Prof. wins Rome Prize to study Caravaggio works
Vol. 17, No. 3Sept. 18, 1997

Prof. wins Rome Prize to study Caravaggio works

The only signature Michelangelo da Caravaggio ever put on one of his paintings appears as a flow of blood oozing from the neck of a partially decapitated St. John in Caravaggio's greatest work, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.

Why the newly knighted Baroque artist chose this bloody dedication, why he was defrocked in abstentia six months after entering the Knights of Malta Order of St. John, why he created some of his best works during the 15 months he lived on the island of Malta and how each painting was influenced by that experience are at the heart of the mysteries David Stone, art history, hopes to solve as a winner of the 1997-98 Rome Prize Competition.

Stone received one of only two postdoctoral fellowships in art history awarded by the American Academy in Rome, the foremost overseas American center for advanced research in the fine arts and humanities.

The academy, founded in 1894 by wealthy patrons of the arts who wanted to create a study center amid the classical tradition of ancient Rome, became a national institution in 1905 by an act of Congress.

The prestigious competition attracts thousands of applicants and winners receive stipends and full room and board at the academy's main building, which sits on Janiculum Hill, the highest spot in Rome.

Notable past winners include writers Robert Penn Warren and Nadine Gordimer; composers Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber; architects Robert Venturi and Michael Graves; painters Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella and art historians Howard Hibbard and Richard Krautheimer.

"My emphasis is on the contextual, sociocultural aspects of Caravaggio's work in Malta.... What I really want to gain is an understanding of the religious and military life of the knights. Learning about the knights, I think, is the key to understanding the meaning and function of Caravaggio's paintings of this period," Stone said.

Born in 1571, Caravaggio went to Malta, the home of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the Knights of Malta, in 1607, shortly after murdering a man in Rome. Caravaggio wanted to receive a knighthood in order to win a papal pardon for the crime. During the time that he was completing his novitiate, he painted five of his best works including The Beheading of St. John.

Three months after he was accepted into the order and gave the painting to the knights, he was thrown into prison for an as yet unknown crime. Four months after he escaped from prison and fled to Sicily, he was defrocked in absentia. The knights expelled him in the Church of St. John in front of his masterpiece declaring that Caravaggio be "thrust forth... like a rotten and fetid limb."

"In order to do an analysis of Caravaggio's works during this period, I've got to do an historical analysis of the knights. A basic history of the Knights of Malta has not been written for this period. No one really knows what Caravaggio had to do when he was a novice," Stone said.

A member of the UD art history faculty since 1987, Stone received his bachelor's degree at the University of California at Berkeley and his master's degree and doctorate at Harvard University in 1989. He has authored two books on Bolognese baroque painters of Guercino.

In 1996, he received a senior fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Department of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that allowed him to spend six months in Malta doing research.

This year, he was awarded a University grant to write an article on Caravaggio in Malta published in the March 1997 edition of Burlington Magazine.

The Rome prize will allow Stone to spend 11 months in Italy researching the knights and studying documents compiled during the trial that led to Caravaggio being defrocked. He leaves this month.

-Barbara Garrison