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'The story behind the painting series'

Fillide Melandroni was an Italian courtesan and friend of Caravaggio. (1581 -1618)

Caravaggio first painted Fillide Melandroni in 1598, In Martha and Mary. The painting shows Mary Magdalen repenting of her immoral ways under the gaze of her virtuous sister. Fillide had rather immoral ways in real life too. Frequently in trouble with the authorities and at home among the drinking dens and brothels in the medieval heart of sixteenth century Rome, Fillide was a streetwise creature. Put to work as a prostitute by her mother when she was barely in her teens, her dazzling beauty ensured her rise amongst the ranks of prostitution to become one of the most sought-after women in Rome, with many wealthy clients.

Fillide was a hot tempered girl with attitude. She 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, and where the girls were both the victims and perpetrators. It is against this backdrop that Caravaggio painted some of his most remarkable paintings, paintings that figured 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 Fillide’s pimp, a young man from a noble family, Ranuccio Tomassoni, who may have regarded Caravaggio to be encroaching on his territory. It was this animosity that was ultimately the cause of Caravaggio’s downfall. Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni after a tennis game, delivering a fatal stab to Ranuccios’ upper thigh – a dispute over Fillide, perhaps? After the murder Caravaggio fled the city.

The reformed Fillide died in 1618, at the age of thirty-seven, bequeathing her portrait ‘Portrait of a Courtesan’ by Caravaggio to her lover at the time the Venetian poet and libretto writer Giulio Strozzi.

The Church refused to give her a Christian burial.


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