Without men there would be no prostitutes.
I’m starting this entry with a portrait of a man, the painter Caravaggio. And without Caravaggio, we would know nothing about these women.
Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio after the small town in Northern Italy where he grew up, was a prototypical bad boy, as I wrote in a story first published by Dream of Italy in April 2015. A rebel artist with a tortured personal life who lived in Rome from 1592 to 1606, Caravaggio created paintings unlike any that had been seen before: Dark, moody and startlingly naturalistic, he painted as he lived—in the most dramatic and risky fashion.
Today, his reputation and life story lives on through his work, which is still revered in museums around the globe, and through movies, biographies, like Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 2011 best-seller, and novels, like the engrossing A Name in Blood by Matt Rees, that capture the agony and ecstasy of the artist’s life.
In the 1500s, art was focused on glorifying the stories of the Bible and the saints. Like many artists in the late 1500s and early 1600s, Caravaggio often hired prostitutes to pose for his paintings. But unlike most artists who used the women’s features to paint works that conformed to the religious or moral expectations of the day, and conveyed a kind of ethereal beauty, Caravaggio took that tradition and brought in an element of realism that freaked out the establishment.
The Italians thought, essentially, that he was biting his finger at those traditions—a terrible insult.
His paintings do depict the expected stories and Biblical scenes, but he painted the Virgin Mary with the face of a known prostitute, or with a little too much cleavage for comfort. He dared to portray the Virgin as a realistic, normal woman, and even show her bare feet! Horrors. As writer Tiffany Parks (ThePinesofRome.blogspot.com) told me, “He had to know what the reaction was going to be, but it was like he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t sell out.” Caravaggio wanted to show the truth and his truth often involved Roman prostitutes.
Who were Caravaggio’s prostitutes?
Fillide Melandroni became a well-known courtesan, sought after by the elite. Anna Bianchini dreamed of such success but her life came to a tragic end. There were others, too, like Maddalena Antognetti, known as Lena, who likely worked as a prostitute in Piazza Navona and may have been Caravaggio’s lover at the time of his exile, but I’ll save her for a later post.
In Rome, street walkers often got rounded up,
whipped or tortured as the authorities tried to convince
them to change their wicked ways.
Fillide and Anna were both born in Siena, and they met as young girls when they were moving to Rome under similar circumstances. Both of their fathers had died, leaving the families in dire financial straights. According to Andrew Graham-Dixon’s stellar biography, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, Fillide traveled with her mother and brother to Rome where her aunt worked as a waitress in a tavern. Sharing the carriage to Rome with the Melandronis were members of the Bianchini family—mother Sibilla, and her three children, including daughter Anna, who was the same age as Fillide.
You might imagine the girls sizing each other up during the cramped ride to Rome, but quickly realizing how much they had in common as their mothers talked about their shared misfortune and what awaited them in the city. The two families found lodging together, and before long the mothers “put their daughters to work as prostitutes,” writes Graham-Dixon. Anna and Fillide were about 13 years old.