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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Caravaggio’s Rome

A recent exhibition of Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes depicts a grisly scene of decapitation. Caravaggio gained prominence in Rome in the early 1600s. He was a violent man and a number of his paintings depict violent scenes. Is there a link to his brutality, his paintings, and the city in which he lived? What was Caravaggio’s Rome like?

Imagine a grimy city with frequent violence and filth. That was seventeenth century Rome. I do not suggest practicing art in a crime ridden city had anything to do with his personality or crimes he committed. Correlation is not causation in Caravaggio’s case. He must have witnessed – and participated in – aggressive acts and criminal activity. Maybe the city’s violence played a role in painting extreme realism. What he experienced, saw, and did in Rome is reflected in his art. Most of the population was poor or just barely getting by. Cattle roamed the Forum, and people used the streets and piazzas to defecate or urinate “da per tutto” (everywhere) without concern for public health or privacy. Many lived hand to mouth. The schism between the elite and everyone else was deep.

Rome was still the epicenter of European art with Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s fountains, St. Peter’s Basilica and the colonnaded piazza, and countless other ornately decorated palaces and churches, but daily life was one of hardship. Italy had more artists working in the seicento (1600s) than any other European country. Popes and cardinals were main patrons of the arts, with plenty of money for commissions. Rome did not produce many materials goods. The church and the curia powered the economy with luxury goods, services, and art. They built palaces, new churches, renovated churches, and decorated chapels. Pilgrimage and diplomatic entourages kept inns and taverns busy.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Piazza del Popolo, engraving from “Vedute di Roma”, c. 1750, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Piazza del Popolo, engraving from “Vedute di Roma”, c. 1750, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access.

This view of Rome, although etched long after Caravaggio died, is representative of what his city looked like during his time there. The viewer is positioned in the Piazza del Popolo after just having entered the northern gate to the city looking south towards the twin churches of Basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli. This “gate of the people”, or Porta del Popolo, was the main entrance to the city and would have been the one Caravaggio used when he moved to Rome. Pope Sixtus V constructed these churches and moved the Egyptian obelisk dating from the Roman Empire to this location. This view with the churches and obelisk would have been new at the end of the sixteenth century and is what he saw when he passed through the gate. The church of Santa Maria del Popolo, home to its famous Caravaggio paintings, would be just behind you and is the first church visitors would see upon entering the city. The numerous carriages, cattle, rutted unpaved streets, bits of Roman ruins, men milling about, and pedestrians evident in the engraving match elements of Caravaggio’s Rome.

Aristocratic families and cardinals demonstrated their social position in many ways. Status was everything, and carriages and swords sent a message. Horse drawn carriages were not so common in the fifteenth century, but by the sixteenth century and onwards having a carriage provided a means to avoid stepping in manure or feces and the ability to force your way through the streets. Road rage, or carriage rage, was common. Privileged members of society hired footmen who, in advance of the carriage, would use rods or bully sticks to force pedestrians out of their way.

Carriages were also used to “go for a ride” around Rome to be seen and to observe others out and about. Enclosed carriages also provided privacy. Not everyone knew who was in the carriage or where they were going. Men could send a driver to pick up a paramour and transport her to their love nest. In the Renaissance golden age of carnal commerce (i.e., prostitution) high class courtesans were part of aristocratic society, and licensed. This golden age was primarily in the 1500s where courtesans were relatively common in the city. After the Council of Trent seventeenth century sex workers were harassed and basically illegal. Women who sought income from sex were forced into the back streets, and brothels still existed. A covered carriage was a necessity for discretion.

Rome was one of the last developed European cities to have public lighting at night. Streets were known colloquially by their neighborhood location as there were no posted street signs. Houses had no numbers. Names and numbers would not be useful as most of the population was illiterate. Looking for the notary? He’s on the street towards the river next to the barber.

Evening and night were especially dangerous. Equally perilous was the countryside or regions just outside the city walls. Crime increased anytime there was a lack of food. There were two dangerous seasonal periods, the first one being Carnival celebrations in the weeks prior to Lent. Partiers wore masks which rendered them anonymous. Any perpetrators misbehaving while carousing were difficult to identify. The other most dangerous period was late spring and early summer when food reserves were very low and new crops were not yet available for market. A hungry underfed population is prone to anger and violence.

Popes had dual roles of ruling Rome as a secular city and ruling the Catholic faith worldwide. They often did not excel at either. Each pope could create their own canon church law as well as civil laws. Popes were in charge of courts, policing, and governing. Since so many popes didn’t rule for very long, there was little consistency in laws. Some criminals simply left Rome hoping for a change over in popes and perhaps a more lenient pontiff. When a particularly strict pope ruled, document show the population shrunk.

Di Sede vacante” literally means an empty seat. This was the most feared time for Romans after popes died and in the interim before a conclave elected the next Holy Father. Chaos and near civil war ensued. When Pius IV died in 1559 Romans took to the streets to loot, kill, maim, and rape. He was a very strict and repressive pope and disliked by Romans. They rejoiced that he was gone. The Venetian ambassador compared living in Rome at that time to what he had witnessed in Germany during the 1547 civil war.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini survived many Sede vacante, as did Michelangelo. However, after Clement IX died in 1670, when the usual mayhem occurred, Bernini experienced a frightening attack on his home and carriage. Ritual revenge and attack on a person’s honor was often extracted by vandalizing a home, in this case stoning the home and breaking windows. Later his carriage was detained and searched by armed men. Hostility towards the privileged, of which Bernini certainly was, occurred especially during vulnerable times. Attacking a home was an attack on the person’s virtue and honor. Many were tired of the fifty years Bernini was the pet artist of the upper class and papacy.

Stoning a house was minor considering the violent attacks which were part of everyday life. Swords were often the weapon of choice. Time and again a pope would proclaim that law and order would be restored or instilled in the people of Rome and time and again it failed. Romans were a hot-headed people who first turned to violence to resolve disputes. Even visitors from outside of Rome were surprised at the disorder. Popes tried to outlaw all weapons, then allow some weapons, then allow weapons only for the noble families and their servants. Yet, daggers, swords, and even firearms were openly carried or concealed.

It is no surprise that Caravaggio’s Rome was dangerous especially because of scoundrels like him. Records from the Relazioni dei Barbieri (barber-doctors) from 1550-1600 document about 1.8 violent crimes a day in peaceful times and almost seven a day in periods of famine or unrest. The Barbieri tended to the wounded and had to report suspicious wounds. Citizens were notoriously unwilling to cooperate with the Roman police, the sbirri. They had an inherent distrust of government and bureaucracy, a sentiment that lingers today. Romans preferred to avoid police and the court systems.

The sbirri were vastly outnumbered by citizens, cardinals, and pilgrims roaming the city. Sbirri were known to harass the accused and abuse their authority. They were not a well-disciplined police force.

Spada da Stocco, (Thrusting Sword), c. 1500, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access.
Spada da Stocco, (Thrusting Sword), c. 1500, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access.

However, it was a long-pointed sword, the spada, that was a favorite for enacting revenge and settling scores. It was the most common weapon the sbirri confiscated in crimes or when carried without a license. Portraits of upper-class men wearing expensive clothing often feature their spada, with their hand on the hilt. Carrying a sword was a sign of freedom and honor. There were many different types of swords, but here I will use the generic spada. Swords could have curved blades (a falchion), and rapiers had double edged blades and a hand guard. There were also broad swords, and of course, daggers. Nobility had elaborately decorated hilts and hand guards custom made for their weapons. This spada da stocco pictured here was meant to kill – penetrating into gaps in the armor. Attending fencing schools were a necessary part of a gentleman’s education. Learning the cut and thrust method of defending oneself with a spada and wearing a sword in style was part and parcel of being noble.

Which brings us to Caravaggio’s spada, in his paintings and in his life.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) arrived in Rome from Milan at about age twenty. He was far from being nobility and clung a darker side of society. Early on in his life he had been involved in a murder and squandered his inheritance on legal fees. In Rome, he lived with his cardinal patron making secular paintings until he received important public commissions. Caravaggio’s paintings were an artistic scandal. They were dark, shocking, dramatic, and sometimes gruesome. His patrons admired his shock and awe and wanted more. Soon, he was in demand.

He gained notoriety for his art and behavior. Preferring to associate with a rough crowd, he frequented brothels, bars, and didn’t shy away from a scuffle and a fight. Cardinals and patrons had to bail him out. He was well known to the sbirri. Cited for carrying a sword and dagger without a permit, breaking windows, fist fights, and in 1600 for beating a man with a stick all became routine for him. It’s a wonder he could find time to paint. A few years later he threatened someone with his illegal spada, arrested again in early1600s for lacking a weapon license, and thrown in the Tordi di Nona prison. In 1605 he was arrested and jailed three times.

During all these infractions he was painting exquisite canvases in Rome of religious subjects. The Cerasi Chapel canvases (Conversion of St. Paul, and Crucifixion of St. Peter in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, 1601) are some of his masterpieces that stunned the Roman art world at the beginning of the century. He made dramatic use of light and dark his trademark. This chiaroscuro intensifies the emotions at the height of the story. However, in 1606 his anger and sword once again got him into serious trouble.

Caravaggio and some eight friends, all armed with swords, allegedly fought over a 10 scudi bet on a tennis match. Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, from a well-to-do family. Caravaggio suffered a head wound and went into hiding for two days with a cardinal patron before fleeing Rome. Pope Paul V issued a death warrant. Tomassoni had served in the papal army, and Caravaggio had chosen the wrong family to harm.

Caravaggio fled to Naples, Malta, and Sicily for four years, where he found many patrons who were unbothered by his past deeds. However, he couldn’t stay away from fighting and violence. He was always on the move, thrown in prison, escaping, and living in fear. Someone who he had wronged earlier caught up with him in 1609 and slashed his face, which was considered an honor retaliation. Yet he continued to paint and hope for some form of redemption. In 1610 Caravaggio finally received a long-awaited pardon from his Rome murder and safe passage to Rome. His patrons were anxious to have him back and he started out on a journey to Rome along with some paintings to please his patrons. He was mistakenly imprisoned near Rome but when released had a high fever and died at age thirty-eight. Most likely he died from an infected wound following a fight which caused sepsis.

There are two Caravaggio paintings which are representative of his penchant for drama, violence, and feature the spada. Judith and Holofernes stems from his Roman days when he was often in trouble with the law. Stylistically he began to darken his paintings, bring the subjects up close to the viewer, and use light to pinpoint striking features. There is little background or depth of field, no landscape or details of an interior setting apart from the red drape.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, c. 1599, Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome, on loan at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts,

photos Gerriann Brower.

The shock for the seventeenth century, and ours, is the blood spurting from Holofernes neck. Caravaggio has included attention to minute details like the gold brocade on Judith’s dress, the slightly transparent chemise under which her breasts are quite evident, the pearl earrings, and wrinkles on the maidservant’s face as she holds the bag for his head. The facial expressions of the three figures make an impression. The maidservant stares in awe, Judith frowns with determination, and Holofernes expresses shock with his gapping mouth. The gilt of the sword, and red velvet drape, which emphasizes the red blood, show Caravaggio’s fondness for maximum realism.

He painted from live figures in his studio and did not do preparatory drawings on paper, instead preferring to make some initial sketches directly on the primed canvas. Infrared reflectography shows he first painted the head intact and then repainted it with Holofernes’ mouth open and the head adjusted at a different angle. That change signifies he made a decision to show a horrific act rather than Judith only holding the sword prior to plunging it into his neck. He changes the painting from passive to one of action and aggression.

Judith holds a special place in the history of art as well as in the Christian and Jewish religions. The Biblical Book of Judith tells of a beautiful young Jewish widow who was willing to slip into the enemy military camp to save the Israelites. Holofernes is an Assyrian commander who was amassing an army to attack her land. He is attracted to her and invites her to a banquet, hoping to seduce her. After he drinks too much wine and passes out, she asks God to give her the strength to destroy her enemies. Removing his sword from the bedside, she grabs the hair on his head. “Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head” (Judith 13:8).

She gives the head to her servant and they return home with the evidence. When the Assyrians discover his body, they flee and are defeated by the Israelites. She becomes a symbol of fortitude and strength, of virtuous good over evil, and protector of her people. Judith alone masterminded this event to free her people and defies gender roles with her bold actions.

Caravaggio chose a different moment to depict her heroism. Artists prior to and contemporary with Caravaggio selected a more conservative scene. Judith is either shown after the murder with the servant holding the head in the bag as they depart the scene, or before, when Judith entices him with her beauty. Caravaggio preferred the most intense moment in the story and one that made quite an impression on Rome. Ottavio Costa, a Roman banker who commissioned the painting, treasured it. He kept it behind a silk drape and would unveil it for guests for maximum shock.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Equally unsettling is another Biblical decapitation scene of David with the Head of Goliath. Completed shortly before his death, when he was in exile, he again uses a familiar composition with a dark background. A light source streams in from the young David’s left side to highlight the head still dripping with blood. Even more disquieting, Caravaggio has made the face of the slain giant Goliath a self-portrait. He included himself in paintings five times, sometimes as the sinner, but never as the hero or the divine. Here his self-portrait as a decapitated head does not look at peace or even dead, but still lively. David holds his spada so the blade shines in the light. The youthful shepherd boy and future King of Israel shared common traits with Judith. Heroic and bold, they took chances that no one else would in order to save their people.

Caravaggio seemed to have a fascination with death and punishment. His only signature on a painting is in the form of blood. The Beheading of St. John the Baptist shows a pool of John’s blood spilled onto the floor. The artist has painted the letters of his name with the spilled blood. Completed while he was in Malta near the end of his exile, he chooses the moment of extreme violence in these religious scenes. Does it refer to his own death sentence? There is an inscription on the blade of David’s sword which reads “humility kills pride.”


Bell, Rudolph M. Street Life in Renaissance Rome: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2013.

Blastenbrei, Peter. “Violence, Arms and Criminal Justice in Papal Rome, 1560–1600.” Renaissance Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, 2006, pp. 68–87.

Hibbard, Howard. Caravaggio. Westview Press, 1983.

Hunt, John M. “Carriages, Violence, and Masculinity in Early Modern Rome.” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, vol. 17, no. 1, 2014, pp. 175–96.

Mormando, Franco. Bernini: His Life and His Rome. The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Robertson, Clare. Rome 1600: The City and Visual Arts under Clement VIII. Yale University Press, 2016.

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