In October 1609, a maimed and partially blinded Caravaggio was fighting for his life.
He’d paid a visit to Osteria del Cerriglio, a disreputable Neapolitan tavern in an alleyway behind the church of Santa Maria La Nova, only to be ambushed by four men and have his face slashed repeatedly in a knife attack.
The perpetrators have never been conclusively identified, but it seems likely they were Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, a Maltese Knight of Justice, and his three henchmen.
Caravaggio had seriously wounded Roero in a brawl on Malta a year earlier (having fled there after committing a murder in Rome). He was duly jailed, but escaped his cell – and, indeed, the island itself – a few weeks later, eventually making his way to Naples.
If he felt safe that night he visited the Osteria, however, he didn’t reckon on Roero setting out for Italy in pursuit of him, intent on revenge.
Caravaggio would spend months recovering from his injuries, mostly in the residence of his patron and protectress, Costanza Colonna, known as Palazzo Cellamare.
As Andrew Graham-Dixon points out in his biography of the painter, A Life Sacred and Profane, after years of high-octane hellraising, "there was now a striking lack of evidence about Caravaggio's activities. He apparently does nothing, says nothing. The archive falls silent, like a cardiograph flatlining. It flickers briefly, but only twice – and each flicker takes the form of a painting".
These would be the last two canvases he ever painted: The Denial of St Peter and, finally, The Martyrdom of St Ursula, which nowadays forms part of Intesa Sanpaolo’s art collection, occupying pride of place in in the Bank’s Naples museum, the Gallerie d’Italia - Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano.
(This Baroque palace was built by Spanish merchant Giovanni Zevallos in the mid-17th century – Naples at that time being under Spanish rule, as it had been in Caravaggio’s a generation earlier).
St Ursula shows Caravaggio at his most withdrawn. Set within a shallow space, there’s precious little in the way of either light or background. Its subject is drawn from legend: the daughter of a Christian king in 5th-century England who led a pilgrimage of 11,000 virgins to Rome. On their return, they were massacred by pagan Huns in Cologne after Ursula refused to marry their chief.
He opted instead for a dark interior and narrative concision, focusing solely on the killing of Ursula in a claustrophobic setting. So claustrophobic, in fact, that – in terms of verisimilitude – there doesn’t seem enough space for the rejected chief to draw back his bow as he does and fire the arrow that fatally strikes her, point-blank, in the breast.
Ursula gazes down at her wound with quiet concern, blood starting to spurt forth. Was it a symbolic move to have her struck in the bosom, the bloodshed a vile parody of the breastfeeding she forsook by refusing to become the Hun’s wife and mother of his children?
Three other figures complete the scene: Ursula’s handmaiden; a soldier at the far right, ready to catch the princess when she falls; and an unidentified man directly behind her, whose body we don’t see – but whose ghoulish face bears a striking resemblance to Caravaggio’s own.
Light no longer provides a flash of revelation, as it had in the artist's earlier work; here it's an uneven glow in the darkness. The forms are also less clearly defined than before, the brushwork broader.
This used to be attributed to Caravaggio’s ailments, symptoms of his physical limitations as a painter after Roero’s attack. It should be pointed out, however, that the painting – commissioned by Prince Marcantonio Doria, of Genoa, in honour of his stepdaughter Ursula – left Caravaggio’s studio while still wet, to ensure a speedy dispatch.
This, along with its retouching by successive owners over the centuries, profoundly altered the clarity of the image and meant that what we saw wasn’t true to Caravaggio’s intentions.
Fortunately, restoration work carried out on behalf of Intesa Sanpaolo in 2004 undid much of the damage, and several features were revealed. These include background drapery, signifying we’re inside a tent; and, ramping up the drama, the outstretched arm of a figure who tries in vain to stop the newly shot arrow.
What to make, though, of Caravaggio’s depiction of himself in the scene? Such is its positioning, it’s almost as if Ursula has grown a second head: his. An autobiographical interpretation would see this as Caravaggio’s show of sympathy for the martyr, a way of the ailing artist identifying with someone else who has been brutally attacked.
It’s certainly tempting to read Caravaggio’s paintings autobiographically, as he pioneered a gritty, down-and-dirty realism – unlike anything in art before it – that reflected the turbulent, heavy-drinking, street-brawling life he himself lived. Such reading, though, is always rooted in conjecture.
What’s rooted in fact is that Caravaggio finished The Martyrdom of St Ursula in May 1610. In early July, he ill-advisedly set out for Rome, on the understanding that Pope Paul V would offer him a pardon for the murder he’d committed there in 1606.
Caravaggio pioneered a gritty realism that reflected the turbulent, heavy-drinking, street-brawling life he himself lived
His began his journey by boat, but an altercation saw him imprisoned for 24 hours in the fortress of Palo, 20 miles west of Rome. Caravaggio then took to horseback, but never made it to his destination.
Still debilitated by his injuries from the Osteria attack, and contending with a blazing summer sun, he died of heat exhaustion, aged 38.
Painted in a rare, and inevitably short-lived, period of tranquillity in his life, The Martyrdom of St Ursula had been his final contribution to art history.
Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi)
(Milano 1571 – Porto Ercole 1610)
The Martyrdom of St Ursula, 1610
Oil on canvas, 143 x 180 cm
Before Restoration of 2003-2004
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples