Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) was an Italian artist best known for his dramatic use of lighting and realism. He studied under Simone Peterzano, who studied under Titian, eventually becoming a major influence on the Baroque school of art. But a display of documents at the State Archives of Rome reveals an irascible roisterer out of keeping with the spiritual nature of his art. The police logs, legal and court parchments paint an unflattering account of his personal life.
He would drink and carouse at his favorite inns until 1 or 2 am, then prowl the streets and piazzas looking for an argument or brawl. He constantly carried weapons for which he had no permit. Even though Caravaggio often boasted of having the protection of the ecclesiastical authorities, a death sentence from Pope Paul V was handed down as retaliation for Caravaggio’s killing of Ranuccio Tommassoni during a brawl. He fled Rome, spending most of the remainder of his life in Malta and Sicily. Though the documents give a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of a great painter, their catalogue of bad behavior could also give a glimpse of what was behind it.
Consider the major symptoms of bipolar disorder. For example, irritability. A waiter who once rubbed Caravaggio the wrong way, filed this report with the police:
About 17 o’clock the accused, together with two other people, was eating in the Moor’s restaurant at La Maddalena, where I work as a waiter. I brought them eight cooked artichokes, four cooked in butter and four fried in oil. The accused asked me which were cooked in butter and which fried in oil, and I told him to smell them, which would easily enable him to tell the difference.
He got angry and without saying anything more, grabbed an earthenware dish and hit me on the cheek at the level of my moustache, injuring me slightly… and then he got up and grabbed his friend’s sword which was lying on the table, intending perhaps to strike me with it, but I got up and came here to the police station to make a formal complaint…
Anyone who has dealt with a bipolar loved one knows of the startling speed at which their moods can change almost instantaneously to the opposite, for no apparent reason. A reckless pursuit of gratification? Check. Inflated self esteem (in the manic phase)? This could account for his boasting of protection he didn’t really have. One of the documents describes him as working intensely a fortnight at a time, then ‘swaggering about’ for a month accomplishing nothing, which could be due to the poor concentration often noted in the depressive phase. He also displayed a decreased need for sleep (again, a symptom of the manic phase) and a general impulsiveness. Suffice it to say that Caravaggio had most if not all of the accepted bipolar symptoms.
Could the father of modern painting have been bipolar? I’m not an expert, but it seems possible.