Caravaggio and the Physiology of Schizophrenia

By Mather, Ronnie | PSYART, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Caravaggio and the Physiology of Schizophrenia

Mather, Ronnie, PSYART

Caravaggio has long enjoyed a reputation as an anti-social and tempestuous individual. The following argues that Caravaggio was in fact suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Following Wilhelm Reich's argument that schizophrenic symptoms and delusions are the result of the projection of objective physiological processes occurring in discrete organs of the body, or at least body-systems, it interprets the changing nature of Caravaggio's paintings as reflecting his own suffering in the eyes and throat. The latter's predilection toward violence, and the portrayal of violence, is also interpreted in this light. It is argued that this accounts for his obsession with decapitation and raises the question about whether the revolution he initiated in painting around 1600 was itself the result of his coping with the illness.

keywords: Caravaggio, schizophrenia, violence, decapitation


"It is very difficult to formulate in words an experience in which a process in the organism is perceived and yet is not perceived as one's own. But there can be no doubt whatsoever that this is exactly the key to understanding the schizophrenic split and the projection of bodily sensations" (Wilhelm Reich, 1945)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in the town from which he derived his name in 1571 and died in 1610. He is without doubt one of the most debated figures in the history of art and has enjoyed a controversial reputation both contemporary and posthumous. A very violent individual, he has been viewed as simply a product of his times or as enduring "borderline personality disorder" (Chessick, 2000: 2067). His physical attacks on individuals ranged from inflicting death during a duel to cowardly attacks from behind in the dark. The duel, with one Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1606 in Rome, has been recorded as a homicide. In the legal sense, it was. The Council of Trent had forbidden duels. But Tomassoni enjoyed a formidable reputation as a swordsman, and came from a family with a considerable reputation for both military, and paramilitary, violence. He was not a man to be crossed lightly. Nevertheless, Caravaggio's biographers record a host of serious attacks on unarmed individuals perpetrated in obvious fits of rage. Friedlander (1955: 233), quoting an early source, refers to an earlier killing in 1591 or 1592. Precise details are vague but Caravaggio was in serious trouble with the law in Milan and that may have motivated his move to Rome in 1592. He was a man with a clear predilection towards violence, fuelled, in part, by prolonged drinking sessions. Violence, alcohol, a propensity to dress in rags - "once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it fell into rags" (Langdon, 1999: 136) strangely at odds with his extreme grandiosity. In addition, his culinary habits are more grotesque than any of his severed heads. And that, by and large, is all that his biographers can agree on as being anywhere definitive of his character. His rap sheet in addition to murder is second to none. Caravaggio has become known as a homosexual painter in the English-speaking world but the evidence for this amounts only to a contentious reading of some of the males figures in his still life paintings of the early 1590s (for example, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1594). Hibbard (1983) who is often ascribed this position actually states "whether Caravaggio was essentially or exclusively homosexual is far from certain" (87). Gilbert (1995) demonstrates that the historical evidence for this is very close to non-existent. There has clearly been a propensity to fill in the gaps given that the historical record is so flimsy.

However, what is also clear is that Caravaggio's contemporaries did find his attitude and behavior strange in the extreme. This is not simply a "violent man for violent times" scenario and his biographers sometimes fall into the trap of quoting evidence from these contemporaries while emphasizing the social milieu in which he moved (for example, Langdon, 1999). …

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