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Top 5 Things You Might Not Know about Caravaggio: Artist, Pimp & Brawler

Andrew Graham-Dixon's newly released book, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, details the life and times of the the Italian-born 16th century artist, including lots of juicy details. There have been lots of rumors and speculation about the artist, but Graham-Dixon put ten years of research into his book, clearing up lots of aspects of Caravaggio's shadowy and often violent life.

Here are some of our favorite tidbits:

5. In 1606, Caravaggio killed a pimp in a duel and became a wanted man. A banda capitale was put on his head by the Pope, a sort of "bring me the head of ..." situation. Caravaggio went on the run, but, not wanting to remain forever looking over his shoulder, he sent a painting, David with the Head of Goliath, seen to the right, to the Pope's nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese (yes, one of those Borgheses).

Notice the head? It has Caravaggio's face on it. It was his sneaky way of saying, according to Graham-Dickson, "There's a reward on my head? Here's my head in a painting, but please let me keep my head in real life." (BTW, that painting still hangs in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.)

4. Caravaggio walked around at night with a sword (and sometimes slept with it). Since he was always getting in brawls, he found sharp knives and swords were rather handy.

And he wasn't above a sneak attack on his enemies (Graham-Dickson says if a man talked about Caravaggio behind his back, the artist would symbolically even the score by creeping up behind him and crashing him on the head with something.)

3. Caravaggio not only frequented prostitutes of both sexes, he was a pimp. Graham-Dickson's book relied heavily on police records, which documented his many arrests and assorted scrapes with the law. One interesting note called a prostitute "one of Caravaggio's women," meaning a prostitute that worked for him.

True, he sometimes used the women as models, but his nighttime strolls, carrying a sword or other weapon, were most likely his checking up on his whores. "I think he was a pimp," says Graham-Dickson simply.

2. Martin Scorsese was influenced by Caravaggio's work. Graham-Dickson spent some time with the famous filmmaker. Along with lots of drinking, the two men discussed Caravaggio. Scorsese credits the painter with influencing his visual style. Graham-Dickson points to Mean Streets and Raging Bull as prime examples.

1. Caravaggio's face was badly disfigured in an attack outside a Naples bar (a gay bar, as it happens). The painter had assaulted a man in Malta several months earlier. The man, accompanied by three friends, caught up with Caravaggio one night, and carved his revenge out on Caravaggio's face. He was reported dead, prematurely as it happens. He wasn't dead, only badly injured.

The attack was the end of Caravaggio's illustrious painting career. He completed only two more paintings after the attack, neither of which showed any of his skill or vision. It seems his eyesight and/or his ability to hold a paintbrush had been severely compromised.

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