The Enduring Appeal of Sex and Violence
"The Divine Augustus
banished his daughter who was shameless beyond the
very limits of the world. He made public the scandals of the
Emperor's household, that adulterers had been admitted in
droves, that the city had been roamed through on nocturnal
revels and that the very Forum and Rostrum from which her
father had passed the law on adultery had been her preferred
place for her debaucheries … from being an adulteress, she
had turned to selling her person for money and had sought
the right to every sort of indulgence with partners whose
names she did not know."
- Seneca, On Benefits.
Long after the abduction of Helen by Paris initiated the Trojan War, erotic tales of both consummated and unrequited love permeated the world of Greek and Roman mythology. Eros, Venus, Aphrodite, and Cupid were all avatars of primal passions, while marauding maenads and lubricious satyrs competed in Dionysian revels and Bacchanalian orgies, made crapulous by the copious flow of alcohol. As Sophocles demonstrated in dramatic fashion, the tragic liaison of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta established a fundamental taboo which, when violated, would inevitably lead to disastrous consequences.
Initially, Romans considered themselves more restrained than Greeks, who had a reputation for lascivious conduct. Loose woolen tunics ('chitons') left Greek bodies free, whereas Romans wrapped themselves up in togas. At Greek drinking parties ('symposia'), the only women in attendance were slave girls and the high point was drinking wine afterwards. The free-born guests were all male and sex was always a possibility, whether with a slave girl or each other. In contrast, the Romans gave dinners at which food was the central item and freeborn women, including wives, were present. Roman conversation was prosaic and factual, and according to one commentator repeating Greek verses was like telling dirty stories. But despite that fact that Romans regarded Greeks as essentially frivolous and duplicitous people who talked too much and were totally unreliable with money, especially public funds, in 190 AD over 3,000 prosecutions for adultery were pending in Rome alone.
Such constantly evolving attitudes toward sexuality included same sex relationships. The Greek predilection for young men is well documented and the sight of oiled, bronzed, and naked athletes competing in the Olympic Games must have tempted even the staunchest womanizers among them. Just as Achilles adored Patroclus, and Alexander doted on his beloved Hephaestion, the Roman Emperor Hadrian was smitten with Antinous - while still insisting that senators rule on vexed points of the Augustan laws regarding marriage. Among the Greeks, free male citizens had sexual relations with one another, while Roman males were only supposed to do so with male slaves and non-Roman inferiors. Sometimes such couplings were openly celebrated, sometimes they were considered passing adolescent indulgences, but they were broadly acknowledged as simple facts of life.
Greek and Roman citizens and slaves alike were no strangers to obscene jokes and lubricious behavior, and the kind of Medieval condemnation that later censured such iniquitous conduct was rarely in evidence in classical civilization. It took Augustine's moral ferocity and the institutionalized force of the Catholic Church to change all that. By the time of the Renaissance, the concept of Original Sin was so firmly entrenched, condemning mankind to a sense of primal guilt, that it could only be expunged by the bulk purchase of indulgences and the repetition of sufficient Ave Marias. Such was the level of endemic corruption within this system that Luther's austere Reformation and the ascent of Protestantism may be seen as one of the first 'back to basics' movement.
Judging by the available evidence, the human appetite for sexual license is matched only by a concomitant lust for gruesome depictions of violence. The audience for Hollywood horror movies has a long history behind it, as this predilection goes back at least as far as the Bible and the Mahabharata. Homer too clearly relished graphic descriptions of conflict and was surprisingly precise about the infliction of ghastly wounds on the human body. To take just one example, consider the following lines from Book XVI of the Iliad:
Not for long in awe of the other man,
he aimed and braced himself and threw this stone
and scored a direct hit on Hector's driver,
Cebriones, a bastard son of Priam,
smashing his forehead with the jagged stone.
Both brows were hit at once, the frontal bone
gave way, and both his eyes burst from their sockets
dropping into the dust before is feet,
as like a diver from the handsome car
he plummeted, and life ebbed from his bones.
Such anatomical specificity is especially unnerving, even when couched in splendid metaphors, but Homer's fascination with the raw brutality of mortal combat extended far beyond the Greek world. The Circus Maximus may now be a vast overgrown playing field relegated to 'Run for the Cure' mini-marathons, but it does not take much imagination to envisage the kind of mass carnage that took place there on a regular basis. In addition to chariot racing and mock sea battles, what really caught on were blood sports. Amphitheaters spread both east to Cordoba and and west to Athens, even as far as the furthest edge of the Empire (Colchester's could house five thousands spectators). There were certainly critics of such displays (the Greeks on Rhodes banned all gladiatorial contests), but the taste for blood sports persisted. Shocked and appalled as we may be, contemporary crowds clearly relished the vicarious and voyeuristic thrill - like Byron at a public execution, who described himself as sympathizing with the victim, yet unable to hold his opera glasses steady.
The setting of wild beasts against men and other animals may have provided exotic kicks, but it was the the Imperial Games that drew the biggest crowds as each emperor vied to surpass his predecessor in staging grandiose scenes of indiscriminate slaughter. What began on an impulse as an eight-day Dionysian revel after the disaster of Alexander the Great's Makran expedition passed to the Ptolemies in Egypt, to the generals of Rome, and so to the triumphs of Marius and Marc Antony (the self-styled new Dionysius), all the way down to the emperor Caracalla, who claimed in his triumphs to drink from the cups which Alexander had used in India. Unlike the big names of the Republic, the emperors monopolized triumphs and for Augustus and his successors this intensified culture of the spectacle was a valuable public card. They had by far the greatest resources with which to display their munificence by mounting shows for the masses which nobody else could rival. They owned entire gladiatorial troupes, developed specialized training schools, and as 'first citizens' were expected to attend in person. Emperors were well advised to provide suitably gruesome entertainment for their avid audiences, because crowds as vast as 150,000 in the Circus Maximus could use the occasion to shout out specific complaints or praises at their ruler and his family. The plebs especially approved if, like Augustus or Hadrian, they took an interest in the brutal bloodletting, whereas Julius Caesar unwisely preferred to read his letters.
The distance between viewers and victims was accentuated when punishments began to be staged in outlandish mythical or fantasy styles. Augustus had a notorious Sicilian bandit executed in the Forum on a replica of Mount Etna which 'erupted' and deposited the wretch among wild animals lurking below. The grisly possibilities are made horribly clear in a series of epigrams by the poet Martial which celebrate Titus' great spectacle for the opening of the Colosseum in 80 AD, describing in graphic detail the re-enactment of mythological 'charades' with human victims.
Sex and violence presented together clearly provided a highly arousing combination. Fans went wild for particularly virile stars and Pompeiian graffiti applauded them as 'darlings of the girls' or 'netters of chicks by night.' The sight of heavy metal meeting human muscle was such an aphrodisiac that Augustus decreed women could only sit in the highest seats at the back. Terracotta lamps found near the arena in Athens show a woman having sex with animals, so it was a small step at Rome to stage the myth of Pasiphae, who squatted inside a wooden cow and had sex with a bull. The usual program of a day's 'sport' would schedule animal hunts early in the morning, followed by the wholesale annihilation of criminals at lunchtime. Gladiatorial contests generally occurred later in the day, but deaths were by no means inevitable. Sometimes combatants were released with an honourable draw, often the wounded fighter surrendered and the fight was stopped as gladiators were an expensive investment. Potentially, there was good money and a good career to be made in the arena, and for the slaves or criminals there could be freedom too. The average gladiator managed about fifteen contests, while some survived over thirty, including a few which they lost.
The emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty personally participated in some of the most salacious excesses. The orgies of the cunning, inscrutable, and paranoid Tiberius were documented by Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars, including lurid rumours of sexual perversion and graphic descriptions of child molestation. Tiberius had been hesitant to act at the start of his reign, but towards the end of his life, living in debauched and libidinous isolation on the island of Capri, he did so without compunction. Anyone associated with Sejanus, or could in some way be tied to his rebellion, was summarily tried and executed, as Tacitus vividly described in Book V of his Annals: "Executions were now a stimulus to his fury, and he ordered the death of all who were lying in prison under accusation of complicity with Sejanus. There lay, singly or in heaps, the unnumbered dead, of every age and sex, the illustrious with the obscure. Kinsfolk and friends were not allowed to be near them, to weep over them, or even to gaze on them too long. Spies were set round them, who noted the sorrow of each mourner and followed the rotting corpses, till they were dragged to the Tiber, where, floating or driven on the bank, no one dared to burn or to touch them."
Caligula enjoyed playing the role of gladiator himself, while Claudius was known to be particularly fond of a bloody fight to the finish. Nero never cared for his first wife Octavia, whom he had married as a child, but compensated with a willing freedwoman. He then stole a friend's wife, the amber-haired Poppaea Sabina, who was said to bathe in the milk of five hundred donkeys. When she died, kicked to death by Nero, he picked the freedman who looked most like her, had him castrated, and used him for sex instead. His continuing lack of restraint lead to two major conspiracies against him until in 68 AD he saved everyone the trouble by killing himself, claiming "what an artist dies with me." Many years later, after personally fighting ostriches in the arena, Commodus (177-192) cut off their necks and advanced on the senators in their special seats, brandishing his sword in one hand and the bloodied heads in the other. He then gesticulated at the Senators as though their necks might be next.
Thirteen centuries later, in 1497, Pope Alexander VI (a Borgia who himself acknowledged fathering several children by his various mistresses) excommunicated the Dominican friar Savonarola, who responded by composing his spiritual masterpiece. The Triumph of the Cross explored what it means to be a Christian, which he summed up in the theological virtue of caritas, for in loving their neighbors Christians return the love they have received from their Saviour. Savonarola had not only denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule, and the exploitation of the poor, but also hinted at performing miracles to prove his divine mission. When a rival Franciscan preacher proposed to test that mission by walking through fire, he lost control of the public discourse. The first trial by fire in Florence for over four hundred years was announced and a crowd, eager to see if God would intervene, filled the central square, but a sudden rain drenched the spectators and the proceedings were cancelled. The angry mob disbanded and assaulted the convent of San Marco. Savonarola and two other friars were arrested and imprisoned. Under torture he confessed to having invented his prophecies and visions, then recanted, then confessed again. In May 1498, the three friars were again escorted to the Piazza della Signoria, where they were condemned as heretics by a tribunal of high clerics and government officials and sentenced to death. Stripped of their Dominican habits in ritual degradation, they were hanged, while fires from below consumed their bodies. To prevent devotees from searching for relics, their ashes were scattered into the Arno.
Renaissance artists clearly knew what their audiences liked and satisfied this appetite for cruelty by depicting buckets of gore, suppurating gashes, and the extremities of torture. Graphic decapitations of Holofernes and John the Baptist were repeatedly rendered, while Jesus impaled on the cross invariably spurted bright gouts of crimson blood - not to mention the various skulls, bones, and other spurious relics that were preserved in jewel-encrusted and semi-transparent caskets and housed in churches throughout the Catholic world. Intimations of mortality, providing explicit reminders of the fate awaiting us in the limbo of Purgatory and the fires of Hell, were never far away. It was all premised on the minatory assurance that impure thoughts and actions would be forgiven, if sinners simply donated sufficient alms or paid enough penance - and incidentally provided the income to create all those spectacular shrines, sculptured altarpieces, and lavishly vaulted cupolas. Maybe I'm being too harsh here: the staggering artistic achievement of all this aesthetic complexity - albeit funded by questionable business practices, nepotism, and superstitious fears of damnation - is undeniably stupendous. And even Robespierre, at the height of the Terror, was reluctant to remove completely the one appreciable benefit of organized religious faith - providing solace and consolation in the face of both natural and man-made calamities. But then again, perhaps his compatriot the Comte de Mirabeau was closer to the mark when he acidly observed, "Liberty's a bitch who likes to be fucked on a mattress of corpses."
The Golden Ratio
"Without mathematics there is no art."
- Luca Pacioli, De divina proportione, 1509.
A somewhat less cynical, more abstract approach to the appreciation of Renaissance art is to consider the impetus to render realistic proportions with greater degrees of accuracy. The constant search for an increased sense of harmony, balance, and symmetry is evident from fresco pioneers like Cimabue (1240-1302) and Giotto (1267-1337) to acknowledged masters such as Paolo Uccello (1396-1475) and Piero della Francesca (1410-92), all of whom sought to develop progressively more effective means by which to portray a realistic sense of perspective. Over time, as surface flatness gradually gave way to the depiction of receding distance and depth of field, mathematical formulae were developed to achieve the mimetic effect of accurate foreshortening and convincing vanishing points.
The inveterate name-dropper, artist, and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) castigated Uccello for spending too much time studying the art of correct perspective. "Artists who devote more attention to to perspective than to figures develop a dry and angular style because of their anxiety to examine things too minutely," he wrote, "and moreover they usually end up solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor …" However, he then went on to praise della Francesca for basing the spatial relationships of his compositions on the laws of Euclidean geometry. These regular bodies were theoretically perfect forms which, he believed, could provide artists with certain precisely measurable relationships through which their art could reveal and reproduce the underlying Platonic order of nature.
The concept of this golden ratio has held a special fascination for mathematicians and scientists for over 2,400 years. Some of the greatest minds from Pythagoras and Euclid to the mathematical physicist and philosopher Roger Penrose have spent years studying this simple ratio and its properties. Their preoccupation is not confined to the scientific and mathematical spheres, however. Artists, musicians, historians, architects, psychologists, mystics, and economists have all debated its apparently universal ubiquity and enduring appeal.
In mathematics, two quantities are said to be in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. Greek mathematicians first became aware of this golden ratio because of its frequent appearance in the geometry of regular pentagrams and pentagons, where the division of a line into extreme and mean ratios provides what they thought of as a golden section or golden rectangle. It was not until Euclid (c. 325-265 BC), however, that the golden ratio's mathematical properties were fully explained. He considered it a fascinating irrational number, defining it in his fundamental work Elements (308 BC) as follows: "a straight line is said to have been cut in extreme and mean ratio when, as the whole line is to the greater segment, so is the greater to the lesser." In the twentieth century, this golden ratio has been represented by the Greek letter or phi, after the sculptor Phidias (c. 490-430 BC), who is said to have employed it on the construction of the Parthenon, the facade of which is circumscribed by golden rectangles.
Many subsequent mathematicians and scientists have studied the properties of the golden ratio, including its appearance in the dimensions of regular pentagons, which may be cut into a square and a smaller rectangle with the same aspect ratio. Euclid himself employed it to supply proofs for several further propositions in Elements, observing its frequent occurrence in pentagons, decagons, and dodecahedrons (a regular polyhedron whose twelve faces are regular pentagons). The pioneering Florentine mathematician Fibonacci (1170-1250) used the ratio of sequential elements asymptotically in the numerical series named after him, while the first known approximation of the (inverse) golden ratio by a decimal fraction was written in 1597 by Michael Maestlin in a letter to his former student and pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler.
Another distinctive feature of such shapes is that when a square section is removed, the remainder is another golden rectangle, with the same proportions as the first. Square removal can be repeated infinitely, which leads to an approximation of the Fibonacci spiral and the Droste Effect, a specific kind of recursive picture, termed mise en abyme in heraldry. An image exhibiting the Droste Effect depicts a smaller version of itself in a place where a similar picture would realistically be expected to appear. This smaller version then depicts an even smaller version of itself in the same place, and so on. In theory could this go on indefinitely, but in practice it continues only as long as the resolution of the picture allows, which is relatively short, since each iteration geometrically reduces the picture's size. It is a visual example of a self-referential system of instancing which is the cornerstone of fractal geometry.
The golden ratio can be found in many natural organic patterns and structures, such as leaves, the spiral arrangement of mollusc shells, and the crystalline structure of snowflakes, and has played an important role in recent theoretical developments in the science of fractals. Fractals are curves or geometric figures, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. They have proved invaluable for modeling structures in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales (such as eroded coastlines), as well as describing partly random phenomena like the growth of crystals, the turbulence of fluids, and even the formation of galaxies. As recently as 1974, Penrose discovered the Penrose tiling, a pattern that is related to the golden ratio both in the ratio of areas of its two rhombic tiles and in their relative frequency within the pattern, which in turn led to new discoveries about quasicrystals. The continuing relevance of the golden ratio to modern scientific thought is demonstrated by the role it has played in the development of chaos and string theory in astrophysics.
Just as the proportions of the golden ratio can be found throughout nature, the dimensions of the golden section (in which the ratio of the longer side to the shorter provides the golden ratio) have been employed by artists throughout the ages to create a natural sense of balance and harmony. Referred to as the 'Divine Proportion' during the Renaissance, it was utilized extensively in the compositions of da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1483-1520), and Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), to take just four examples.
All the key dimensions of the room, the table, and the ornamental shields in da Vinci's Last Supper (1490s) are based on the golden ratio. Even the fine details of the emblems on the table have been positioned based on golden proportions of the width of the table. Other golden ratio proportions appear in his painting Salvator Mundi (1500) and Annunciation (c. 1472-75), such as the brick wall of the courtyard in relation to the top and bottom dimensions of the frame.
The proportions of da Vinci's famous Vitruvian Man (c. 1490) are often discussed in connection with the golden ratio. Vitruvius was the author of De architectura, the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity, which deeply influenced the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), who published his own revised version. According to Vitruvius, architecture is an imitation of nature and, just as birds and bees built their nests, so humans constructed housing from natural materials to provide shelter against the elements. Any architectural structure should therefore be equally solid, useful, and beautiful - qualities that have come known as the Vitruvian virtues or the Vitruvian Triad. He suggested that the Greeks invented the three major architectural orders (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian) to provide a sense of structural proportion, culminating in a profound understanding of the greatest work of art - the human body itself. This led Vitruvius to define his Vitruvian Man inscribed within the circle and the square (the fundamental geometric patterns of the cosmic order). In Book III, he described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the classical orders of architecture and determined that the ideal body should be eight heads high.
Leonardo's drawing combines a careful reading of the ancient text with his own observation of actual human bodies. In drawing the circle and square he observed that the square cannot have the same centre as the circle, the navel, but is somewhat lower in the anatomy. This adjustment is the innovative part of Leonardo's drawing and what distinguishes it from earlier illustrations. He also departs from Vitruvius by drawing the arms raised to a position in which the fingertips are level with the top of the head, rather than Vitruvius's much lower angle, in which the arms form lines passing through the navel. The drawing itself is often used as an implied symbol of the essential symmetry of the human body and by extension the symmetry of the universe as a whole. However, the proportions do not precisely match the golden ratio and the accompanying text (written in mirror writing) only refers to whole number ratios.
Michelangelo used over two dozen golden ratios in his compositions for the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel. In The Creation of Adam (1510) the section of the painting bounded by God and Adam shows the finger of God touching the finger of Adam at precisely the golden ratio point of the width and height of the area that contains them both, while the horizontal borders of the width of the painting get the same result.
Raphael's extensive use of golden ratios is evident throughout School of Athens (1511), infusing it with a wonderful sense of visual balance, symmetry, and overall harmony. It provides a perfect example of the application of the golden ratio in the process of composition. A small golden rectangle at the front and center of the painting signals his express intent in the use of this proportion.
A final instance is provided by Botticelli's Birth of Venus (1485), which is composed so that her navel is at the golden ratio of her height, as well as the height of the painting itself. It is possible to find the golden ratio point using several different logical variations, and they all come to her navel, as well as the bottom tip of her right elbow: red line - from the very top of her hair to the bottom of her lower foot; green line - from her hairline at the top of her forehead to the bottom of her upper foot; blue line - her height, as measured from the middle of the feet to the top of her head at the back of the part in her hair. The canvas itself is a golden rectangle, with the ratio of its height to its width in golden ratio proportion (172.5 cm x 278.5 cm, providing a width-to-height ratio of 1.6168, a variance of 0.08%, from the golden ratio of 1.618).
subsequent painters such as Poussin, Seurat, and Burne-Jones
similarly based their compositions on the golden ratio,
while modern artists and architects like Salvador Dali and
Le Corbusier also structured their canvases and designs to
approximate its proportions. Despite the fact that the
golden ratio has clearly been employed by painters and
architects to create a sense of aesthetic and visual
harmony, some mathematicians have claimed that nothing in
the real world can be a golden ratio because it has an
infinite number of digits; but so does Pi - so this way of
thinking implies that there are no circles in the real world
either. For the rest of us, practical applications of
mathematical concepts remain an everyday occurrence in the
fields of engineering and other applied sciences.
Caravaggio's Impure Genius
"What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting."
- André Berne-Joffroy, quoted in Gilles Lambert's Caravaggio.
After Michelangelo, Caravaggio (1571-1610) exerted the most prodigious influence on Italian painting as it evolved from the formal, neo-classical Renaissance into the more earthy, vibrant, and melodramatic stylings of the Baroque. He was the original 'bad boy' of Florentine painting and his scandalous lifestyle in many ways mirrored that of his contemporary, the English playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593). The fact that his real name also happened to be 'Michelangelo' is just a coincidence; like many of his contemporaries, Michelangelo Merisi was known by the name of his home town near Milan.
Caravaggio constantly courted danger with extended bouts of drinking, gambling, brawling, dueling, and whoring (both male and female). Following "certain quarrels," he left Milan in 1592, then fled Rome where even such powerful patrons as Cardinal Scipione Borghese could no longer protect him after he murdered a young man in a street brawl in 1606. He became an itinerant painter, moving first to Naples, where the influence of his style defined Neapolitan painting for centuries. He then sailed to Malta where he was accepted into the Order of Saint John (aka the Knights of Malta) and became in effect their official artist, but his stay ended with a mysterious offense and his expulsion from the Order "as a foul and rotten limb." The nature of his crime has been the subject of much speculation: his earliest biographer, Giovanni Baglione, said that there had been a "disagreement" with a knight drawn from the European nobility; while Giovan Pietro Bellori, who visited Malta to see the Beheading of John the Baptist some fifty years after the event, wrote that Caravaggio "had come into conflict with a very noble knight," as a result of which he had incurred the displeasure of the Grand Master and had to flee. It is possible that the offence involved a duel, for which the penalty was imprisonment. The death sentence was only imposed for murder, and both Baglione and Bellori implied that the knight Caravaggio offended had survived. Peter Robb, in his popular biography M, makes the case for a sexual misdemeanour, but his argument is highly speculative.
After another fight in 1608, Caravaggio was pursued across Sicily by his enemies and forced to return to Naples, where he was involved in yet another brawl after being attacked in the street by unknown assailants within days of his arrival in 1609. He sought a pardon that would allow him to return to Rome from the art-loving Cardinal, who would have expected to be paid in paintings. News that the pardon was imminent arrived in mid-year and he set out by boat with three canvasses. The next report was that he had died "of a fever" in Porto Ercole on Monte Argentario, an obscure peninsula in southern Tuscany. In fact, he had drunk himself into a stupor and died of sunstroke on a tavern table after walking outdoors on a brutally hot day. His body was tossed into a pauper's pit at the edge of town. He was thirty-eight years old.
The major innovation for which Caravaggio is famous was his pioneering use of the chiaroscuro technique sometimes referred to as "tenebrism" - contrasting dark, even black areas of deep shadow with planes of colour by strong highlights, and showing this off to great effect in the details of wrinkled faces, pallid flesh tones, and folds of clothing. Caravaggio's style of painting achieved an intense degree of naturalism, yet was also highly exaggerated, producing a unique sense of oneiric hyper-realism. Like Homer and Herodotus, his lasting influence has continued to echo down the centuries, informing the works of Bernini, Ribera, Rubens, Rembrandt, Bacon, and a host of other artists.
While it had been mildly shocking when Renaissance painters first started casting Tuscan peasants in the choirs of angels, groups of monks, and Biblical bystanders of their frescoes, it was considered totally outrageous when Caravaggio employed prostitutes to pose for his Madonnas and street hustlers for his saints. Not only was this due to his having to use the cheapest models possible, but they were also people Caravaggio knew and with whom he liked to hang out. Caravaggio never married, had no known children, and never painted a single female nude in his entire career. The model of Amor vincit omnia is known to have been Cecco di Caravaggio, who lived with Caravaggio even after he was obliged to leave Rome in 1606, and the two may well have been lovers. Similarly, the cabinet-pieces from his Del Monte period are replete with "full-lipped, languorous boys ... who seem to solicit the onlooker with their offers of fruit, wine, flowers - and themselves," suggesting to Louis Crompton, in his Homosexuality and Civilization, an overtly erotic interest in the male form. Caravaggio's 1599 portrait of a Boy With Flowers is incontrovertibly androgynous, as are all eight versions he painted of St John the Baptist.
On the other hand, a connection with a certain Lena is mentioned in a 1605 court deposition by Pasqualone, who described her as "Michelangelo's girl." According to GB Passeri this Lena was also Caravaggio's model for the Madonna di Loreto, and Catherine Puglisi has offered the possibility that she may have been the same person as the courtesan Maddalena di Paolo Antognetti, who described Caravaggio as her "intimate friend" in 1604. It is quite likely that Caravaggio enjoyed close relationships with a number of other working girls, such as Fillide Melandroni, whose portrait he painted. Andrew Graham-Dixon has also suggested that the infamous duel with Ranuccio Tommasoni may have been the result of the latter discovering an affair between his wife and the artist, which possibly resulted in an illegitimate daughter.
The vexed question of Caravaggio's sexuality received further attention in the nineteenth century after Mirabeau contrasted his personal life with the writings of St Paul in the Book of Romans, arguing that the Romans practiced sodomy excessively, and claiming that such an "abomination" was evident in a particular painting owned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, which featured a rosary of a blasphemous nature and a circle of thirty men are shown intertwined in a voluptuous embrace. Sir Richard Francis Bacon later identified the painting as St Rosario, linking it with the erotic practices of the Emperor Tiberius as recorded by Seneca. However, the location of Caravaggio's painting is unknown and no such painting appears in his or his school's catalogues. Both art scholars and historians have continued to debate the inferences of homoeroticism in Caravaggio's works ever since.
Apart from the paintings themselves, additional evidence comes from the libel trial brought against Caravaggio by Giovanni Baglione in 1603. Baglione accused Caravaggio and his friends of writing and distributing scurrilous doggerel attacking him. The pamphlets, according to Baglione's friend and witness Mao Salini, had been shared by Caravaggio with his friend Onorio Longhi, then distributed by a certain Giovanni Battista, a bardassa, or rent boy. Caravaggio denied knowing anyone of that name and the allegation was not followed up. Baglione's painting Divine Love has also been seen as a visual accusation against Caravaggio. Francesco Susino in his biography relates the story of how the artist was chased away by a Sicilian schoolmaster for spending too long gazing at the boys in his care, presenting it as an unfortunate misunderstanding. Even though the authorities were unlikely to investigate someone as well-connected as Caravaggio, such accusations were extremely dangerous since sodomy was a capital crime at the time.
Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has summarised the debate as follows: "A lot has been made of Caravaggio's presumed homosexuality, which has in more than one previous account of his life been presented as the single key that explains everything, both the power of his art and the misfortunes of his life. There is no absolute proof of it, only strong circumstantial evidence and much rumour. The balance of probability suggests that Caravaggio did indeed have sexual relations with men. But he certainly had female lovers. Throughout the years that he spent in Rome he kept close company with a number of prostitutes. The truth is that Caravaggio was as uneasy in his relationships as he was in most other aspects of life. He likely slept with men. He did sleep with women. He settled with no one ... [but] the idea that he was an early martyr to the drives of an unconventional sexuality is an anachronistic fiction."
This conclusion remains completely at odds with Derek Jarman's extraordinary film about Caravaggio's life and work. Perhaps the best approach is to inspect the canvases themselves and make your own determination. His major paintings on display in Rome include Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1598), a brilliant depiction of disdain and determination infused with eroticism, that lead to his first public commissions. Many scholars now believe that the Narcissus labelled as a Caravaggio was actually painted by one of the many Roman artists who sought to emulate his style, but the brooding St Francis in Meditation, wearing a threadbare cassock and contemplating a skull, is almost certainly correctly attributed. The Calling of St Matthew and The Martyrdom of St Matthew were commissioned in 1599 and originally intended to flank a sculptural centrepiece by another artist, but this was deemed inferior and in 1602 he was commissioned to paint St Matthew and the Angel as well. The remarkable Madonna del Loreto altarpiece was completed in 1603. Caravaggio's sense of realism and his urge to test the boundaries between the sacred and profane (expressed in the dirty feet of the two kneeling pilgrims) caused great controversy, but also cemented his reputation.
Caravaggio's fame in Rome was matched only by Annibale
Carracci, so when Tiberio Cerasi, treasurer to the Pope,
decided to decorate a chapel he had just acquired, it was to
them that he turned. Carracci produced the main altar piece,
but it is the two flanking paintings by Caravaggio, The
Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St
Peter, which steal the show. The six paintings which
Scipione Borghese appropriated, bought, or commissioned
between 1607 and 1610 provide a fascinating summary of the
painter's career - from the very early Sick Bacchus
(probably a self-portrait), to one of his largest altar
pieces, the Madonna of the Serpent (1606), Young
Bacchus, and most intriguing of all David with the
Head of Goliath, painted in 1610 when Caravaggio was
still wanted for murder. The giant's severed head is another
of self-portrait and has been interpreted as a plea for
Footprints in the Sand
"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away."
- Shelley, Prometheus Unbound.
It is a truism to observe that the Italian Renaissance was a 'rebirth' or rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman artistic ideals, but for this to be more than a simple platitude the Romans first had to re-evaluate and re-assimilate Greek art and culture for themselves. Replicas of Greek statuary became increasingly common throughout the Roman world - just as, thirteen centuries later, Italian artists unearthed many of these models and literally drew their own conclusions. The eastward advance of the Roman Empire not only enabled the rediscovery of ancient Greek architecture and literature, but also revealed the lingering colonial influence of the many cities founded and settled across Asia on the sites of old Persian citadels by Alexander the Great.
Having spent his youth in Macedonian palace society, Alexander watched his father found cities as far east as the Black Sea. He also learned much from his tutor, for Aristotle coiled his political theory around the web of Greek cities that would flourish on Asia's western coast for a thousand years, until the rise of militant Islam reduced them to embattled forts. The age of the Successor kings did not kill the spirit of the city states in Greece, for they fought and protested as much as in the age of Pericles, bound together in broader federations and closer unions, which were handled by their Macedonian masters with restrained disinterest.
This defiant network derived directly from the conquests of Alexander and his death nearly unraveled it. Many of the cities he founded in Asia were rapidly attacked and had to be rebuilt; those in India passed to Chandragupta; those in upper Iran were cut off for eighty years; and within two centuries every Greek city beyond the Euphrates had been overrun by Parthians and central Asian nomads. But politics and warfare are only one part of history and Greek culture did not vanish with a change of masters. The Greek cities in Iran lasted as long as the British Empire in India, and just as Shakespeare is still taught in Indian and New Zealand schools, so Greek footprints can be traced for another seven hundred years in the form of city-planning; in the shapes of small clay figurines that were traded from Samarkand to China; in alphabets and central Asian scripts; and in the funerary art of nomads living far beyond the Oxus. The only detailed book on the towns and routes of central Asia to be written by a westerner during the Roman Empire derived its data from a Macedonian entrepreneur whose father had left his colonial home in Syria and moved to Bactria, where he mastered the silk trade which ran from the Oxus to China.
The thin crust of classical culture may have only survived in a few cities linked by rough roads and surrounded by alien tribes, but the tenacity of Greek and Macedonian settlers was astonishing. East of the Euphrates and into the Punjab, eighteen different Alexandrias had been founded. In Afghanistan, where the river Kokcha rushes down from the mountains and the blue mines of Badakshan to join the upper Oxus in sight of Russia and the corridor through the Pamirs to China, the huge city of Ai Khanum has been uncovered, the site of the most northerly Alexandria-in-Sogdia. Here, three thousand miles from the Aegean, Greek, Macedonian, and Thracian citizens enjoyed their temples, gymnasium, and wrestling ring exactly as in the cities of mainland Greece. The broad-timbered roof of their enormous mud-brick palace was guarded by a porch of Corinthian columns and supported on capitals of carved acanthus leaves. Just as the US early warning radar outposts in Alaska recreate Middle American home life, so this frontier town founded among Sogdian barons and buff-coloured desert erected a perfect copy of the moral teaching of the Seven Sages as recorded at Delphi.
At Alexandria-in-Arachosia (now known as Kandahar, also a US military base), Alexander had left veterans and six thousand Greeks to settle with natives in the old Persian fort. Twenty years after his death, the city was surrendered to Chandragupta with the express provision that Greek citizens could intermarry with Indians of any caste. The Greek settlers' sons and daughters held so fast to their way of life that Chandragupta's grandson, the Buddhist King Asoka, could put up an edict inscribed in clear Greek letters and phrased in impeccable philosophic Greek. Buddhist precepts fell elegantly into an idiom that Plato might have written and were rounded off with the usual greeting of a worshipper at a Greek oracle. Sophocles was read in Susa, scenes from Euripides inspired Greek artists in Bactria, comic mimes were performed in Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus, Babylon had a Greek theater, and the tale of the Trojan Horse remained a favourite in Alexandria-in-Sogdia where men read versions of early Greek epic poets. Thus Homer, together with Plato and Aristotle, reached India and Afghanistan and ended up in Ceylon. In Asia, the age of the Successor kings was no harsher to Greek city freedom and self-government than the empires of Athens, Sparta, or Darius had been. It was left to the Romans to stamp out the Greek desire for democratic freedom and to lower their literature to a stale and academic toying with the past.
The Greeks loved beauty and (except for the Spartans) brains, as well as art and the cult of celebrity. Such fine distinctions were largely lost on the Romans, who valued a sense of stolid seriousness above all - the 'gravitas' that Cicero regarded as a peculiarly Roman characteristic. It is characteristic of such a mentality that when Cato came to write his history of the origins of Italy, he omitted to mention any of the major players' names. The first lengthy appraisal of Roman customs by a Greek (the historian Polybius, writing circa 150 BC), emphasized the solemnity of two quintessential Roman activities - funerals and religion. They were obsessed with ensuring a secure journey to the afterlife and immense monuments were constructed in order to guarantee safe passage and preserve their memory.
With the exception of Julius Caesar, Alexander was the only man in ancient history whose divinity was widely accepted and believed. His unique career broke decisively with his predecessors and rituals of ceremonial kingship were never the same again. His royal Successors invoked his name, his guidance, or his invincibility, copying his claim to be the son of god as confirmed by an oracle. Among the Romans, this impression remained even more vivid and his veneration continued for over five hundred years: first in their establishment of a cult of the goddess Victory, probably on early news of his extraordinary military success; then in the continual imitation of their politicians and emperors from Scipio to Caracalla, who laid claim to Alexander's cloak or breastplate, or copied his shield and statues. For the classical world he became the prototype of superhuman glory, amplified by the added aura of absence after his early death in mysterious circumstances at the age of thirty-two. They had seen him once, at most, when he first freed them and they were left thereafter with a memory of dynamic young man in his prime. In his Life of Julius Caesarr, Plutarch tells the story that in 69 BC, when Caesar was serving as a junior magistrate in southern Spain, he saw a statute of Alexander in the main temple of Cadiz and broke down in tears because he had achieved nothing memorable, while at his same age Alexander had already conquered the world. After his defeat of Pompey, Caesar's expenditure on civic construction exceeded even Alexander's final years, a tribute to his massive plundering in Spain and Asia. He built an enormous Temple to Mars, the new Forum (never finished in his lifetime), another vast Temple dedicated to Venus, and a statue of himself on horseback in front of it modeled on Alexander and his horse Bucephalus.
By the 40s and 30s BC most of Rome's religious rites were not seriously in abeyance, but what had clearly decayed were the temples. Augustus was the first emperor to pursue a course of massive restoration, but this was hardly his original idea. Temple-building had been part of the competitive rivalry in Rome since the 30s, and Cicero's friend, the non-political and cultured Atticus, had been urging such action for decades. It was during the reign of Augustus that the rebuilding of Rome really started to accelerate: at least eighty-two temples were restored, in addition to the construction of hundreds of new shrines across the Empire. Hadrian also had a serious addiction to rehabilitating old Greek and Roman temples, including the magnificent Pantheon, which still stands with its open-roofed cupola in the heart of modern Rome.
The amarinthine desire of illustrious men to leave a lasting record of their achievements also provides invaluable ethnographic evidence about Renaissance society and culture. In addition to compulsively producing a succession of Biblical illustrations, painters and sculptors of the period documented a wealth of historical and cultural data. While relying on largely traditional schemata to depict endless Annunciations, Crucifixions, and Martyrdoms, they also spent a great deal of attention on the details of contemporary costumes, buildings, and landscapes, as well as the rows of individual head-shots of witnesses to these events. Portraits of civic benefactors proliferated, with delicate hand gestures and deliberate eye-lines directing the viewer's attention, some depicted ogling at the central focal point, some engaging in dialogue with each other, and others staring out at us with unnerving intensity. This was essentially the same obsession that motivated the creation of all that colossal Greek and Roman statuary - to preserve the memory of important patrons, philosophers, politicians, and generals.
Beyond the programmatic depiction of religious iconography, it is apparent that what really interested these artists was the employment of line, shape, and colour to depict contemporary architecture, landscape, and costume, and to populate such scenes with the images of contemporary celebrities. Precisely the same instinct was evident in classical Greece and Rome, where politicians, statesmen, and prominent citizens immortalized themselves in Parian marble; important movers and shakers lavished enormous expense on ornately carved sarcophagi, funerary urns, and family crypts; and victorious commanders built immense monuments to celebrate their triumphs, such as the votive temples constructed by various Caesars, and the enormous arches of Hadrian and Constantine.
They testify to mankind's enduring urge to bequeath some kind of permanent impression, one that will be remembered beyond the grave. The primal human compulsion to create images of ourselves is precisely the same motivation that lies behind the red ochre hand prints and stencils preserved for posterity in the Chauvet caves 39,000 years ago. This irresistible impulse to leave behind residual marks is nothing less than the universal urge to provide witness to our own existence, to shout out in unequivocal terms "I was here." Not only has this desire to deposit vestigial traces provided the driving force behind the creation of all great artistic achievement, it is equally responsible for the graffiti we invariably find inscribed on lavatory doors as much as the egotistical craze for taking 'selfless.' It will no doubt continue to do so, at least as long as human beings are still around to smear their daubs on bathroom walls.