Gone But Not Forgotten
- Aug 7, 2001
http://tinyurl.com/yqr5syCaravaggio was actually Merisi of Milan
Malcolm Moore in Caravaggio, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 12:25am GMT 11/03/2007
Each year, the sleepy northern Italian town of Caravaggio throws a week-long festival to honour its most famous citizen, the fiery Renaissance artist who took his home town's name.
This year, however, the celebrations are likely to be muted. An art historian in Milan has discovered that Michelangelo Merisi - the artist's original name - was not born in Caravaggio. He was born in Milan, on September 29, 1571, and baptised at the church of Santa Maria della Passarella.
The revelation has shocked the town's 15,000 inhabitants. In one main street, a public notice board displays a selection of newspaper articles about the discovery. Two old ladies stood nearby digesting the news.
The mayor, Giuseppe Prevedini, has decided not to give up his town's only claim to fame without a fight. After all, there is the income from the two million tourists who visit every year to consider.
He said he had no idea why Milan wanted to "steal" Caravaggio.
"Perhaps they are lacking a famous 16th century artist to call their own," he said. "This is Italy, there is probably someone who has a birth certificate claiming Leonardo Da Vinci was also from Milan."
The attempt by Milan to claim Caravaggio centres on a document discovered by accident in the diocesan archives at the parish of Santa Stefano, in the city's Brola district.
Leafing through volumes of church records, Vittorio Pirami, a retired employee of Silvio Berlusconi's Fininvest conglomerate, claimed a "special light" guided him to a page which records the baptism of Caravaggio.
"Today, the 30th, Michel Angelo, the son of Mr Fermo Merisi and Mrs Lucia Aratori, was baptised. Mr Francesco Sessa was present," read the Latin document.
No other records of the artist's birth or baptism have been found, although his parents were married at the St Peter and St Paul church in Caravaggio.
"It was just like any other day," said Mr Pirami, who began studying art history in his retirement. "I went to the archive and studied. When I turned the page, I needed to turn the light on because the paper was a bit worn. But the parents were clearly marked."
The discovery has been applauded by Milanese scholars. Francesco Tresoldi, the author of Caravaggio: Assumptions and Truth, said it supported the legend that Caravaggio was the son of Marchese Francesco Sforza, a member of Milan's ruling family. The Sforzas were considered to be the equivalent of the Medici family.
"I think there could have been a relationship between his mother and the marchese. Her subsequent marriage to [Caravaggio's father] Fermo Merisi, one of Sforza's loyal men, could have been a way of dealing with the birth of an illegitimate son, who, not by chance, was then baptised in the St Stefano church, just steps away from where Sforza lived," he said.
However, residents of Caravaggio are dubious about the claims. "Lots of people say he was born in Milan, but lots of others say he was born here," said Diletta Doldi, at Bar Caravaggio.
"The only real document we have was his own statement, for membership of the Knights of Malta, that he was from Caravaggio. Everything else is just lies and fantasy," added Mr Prevedini.
There is much at stake for the small town. The mayor has landed a €2.5 million grant to convert the church in which Caravaggio's parents were married into a "House of Caravaggio".
Reproductions of the artist's works will be displayed, and there will be a library, an artist's studio and a conference and exhibition centre. "We are also in discussion with public museums in Italy and the United States to take some of his works on loan," Mr Prevedini said.
There are currently no Caravaggio paintings in the town. Mr Prevedini said the works were taken away during the 19th century by rapacious Venetian bishops.
Still, he is proud of the annual festival, at which people celebrate by drinking L'Anima di Caravaggio, or The Soul of Caravaggio, a strong spirit made from the seeds, stems and skins of grapes. Caravaggio would have been proud; he was renowned for being drunken and quarrelsome and had to flee Rome and Naples because of his atrocious behaviour.
"The actual physical birthplace of a person is irrelevant," said the mayor. "My son was born in the hospital in Treviglio, but he calls himself a Caravaggino. What is important is that the artist said he was from here. He never signed a painting: Merisi from Milan."
The church has now stepped in to settle the dispute. "The document will be examined by experts in order to carry out the necessary verification," said Monsignor Bruno Bosatra, the head of the diocesan's archive in Milan.
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