Caravaggio’s Freudian Complex: Madonnas & Magdalenes

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Caravaggio encapsulated the Madonna/Whore complex in his paintings no less than three centuries before Freud coined the expression in psychoanalysis!

Caravaggio is that dark and brooding figure of Baroque Rome that we all swoon over. The untamable rake, the drunkard, the terrifying temper, the barely repressed violence, the mesmerizing charisma and yes the untouchable talent.

He was a hellraiser and a scallywag. The beauty of his art stands is stark contrast to the often ugly episodes of his life; indeed as much as the sharp contrasts of darkness and light in his paintings for which he is famed. His mastery of light and dark: tenebrism and Chiaroscuro is, to my mind, unrivalled. Those that came after him are known in Italian as mere Carravageschi (Caravaggio-esque, or Caravaggio’s imitators).

While he came from relatively gentrified roots, and relied on the patronage and introductions of the rich Colonna family, on his arrival in Rome in 1592 he quickly tore up letters of introduction, ignored the drawing rooms of potential monied patrons, and instead adopted the persona of an impoverished, arrogant, bawdy and violent drunk. He sallied forth, sword swinging at his side, ever ready for a brawl, headlong into the taverns, brothels and other places of ill repute immersing himself in the underworld of Roman society. There is a long list of his many crimes both petty and severe, including chucking a plate of scalding hot artichokes in a waiter’s face.

Despite his propensity towards violence and self-destruction, Caravggio’s talent as an artist saved him from many a scrape.

Rome is filled with Caravaggio’s paintings – there are several churches, palazzos and galleries in which you’ll find his masterpieces: The Vatican Museums, The Galleria Borghese, the Palazzo Barberini, the Palazzo doria Pamphilj and the three churches: Santa Maria del Poppolo, San Agostino and San Luigi in Francese.

One of the many scandalous elements of his works which included voluptuously painted male youths was the fact that he frequently used prostitutes and courtesans to model for his paintings of Mary Magdalene…and also, yep you guessed it, the Virgin Mary. A fact which remains pretty shocking today, let alone the sixteenth century! And yet these Madonna/Magdalene paintings still populate cardinals houses and Catholic churches.

I’m going to share just one example with you here. The Madonna of the Palafrinieri. One of my all time favourites!

The painting hangs in the Villa Borghese, and depicts the Virgin Mary helping the child Jesus to stamp on a snake, watched over by St Anne, mother of Mary. This painting was commissioned by the Palafrenieri order of priests to hang in St Peter’s Basilica. It remained there for less than two days. A cardinal walked passed it and nearly choked with horror. You’ll notice Mary’s eye-catching red dress and rather voluptuous bosom… The model Caravaggio had used for St Anne was a haggard beggar woman that hung about the basilica; but more shockingly, the model for the Virgin Mary, was a well known Courtesan! Don’t ask me how a cardinal recognized a courtesan of course, but clearly the painting had to be taken down, and another cardinal, a rather unscrupulous one, Scipione Borghese, owner of the Villa, swiftly scooped it up and hung it up on his own walls. A free Caravaggio; now worth millions!

Caravaggio appears in many of my own walking tours of Rome, not least a tour of my favourite museum in the world, the Villa Borghese. But, I’ve also created one that I thought the rascal himself would approve of: Caravaggio and Vino.. a perfect passegiata! This is an early evening walking tour and is a wonderful way to see the highlights of the historical centre of Rome whilst visiting off the beaten track churches that contain hidden Caravaggios (as well as other masterpieces by other maestros) and end with a refreshing glass of vino and a substantial pre-dinner Roman nibble. The passegiata and Apperitivo are two of Italy’s most wonderful pastimes… a (well-dressed) stroll around the historical centre to see and be seen, chat, wave, admire the monuments and passers by. Apperitivo is basically a glass of wine, prosecco or a cocktail accompanied by a plate of delicious eats from porchetta to fritti, tomato and mozzarella and other mixed salads to a collection of mini bruschetta, and the list goes on. I often skip supper after a hefty apperitivo!

For those interested in the fascinating history of Rome’s women… One of my favourite tours in Rome is the Courtesans of Rome tour, created and led by the captivating Massimo de Fillipis. It is a tour that relates the saucy scandals of the “fallen” women of Rome and takes you down cobbled alley ways you’d never have found in a million years. It is a walking, social history of Rome – a telling of the unknown juicy bits that they keep out of the text books! It’s a truly unique insight to the lives of these forgotten women – who often wielded enormous influence. You can book a Courtesans tour with the mighty Massimo here!