Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Buongiorno Los Angeles, Astor here from Speakeasy Tattoo with another glance into the candlelit annals of history. To begin with, let’s talk about light— specifically, the relationship that light has with the dark. What, you thought a goth nerd like me was going to let this thing get away without a little darkness? It’s like we don’t even know each other.

Art historians have a few words for the relationship of dark to light, when the contrast is particularly high and dramatic: chiaroscuro (literally “light-dark”), or, when even that isn’t extra enough, tenebrism (from Italian ‘tenebroso’ meaning “dark and mysterious”), which takes the principles of chiaroscuro and amplifies them to the point where the subject of the work seems lit by a spotlight, and all else melts away into gloomy, ponderous shadows. These techniques are especially prevalent in baroque paintings, and I could name a handful of artists who employed them to great effect… but there is one artist who, to me, truly typifies the style, and we call him Caravaggio.


It’s important to know that ‘Caravaggio’ wasn’t even his name. Modern historians largely refer to him as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, but even that isn’t quite right. His contemporaries called him by a variety of names (when they were being polite, and weren’t referring to him by an epithet) including Amerigi, Merigi, Merisio, Morigi, Michelagnolo, Michele, Morisius, Narigi, and more. The artist himself signed his name Marisi. Furthermore he likely wasn’t even from Caravaggio, a town east of Milan, but his parents might have been from there. Maybe. So we don’t know the artist’s name, really, but despite that we do know a staggering amount about him as a man. Why is this? Because besides his paintings he also left behind the echoes of a tempestuous life, and among them, a fair number of court and police documents. He is somewhat famous even to this day for his short temper, and was sued a number of times, for offenses ranging from beating a man with a club, to unpaid rent, to breaking a window, to writing libelous poems, to possessing illegal weapons, to throwing a plate of artichokes in a waiter’s face. The list goes on. Biographers in the late 17th century said of him that he “wasn’t well built and he had an ugly face”, and that while he would buy fine clothing, he’d wear them until they were “falling off him in rags”. He was jailed at least once, and at least twice fled a city to escape justice. The second of these flights was the most serious. The details are unclear, but the gist of the problem was that he’d gotten into an argument with a local gangster, with whom he’d had confrontations before. This time, the altercation devolved into a sword fight, and Caravaggio stabbed the other man, reportedly in the groin (whether or not this was intentional is also a matter of debate), inflicting a wound which would prove fatal. The popular version of the story says that the fight was over a pallacorda game (similar to tennis), but that might not be true, either. Regardless, Caravaggio was sentenced to death by beheading for the killing, and so, he pulled up his tent poles and easel, and fled south.

Interestingly, some of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings depict beheadings. Judith Beheading Holofernes (1607), Medusa (1597), Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (1609) and of course, his self portrait as the head of Goliath, held aloft by the victorious, though sympathetic, David (1610). Could the artist have foreseen that his life was to end with the threat of the blade hanging over his head? Did he perhaps realize that, at the rate he was going, he was sure to find himself in such a situation, sooner or later?


Caravaggio did not acquiesce to this fate. He went on the run, plying his artistic trade in Naples, Sicily, and Malta, but the flight, and his tumultuous life, took its toll on him. At the end of his life, he was sick with a fever. What really caused his death has been a subject of debate for centuries, and theories have ranged from syphilis to murder. An early study of what researchers believe to be his remains suggested that he may have succumbed to lead poisoning after a lifetime of using paints heavy in lead salts. Later studies posited that his death was actually due to a staph infection of a wound he sustained in a fight in Naples. Recently released Vatican documents seem to imply that in fact he was hunted down and slain by the family of the gangster he’d killed in Rome, out of revenge. We also don’t know where he died. A friend of his, at the time, said he died en route from Naples to Rome, but one biographer claims to have found the artist’s death notice, which puts his place of death significantly north, in Tuscany. All we can really say is that he was sick, and he died at the age of 38 in July of 1610, not long after the completion of that enigmatic David and Goliath.

Mystery and gloom, the elements of a tenebrist painting, made flesh in the artist who defined the style. Once the most famous painter in Rome, he died of unknown causes on an unknown date in an unknown place, his bones moved and lost for nearly six decades until an extensive DNA study of multiple crypts in 2010 determined what are probably the remains of the painter. So we don’t know his name, nor where he was born, nor where he died, and yet, his influence is still with us. A generation of artists followed in his footsteps— the so-called “Caravaggisti”. But beyond them, his particular treatment, the drama, the intense, rich blacks and the stark whites and yellows, still inform us. Like his bones, his style was lost for some time, covered over by those who came after him. In my last blog entry I mentioned Nicholas Poussin, the French classical painter. It was Poussin’s view that Caravaggio set out to destroy painting, and that he was the worst thing ever to happen to the medium. Still, is there not something of the caravaggisti in Poussin’s Plague of Ashdod? In those bright whites and impenetrable blacks? In the 20th century, interest in the works of Caravaggio was resurrected, prompting one art historian to proclaim, “what begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”


Now that’s very grandiose, and I’m sure the artist himself would be quite chuffed to hear it said, but what bearing does the work have on you and me? Well, imagine you are interested in getting a relatively small, highly-detailed tattoo. People will tell you that the image will age badly, due to its size and the inevitable dispersal of ink under the epidermis, and there is some truth to that. Certain colors are more transient than others. But, chiaroscuro can save your design, if you are not content to surrender to the ephemeral forces of aging. A balance of light against black will stand the test of time, even as some colors fade— just as Caravaggio’s work has done, even as the details of his life have been lost to the ages.

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