), under the heading ‘Storia dell’ Accademia’ shows that there were ‘papi, sovrani e principi’ who became ‘accademici d’onore’. A list of ‘di merito’ members is included as well, featuring the names of Borromini, Poussin, Reni, the Caracci, ….. and Caravaggio!

A Papal Pardon for Caravaggio?

The deeper I delve into the San Luca’s Academy proceedings, the more fascinating the material that surfaces. Caravaggio’s crime of 1606 and his exile from Rome as a result of it, proves to have echoed emphatically within the academy’s confines, among its members and its President (Principe). It soon becomes clear that when Caravaggio was on the run from the authorities for the crime he had committed on the tennis court, the painter’s most dedicated artist friends organized an attempt to take control of the San Luca Academy and in addition arrange a pardon for their hero. The pivotal years for our inquiry prove to be 1606-1607 and 1617-1620 in which the same pro and contra Caravaggio Academy members are involved when the Academy’s new statutes were proposed.

A possible papal pardon for Caravaggio lay at the root of the frictions within the San Luca Academy. In his M, The Man who Became Caravaggio Peter Robb claims (without giving a source) that when the Borghese Pope Paul V gave the Academy the annual right to free a condemned man, he probably had in mind the crime Caravaggio committed in the same year, 1606. In their attempt, the pro Caravaggio faction inside the San Luca Academy tried to deny their colleague Giovanni Baglione (who served as the Academy’s principe in 1606) control. As will be explained below, Baglione would never have granted pardon to Caravaggio, with whom he had a long and bitter feud.

The Caravaggio – Baglione Polemics

In his Caravaggio biography Andrew Graham Dixon puts the Giovanni Baglione - Caravaggio issue into proper context as it unfolded within the San Luca Academy in the autumn of 1606, when Caravaggio was in exile in Naples. In October 1606 Baglione was appointed San Luca’s principe. He believed that it was this election that provoked the attempt on his life. While walking to church Baglione was attacked by one Carlo Piemontese, during which Baglione was wounded in the hand. Three weeks before the attack the same Carlo had come to the academy and had tried to disrupt the vote. The would-be assassin proved to be a friend of two other painters, Carlo Saraceni and Orazio Borgianni. According to Baglione, the three of them had formed a secret clique to ensure that a member of Caravaggio’s faction was elected instead. When their efforts failed, they resorted to violence. Baglione said that Caravaggio’s adherents had been told to kill him and to bring the news to Caravaggio who would give them a nice reward. The final outcome of the case is unknown, but we do know that both Saraceni and Borgianni made unusually large donations to the Academy the following year. This suggests that the affair may have been settled out of court.

The instigator behind the initiative to support Caravaggio in late 1606 proves to have been Carlo Saraceni. I never realized this, but he was very probably a member of Caravaggio’s inner circle just before his death, and after 1610 Saraceni became one of the most conspicuous followers of Caravaggio’s style.

Carlo Saraceni

By all accounts the year 1606 was fundamental for Saraceni. That was when he became inspired by Caravaggio, both as a person and as an artist. As you have gathered, I am not completely on my own in my quest for the hidden identity of the Death picture. Ascribing a work of art to a specific artist is a complex matter, based on the recognition of elements that can only be detected by the eye of the learned viewer. When I went through the database of my research looking for Saraceni entries, I stumbled upon an e-mail from 2011 which I received from one of these learned viewers:

The e-mail reads:

“The iconographical association with Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno degli Dei’s Apollo and Hyacinth tennis match is extremely convincing. With the Death of Hyacinth’s possible allusion to Caravaggio’s match I am more skeptical. I can think of no important patron who commissioned a painting commemorating a dead artist in a work of art. If anything the two paintings remind me of Saraceni”. 

It is the last sentence of Cavazzini’s feedback that strikes me. It opens up a fascinating, new perspective in my inquiry, especially in the light of my recent findings about Saraceni’s key role in the 1606-1607 and the 1617 San Luca Academy new statutes polemics. Caution should be observed, however, Caravazzini’s “they remind me of Saraceni” should perhaps not be interpreted as a formal attribution.

Portrait of Caravaggio, for the Accademia di San Luca, c. 1617, by anonymous painter.

Caravaggio’s Portrait for the San Luca Academy

The portraits that were made for the Academy of both Caravaggio and Saraceni attest to the special bond that existed between the two artists. Caravaggio’s San Luca portrait (above) was incorporated in a “trittico” (triptych) with two other painters: Orazio Borgianni and Carlo Saraceni. The choice of these two artists in the triptych was by no means arbitrary. They prove to have been totally committed to showing compassion with their hero. According to Isabella Salvagni, in her Caravaggio e l’Europaessay, the 1617 triptych should be viewed as a posthumous tribute by the Accademia di San Lucameeting to the deceased artist. The year 1617 thus proves to be pivotal in my inquiry, the year in which in an indirect way Caravaggio’s exile, the deliberations about his pardon, and his most tormenting moment that incited his final, dark years, were elaborated all over again. Not just within the confines of the San Luca Academy. Cardinal del Monte in 1606-1607 served as mediator between the two factions within the San Luca Academy.

Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549-1627), bl/w chalk, Ottavio Leoni, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota.

It would be an error to imagine the part Cardinal del Monte played as Cardinal-Protector during the Academy’s acrimonious disputes as one of placid benevolence. The gestation of the new statutes’ drafts between 1617-1620, seconded by del Monte’s signatories, speaks volumes of the controversies and turmoil seething within the Academy and of the non-partisan role that the Cardinal-Protector del Monte aimed to exercise.

I’ll be with you again soon (if not earlier).

Caravaggio Blog