SELF AND MYTH IN CARAVAGGIO'S
DAVID AND GOLIATH
David M. Stone
In our celebrity-obsessed, tabloid culture, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio has become a cult figure, whose personality, sexuality, and criminal record threaten to overshadow his paintings as topics of scholarly inquiry.1 Symptomatic of this fascination with the artist's personal life is the new international craze to hunt for documents revealing tidbits about his character. The trend reached new extremes with the 1994 book Caravaggio Assassino.2 Several critics, already upset by the authors' portrayal of the painter as a Seicento gang-banger, were outraged when they uncovered the fact that some of the so-called Caravaggio documents referenced in the text were not about Caravaggio at all. The artist's name simply does not appear in many of the archival sources cited, thus throwing into question the reliability not only of the relevant passages on Caravaggio's criminal exploits but the book as a whole.3
Discussion of Caravaggio's life now often passes as discourse about Caravaggio's art, as if the man and his paintings were mirror images of each other. In Peter Robb's sensationalist book (complete with a Fritz Lang title), M, Caravaggio and his paintings are sometimes
1 This paper began as a conversation with Paul Barolsky, whom I thank for
advice and encouragement. I am equally indebted to Pamela Jones, not only for
inviting me to participate in the Boston College symposium, but for several fruit-
ful discussions on this topic before and after the conference. Expanded versions of
this lecture were subsequently given at Emory University and the University of
Pennsylvania. I am grateful to Sarah McPhee and Larry Silver, respectively, for
inviting me to speak and for the many insightful comments they, their students and
colleagues offered me. Linda Pellecchia generously read an early draft of the text,
making numerous helpful suggestions.
2 Bassani and Bellini (1994).
3 On the scandal of the documents, see Corradini (1996). On the misleading nature
of the text, which Robb (see below) and others have relied upon, see Langdon (1999b).