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PERSONAL DISORDERS AND ART: CARAVAGGIO

Article by Douglas Modig

MICHELANGELO MERISI DA CARAVAGGIOPersonal disorders and Art

It may seem pretentious to contradict or question the savants and the innumerable articles and biographies addressed to analyze the Baroque villain and rebel Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The discrepancy between the scientists and biographers may, when put into a historical context, be explicable since the “truth” relies on the prevalent normative mindset and often on a hidden agenda of his biographers.

Before Doctor Freud and his peers openly proposed the close interaction between sexuality and behavioral patterns in almost every aspect of man´s life and endeavors, tons of rumors and clandestine written documents had pinpointed the popular idea of a sodomite with a violent aggressive personality disorder. The absence of prominent women as the principal object in most of his work, thus castrating a flourishing Madonna cult present in art for almost half of a millennium, was interpreted in terms of a hatred of women, possibly the result of a failing mother object in the infancy, and a flagrant homosexual orientation with an obsession for boy efebs and overly beautiful provocative young men with erotic charisma staring brazenly right into the spectator´s eyes.

The tolerance of homoerotic relations has a long tradition since the Indus Valley urban conglomerates, the earliest nation like social constructions of China, over the Persian Empires, the nomadic tribes of the Middle East and Africa, the Sumerian and Babylonian Empires, in the Pharaonic Egypt, in all Pre-Columbian empires and made into an ideal, with reservations, in the Greek and Hellenic World to Rome and the Ottoman Empire and with a stronghold in Tuscany until the late 19th century.

Sodomy, per se, was common in all cultures due to the simple fact that it would not result in any offspring and yet, strongly condemned in the ideological and religious superstructure from of the early theocracies from Sumerians and onwards. The omnipotent wrathful God who would slay a sodomite is a late bloomer from a social Darwinist point of view.

In the gradually increasing stratified societies, in which the woman by law was regarded as inferior to man, the practice became so common it had to be stopped in order to ensure a healthy reproduction. In the nomad culture, where the untouched woman presented the ultimate exchange of value and a guarantee of stability by intermarrying into rival clans, homoerotic practice was tolerated as a means of relief of sexual tension because of the restrictions in relation to premarital relationships between the opposite sexes. Genuine homosexuality, as we understand it, was however regarded with contempt, and any individual, male or female, refusing to consume a marriage would be killed or expelled, often with references to family honor, since marriage was built on Convenience and not on love.The necessity to safeguard an organized system of access to the means of production and reproduction was reflected in the dynamics of the religious superstructures and thus any abomination would be dealt with by calling upon Divinity.

The painter Caravaggio, started out as a pauper with a questionable background in a world of Art predominantly controlled by the Church. The Renaissance rebellion against pompous religious overtones and the revival of secular philosophy had come to a near close by the Inquisition, leaving fragments of freethinkers in the early 17th century in a precarious situation were obvious heresy or disobedience would be severely punished.

Painting and sculpturing was dependant on genuine or pretended piety of the ruling classes and the church with little room for portraying anything that was not in the service of religion. The genre stereotype paintings looked very much alike and the numerous religious symbols from a simple feather to a time glass were understood by the religious elite and explained as a means of education to the illiterate and ignorant masses. In this rigid structure Caravaggio succeeded to survive, often assisted by mecenates of lesser piety and with an interest of fleshy models with enigmatic looks in their eyes.

Europe, at the time, was a patchwork of city states and kingdoms and Italy divided into numerous centers of powers with their own Princely households, courts and armies. Venice, Milan, Firenze and Napoli were constantly competing and the prominent aristocratic families at endless squabbles over territory and influence. The subject of a criminal offence could take refuge in a hostile conglomerate or, if worse came to worst, requested to be pardoned by the Vatican itself. The ancient legal system of Rome with all important Codexes were set aside for local set ups of rules of questionable legality and implemented at the whim of the dictatorial local ruler.

In this paradox of rigidity and chaos Caravaggio curved out a way as a bold innovator, by rebelling against an art world dominated by church commissions and stereotype motives. If he was forced to paint a local patron´s head in a religious setting he would spitefully paint his own face somewhere in the composition. His models were taken from the street and pictured in a realistic mode without embellishments, to the horror of the self professed guardians of taste and etiquette.

The chiaroscuro reflected the painter´s turbulent docotome personality of conceiving the world in black or white. His temper tantrums and open violence was combined with exaggerated servile obsequious flattery of a prince or a potential mecenate. His anaplastic personality leaned heavily on a strong narcissistic personality disorder, an early development of a psychological self defense in an infanthood where no adult could be trusted and the process of object constancy, defined cleverly by Anna Freud, obviously never was fully experienced by the infant Caravaggio.

The deliberate lack of self control may be understood from this megalomaniacal anaplastic concept of his self and allowed him to ignore normative codes for social interaction or feel genuine empathy for anybody at all. To me, he is not an Asperger or autistic, but a fully developed Narcissist, as seductive in his own eyes as his painting of the mythological Narcissus.

The individual with a pathological anaplastic disorder cannot ever be in the wrong and it is his concept of the world, emotional or physical, that is the only possible truth in all aspects. Anybody opposing even in the mildest way is to be exterminated, psychologically or physically. It is a holy mission to set people straight or to destroy them. Ethics and morals, as we understand them, only exist to guarantee the inner self righteousness to be used or disqualified to enhance the inner urges and desire of ego promoting satisfaction and affirmation.The enormous exhaustive efforts to always be in the right will generate spectacular mood swings with aggressiveness, self pity, emotionality, wrath, hate, viciousness, arrogance, avoidance and escapism which generate a constant loss of self control and a permanent absence of feelings of empathy or compassion for any other living creature.

From an artistic point of view this disorder generates an alarming power, boldness and strong urge to over triumph all other painters in technique, choice of motives and combat stereotyping which will be regarded as cowardly and a token of inferior artistry and skill. To provoke all saintly faces, usually depicting aristocrats and commissioners in their borrowed glory, will be paramount and the models will be chosen from the vulgar commoners who behave anything but saintly.

Theft, robbery, cheating, exploiting, abusing or killing is not an issue of morals. The anaplastic disorder absolves you from all actions that may be of benefit for instant satisfaction or promotion of the self. The weak spot which triggers off Caravaggio´s disloyalty to his benefactors, mistresses, lovers and friends is the constant need for affirmation and grandezza. The force that drives the painter to create masterpieces can partly be explained by his only weakness: the deadly fear that someone does not appreciate or comprehend his superior being.Homoerotic relations, as previously, mentioned, were common, as was sodomy. Sodomy enhances the sexual satisfaction of the male by penetrating the narrow anus be it of a woman or a man and has no reproductive consequences. Obviously, from my point of view, there has been a massive interest with focus on the painter´s alleged preferences for young boys which may say more about the agenda of the biographers than the personality of Caravaggio.

In later eras, when slandering the Baroque expression becomes il faut, Caravaggio´s promiscuousness and antisocial behavior has been emphasized when criticizing his work, which, of course, has little to do with the quality of his art. During the Victorian period any reference to Caravaggio would be regarded as improper, while duplicas of his paintings were printed and distributed en masse underground. The pedophilic sub culture regards the painter as a hero together with prominent representatives of the Hellenic and Roman homoerotic practices.

Be it as it may, but, from my angle, Caravaggio is not the typical pedophile. He, as far as we know, never used girls minor of ages, whereas he slept indiscriminately with adult women. He seemingly may have preferred boy and men lovers but was not, as we understand it, a homosexual.

Caravaggio, due to his disorder, was unable to love anybody except for himself. Sexuality and promiscuity was a means to satisfy his self and simultaneously feed his starving ego. His lifelong infatuation with himself, triggered off by his early Narcissistic defenses, stopped his psychological and emotional growth to embrace some kind of affection or genuine desire versus any other person, be it a woman or a man.

Why all the boys and men? It seems plausible that Caravaggio may have associated them to his own persona as a man with a man´s genitalia. In the beautiful youth or attractive man Caravaggio may have seen a true or imagined reflection of himself and thus an object of desire or to conquer. Since, as far as we know, he had various and shifting groups of male friends he obviously found it convenient to socialize but only on his own terms. He abandoned his friends as he chose and killed one of them over something trivial without any obvious regrets. There are no indications of an amorous lasting relation neither with a male or a female.The promiscuity, whether in a female or a male, seems to be a narcissistic means of satisfaction, with no fundamental ability to bond and as means of copying with an addiction, be it drugs, possessions or sexuality.

The heated discussion in relation to the painter´s portrait of the Virgin´s Mother Anna on her deathbed caused and still causes disgust. In the era when it was painted it was obvious to the spectator that the model looked like someone found in the gutter. The current conception is that of a pregnant prostitute modeling as St Anne, an idea that stems back to the time the masterpiece was presented for the first time. Caravaggio was known to use commoners and prostitutes of all sexes as models, not only to provoke, but to enhance the realistic elements in his paintings. The audiences were divided. His chiaroscuro technique was hailed as exquisite even by his enemies. His mocking of stereotyping and the audacity to portray ordinary people playing at cards, playing musical instruments, or a deviously smiling Bacchus or a street boy offering fruits, the symbols of fertility, created a pandemonium. Any kind of attention would be welcomed by the painter. Negative criticism may have infuriated him instantly but not for long since his personality would dismiss it as inferior understanding of beauty and skill.

Taking into regard the cult of Mary, starting to grow in the 6th century and in steady progress in relation to the stratified societies making permanent the inferiority of the woman and to create an ideal of such purity that all women, the alleged bearers of sexuality and the eminent threat to decent men, must aspire to an almost divine obedience and sexual abstinence unless to complete with her marital duties may have been the source of the reactions of panic and disgust.

The enormity of approaching the Mother of the Mother of God with even a hint of secularity cannot be underestimated. This stunning provocation, understood from the normative mindset of the time, is the ultimate proof that Caravaggio suffered from a pathological omnipotence disorder to a degree that all norms and conceptions of the world could, without any consequences, be disqualified by the painter who could present the only correct interpretation of existence.

In summery:Caravaggio´s turbulent life, his antisocial behavior, his mastery in technique, his innovation in motives and the use of models and the complex blending of the dark and the light seems to rest upon a personality disorder of a magnitude seen only in the greatest of the greatest. The price to pay is often high. We know that Caravaggio was left to die on a beach, waiting for friends to appear who never came to his rescue. I believe, however, that he died convinced that he was the greatest artist of all time and for the rest of time.

Douglas ModigSocial anthropologistSweden

About the Author

DOUGLAS MODIG, SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGIST,ETHNOLOGIST,COLUMNIST, WRITER, KRISTIANSTAD,SWEDEN

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