I devoted the four wonderful months I spent in the Academy writing a book on Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio. I have been working many years in an art gallery located in Via di Pallacorda, the street of the painter who committed the murder that ruined his life. On Sundays I used to indulge in an old vice of mine, painting, and portraited people—mostly writers I love and sometimes Academy Fellows whom I love too.
Following are a brief reflection on Caravaggio and some portraits:
When one speaks of extremes such as these, light and darkness, the name that emerges above all is that of the legendary artist who found success and misfortune in Rome. His difficult character caused him to be hated by many of his collegues, who were much more adept at currying favor, as was customary for the period. Nicolas Poussin judged him a delinquent who came into the world to ruin painting, and Poussin wasn't the only one to think so.
Caravaggio reached Rome as a twenty-year-old, seeing it as the only possible destination. Rome, in his lifetime, was an open-air artistic construction site, although this was perhaps linked more to the goal of the Counter-Reformation than it was to an interest in revolutionizing art. The city had a dangerous nocturnal scene of dive bars, taverns, and dark alleys, where Caravaggio felt at home. Witnesses described him as a young man who went around «dressed in black, disheveled, wearing a pair of slightly torn black socks, with his long hair hanging in front of his face».
It is superflous to recall the many stories about his intemperate and rebellious character, which provoked his many run-ins with the law. Such was his familiarity with the halls of justice that his only poetic declaration recorded for posterity is a statement he made in court during a trial for defamation in which, called to the stand as the accused, he specified that his definition of a gentleman was someone who «knows how to make his own art, … he can paint well and imitate skillfull in nature».
Caravaggio did not express himself fully. Or better: he did not describe things as they were. Instead of taking of «imitation» in his court statements, he should have used the verb «copy», because this is closer to what he did. He copied things from nature in the most literal sens of the term. Wasn't it Picasso who said that mediocre artist imitate, wheread geniuses copy? The notion that Caravaggio replaced the platonic light of Renaissance with the light of reality is a convincing theoretical fairy tale, but it does not take into account his actual practice. The «light of reality» was the necessary condition for copying objects from nature with maximum efficiency; it was the presupposition for the instantaneous painting.
Caravaggio substituted illuminated ideas current during the Renaissance with writing in light, otherwhise known as photography. And if he spent so much time loitering, it wasn't only because he enjoyed it, but also because in the hours of darkness and on cloudy days he was not able to carry out his special technique. It was not light in and of itself that truly interested him, but that which it permitted him to do.
Those who accused Caravaggio of being an assassin of painting reproache him—essentially, and without realizing it—for invoking the spectre of photography, the machine, and modernity of the future. It seems, then, that in inventing modern art, Caravaggio entrusted his personal obsession: his afterlife, the hereafter of painting, the death of art.
What end is prefigured? For a painter, existing in death means painting like a machine, becoming a painter-scribe, a man haunted by the wall as Bartleby, the Melville's scrivener. It means pushing oneself up against the wall. Death is the wall. And the images impressed upon the wall are death.
Caravaggio painted an infinite number of images of death; he even portrayed withered, worn-eaten leaves, and fruit on the point of going bad. At the end he gave death too. He killed a man, a Ranuccio. He killed him in a Y-shaped street named via di Pallacorda just after this murdering of him. It happend that I have been working in that street for a long time. I have been working there, in a contemporary art gallery, for almost twenty years — the years of my youth and more. Because of that my life happened to assume a Y-shape, and I had to turn myself in a thief of soul, the thief of Caravaggio's soul.
Tommaso Pincio, Portrait of David Foster Wallace, 2011.
Oil on board, 65 x 60 cm.
Tommaso Pincio, Portrait of Pier Paolo Pasolini con lucciole, 2012.
Mixed media on board, 65 x 60 cm.
Tommaso Pincio, Portrait of Thomas Hendrickson (Arthur Ross Pre-Doctoral Prize), 2012.
Oil and gold-leaf on board, 24 x 20 cm.
Tommaso Pincio, Portrait of James G. Ballard, 2012.
Mixed media on board, 65 x 60 cm.