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Caravaggio

My first trip to Europe was for a group show in Milan. Denise, the curator, wanted to have one new face, someone no one had heard of, along with the usual suspects. I was 'the new face' and jumped at the opportunity to see Europe the first time. After the show opened my host, Massimo, made arrangements for me to take a train to Florence. I wanted to go to the Uffizi Gallery to see the Botticellis and Titians. It was a great adventure for a provincial, old painter and along the way, I discovered Caravaggio, by way of his "Bacchus", "Medusa”, and "The Sacrifice of Isaac”, all in the Uffizi.

Later, I would do a riff on Botticelli’s "The Annunciation". It was the only Botticelli not hiding behind glass, like some chicken shit Frances Bacon. I wandered Florence for days. It would have been wonderful to have company; unfortunately I was alone. Still, I was totally captivated by San Marco, and its many Fra Angelico murals, except in Savonarola’s cell.

Later on, while staying, and painting, at the American Academy in Rome, I had the opportunity to see more of the paintings of Caravaggio. Living in Rome had made it easy to experience, first hand, many of his masterpieces. Consulting my guidebooks, I wandered Rome, an impossible place in which to get lost, thanks to the many signs pointing to historic sites, museums, plazas, churches, and architecture. At first it was short trips to the art store, the bookstore, the bakery, but as I became more and more familiar with the city, I ventured further and further out.

Visiting San Luis dei Francesi, to see the Contarelli Chapel, with its three Saint Mathew paintings, had been easy, the church being just off the plaza in front of the Pantheon. My favorite coffee shop, Taz d’Oro was on this plaza. Later there would be a McDonalds. There goes the neighborhood. On my first visit I got change, from the old gypsy woman sitting at the entrance, to put into the machine that turned on the lights. I had been warned, often, about the bands of gypsy children who pick pocketed the tourists and I always tipped the old lady, hoping to gain a reputation as a 'good guy'. No matter how inebriated I got, or how late I returned home, I was never pick-pocketed or mugged. Eventually I learned that the light in the area of the chapel had not changed in five centuries and that Caravaggio wanted the paintings to appear mysterious, and apparition like, as ones eyes slowly adjusted to the dimness of the ambient light. Even after learning this I continued to get change from the old woman and to tip her generously but I no longer turned on "the tourist lights".

Day after day I would set off to see a particular church and painting or paintings. Early on I discovered the way to the Cavaletti Chapel, at Sant ‘Agostino. "The Madonna of the Pilgrims", was a scandal in its day because of the 'dirty feet' of the figure kneeling before her. I was blessed to be the only visitor, except for a young restorer who working on an upper portion of the background. His scaffold was in the way, but his lights lit the painting to a degree that allowed me to focus on small details. I stood for fifteen or twenty minutes, transfixed by the view these lights afforded. Caravaggio rewards an intimate viewing. Eventually a young priest came and started speaking to the man on the scaffold. They conversed for a bit, in Italian, then the young priest turned to me and, in English, invited me to climb up the scaffold for a better look. It was the Roman version of 'Stairway to Heaven'. I stayed as far back and out of the way as possible. The priest had also ascended the scaffold and he and the restorer continued their conversation. In time he motioned to me and we went back to the ground. I bowed and thanked him for his kindness and generosity. He laughed, saying it was nothing, and inquired what I did. I told him I was a painter and his eyes lit up. It was a wonderful morning. After each pilgrimage to view Caravaggio, I would return home and continue work on my painting.

My daily forays continued. I preferred mornings when everything was less crowded. I walked all the way to Santa Maria del Popola one morning, as 'friends' had told me it was "not that far". They were wrong. I went there to see The Cerasi Chapel, which had "The Crucifixion of Saint Peter" on the wall to the left, "The Conversion of Saint Paul" on the wall to the right, and between them was Annibale Carraccci’s, "The Assumption of the Virgin". Caravaggio didn’t even rate the main alter. It had been a long walk and I was exhausted by the time I returned to my studio.

Norm, the gatekeeper at the Academy, took me to the Vatican Pinacoteca, where I was plain and simply blown away by Caravaggio’s "Entombment". Shortly thereafter I would find my way to The Galleria Borghese. Norm had shown me how to make an appointment so I would not have to wait in line. The Borghese is famous for their stunning Bernini sculptures.  I saw Caravaggio’s, "Boy With A Basket Of Fruit", "David With The Head Of Goliath" (Goliath’s head being a self portrait), and another scandalous masterpiece, "The Madonna Of The Snake", for which Caravaggio had used a well know prostitute as his model for the Madonna. I was knocked out by Ruben’s "free copy" of Caravaggio’s "Entombment", which I judged the best Rubens I had ever seen. Oddly, it was a late Titian, "Venus Blindfolding Cupid", executed in yellows, oranges, and pinks, that was the most moving thing I saw all day. My eyes were moist, as I stumbled to the exit, my mind and spirit totally overwhelmed. It was painted when Titian was 75 and could no longer control his trembling hand. But he continued painting and the determination of this old man would demystify ‘control’ and forever change the course of painting. It hangs almost directly across from "Sacred And Profane Love", painted when Titian was just 25, and at the height of his powers. Most scholars consider this painting, to be his greatest masterpiece. So much for scholarship.

My quest to see every Caravaggio in Rome continued. At the Capitoline Gallery, I saw "Youth With A Ram", and then I walked to the Galleria Doria-Pamphili to see "Rest On The Flight To Egypt" and “Penitent Mary Magdalene". I walked to the Galleria Nazionale dell’Arte Antica, to see "Judith Beheading Holofernes".

In a little over a year’s time I had returned to Rome on three occasions, staying for a month on each visit. I made friends with many of the fellows at the Academy and was now considered a part of the fellow family. We ate, drank, wandered and partied together. Knowing of my interest in Caravaggio, they alerted me to other events and shows mounted in Rome. On one occasion, my friend Mark, who worked for the Academy, drove me, on the back of his scooter, to the inaugural opening of an old palazzo, where all of the art that had once hung there, had been reassembled for the inaugural show in this space. It included three Caravaggio’s: "Victory of Love", “The Incredulity Of Saint Thomas", and "The Supper At Emmaus". I was thrilled to be in Rome for this ‘special event’. Mark and I would race around town on his scooter, me on the back, with my cowboy hat in my lap, and often, a glass of wine in one hand and a Cuban cigar in the other. Mark said it was legal because I was not driving. This is why I love Rome.

My reading had convinced me that I needed to visit Naples. I contacted Massimo, the dealer from Milan, who lived most of the time in Naples, his hometown. He said he would make hotel reservations for me and invited me to dinner at his house to meet his family. I knew three things about Naples: there were two great paintings by Caravaggio there: Denise, the curator of the show in Milan, was born there and she had told me that Naples had the best pizza in Italy; Roger, a painter pal from Los Angeles, said Naples had "the most beautiful prostitutes in Europe".

When friends and fellows, at the American Academy, learned that I planned to go to Naples alone, they immediately informed me that, "Naples was a very dangerous place" and that they always went in a group of 6 to 10, and took a large van for security. But I had already made reservations on an express train, which would arrive in Naples just before noon. Everyone warned me, again and again, to be careful.

Norm helped me plan and had a cab waiting when I got to the front gate with nothing but my leather backpack and high hopes. I had never ventured into a Roman rush hour by car before. It was total chaos, then a burst of speed, and then more congestion. I worried that Norm had not allowed enough time and I might miss my train. To my amazement, we arrived with a little time to spare. I quickly paid the cab and went looking for my train.

I arrived at my 'reserved seat' just minutes before the train pulled from station. Everything had worked out perfectly and I began to relax. I got a book out of my backpack and tried to read, but instead I found myself staring out the window at the gorgeous Italian countryside. We made very few stops and I used the time to study my maps of Naples and read about what I planned to see and experience. I was ripe with anticipation. Massimo had made reservations for me at The Majestic Hotel and I was to dine with him later that evening.

In three hours we reached the outskirts of Naples and the gorgeous countryside gave way to the less visually appealing signs of urban civilization. We continued to slow and eventually entered the huge white tiled station. There were many platforms and the whiteness of the ubiquitous white ceramic tile made it seem to glow. There was nothing above platform level that was not white. There were no advertisements or graffiti; just white.

I put away my book, threw my backpack over my shoulder, and disembarked into the cavernous whiteness. It was just before noon, the station was not crowded and I was filled with excitement as I followed the few other passengers toward the exit.

Far down the platform, in the direction we were all walking, I saw this lovely young woman standing, with one foot on a box, as a young boy polished her shoes. Her hair was light brown, stylishly short and perfectly coiffed. She was wearing pearl grey Capri pants, a light salmon sweater, and grey slippers. There was nothing to look at save the endless white tile walls, so I found my eyes bouncing back to her again and again. I was trying not to stare, but she was gorgeous. Soon I realized she was staring back at me. The closer I drew the more focused our gaze grew, until our eyes were locked upon each other, like some primal sensual radar.  When I was no more than 6 or 7 feet from her, she smiled at me and said, in perfect English, "Have you come to Naples to eat the pizza or the pussy"?

I was dumbfounded, rendered incapable of a response, and found myself babbling gibberish. She must have thought I was retarded. Caravaggio, my hero, would have known immediately what to say. I tried to speak but simply mumbled something about "The Flagellation", thru bubbles of drool, as I stumbled past her. What an idiot! I was so embarrassed by my lack of grace and charm that I did not dare to look back. To this day I regret that I did not have the wit to say, "hopefully both. Might you care to join me for lunch at the Capodimonte Museum"?

At the exit and I waited in line for a cab. I told the driver where I wanted to go and we were off, my anticipation now replaced by regret. It was a fifteen-minute ride to the top of a mountain and the museum.

I left my backpack in a locker, bought a ticket, and went looking for "The Flagellation". What I actually needed was a good beating, but I would have settled for a spanking. Alas, that opportunity had passed. The Capodimonte is a splendid museum. I went to the second floor, then through an endless series of rooms, where the doorways that were aligned to enhance ones perception of the vastness and majesty of the building. Along the way were countless Titians and other amazing paintings. It was a veritable who-is-who of Italian Renaissance painting. In time I noticed the darkened room at the end of a very long series of rooms and realized that the painting waiting in the dim light was the object of my quest: "The Flagellation". My eyes focused and locked on the image and I hastened towards the painting I had come so far to see. When I entered the room I noticed a guard sitting to the right in the darkness of the corner. This was the preferred light for Caravaggio, requiring one to pause, while the eyes adjusted, and the images emerged like apparitions. The Christ figure glowed in the center of the canvas, head bowed in surrender to his fate. His tormentors had the ugly demeanor of brutal, sadistic psychopaths. The painting seemed so dark that it almost seemed to be in black and white, but I knew from my readings that Caravaggio never used black. I stood looking, transfixed, knowing that I was standing with a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters ever. It is an amazing painting and perhaps my favorite by this bad boy genius. After twenty minutes of standing and staring, the guard got up from his chair and offered me his seat. We smiled, I sat, and he left. I was now alone with this astounding painting. I was breathless. Sitting, staring, I eventually noticed a small red rosebud, in the lower left corner. Then I realized that the bunches of thorny branches being used to beat Jesus, were long stemmed roses, stripped of their flowers. That tiny bit of red rose was a solitary visual escape from the brutality of the event. I know that this is the kind of detail that can only be appreciated first hand and cannot be seen in reproduction. It was a gift to those pilgrims, like me, who made the effort to visit this great painting. After his break, the guard returned and again took up his position. I thanked him and left wondering what insights his time, alone with this masterpiece had afforded him. To say I was a bit envious is an understatement, but my experience alone with this overpowering painting had, at least temporarily, displaced my disappointment from earlier in the day.  But as I left, I found myself both embarrassed and envious. Not the day I had envisioned.

I went into the bookstore but could not find post cards of the Flagellation. It had been a full morning and I was tired and hungry. Back at the entrance I found a cab and asked to be taken to The Majestic Hotel. We left by a different direction and I was a bit suspicious of being taken for a ride. But we came back to Naples from the south and it was a safe and beautiful drive.

The Majestic is a grand old hotel, sitting back a few blocks from the harbor, up the side of the hill. It was far more elegant than anything I had expected and it would have made a delightful trysting place. Check in was a breeze, Massimo had arranged everything. My room high up, with a view of Capri on the horizon. It was entirely marble, in different color combinations, and the furnishings were of Bird’s Eye Maple. It was not large but it was easily the most beautiful hotel room I had ever stayed in.

After a quick shower and a brief rest, I headed out to find some bottled water, red wine, and fruit for the room. I wandered in expanding circles further and further from the hotel, fantasizing that I might somehow cross paths with the young woman from the train station. Apparently I am a hopeless and delusional romantic. Sadly, we don’t get second chances and I never saw her again.

Massimo called in the late afternoon to arrange to pick me up for dinner. He quickly explained that there had been a disaster. The road up to his house had collapsed into the harbor and his gorgeous Bentley was trapped in his garage at home. He told me he had run out and purchased a Smart car to use until the road could be repaired. It would be my first ride in the little car I had been seeing and admiring all over Italy.

When the desk called to tell me Massimo was in the lobby. I went down and found him smiling in his usual indefatigable enthusiasm, but slightly diminished. He apologized and led me to his brand new Smart car. He almost seemed a little embarrassed at being seen in such a proletarian form of transportation. I had never been in a Smart car before and loved the twisty ride to his estate, on the side of the cliffs, above the bay, on the south end of the city. We came to a blocked part of the road, which dropped off hundreds of feet into the Naples harbor. He parked and we walked two or three blocks to his house. His gorgeous grey Bentley sat idle in the garage. Angela, his wife, was preparing dinner and his children were doing their homework. They were such a charming family and my earlier fantasy of bringing the young woman from the train station now seemed absurd. We had wine and soon gathered around the table for dinner. What I recall most vividly were the sweet potatoes; the most delicious I have ever eaten. I told Angela as much and she told me the amount of butter and cream in them was obscene, and that they were so rich and fattening, she could not eat them and she only made them for guests.

The children were excused after dinner and Massimo and I went to the living room for drinks. He showed me his art collection, which was both ultra hip and very high end. Angela came in to say good night and soon there after Massimo and I started back to his new Smart car, for the brief drive back to my hotel. I thanked him for his hospitality and said good-bye.

Back in my room, I took a hot shower, poured a glass of wine, and got out my book. I couldn’t read. All I could think of was the young woman in the train station. I couldn’t forgive myself for being so incapable of accepting the gifts life occasionally offers us. Unable to read, I began to write, something I do frequently while traveling. I stayed up late, drinking wine and recalling better moments. In the morning I planned on seeing Caravaggio’s "The Seven Works of Mercy", at the church of Pio Monte della Misercordia.

I awoke late, with a hang over. Quickly I washed down some ibupropherin and headed for the shower. I dressed and headed down and into the late morning.  I was traveling light, with just may backpack, so checking out was a breeze. I stopped for coffee along the way and was soon at the church. "The Seven Works of Mercy", is considered by many to be Caravaggio’s greatest masterpiece. It is a stunning painting and I was immediately captivated by its complex composition and magnificent use of dark and light. My spirits were lifted and I moved about seeking the perfect vantage point to peer into different areas of this huge and masterful canvas.

Eventually I had to leave for the station. It was a quick walk and I noticed a small pizza parlor, just outside the terminal. I couldn’t miss all the best Naples had to offer, so I waited for my train, eating the best pizza I think I had ever had. It was almost perfect, until the memory of the young woman returned. I once heard Big Mama Thornton, late in life, asked if she had any regrets. She laughed and said, "Son, there ain’t no point in regrets. In the end, it’s not what you did that you regret; it’s what you didn’t do". Mama, sadly, told the truth. Unfortunately I came to this realization a day too late. - James Hayward, 1999