Executed in 1609-10, this is one of Caravaggio’s last paintings, and probably his most dramatic. It depicts the young David displaying the severed head – held by the hair – of the giant Goliath. The head is the artist’s last, tragic self-portrait. Caravaggio portrays himself as a beheaded dead man, emphasizing the macabre details: the bulging, glazed eyes; the open mouth with the tongue turned backwards in his last scream; the copiously spilling blood. The macabre identification probably stemmed from the artist’s fear that he would suffer the same fate as Goliath. In effect, the painting dates from the years when Caravaggio was fleeing after being sentenced to death for murder.
On May 28, 1606 Caravaggio had killed in a duel Ranuccio Tomassoni, a blustering ruffian with powerful protectors, of whom the painter had long been a rival for reasons regarding politics and women. That day, together with Onorio Longhi and two other friends, Caravaggio challenged Tomassoni and his mates to play real tennis. Because of a foul or an argument about the score, a brawl erupted during the match, and swords were drawn. Caravaggio was wounded in the head by Ranuccio, but the artist then struck the latter’s thigh near his groin, cutting his femoral artery. Tomassoni bled to death, and Caravaggio became a homicide. He fled Rome and was sentenced in absentia to decapitation. The Colonna family, his patrons, provided refuge for the artist on their estate, and from there he went to Naples. He was an outlaw, and felt that his life was continuously in danger. After his stay in Malta, his arrest and evasion from prison there, and his arrival in Sicily, his condition as a fugitive became more and more difficult. His self-portrait as Goliath was executed in those circumstances. Caravaggio depicts himself as a wicked person, but one who has paid; who has been punished. The young David is looking at him with a compassionate expression. On the blade of the sword are some letters that are difficult to read, perhaps the initials of Augustine’s maxim HumilitAS Occidit Superbiam: a reference to the biblical hero, but also a sign of penitence. It is certain that the painting was in Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s collection in 1613, when a frame was ordered. It is possible that the work was sent by Caravaggio to the cardinal as a request for pardon, and to that end shows the artist’s repentance and anguish.
Scipione Borghese wrote to Caravaggio that he would intercede for the pardon and asked the artist to bring him additional paintings. Trusting in the cardinal’s help. Caravaggio embarked from Naples with the St. John the Baptist now in the Galleria Borghese and two other paintings: another Young St. John and a Magdalen in Ecstasy. The paintings arrived in Rome, and the cardinal contended for them with Marquis Colonna, but – according to Baglione – Caravaggio had died on July 18, 1610 on a beach in southern Tuscany. During the voyage he had been put ashore at Palo and detained there, probably for questioning, but the felucca on which he was traveling set out to sea again with his paintings still on board. It is not clear what happened then. Caravaggio – who may already have been ill – supposedly tried to catch up with the felucca and his paintings, perhaps on a small boat, unlikely by foot. He is said to have collapsed in Porto Ercole, exhausted by fever. Some scholars speculate that he could have been killed by one of the many enemies he had accumulated during his brief lifetime, including the Knights of Malta. What is certain is that there is no longer any trace of his body, and the circumstances of his death are unclear. He died as he lived and as he painted: shrouded in dense shadows pierced by flashes of bright light