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February 29, 2024 10 mins

Famous creatives are more than their finished works. These two curious tales are bound to leave you with a new appreciation for the artwork you love.

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales are right there on display, just
waiting for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

(00:36):
As any art lover will tell you, paintings can be beautiful.
They can be emotional, moving, and deeply important to history
and culture. But they can also be brutal, unsettling, even visceral.
A good example of this is the work of Italian
painter at Caravaggio. Born in Milan in fifteen seventy one,
he was orphaned after both his parents died of the plague.

(00:57):
He moved to Rome in fifteen ninety five and began
selling paintings to support himself. Caravaggio rose to fame as
one of the most unique artists of the Baroque era.
He was particularly well known for his use of light.
The backgrounds of his paintings tended to be very dark,
serving as a stark contrast to the yellow lit characters
in the forefront. Many of his pieces centered around religious

(01:19):
and mythological imagery, and he didn't shy away from the
uglier aspects of these stories. For example, one of his
most famous works is titled Head of Medusa. It's painted
on a circular wooden shield and it shows the serpent
headed woman with her face contorted in a scream of
fury and terror. But here's the real kicker. Medusa's head

(01:40):
isn't connected to anything. It's cut off at the neck
and the bottom of the picture is a huge theatrical
spray of blood red paint. Now, if you look at
Caravaggio's catalog, you'll find that decapitation is actually a pretty
common theme. He painted one canvas called Judith Beheading Holophernies
and another called the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

(02:00):
I'm sure you don't need any more details about those.
Clearly Caravaggio had a flare for the dramatic and the
uh violence in his art. But what most people don't
know is the same hell true in his real life.
You see, Caravaggio was a scoundrel of the absolute worst variety.
Between fifteen ninety eight and sixteen oh one, when he
was in his late twenties, he got into legal trouble

(02:22):
on at least two occasions, once for carrying a sword
without a permit and once for beating a man with
a stick. He was also accused of attacking a different
man with the aforementioned sword, although apparently that charge was
never proven. A couple of years later, when the painter
was in his early thirties, he developed a somewhat problematic
relationship with another artist, Giovanni Baglioni. While many of the

(02:44):
details have been lost to history, we do know one
thing for sure. In sixteen oh three, Caravaggio wrote a
poem mocking Baglioni's art, and the things he said were
so cruel and inappropriate I cannot and will not repeat
them here. Baglioni, of course, was furious. He sued his
rival artist for libel and one Caravaggio spent two weeks

(03:05):
in jail as a result, but his bad behavior didn't
stop there. Over the next three years, he went to
court for a number of reasons, some of which are
honestly just bizarre. Again, he was caught carrying a sword
without a permit. He threw rocks at one police officer
and cursed at another. Once at a restaurant, he threw
an entire plate of artichokes into a waiter's face and

(03:28):
the icing on top of the cake. He was six
months behind on rent, and his landlady was threatening to
seize all of his furniture as payment, as if his
life couldn't become any more of a mess. In sixteen
oh six, the painter made his worst decision yet. He
killed a man named Renukio Tomasoni. Now the circumstances of
the murder, which happened over four hundred years ago, are

(03:49):
now unclear, and autopsy showed that Renukio bled out through
a cut in his femoral artery, which runs through the
upper leg. Some historians believe the men got into a
bar fight, or brawled after a ten huts match, or
even battled over a woman. Either way, though the result
was the same. Caravaggio, who let blood flow so freely
in his paintings, now had literal blood on his hands.

(04:10):
He fled Rome in the hopes of evading prison time,
and for the next four years, it's believed that he
lived in various small towns throughout Italy. He died in
sixteen ten, although again it's not quite clear what killed him.
It could have been syphilis, an infected wound, or even
lead poisoning. But however, the artist's life ended. His legacy
lives on now, four centuries later. Most people don't know

(04:32):
about Caravaggio's personal life. Instead, they know the iconic look
of his paintings, which are still on display in churches
and museums throughout Italy and the rest of the world.
If you're lucky enough to ever see one in person,
Remember that the man behind the canvas wasn't just a
brilliant artist. He was also a notorious criminal. It's hard

(05:06):
to think about twentieth century literature without thinking about the
concept of dystopia. A dystopia is a nightmare world, a
society rife with suffering and injustice. In the wake of
not one, but two World wars, Twentieth century authors used
fictional dystopian settings to comment on politics, violence, and oppression
in the real world. There are two dystopian novels that

(05:28):
stand out even today, though nineteen eighty four by George
Orwell and Brave New World by Aldus Huxley. The two
books have some key differences, though, for example, in nineteen
eighty four, people are constantly watched by quote unquote Big Brother,
and they can be jailed by the so called thought police.
The oppressive rules of the society are enforced through violence.

(05:49):
My contrast, in Brave New World, infants and adolescents are
conditioned to accept their place in the social hierarchy. By
the time they're adults, people have been effectively brainwashed. Plus
they're given a concert flow of drugs to keep them happy.
There are also quite a few things that the novels
have in common. Both feature totalitarian governments that control the
lives of their citizens. Both were widely banned because the

(06:12):
ideas within them were considered dangerous, and both authors, Alvius
Huxley and George Orwell, had a curious real life connection.
Let's go back to the year nineteen eleven. Alvius Huxley
was just seventeen years old, but he'd been through a
lot in his short life. His mother had died three
years earlier, and he had recently developed a condition called carotitis.

(06:33):
This is inflammation of a cornea, or the outer layer
of the eye, and it left Huxley with significantly impaired
vision for much of his life. He'd intended to pursue
a career as a medical doctor, but his poor eyesight
had now made it impossible, so Huxley made a pretty
unclear career shift. Instead of medicine, he decided to study
English literature. He enrolled at Oxford University, and as we

(06:56):
already know, he soon found that he had quite a
knack for writing. In nineteen sixteen he graduated and also
published his first poetry collection. But as any writer will
tell you, jobs are not easy to find. While he
worked on building up his resume as an author, he
made ends meet by working as a teacher at England's
Eton College. Even though it was called a college, it

(07:17):
wasn't really a university, though it was an elite prep school,
the same place that Huxley himself had gone as a teenager.
Huxley spent his days teaching English and French, and well,
let's just say he didn't love it. He had trouble
maintaining discipline over his classroom, and he had one student
named Eric Blair who was constantly making trouble. Still, Huxley

(07:38):
was determined to stick it out. He continued teaching, but
spent his evenings hunched over a desk, writing furiously. Between
nineteen seventeen and nineteen eighteen, he published two more poetry collections. Finally,
in nineteen nineteen, he was offered a job at a
well known literary magazine. He could finally quit teaching and
write full time. From then on, Huxley wrote at a

(07:59):
break neck pace. He was a bit of a chameleon, too,
pennying everything from poems in short stories to feature articles.
Eventually he began writing novels too, and he published Brave
New World in nineteen thirty two, when he was just
thirty eight years old. By the nineteen forties, Huxley was
widely known as one of the most significant authors of
the twentieth century. People looked up to him, which is

(08:22):
part of the reason why in nineteen forty nine he
received a newly published book in the mail. It was
called nineteen eighty four. George Orwell had requested that his
publisher sen Huxley a copy. Huxley read it and sent
back a thoughtful, although quite critical note, which began and
I quote, agreeing with all that the critics have written

(08:42):
of it. I need not tell you yet once more
how fine and profoundly important nineteen eighty four is. However,
after this initial compliment, Huxley picked a fight with the author.
He basically said that his own dystopia, the one that
he imagined in Brave New World, was much more believable.
Huxley wrote as if he had something to teach Orwell,

(09:03):
and maybe that's because he used to be his teacher.
You see, George Orwell was a pseudonym. His real name
was Eric Blair. As in Aldous Huxley's Problem Students, the
two giants of literature had been connected before either of
them rose to fame, which certainly helps explain why their
nightmare worlds were so curiously similar. I hope you've enjoyed

(09:30):
today's guided tour of the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for
free on Apple Podcasts, or learn more about the show
by visiting Curiosities podcast dot com. The show was created
by me Aaron Manke in partnership with how Stuff Works.
I make another award winning show called Lore, which is
a podcast, book series, and television show, and you can

(09:52):
learn all about it over at the Worldolore dot com.
And until next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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