Homosexual or Heterosexual? 1596–1600

Today, Caravaggio has become a homosexual icon, acclaimed as the greatest of gay painters, a view of him that owes a great deal to the late Derek Jarman’s immensely successful film Caravaggio. In 1986, in a book about his film, Jarman called the artist “the last sodomite of a dying tradition, parodying Michelangelo and stealing the dark from Leonardo.” Jarman was not, however, a historian. No less fancifully, in the film itself, he imagines one pope pawning the dome of St. Peter’s, and another arriving at an orgy “dressed as a hairy satyr, wearing the triple tiara.”

The historical proof of Caravaggio’s homosexuality, Jarman might no doubt have said, lies in his association with Cardinal del Monte, in the “homosexual pinups” he produced for the cardinal, and in never painting female nudes. Others have used these arguments. But del Monte’s alleged sexual tastes are demonstrably a myth, while Caravaggio produced at least two female nudes, now lost: Susannah and the Elders and a Penitent Magdalen. There is also evidence that he had mistresses. So the question has to be asked: Was he really homosexual, or was he in fact heterosexual?

Seventeenth-century ideas about sex were often very different from our own. “The elephant, not only the largest of animals, but the wisest, furnishes an admirable example for married couples,” François de Sales wrote in his widely read Introduction de la Vie Dévote of 1609. “It is faithful and loving to the female of its choice, mating only every third year, and then for no more than five days.” Sexual deprivation was a good thing. At the same time, affections that today would be thought homosexual were considered unremarkable, provided they did not involve sexual activity. Lack of documentary evidence makes Caravaggio’s orientation even harder to identify. All we know is what we see in his pictures.

Among his first paintings for del Monte was the Concert of Youths, four half-naked young men communicating a secret message. The lutenist is sometimes said to be the artist’s friend Mario Minniti, but no proper likeness of him survives, while the horn player may be a self-portrait. One youth has wings, which, with Caravaggio’s attempts at classical drapery, shows it is an allegory. Many historians think that the picture represents some aspect of homosexual love. We know from an inventory that the cardinal hung the Concert in his gallery, and it has been suggested that Caravaggio was catering for del Monte’s homosexual love nest. Yet Baglione, who knew Caravaggio, and probably del Monte too, merely says, “He painted a music party of young men, from nature, and very well.”

Another of Caravaggio’s pictures for the cardinal was the Lute Player, whose model was perhaps a Spanish castrato, Pedro Montoya, a member of the Sistine Chapel choir. The boy is so girlish that Bellori thought he was “a lady in a blouse.” On the table before him are a violin, a sheet of music, and some figs. The sheet of music reads Voi sapete ch’io v’amo (“You know I love you”), the opening lines of a madrigal set to music by Jacob Arcadelt. Yet another painting of an androgynous boy is the Bacchus in the Uffizi. Although not among del Monte’s collection, it is typical of Caravaggio’s work at this stage.

Despite the prettiness of the concert players, it is most unlikely that they were meant to be homosexual pinups. The cardinal would have regarded them as images of platonic love and the transience of earthly happiness. A priest and a member of the Accademia degli Insensati, he probably saw an emphasis on the vanity of this world’s beauty, which would awaken sophisticated Christians to a realization of heavenly beauty. In any case, in del Monte’s gallery such pictures were heavily outnumbered by Christs, Madonnas, saints, and martyrdoms, together with portraits of the famous down the ages.

No doubt, these so-called pinups look like homosexuals. Yet Caravaggio cannot have been responding to the cardinal’s “tastes,” which never existed outside the imaginations of a single seventeenth-century journalist and a handful of modern scholars. In the pre-Freudian world of the Baroque, admiration of male beauty did not necessarily mean homosexuality; girlish, Adonis-like looks in a young man were often considered a sign of aristocratic breeding rather than effeminacy. Many of the Davids in Baroque art were pretty enough, and yet most of the artists who created them were heterosexuals. At least one of the youths in the Concert, if he really is Minniti, married twice.

There is little evidence, except these early paintings, to suggest that Caravaggio was a homosexual. A vague allegation during a libel action in 1603, for belittling a would-be rival’s pictures, was not taken seriously by the court. In 1650, Richard Symonds, an English tourist visiting the Giustiniani collection, was told that the model for the laughing Cupid in Amor Vincit Omnia was “Cecco… his owne boy or servant that laid with him,” but this was mere hearsay. At about the same time, a guide to the Villa Borghese stated that the young David in the Borghese David and Goliathwas modeled on the artist’s “Caravaggino,” by implication his boyfriend. This was probably a simple misunderstanding, since David is almost certainly an idealized self-portrait of Caravaggio in his boyhood. Nevertheless, a tradition that he had been a homosexual developed during the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

On these very slender foundations, some modern historians have decided that he had physical relationships with his male friends. “Whether Caravaggio was essentially or exclusively homosexual is far from certain,” says Howard Hibbard. “Minniti, with whom he lived for some years, and who may have been the model for the lutenist in the Concert, eventually tired of Caravaggio.” But the only grounds for suspecting that there may have been a sexual relationship between them was their living together. And even Hibbard concedes that Minniti went off to marry a Roman girl by whom he had a family. He also admits that the homoerotic undertones in Caravaggio’s paintings are not necessarily “confessional,” accepting that a contemporary story of Caravaggio using a mistress for a model is “not a rumour about a known homosexual.”

Caravaggio was strongly attracted by the opposite sex during the latter part of his time at the Palazzo Madama. “Around 1599 he also began to paint women who are desirable in our eyes and were, at least arguably, desired,” Hibbard concedes. They would certainly have taken more notice of a cardinal’s gentiluomo than of some hack painter living in the gutter.

According to Montaigne, Roman women were unusually good looking. “As a rule, the women’s faces here are much prettier than those of French women, and you see far fewer uglier ones than you do in France … their countenances are stately, gentle, and sweet.” If he thought their loose dresses unflattering to the figure, he admired their clothes on the whole. “In raiment they are incomparably more sumptuous than our ladies, everything being covered with pearls and jewels.” They kept their distance from the gentlemen, “but during certain dances they mix freely enough, and find plenty of opportunity for conversation and holding hands.”

There is nothing to suggest that Caravaggio was ever lucky enough to mix with noblewomen of this sort. Even if, in later years, he was sometimes admitted into the palaces of great Roman magnates, he could not expect to be thought fit company for their wives and daughters, despite being a famous artist. He remained a mere painter. But he met women further down the social scale, and there is every reason to think that he got to know some of them very well indeed. Montaigne thought the Roman courtesans were the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen. No doubt they flaunted their charms before an elegantly dressed young man like Caravaggio. In his black suit and white ruff, carrying sword and dagger, he must have begun to look as if he had money.

The onus of proving what has become very nearly the traditional view, that Caravaggio was a lover of his own sex, rests on its supporters. Their case’s most obvious flaw is that the evidence for Cardinal del Monte’s allegedly homosexual tastes and his supposed love nest of boys at the Palazzo Madama will not stand up to examination; throughout the cardinal’s long career, none of the cardinal’s friends or close associates can be shown to have been a practicing homosexual. On the other hand, definite if sparse evidence exists to show that Caravaggio was a lover of women.

Judging from his paintings, it is not impossible that he went through some sort of bisexual phase as a very young man, but as will be seen, it certainly looks as though he was a heterosexual by his midtwenties. In the last analysis, blasphemous as it may seem to our own age, it is quite possible he did not have much interest in sex; he willingly took a vow of chastity when he was in his thirties. Nonetheless, some people will always remain convinced that Caravaggio was essentially homosexual, although their view depends entirely on a subjective reaction to his pictures. A famous German composer, also a homosexual, has claimed, “Of course Schubert was gay—you can hear it in the music.” But the majority of Schubert’s admirers cannot hear it in the music. Similarly, most of Caravaggio’s admirers cannot see it in the pictures, certainly not in his later paintings.

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