Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)
Oil on canvas mounted on wood, 1597
60 cm × 55 cm (24 in × 22 in)
Uffizi, Florence, Italy
Caravaggio painted two versions of Medusa, the first in 1596 and the other presumably in 1597, The first version also known as Murtula, by the name of the poet who wrote about it (48x55 cm) is signed Michel A F, (Michel Angelo Fecit) and is in private hands whilst the second version, slightly bigger (60 x 55 cm) is not signed and is in the Uffizi, Florence.
In Greek mythology, Perseus used the severed snake-haired head of the Gorgon Medusa as a shield with which to turn his enemies to stone. By the 16th century Medusa was said to symbolize the triumph of reason over the senses; and this may have been why Caravaggio's patron Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte commissioned him to paint the second version of Medusa as the figure on a ceremonial shield presented in 1601 to Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany - Del Monte was the Medici agent in Rome and had seen the first version of Medusa. Therefore he commissioned Caravaggio a second version as the Grand Duke was currently re-organising his personal armoury. The Medusa Murtula was found in Caravaggio's studio after his death. The poet Giambattista Marino claimed that the Medici's version symbolized the Duke's courage in defeating his enemies. In 1568 Leonardo da Vinci's biographer Vasari had written of a medusa-shield by Leonardo in the Grand Duke's collection. Leonardo's shield has since vanished, but if it existed in 1597 Del Monte would have known it, and in giving this commission to Caravaggio he was setting his protegé against the man recognised even then as the greatest of all painters. Caravaggio was used to painting two versions of his masterworks but despite having been included in the catalogue of originals, exhibited in Milano (Palazzo Reale Curator Vittorio Sgarbi) and in Düsseldorf (Kustat Palast Curator Sir Denis Mahon), the first version of Medusa is unknown to the vast majority of the public. Prof Maurizio Marini wrote a book about it (Michelangelo da Caravaggio-Gaspare Murtola e la chioma avvelenata di Medusa) As a feat of perspective, both versions are remarkable, for out of the apparently concave surface of the shield - in fact convex- the Gorgon's head seems to project into space, so that the blood round her neck appears to fall on the floor.