Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Born in London in 1960, Andrew Graham-Dixon is one of the leading art critics and presenters of arts television in the English-speaking world. He has presented numerous landmark series on art[…]

Andrew Graham-Dixon, who has been called “the most gifted art critic of his generation,” revisits the scandalous, sensational life of Italian painter Caravaggio and finds in it a model for success in troubled times.

Andrew Graham-Dixon: Caravaggio has been remembered by history as a mad, violent, dangerous outsider.  But what people often forget is that he was a violent man, but he was a violent man in a violent world, and he followed its rules.  He maybe was more extreme than some other people, but you have to think what Rome was like, you know, in the late 16th and early 17th century when Caravaggio lived there.

The church is in a state of crisis, desperate for art.  Artists are flocking to the city; hundreds of artists, thousands of artists.  It's like Hollywood, except there's only one studio in town, and that studio is the Vatican.  So it's this magnet for artists; magnet for clerics, magnet for mercenaries, magnet for pilgrims, magnet for paupers and beggars.  It's a testosterone-filled city being serviced by a vagrant community of prostitutes.  It's a place full of disorder, full of arguments, full of fights, full of rivalry, full of hostility, and the whole thing is governed by this code of honor that's slightly analogous to the kind of codes of honor that you get among gangs in modern cities.  You looking at me?  It's that kind of thing.  

A lot of Caravaggio's fights are all basically about, you looking at me, what are you saying about me?  You know, waiter serves a plate of artichokes; the artichokes have butter on them.  So Caravaggio smashes the plate in the waiter's face, cuts his face, sends him to hospital.  We know this because the waiter then complains to a judge, sues Caravaggio, and we have the records in the Roman Archive of the trial.  Caravaggio gets off because he has powerful friends in high places, but what's behind this fight with the artichokes?

Caravaggio is from Lombardi, which is in northern Italy.  The waiter is from Rome.  The waiter thinks that artichokes should be served with olive oil.  So does Caravaggio, actually, but the waiter thinks Caravaggio is from Lombardi.  He's a cheese-eating vulgarian.  So he serves them; it's like saying, “You're not welcome here.”  So racial insults served up as a dish.  And things are always like that in Rome; these little insults that are going on all the time.  And Caravaggio's super sensitive to anything like that.  So he's always getting into trouble.  

The only way to get on as an artist in this cut-throat deeply competitive world was to make friends with the right people.  You had to have high-up friends.  If you tried to, as it were, get to the top via the back route, you know, working your way up through an artist's studio, becoming his assistant, his apprentice, eventually getting a -- you'd be there forever.  Forget it.  What you have to do is you have to have a powerful friend, and Caravaggio very cleverly -- he's living on the street; he has no money; he's this dark, dangerous, vagabond character getting into trouble, getting into fights.  He's blessed with this great genius for painting but he can't quite get himself to where he needs to be.

He has the good fortune to make friends with a guy called Constantino Sparta, who's a picture dealer who's got, like, five kids to feed and needs money.  Between them they hatch a plan.  And the palace opposite Constantino Sparta's shop lives a cardinal, Del Monte, who's a bit of an avant-garde collector.  He collects new music; he's very interested in new music, he's very interested in new kinds of art.  

And Sparta and Caravaggio dream up a new kind of painting; it's a genre painting, it's now called.  It's now an established kind of art, but then it wasn't.  It was a new kind of painting.  What they painted, what Sparta persuaded Caravaggio to paint, was scenes from modern life; two scenes in particular: two cardsharps fooling a young man out of his money and a gypsy fortune teller picking a young man's pocket as she charms him with her beautiful eyes and her beautiful face as she pretends to tell him his fortune.  These two pictures -- it worked.  The trick worked.  Del Monte went in to the shop and said, "Who painted these?  These are incredible."  He said, "Oh, it's a bloke I know called Caravaggio."

Del Monte buys the pictures and the next thing you know Caravaggio's living in the Palazzo Madame; he's been taken in.  He's become one of Del Monte's protégés.  And Del Monte is a remarkable man.  He supports the writing of the very first opera.  He's Galileo's principle patron.  He's the man who introduced Galileo to the Medicis.  So in a sense, he's responsible for some of the great breakthroughs in modern science, because without his support Galileo might never have made it.

And Caravaggio is another of his protégés.  So suddenly Caravaggio has got in to the cardinals palace, and once he's got there he's on the way up.  He's got his foot on the first rung of the ladder.  That’s probably the pivotal moment of his early career.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd