The artist who threw all the rules away



All modern American literature comes from one book called “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. 

— Ernest Hemingway                                 


What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.                              

— Andre Berne-Joffroy


He was a brawler, with a knife in one hand, a paintbrush in the other. He threw away the beatific, idealized visages and garments of the saints and martyrs and angels and virgins of the well-mannered paintings of his time, and instead went out into the streets, the gutters, the shops, the whorehouses, the taverns to find the faces, the physiques, he could transmute into his own representations of saints and sinners, gods and mortals.

His name was Michelangelo Merisi, and since he came from the town of Caravaggio, he is more fully remembered as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Born September 28, 1571 — 436 years ago this week — he was orphaned at age 11; was apprenticed soon thereafter to a painter in Milan; took himself to Rome before he was 20; became quickly famous, or notorious, there; at 24 was gaining admiration and opprobrium thanks to his realistic paintings of St. Matthew in a side chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi; and, having killed at least one man and maybe more before the story ends, and having become the most famous painter in Rome, Naples, and Sicily, met his own death, no one knows exactly where or how, at the age of 39 in 1610.

Soon thereafter to become almost utterly forgotten — until a rediscovery, resuscitation, of recent years.

“You have to see that chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi, Saint Louis of the French,” says Gian Marco Lo Forte, the smashing black-curly-haired young Italian (33, looks 23) who might have stepped out of a Caravaggio painting (or a Pasolini movie) himself and whose “Caravaggio Chiaroscuro,” an 80-minute opera of a sort, runs September 27-October 14, at La MaMa’s first-floor theater on East 4th Street.

“The St. Matthew is jammed in at an angle, like this,” says Gian Marco, twisting his body to illustrate the angle. “And then you have to twist yourself to see it,” he says, twisting even more drastically. But it’s worth it, he affirms.

“You know,” says Gian Marco, “in Caravaggio’s day, Rome was not a big city. You knew the people of your neighborhood. Everything was close by. It was like saying Union Square and Astor Place.

“Caravaggio was considered [by the authorities, the establishment, and by some of his rivals] an atheist, whose paintings were the opposite of the [Mannerist] iconography of the time.”

His models were the people of the city, the people of the streets, thugs, vendors, laborers, peddlers, working people male and female, his own lovers, male and female, particularly a young man named Mario Minniti whom we meet on stage at La MaMa. Saints and virgins were modeled by prostitutes, more politely referred to as courtesans. One of the most famous was Fillide Melandroni. She was from Sienna — and,” Gian Marco says with his radiant smile, “our actress who plays her, Sara Galassini, is also from Sienna.”

He punctuates everything with hands opening and closing, fists clenching and relaxing, hands moving through the air like wings. “On that stage we do a couple of tableaux vivants.” The smile breaks into a laugh: “Tableau vivant’s been done 70 times. Still … ”

The libretto and lyrics (much the same thing) of “Caravaggio Chiaroscuro” — half English, half Italian, interwoven — are by Gian Marco Lo Forte himself, of course. It was, he says, two and a half years ago that he mulled over three ideas, subjects, for an opera: Caravaggio, or sexually daring (and murdered for it) filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, or St. Francis of Assisi.

“I grew up in Perugia [where Gian Marco was born June 3, 1974], in Umbria, five miles away from Assisi. If you stand on one hilltop you can see Assisi on another hilltop. Why St. Francis? He went against public opinion too — he was for simplicity, poverty, and give the other cheek.”

But in the end, Caravaggio won out, perhaps for dramatic reasons, or operatic reasons. With his own hand on his own cheek, Gian Marco says: “I’m interested in his lifestyle. We cannot say he was homosexual, and the word is different now than then. But it’s all in his lifestyle. He did not pull back from what he was, the same as Pasolini’s lifestyle.”

The music of “Caravaggio Chiaroscuro” is by Duane Boutte, who also plays/sings the part of — who else? — Caravaggio. The director is George Drance, a disciple of Grotowski, the musical director is Jason Sagebiel.

It was six or so years ago that, in Italy, Gian Marco Lo Forte met Ellen Stewart, the mama of La MaMa. She promptly invited him to New York. After two summers at La MaMa, he came more permanently to work for his graduate degree in Design at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Is he a painter himself?

“I’m exploring this.”

Lo Forte and Drance and all the others have been working since June to convert La MaMa’s first-floor theater into a Rome street that wraps itself horseshoe style around and into the audience. Gian Marco comes by such labor honestly: His father was a woodworker before going into electronics.

“I grew up with my grandmother, Letizia Di Ianni. She took me to flea markets and other markets, all the time. She just recently died, at 101.”

Her grandson quit engineering at Perugia University to go into theater. Caravaggio would have understood. Gian Marco at the moment lives in the East Village, one block away from La MaMa. He has, he says, no partner. “Not really.” Caravaggio would have understood that too, or maybe not.


CARAVAGGIO CHIAROSCURO. Libretto and lyrics by Gian Marco Lo Forte. Music by Duane Boutte. A Pioneers Go East Theatre Company presentation, September 27-October 14 at La MaMa ETC, 74-A East 4th Street, (212) 475-7710, or www.lamama.org.