Yesterday I went on a mission to find a teardrop. The teardrop of Anna Bianchini. I didn’t have to go very far, I have been working in the same building — Rome’s Palazzo Doria Pamphilj — with that teardrop for the past 20 years and only recently learned of it. So yesterday I was determined to find it. I slipped out of the Associated Press Rome office at Piazza Grazioli 5 scurried down the sidewalk in the blistering heat and popped into the door of the Caffe’ Doria (See Elizabeth Minchilli’s Post – Caffe’ Doria). My friends, the waiters there, allowed me to slip through the back passageway that took me around the courtyard with orange trees and into the famous Doria Pamphilj Gallery.
After buying my ticket and a convenient photo pass for taking pictures (I needed to take a picture of the teardrop), I briskly walked down the elaborate corridors with gilded frames holding paintings by such greats as Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Velasquez, Brueghel, Bernini, Domenichino and Guercino, past marble statues, elaborate chandeliers and large mirrors, until I found the room I was looking for, the Sala Aldrobrandini — with its line-up of three Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene”, “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” and “Saint John the Baptist.”
Now where was that tear drop and why was it interesting to me? Since I have started this blog I have often written about the mix of art, history and women figures in Rome (see Blog Posts: Artemisia Gentileschi- An Italian Heroine, Spooked and Inspired by Beatrice, Love and Passion in Rome, Caravaggio’s Women)
Recently, while taking the “Courtesans of Rome” tour, (see blog post: Rome- Simmering with Sensuality for Centuries) I learned from our guide Massimo De Fillippis of the story of Anna Bianchini and wanted to know more.
Reading through articles by art historians (In particular art historian Rossella Vodret, an Italian expert on Caravaggio) and art blogs, I learned that Anna Bianchini was the daughter of a prostitute from Tuscany who became a prostitute herself in Rome at age 12. She had long, wavy red hair and porcelain skin. Her delicate exterior was apparently in contrast with her rough lifestyle and lively character. She was not among the city’s high-class courtesans who lead lives of luxury through romantic attachments to noblemen and Cardinals. Instead Annuccia (little Anna) as she was called, and some of her prostitute friends mixed in a rough crowd of gamblers, gypsies, street urchins and artists. Their hangout was the Osteria Turchetto, in the center of Rome, where Annuccia was apparently picked up by police a couple of times for bar-fights and scuffles with other prostitutes and male pretenders. One police report quoted by Rossella Vodret referred to her as the “one with the long, red hair.” Part of that group included the artist Caravaggio. Caravaggio apparently used Anna Bianchini in four of his paintings. The one that interested me most was “The Penitent Magdalene.” In this painting, done by Caravaggio in 1597, the Penitent Mary Magdalene is sitting on a low chair in a dark room. She is dressed in Renaissance period clothing. There is a glass with some sort of liquid ointment in it, a broken string of pearls, an earring and some coins on the floor. The room is dark with just a shaft of light on her and in the upper right hand corner. Yesterday, pacing in front of the the painting, moving around the busts below it, and trying to see around the reflection, I finally saw what I had come for– the small pearl-like teardrop on the side of her nose.
Why is Anna Bianchini crying? Apparently in that period Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) had violent methods for imposing morality on Rome. Courtesans were acceptable, but prostitutes were not, and in order to teach a lesson to the people of Rome, he would have prostitutes stripped to the waist, whipped, thrown with their back exposed over the back of a donkey and paraded around the city. This is apparently what happened to Anna Bianchini before she sat down to be painted by Caravaggio as his model for “The Penitent Magdalene”, hence the sadness, the weary expression and the tear. This is typical of the rebellious Caravaggio, a trouble-maker and rabble-rouser, who poured his passion for life into his depictions of biblical stories, using realistic scenes and characters straight off the streets of Rome. Anna’s hands are swollen, she is crying, and she is bent over. Could the liquid beside her be a balm for her bleeding back, art historians have asked? How did the string of pearls break? What is the significance? How was Caravaggio comparing the life of Anna Bianchini to Mary Magdalene? Pope Clement VIII was the same Pope who had the Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in Campo Dei Fiori (now site of Rome’s famous flower market–a grim statue of Bruno’s hooded figure is in the middle of it) because his theories about the universe were deemed heresy. Pope Clement VIII is also the man behind the beheading of Beatrice Cenci (see blog post on Beatrice Cenci: Spooked and Inspired by Beatrice).
At the Doria Pamphilj gallery, “The Penitent Magdalene” is placed next to another of Caravaggio’s masterpieces “Rest on the Flight to Egypt.” In this painting we see Anna Bianchini portrayed as the Virgin, her beautiful face resting gently on the head of the baby Jesus. Her face is smooth and she appears serene, unlike in the “Penitent Magdalene” whose forehead has worry lines.
In “Rest of the Flight to Egypt” Anna’s red hair is pulled back from her face, knotted on top and braided. A light falls on her and on an angel who is playing a song on a violin. On the left side of the painting a tired, old-looking Joseph is in the dark. He is holding up a sheet of music for a young boy angel (oddly exposing himself to Joseph–another Caravaggio provocation of the Church?) A donkey with kind, dark eyes peers over Joseph’s shoulder. The donkey understands. The musical notes that Joseph is holding up, apparently is a Renaissance form of music called a Motet and is by a Flemish composer called Noel Bauldwijn. The music is from the “Song of Songs” which referring to the Madonna declares, “how beautiful art thou, and how comely, my dearest, in delights.” Was Caravaggio making a reference to his friend Anna Bianchini?
There is another Caravaggio painting where Anna Bianchini appears which I will mention quickly before I get to the tragic conclusion. In 1598 Caravaggio painted “Martha and Mary Magdalene”, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts. In this painting we see Anna and her friend and fellow prostitute Fillide Melandroni who is also in Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” — (See my blog post “Caravaggio’s Women“). Anna is Martha on the left side of the painting and Fillide is Mary Magdalene on the right. I have not seen this painting in person, but I love its sensual representation of these two women discussing the sacred and profane.
But on to my conclusion. In 1605, Caravaggio painted the “Death of the Virgin” (now in the Louvre) for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. The painting was removed shortly after it was put up? Why? Because the image was too shocking. The Virgin is splayed out on a table, her bare feet hanging off the end. She has a swollen belly, her dress is open, her face does not look saintly and her arm flops over in an indelicate manner. The only indication of her holiness is the lightly drawn halo over her head. The woman was clearly recognizable as the 24-year-old Anna Bianchini, whose dead body had been dragged out of the Tiber River. Officials said it was suicide, her friends thought she had been murdered.
Caravaggio’s contemporary; doctor, writer, art-lover and author Giulio Mancini wrote that Caravaggio had used as his model for the Virgin “qualche meretrice sozza degli Ortacci, qualche sua bagascia, una cortigiana a lui amata.” I will do my best to translate, “Some filthy harlot from the Ortacci, one of his whores, a courtesan that he loved.” (Note: the Ortacci was a neighborhood Rome along the Tiber, near the Mausoleum of the Emperor Augustus, where the prostitutes lived.) That is why I wanted to see Anna’s teardrop. This beautiful woman who suffered, was abused from an early age and yet was also lively and vigorous, this woman who met her death in the most tragic manner, has been summed up for me in the genius of Caravaggio with that simple pearl-drop tear. As I left the Gallery and headed out into the July heat, I walked through the streets of the historic center of Rome, the same streets walked by Anna Bianchini and Caravaggio, and I shed a tear myself for the cruelty of life and the misfortunes of Anna Bianchini.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.