Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! Today’s blog is a bit different from my regular content. Often, we glorify the art as works of genius, but forget that many of these artists had less than stellar reputations. This video isn’t to disrespect their memory or their art, but it is to highlight that legacies are complicated and we shouldn’t forget that. This blog post will have discussions of violence, so if this is something that you are sensitive too, please don’t read. So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Gianlorenzo Bernini is arguably the biggest name of the Baroque era. His work was beloved by kings, popes, and the public. Many of his fountains, sculptures, and architectural elements still grace the streets and museums of Rome. Bernini’s ability to capture passion and drama is remarkable! However, some of the passion did bleed into his personal life.
Costanza Bonarelli was her name. She was the wife of Matteo Bonarelli, one of Bernini’s workshop employees. The two had a passionate affair, until Bernini discovered that she was also having an affair with his brother, Luigi. One day, Bernini burst into his brother’s apartments, finding the couple in a state of undress. Enraged, he took an iron bar and attempted to beat his brother to death. Thankfully, for Luigi, he only suffered a couple of broken ribs before he was able to run into the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and was then under the protection of sanctuary. But, Gianlorenzo couldn’t let this slight stand. He sent a servant to Costanza’s house and instructed him to slash her face with a razor.
The aftermath of the once passionate and loving affair was insane! Luigi was exiled to Bologna, but it was likely to protect him from his brother versus being a punishment. Costanza, permanently disfigured from the razor attack, was charged with adultery and fornication and sent to prison for her crimes. The servant, although he was just following orders from his master, was also sentenced to prison.
Quite unfairly, Bernini was able to get out of his punishment! He was fined, but Pope Urban VIII agreed to waive it on the condition that Bernini married. Shortly after, he wed Caterina Tezio. The couple seemed happy as there were no more reports of violence. Together, they had 11 children.
This incident shows us that Bernini was quite powerful in the city. Not only did he escape punishment for these heinous actions, but he was allowed (and encouraged to!) marry another woman.
Like Bernini, Michelangelo Mersi da Caravaggio was a Baroque artist known for his ability to capture drama and realism using light and shadow. He wasn’t afraid to push the buttons of society by violating artistic norms. One of his most famous examples: using a well known sex worker (and likely his mistress) as the model for the Virgin Mary in his 1606 work, the Death of the Virgin.
However, Caravaggio is also famous for something else: his remarkable temper. Records from the era survive that detail his many court appearances for brawling, possessing illegal weapons, arguing with the city guards, and even throwing a plate of artichokes in a waiter’s face! Caravaggio was exiled multiple times to both Venice and Milan. But, he always made his way back home.
On 29 May 1606, Caravaggio committed his gravest offense. He killed Ranuccio Tommasoni. According to records, the two had fought and brawled many times before. There are even some historians who believe that this could have been an accidental killing as the pair had resorted to violence in the past. The motive remains unclear, the most popular being a gambling debt or the love of a woman. Regardless, Caravaggio was in big trouble!
Prior to this incident, Caravaggio’s patrons were able to shield him from the worst of the consequences. Unfortunately this time around, Tommasoni was from a wealthy and influential family. They pursued the matter and eventually Caravaggio was sentenced to death by beheading. In addition, the court stated that anyone who recognized the artist was allowed to carry out the sentence themselves! In order to escape death, Caravaggio moved south of Rome. But that wasn’t far enough. Over the next few years, he moved to Naples, Malta, and Sicily.
Despite the death sentence hanging over his head, Caravaggio continued to work for high-powered patrons, including the Colonna and Sforza families. He died in 1610 as the result of an infected stab wound received during a bar fight.
These two Baroque artists are remembered for their brilliant works of art that helped change the way that we saw the world. However, it’s important to understand that their legacies are complicated and they were human. These violent incidents should not be forgotten as they tell the story of the whole person, not just the artist.