We go from the sublime David of Michelangelo to the profoundly disturbing David and Goliath of Caravaggio. Born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), Caravaggio was the original ‘bad boy’ of art. His remarkable body of work, with its heightened drama and use of differing levels of dark paint, created the bridge between the High Renaissance and the Baroque school of painting.
Caravaggio trained in Milan under a master who had trained with Titian. He moved to Rome while still a young man in his 20s and quickly set up a reputation as a painter of considerable skill. He also established his reputation as a wild man – drinking, brawling and having a string of affairs with young boys. He killed a man in 1606 during an argument, and fled Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in serious fights in 1608 and 1609 (in Malta and Naples, respectively), and died at 38 from a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon. This picture of David and Goliath was sent ahead of Caravaggio to Rome as a Papal offering prior to his pardon.
Let’s look at this remarkable picture. If you look closely at the upper left hand of the canvas, you’ll see that David has just entered a tent, presumably the tent of Saul, to display the head of Goliath. Notice that the sword is at an angle to David’s groin, another (perhaps unconscious) instance of the Renaissance mind eroticizing David.
It is reported that Caravaggio referred to the figure of the young David as “il suo Caravaggino” or, in English, “his little Caravaggio.” This pun has puzzled art historians for centuries. Was Caravaggio referring to his young studio assistant (and probable lover), or did he paint a picture of his younger self?
If Caravaggio did indeed paint his younger self as David, this picture becomes even more amazing because Caravaggio modeled the face of Goliath on himself, as well – making this picture of David and Goliath a double-portrait.
The face of Goliath is not that of a monster nor giant, but a dissipated satyr. The eyes are heavily lidded and puffy, the mouth slack and weak, the teeth rotting, the hair long and unkempt. But, underneath it all, is there not a resemblance between David and Goliath?
Even more remarkable is the expression of young David’s face. There is none of the serene self-satisfaction of Donatello, nor the heroic resolution of Michelangelo. Rather, this David seems mournful as he regretfully holds the head of Goliath into our view. Could this not be Caravaggio looking regretfully upon his older self? Or, if as is supposed, this picture was a Papal offering, a promise that the older, monstrous Caravaggio is now dead, eliminated by his own better self?
Caravaggio’s David and Goliath is a puzzle inside of mystery – and one of the most enigmatic works of the Renaissance.