David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, Galleria Borghese, Rome
Nobody knows which was Caravaggio’s last work. This painting, which was in the collection of Scipione Borghese as early as 1613, has been dated as early as 1605 and as late as 1609-10. Its melancholy would suit the gloomy thoughts of the artist’s final years. The subject matter recalls the Beheading of St John the Baptist in Valletta, but this time there is no brilliant colour and, as a small picture, it has an intimacy that was not evident in the grand public work.
The boy handles his trophy with disgust. ‘In that head [Caravaggio] wished to portray himself and in the boy he portrayed his Caravaggino,’ wrote Manilli in 1650. If Goliath’s head is indeed Caravaggio’s, there is an element of self disgust in this painting. The device recalls the way that Michelangelo, in the Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel, placed an anguished face with features evidently his own onto the flayed body of St Bartholomew, but Caravaggio’s mood is closer to one of despair. As a witness to God’s light, Bartholomew takes his seat in heaven: Goliath, God’s enemy, is doomed to everlasting night.
Dirty silver, black and browns dominate the picture. The light shows David to look like a boy from the street, whose sword has just a drop of blood on it to show that, like Caravaggio once, he knows what it is to have just killed a man. Another drop of blood in the midst of the giant’s forehead confirms that he has been felled by a stone.
A decade later Cardinal Scipione commissioned a statue of David about to catapult a stone at Goliath. Bernini was far removed from the anxieties of the older master, and saw David’s action as joyful and exhilarating, a triumph of the human spirit expressing itself through the athletic exertions of a beautiful human body.
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