History on Fire
History on Fire
Sep 20, 2016
EPISODE 12 Caravaggio (Part 2): Folsom Prison Blues
Play • 1 hr 51 min

During a visit to a church in Sicily, a priest offered Caravaggio “holy water”. Caravaggio asked the old priest what it was for. “It will cancel your venial sins, my son,” replied the priest. “Then it’s no use—Caravaggio commented—My sins are all mortal.” 

Giles Lambert about Caravaggio and his friends “They provoked the Papal police, hung around with the many Roman women of easy virtue, drank excessively and frightened the bourgeoisie.”

He was the greatest artist of his age, and also an outlaw whose passion for hookers was only second to his propensity for ending up in jail. Caravaggio was equally talented with paint and canvas as he was with the sword and with the art of breaking out prison. With the same hand with which he painted the most amazing masterpieces of the Renaissance, he stabbed pimps and bludgeoned cops. His art was as scandalous as his life: he brought a lowbrow brand of violent realism and sexuality to the traditional religious subjects that were commissioned by the Church: imagine Quentin Tarantino painting scenes from the Bible. But the more the elite hated him, the more the common people adored him. No painter of his day—and probably ever—was able to have such a magnetic effect on masses of people. 

This second and last part of the tale includes battles in the streets of Rome, Caravaggio’s revolutionary take on the origins of Christianity, the rivalry with Giovanni Baglione, Renaissance diss tracks, attempted murder over artichokes, the dubious diplomatic tact of using prostitutes as models for the Virgin Mary, the parallels between Caravaggio and Tupac, Caravaggio settling a grievance… with an ax, “Madonna dei Palafranieri”—Caravaggio’s middle finger to the Vatican, the duel with Ranuccio Tommassoni, a death sentence, ending up on the run, becoming a Knight of Malta, Mafia art thefts, breaking out jail, the attack in Naples, and becoming a legend. Caravaggio would have been able to relate to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

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