Caravaggio and The Denial of St. Peter

August 20, 2012

Caravaggio, The Denial of St. Peter, 1610

The story that the painting illustrates is told in all four books of the New Testament. According to the gospels, Christ prophesied that his disciple Peter would deny him three times before the cock had crowed twice. On the day of Christ’s arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter followed his master into the courtyard of the high priest Caiaphas. He waited there as Christ was tormented by his accusers. ‘And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, Prophesy: and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands.

And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest: And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked upon him, and said, And thou wast with Jesus of Nazareth. But he denied, saying, I know not, neither understand I what thou sayest.’ Twice more, Peter was asked if he’ knew Jesus, and each time he gave the same answer: `And the second time the cock crew. And Peter called to mind the word that Jesus said unto him, Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. And when he thought thereon, he wept’ (Mark 14:65-72).

Caravaggio has combined elements from all three denials in a single image. Behind the figures, a reddish-brown smudge and some scattered flecks of brighter pigment suggest the fire by which Peter warms himself, damp logs spitting sparks into the air. On the left, his face entirely in shadow, stands one of Caiaphas’s guards. He looks like a’ dim memory of the malign soldier in the much earlier Betrayal of Christ, which had shown the moment directly before Peter’s threefold denial. This soldier’s red shirtsleeve is indicated in a few summary strokes of red paint with swiftly dashed-in highlights. A wedge-shaped’ piece of light fragments and disperses in the darkness of his armor. His face and hands are a blur. Beside him, a single girl stands in for both maids challenging Peter. She stares intently at the soldier while pointing at Peter with a half-sketched hand.

The most eloquent figure in the picture is Peter himself, his bald head creased with lines and his face carrying an expression of deep, glassy-eyed self-recrimination. He points both of his own hands towards himself, as if to complete the triple accusation. He denies Christ and hates himself in the same moment. A tear wells out of a corner of his half-hidden right eye. He is the embodiment of saddened guilt, a man who knows he has done wrong and can hardly bear to confront himself.

Against the odds, it is a moving and powerful image. Caravaggio has drawn on all his long-practiced ingenuity. But his strategies are those of evasion. Crop the figures to extreme close-up, to avoid problems of anatomical articulation. Arrange the faces at odd or oblique angles, to obviate the need for accurate depictions of human physiognomy. Smother any awkward areas in blankets of shadow. Wherever gleams of illumination do pierce the darkness, they reveal the imprecision of the painter’s touch.

His draughtsmanship, the way he draws with the brush, has collapsed altogether. Peter’s hands are like flesh-colored mittens, his left thumb so botched it resembles the claw of an animal. Light flaring in darkness had once been Caravaggio’s signature, the source of all his pictorial magic. Now it exposes his illness and incapacity, and shows us how that magic has evaporated.”

For the writer James Hall: “On the wall, the painting is even muddier than in reproductions — most of the light comes weakly over the guard’s right shoulder, falling on Peter, who makes a universal gesture of blamelessness, turning both hands toward his chest, as if protesting at that moment: “Me? I’m telling you, you’ve got the wrong fisherman.”

For years when Hall  visited the painting he looked mostly at Peter, at his expression of simultaneous deception and defeat. But the longer he looked, the more it seemed to him that the saint — as the symbolic embodiment of the human frailty and faith that underpin Roman Catholic doctrine — was not the lead actor in the drama.

It was the maid, whose eyes, catching the light with pinpoint reflections, somehow become the painting’s center. Her eyes seem to have come unfocused, and she’s not looking at the guard she is facing but looking momentarily inward. Whatever precise Counter-Reformation doctrine the painting was once trying to expound, it is the maid’s hesitation and humanity in the moment of accusation that, to me, now remain as the painting’s subject and its power.

Whether this has any historical justification, or whether it is what a broken-down Caravaggio, near the end of his too-short life, intended, no longer makes much difference to me. One result of looking at a painting so long that you can see it in your mind’s eye is that it does, in a very real sense, become your own, not quite the same painting that anyone else will see.”

Hall continues: “The Denial of St. Peter” has little of Caravaggio’s lyrical naturalism and none of the louche [vocab: Disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way: "the louche world of the theater".], sloe-eyed characters who people his early paintings like “The Musicians,” its lively Baroque gallery roommate, painted 15 years earlier, in 1595. In the best-known works darkness and light wage a battle cinematic enough to warm the heart of Cecil B. DeMille; in “St. Peter,” completed in the torturous last months of Caravaggio’s violent life, darkness almost carries the day, rendered in fast and sketchy strokes. “A terminally raw and ragged thing,” as Andrew Graham-Dixon describes the painting, with maybe only a little hyperbole, in his 2010 biography, “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.”  

Going back to that biography (one of the best on Caravaggio) we come upon the story of the attack on Caravaggio at the brothel Osteria del Cerriglio and how it came to affect one of his last works:

“The nineteenth-century Neapolitan poet, playwright and historic Salvatore di Giacomo, whose work on the underworld of seventeenth century Naples has been largely forgotten, unearthed several incriminating references to the tavern in the archives of the city. `The Cerriglio was not wholly frequented by well-mannered individuals, and the inn keeper would often turn a blind eye if not turn his back altogether, he wrote in his pioneering study of 1899, Prostitution in Naples. Elsewhere, di Giacomo described just what `gentlemen’ such as Caravaggio might find when they walked though the brothel’s discreetly concealed door and entered its upper rooms: `These rooms nowadays; would be called higher chambers. Since the end of the 16th century, by which time the Cerriglio was already famous, they had made up a separate quarter [of the tavern] … in one of these little rooms, in circa 1671, a slave was caught practicing what are nowadays referred to as certain psychopathic sexual acts, which were thought of in less scientific terms in the seventeenth century and punishable with beheading.’ The only sexual act punishable by beheading was sodomy. The Cerriglio clearly catered for a wide range of sexual appetites.

Caravaggio’s problems arose when he tried to leave the tavern. He had been followed there by a group of armed men, who waited for him in the street outside as he took his pleasure within. As soon as he walked out of the door, they ambushed him. On 24 October 1609, a Roman newspaper included the following notice: `Word has been received from Naples that Caravaggio, the famous painter, has been murdered. Others say disfigured: The rumor of his death turned out to have been exaggerated. He had not been killed, but he had been severely injured.

Within days of the publication of the newspaper report, Caravaggio’s old friend and biographer, Giulio Mancini, put out his own antennae. Mancini did not yet know the full truth, but what he did know filled him with anxiety. He wrote to his brother Deifebo in Siena: `It’s said that Michelangelo da Caravaggio has been assaulted by four in Napoli and the witnesses say he has been given a facial scar. If so it would be a sin and is [the next word, which begins with a d but is illegible, could be `disturbing' or `a disgrace'] to everybody. Let God make it not so.

Mancini wrote that Caravaggio had been sfregiato, cut on the face, which in the honor code of the day was an injury inflicted to avenge an insult to reputation. The same word had been used by the writer of the Roman news report. It lends both brief accounts of the assault a grim specificity, and explains the other detail gleaned by Mancini: that Caravaggio had been attacked by a group of four men. This was no drunken fracas but a premeditated act, a vendetta attack ruthlessly executed: three men to hold him down, one man to cut the marks of shame into his face.

Years later, the painter’s biographers gave their own terse versions of what had happened. They were unanimous on two points. It was a coldblooded attack — a hit — and it was perpetrated by a man or a group of men from Malta.

Baglione’s report of the assault at the Cerriglio follows seamlessly from his account of Caravaggio’s incarceration on Malta and his subsequent escape. It is clear that Baglione believed the two episodes were linked as surely as cause and effect:

In Malta, Caravaggio had a dispute with a Knight of Justice and in some way affronted him. For this he was thrown into prison. But he escaped at night by means of a rope ladder and fled to the island) of Sicily. In Palermo he executed several works, but because he was still being pursued by his enemy he had to return to Naples. There his enemy finally caught up with him and he was so severely slashed in the face that he was almost unrecognizable.

Bellori, writing considerably later than Baglione, thought the cause of the assault lay elsewhere. In his account it was not the revenge attack of an insulted Knight of Justice, but a mission carried out by implication on the orders of Alof de Wignacourt:

[Caravaggio] felt that it was no longer safe to remain in Sicily and so he left the island and sailed back to Naples, intending to remain there until he received news of his pardon so that he could return to Rome. At the same time seeking to regain the favour of the Grand Master of Malta, he sent him as a gift a half-length figure of Herodias with the head of St John the Baptist in a basin. These attentions availed him nothing, for stopping one day in the doorway of the Osteria del Cerriglio he found himself surrounded by several armed men who manhandled him and slashed his face.

Francesco Susinno, writing still later, but from a position considerably closer to the events on Malta and Sicily, leaned towards Baglione’s version of events: “The fugitive arrived in Palermo, and in that city also left excellent works of art. From there he moved again to Naples, chased there by his angered antagonist, and was badly wounded on the face.

To these counterposed explanations of the attack may be added one other possibility: that its origins lay not in Malta but in Rome, and that it was carried out either by or on behalf of the aggrieved relations of the late Ranuccio Tomassoni. There is no suggestion that this was the case in any of the early biographies, nor in any contemporary source. In fact there is no hard evidence of any kind to support the hypothesis. But the theory has been advocated by at least one influential scholar of Caravaggio’s life and work in recent years.

A great deal of archival research has been done on Caravaggio over the past half-century. Many new discoveries have been made, and it is striking how in almost every case the historical facts have tended to confirm the accounts of one or other of Caravaggio’s early biographers. Baglione has generally proved to be more accurate than Bellori, which is not surprising: he was part of Caravaggio’s own circle, and although the two men were enemies they took more than a passing interest in each other’s activities. Baglione knew who Caravaggio’s friends and allies were in Rome, and understood the complicated and violent codes of honor by which he lived and died, whereas Bellori was simply baffled by them. A fairly straightforward process of elimination establishes Baglione’s account of the assault in the Osteria del Cerriglio as the most credible explanation of the whole dark business.

The modern suggestion that Ranuccio Tomassoni’s relations were the aggressors lacks merit on the grounds of chronology, geography and logic. The attack in the Cerriglio took place more than three years after Caravaggio had murdered Tomassoni. Even if it is assumed that the Tomassoni clan was still bent on revenge, which in this case would have been a dish served very cold indeed, it is unlikely that they would have attempted an attack on the painter in distant Naples: far better to wait until his heralded return to Rome, where they could watch his movements and plan their strike with a greater certainty of success. The most powerful argument against their involvement is the nature of the wounding Caravaggio suffered. He had been cut in the face. In the language of vendetta, the sfregio was punishment for an insult to honor and reputation. But the painter had murdered Tomassoni, not merely insulted him. An eye for an eye: if the Tomassoni had been behind the assault in Naples, Caravaggio would have been killed, not disfigured.

Bellori’s suggestion that Alof de Wignacourt ordered the attack is equally illogical. Caravaggio had not personally insulted Wignacourt, nor had he attacked his reputation. True, he had defied the Grand Master’s authority. But the appropriate punishment for that was extradition back to Malta. The facial wounding of an errant knight at a house of ill repute was not something Wignacourt would have sanctioned. His involvement seems even less likely, given that at the time of the attack Caravaggio was living in the household of the mother of Wignacourt’s admiral of the fleet. The Grand Master was ruthless but he was also intensely pragmatic. If he had wanted satisfaction from Caravaggio, he would have taken it in the form of pictures.

Baglione’s account, to which the Sicilian biographer Susinno subsequently gave his imprimatur, is the only one entirely consistent with the known facts of the case. It has the cold logic of vendetta, stressing the symmetry between insult given and punishment received, even in the author’s choice of words. Baglione says Caravaggio had `affronted’ the Knight of Justice on Malta, a usage that etymologically` conjoins insult with the notion of a metaphorical loss of face (affronto, the word used by Baglione, has the same root as fronte, Italian for `forehead’). In revenge, Caravaggio’s enemy literalized that same insult, slashing him in the face.

That enemy was, we now know, Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, the Conte della Vezza. We also know that he left Malta shortly after Caravaggio’s escape from the island. That too is consistent with Baglione’s assertion that the painter was slowly but surely tracked by his enemy, who followed him to Sicily from Malta and finally caught up with him at the Osteria del Cerriglio. Since the facts to have emerged from the Maltese archive tally so exactly with the arc of Baglione’s narrative, it is only logical to believe that the rest of his account is also correct. He asked the right questions of the right people, and he established the truth: it was indeed a vendetta, begun in Malta and finished in Naples.

Whatever the painter had said or done to him on the night of the fracas in Malta, Roero had been left with a burning sense of grievance. Maltese Knights of Justice were not known for their propensity, to forgive and forget. The Conte della Vezza was evidently proud and mercilessly persistent. He had a team of accomplices. This was the man who hunted Caravaggio down, who stood over him as he struggled, who cut his face.

After exacting his bloody revenge, Roero vanished from historical view. That too seems to have been part of his plan. He may have been helped by friends within the Maltese judiciary. Shortly after the. revenge attack, all details of Caravaggio’s crime on Malta were carefully painted out of the archive there by an unknown hand. In this way, the artist’s name was obliterated from the great book of crimes and punishments. So too was the name of his victim and assailant, Having got his revenge, Roero meticulously covered his traces. Even Baglione, who plainly knew so much, never discovered the name of, Caravaggio’s assailant.

Caravaggio seems never to have fully recovered from the attack at the Osteria del Cerriglio. Crippled and perhaps partially blinded by his injuries, he went into the limbo of a long convalescence. On Christmas Day 1609, two months after the assault, Mancini’s correspondence with his brother Deifebo communicated a solitary scrap of inconclusive rumor: `It’s said that Caravaggio is near here, well looked after, also that he wants to return to Rome soon, and that he has powerful help.’ Negotiations for a papal pardon may have been progressing, but in truth Caravaggio was nowhere near Rome. Mancini had been misinformed. The painter was in Naples, presumably at the Colonna Palace at Chiaia, fighting for his life. He would remain there for at least six months.

Mancini’s letter apart, from October 1609 until May 1610 there is a striking absence of evidence about Caravaggio’s activities. He apparently does nothing, says nothing. The archive falls silent, like a cardiograph flat lining. It then flickers briefly, but only twice. Each flicker takes the form of a painting.

The seriousness of Caravaggio’s injuries is shockingly apparent in The Denial of St Peter, a melancholic and withdrawn devotional work painted sometime in the summer of 1610. It is a terminally raw and ragged thing — an image snatched from the pit of darkest adversity, painted by a man who could barely hold a brush.

The stark and pared down style evolved in Sicily has been appallingly coarsened. Three figures, two men and a single woman, confront one another in the shallowest of spaces. The conception is subtle, the composition strikingly original and the mood bitterly sad. But such is the uncertainty of the handling that the whole image looks disconcertingly unfocused. It is still recognizably a Caravaggio, but the brushwork is so broad, the definition of forms so unsure, that the painter seems to have fallen prey to some form of essential tremor, an uncontrollable shaking of the hands as well as perhaps to damage of the eyes.


What are we to make of all this? The injured Caravaggio, the guilt ridden Peter reeling from Christ’s prophecy, the maid’s hesitation, her sense of the awful truth that Peter is dealing with. Make no mistake, Peter’s failure is our failure, a betrayal of the only decent man he has ever known and loved. The maid seems defiant in a way: How dare you pile on? She challenges the flunky guard. How dare you force him to recant and betray his (our?) Lord ? Her eyes seem lit with defiance, she is transcendent in her courage here. It’s a Holy Spirit moment for sure. What do you see? Has she sensed Peter’s tragedy, our tragedy?

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