Less than a year after my departure for Naples, the Metropolitan Museum received on loan “The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula”. I got to see it side by side with “The Denial of St. Peter,” which is part of the Met’s collection. Because we know that he died soon after, we cannot help reading these paintings through the prism of a late style, as works that reflect both the formidable skill of the artist and his sense of eagerness. They are paintings of great economy and psychological depth. Fear in Saint Peter’s eyes, sorrow on Saint Ursula’s face: was it the intuition of a man who knew his life was almost over? It’s tempting to think so. But Caravaggio expected to recover from his injuries the previous year. He was waiting for a pardon from the Pope. Even with a big job behind him, he was only 38 years old. He must have thought he was just getting started. He did not pass from life to death like John the Baptist. He passed from death to life, like Lazarus. So he thought; so he hoped.
It was in the summer of 1610 that Caravaggio learned that a pardon was being organized for him in Rome, with the participation of his former patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. He left Naples on a felucca, a sailboat, in mid-July, taking with him three paintings as a gift for the cardinal. A week later he was in Palo, a coastal walled city 20 miles west of Rome, from which he presumably planned to travel to the city. But something went wrong at Palo. On disembarking, Caravaggio got into a fight with the officers of the fort and was arrested. The felucca set sail without him but with his paintings still on board. He headed north to the Tuscan coast, to the small town of Porto Ercole. There may have been another passenger to drop off. When Caravaggio was released a few days later, he rushed over land in the direction of Porto Ercole, a day’s drive away. Upon arrival, he collapsed into an exhausted heap. The felucca arrived around the same time.
It was a hot day in July 2016 when I drove to Porto Ercole. My train from Rome passed through Palo after about 30 minutes and arrived at Orbetello-Monte Argentario an hour and a half later. I imagined it could have been a feverish trip in July 1610. I stayed in Orbetello and took a taxi the next morning, through a spit of land that ends at the promontory of Monte Argentario to the south. of which is the Porto Ercole. I had breakfast in a cafe on the rocky beach. A quartet of visitors was seated near me, two of them with their American accents. An American was an older man. “Well, maybe this guy will win the election, and he can end it all,” the man said. “Political correctness is just crazy. You don’t even have the right to compliment anyone anymore. They will cry out for sexual harassment. He stood firm with the attitude of someone who wanted to be heard. He complained about his ex-wife. The other three companions nodded sympathetically.
Caravaggio never painted the sea. I look in vain for a seascape in his work; views of any kind are rare. We can only address what has survived of his work, and in what has survived there is no swell, no waves, no ocean calm, no wrecks or beaches, no sunsets. sun on the water. And yet his last years made a map of the sea, and his stops were all literal ports, doors of hope, of which Porto Ercole was the last unforeseen stop. He’s buried somewhere over there, maybe on the beach, maybe in a local church. But we can say that his real body is elsewhere: the body, that is to say of his pictorial work, which has spread to dozens of other places around the world, all the places where the wall labels say “d. 1610, Porto Ercole.
He was a murderer, a slaver, a terror and a plague. But I don’t go to Caravaggio to remind myself of how good people are and certainly not because of their he has been. On the contrary: I am looking for it for a certain type of knowledge that is otherwise unbearable. He was an artist who painted the fruit as it ripened and as it began to rot, an artist who painted the flesh in its most delicately seductive and gravely injured form. When he showed suffering, he showed it so well because he was on both sides of it: he subjected it to others and received it in his own body. Caravaggio is long dead, as are its victims. What remains is work, and I don’t need to love him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his. paintings, knowing all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear and terrible vulnerability that our bodies have in common.
I got off at the port of Porto Ercole. Small boats by the dozen were floating on the water, and I asked one of the waiting men to get me out. The air was clear, the water a deep blue with faint purple reflections. For the second time in my trip, I got on a boat. We sped off, and when the boatman took off his shirt, I did the same. He looked to be in his 50s and said he had always lived in Porto Ercole. He spoke little English. When I told him I was from New York he smiled and gave me a thumbs up. “Ah, New York! ” he said. We were a few kilometers away. Did he know Caravaggio? Of course he did. He pointed to the beach. “Caravaggio!” he said, still smiling.