Phillida mia, più che i ligustri bianca,
Più vermiglia che ‘l prato a mezzo Aprile
She may have shared a name with a pale-skinned, rosy-cheeked, golden-haired shepherdessly love-interest in Jacopo Sarazzano’s seminal pastoral poem Arcadia —a prose poem considered to be the first literary work of the Renaissance which was wildly popular at the time of its publication and whose influence can be heard in the work of, among others, William Shakespeare, John Milton and Philip Sydney (who wrote a version of his own)—but Caravaggio’s model Fillide Melandroni, at home among the drinking dens and brothels in the medieval heart of sixteenth century Rome, was an altogether more streetwise creature.
Although she was born in Siena, Fillide had been in Rome since she was a youngster. When she was barely in her teens, she was put to work as a prostitute by her mother. The traces of her that can be found in the archives and the court records show that she was frequently in trouble with the authorities, and not simply for prostitution.
By all accounts, Fillide was a girl with attitude. Take the incident in December 1600 when she suspected that the relationship between her pimp, Ranuccio Tommasoni, and another of his ‘girls’, Prudenza Zacchia, was more than simply transactional. Fillide was furious. Jealousy, nose out of joint or merely looking for an excuse to cause a stramash, whatever her motivation, Fillide wasn’t going to stand for it.
Given the times and the reliance for her livelihood on her pimp, it wasn’t the bloke Fillide went after. No chance. Off to Prudenza’s house she stormed (along with one of her pals should back up be required), ready to unleash her wild temper on her rival but her plan was thwarted when Prudenza wasn’t home. Not that that stopped her kicking off. She gave Prudenza’s mother a good beating in her place.
Next stop, Ranuccio’s place. Sure enough, Prudenza was there. And once she spotted her, Fillide didn’t hold back.
There is a brilliant account of the whole affair in Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane. According to witness testimony in the court records, Fillide screamed at Prudenza and pulled out a knife.
‘Ah, you slag, you baggage, there you are! Whore, I’m going to scar you everywhere.’
Scarring or sfregio was part of the unwritten code of honour of the times. There are plenty of accounts of spurned lovers or cuckolded husbands taking revenge by slashing their rival or their unfaithful partner. For example, in the 1630s, the renown sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini arranged for a servant to slash the face of his married lover, Constanza Bonucelli, when he learnt that she was sleeping with his younger brother (incidentally, the servant was jailed for the attack and Constanza was jailed for adultery but the celebrated Bernini got off scot-free even after battering his brother almost to death). A jealous lover slashing the face of a prostitute was common business too, like in the case of the sixteenth century Roman courtesan known as Antea Sfregiata because of a cut she sustained to her face after a brutal attack by a former client. There are even accounts of judicial penalties for adultery and of revenge attacks going as far as amputation of the nose (amputations which spawned an industry in early facial reconstruction surgery and prosthetics in Renaissance Italy).
Facial disfigurement was shameful and potentially calamitous for a woman who relied on her looks for her profession. Fillide might have planned to scar her rival’s face, to disfigure her and decrease her market value, but in truth she couldn’t afford to cross her pimp. Until she found a wealthy patron, as she did later in her life, she was reliant on Ranuccio for her livelihood. Hard economics prevailed and the fracas between Fillide and Prudenza fizzled out. And probably because no one was seriously hurt, the court case came to nothing.
This was the type of world Fillide inhabited. A world of poverty, violence and prostitution, where a pimp claimed his profits in cash and in favours, where knife fights and scarring were common, where the girls were both the victims and perpetrators. And it is against this backdrop that Caravaggio painted some of his most remarkable paintings, paintings that starred the headstrong Fillide. Indeed, it is quite possible that Caravaggio’s association with the girl was the foundation of the animosity between the artist and the pimp as Ranuccio may have regarded Caravaggio to be encroaching on his territory. It was this animosity that was to ultimately be the cause of Caravaggio’s downfall (but that’s another story).
Back to Fillide. Caravaggio first painted her in 1598, a couple of years before the incident described above. In Martha and Mary she is pictured with a girl thought to be another local courtesan and her long term friend, Anna Biancheri. The painting shows Mary Magdalen repenting of her immoral ways under the gaze of her virtuous sister.
The original painting usually lives at the Detroit Institute of Arts but I saw it in an exhibition in Montpelier in 2012. It certainly isn’t one of my favourites. The whole tableau seems awkward and uncharacteristically uninspiring. A first glance at this picture of Fillide and you’d be forgiven for thinking that her Mary Magdalen was hyperthyroid. Protruding eyes and a suspicion of a goitre? As such it fits well in my (new) series of potential medical diagnoses in Caravaggio’s paintings but on closer examination, Mary Magdalen doesn’t have the true exophthalmus of an overactive thyroid where the whites of the eye are visible above and below the pupils, and in the three paintings that follow—Judith with Holofernes, Portrait of a Courtesan, and St Catherine—Fillide’s eyes are perfectly normal.
What is evident, however, is a flexion contraction of the ring finger in Fillide’s left hand. Andrew Graham Dixon argues that this same contraction can be seen in St Catherine (although not in the two other known paintings of Fillide, Judith with the Head of Holofernes and Portrait of a Courtesan where this finger is not visible) and that Fillide’s finger must have genuinely been damaged. If this were the case, it would have been simple for Caravaggio to correct the deformity in his rendition but instead he chose to include it.
In summary, then, in Martha and Mary Caravaggio painted Fillide as less than physically perfect. Why? It is easy to speculate. Perhaps he included the crooked finger because it emphasised that he painted from real people (imperfections, dirty fingernails and all) committed as he was at controlling his own brand. Perhaps he considered it politically injudicious to paint a prostitute in all her dazzling beauty, particularly when the patron for this painting was probably a certain Olimpia Aldobrandi, a noblewoman who had charitably devoted her life to reforming prostitutes. Did Caravaggio paint a Mary Magdalen who was less than perfect as a subtle way of flattering his patron who might otherwise have paled in comparison, or to suggest the flawed character of the prostitute in the age-old fallacious connection between physical and moral perfection?
And of course, there is nothing to say that he wasn’t merely having an off day.
When I first checked out Fillide’s crooked finger, a few possibilities passed through my mind as potential causes, like Dupuytren’s contracture, a fibrosing disorder of the palmar fascia (the connective tissue membrane surrounding the muscles) which leads to flexion contraction most frequently affecting the fourth and fifth digits, or trigger finger where the tendon of a finger doesn’t run smoothly through its tendon sheath so the finger gets caught in flexion (although it can be straightened manually).
Neither of these seem adequate explanations. Although Dupuytren’s commonly causes flexion of the ring finger, it generally presents in older people and is more common in men, and trigger finger likewise is more common in later life and probably occurs after inflammation and narrowing of the tendon sheath such as might happen after repetitive trauma. At the time of this painting, Fillide was only 19 and is unlikely to have exposed to that sort of trauma.
Looking at Fillide’s bent finger in Martha and Mary (and working on the assumption that it is an accurate record, although given the rest of the portrait, that isn’t an assumption that carries a huge amount of weight), the digit appears hyperextended at the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint, flexed at the proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joint and hyperextended at the distal interphalangeal (DIP) joint. I would speculate that the most likely explanation for this in deformity in a young woman is that it resulted from injury (which is a bit of an all-encompassing, cheater’s diagnosis, and could include nerve or tendon injuries anywhere in the hand or forearm).
Although this particular pattern of deformity of the ring finger can occur with injury to the ulnar nerve (anywhere along its route below the elbow) in most cases the little finger would also affected giving a claw hand. Fillide’s injury seems isolated to her ring finger suggesting a more localised injury. Something like a stubbing injury can cause this so-called Boutonnière deformity (and could be a relatively safe bet because it is a fairly common occurrence) although my sense of history and my sense of Fillide wants to believe that her damaged finger was caused a more dramatic event than stubbing her finger.
Of course, without knowing if there is any history of trauma, whether the contraction came on acutely or gradually, whether there is pain or sensory loss, or if the finger is stuck in flexion or can be straightened, it is impossible to know for sure. And we can’t rule out damage to the extensor tendons, or complicated trauma elsewhere in the hand, fractures or severed nerves or tendons. All of which underscores the importance of a good medical history and clinical examination, as was drummed into us as medical students.
And to be absolutely honest, I’m not convinced that the same contraction deformity is seen in St Catherine, although I’m happy to be proved wrong. With no contemporaneous written record of Fillide’s crooked finger, there is at least a doubt about its presence. But, for the sake of a good story, I’ll go with it for the moment, and while it may not be of huge clinical interest one way or another, you could easily convince yourself that her injury might give us a sense of the real person behind the painted figure. Given the way Fillide liked to wield a knife, it isn’t hard to imagine that she could have damaged her hand in some kind of fracas.
And if there is any justice in the world, that time, she was going for the pimp.
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane (London: Penguin, 2010)
Matthews-Grieco, Sarah F. Cuckoldry, Impotence and Adultery in Europe (15th-17th century) p20 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014)
Martha and Mary Magdalen by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and a detail of the same picture. Reproduced under a public domain licence from Web Gallery of Art
The Phalangeal Joints adapted by the author from The Front and Back of the Human Right Hand by Evan-Amos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,