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Caravaggio, ethics and the divorce courts

I am writing this post from Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast in Italy. The coastline is rugged and dangerous. The sea is crashing in high waves onto those rocks. The almost vertical mountains along the coast helped deter invaders in Etruscan times. Today Porto Ercole is a luxurious haven for Romans escaping the hustle and bustle of their great city. But for me, Porto Ercole is the place where one of the greatest artists the world has ever known met his death.

Caravaggio, died on the beach here in 1610, after an ironic period of unlawful imprisonment – given that he had escaped prison before for murder. He died alone suffering from malaria as he rambled senselessly towards the sea. He had known in his short life every type of person: from the poorest to the richest, paupers and princes, he mixed with them all: villains, vagabonds and thieves. He was himself a murderer. Yet, by virtue of his genius, he was capable of depicting intense spirituality in paintings that are at once hauntingly beautiful and terrifying and shocking in their brutality. His severed head of Goliath is a self portrait painted at a time when he was wracked with guilt following the murder. If anyone knew every type of human condition, if anyone felt every type of emotion, and had the gift to show his feelings so nakedly to the world, it was Caravaggio.

Fast forward to the 21st century and last week in the High Court we saw the human condition, once again at its absolute worst.

First a convicted paedophile was refused his ghastly efforts to get a share of his wife’s fortune. I won’t waste my time describing his efforts or why he is serving a prison sentence. Suffice it to say however, the legal battle cost his wife (who is so sickened by him that she could not bear to be in the same room as him and took part in the proceedings by video link) the sum of £250k in legal costs to fight him off. The law states that conduct which is ‘inequitable to ignore’ can affect a financial settlement and ultimately it did. But why did he try?

Then in another case businessman Robert Leigh, took part in a marriage ceremony with his partner Gillian Hudson in Capetown – after agreeing to omit certain religious phrases and then to conduct a civil ceremony back in Britain. In a fabulously romantic ceremony, the couple dressed as bride and groom committed to each other in every way except, in law. They therefore remained unmarried and as Mr Leigh’s QC Nick Mostyn put it, having separated before a lawful marriage could take place, the couple took their dispute to court because “lying behind this dispute is of course, money”.

Mr Leigh was successful, Ms Hudson will receive nothing except child support for their child. It is an outcome that was predictable, but to me it is morally sickening.

If ever the human condition was minutely examined, it was by Caravaggio, here in Italy. And nothing has changed in 400 years has it? The self same human condition was as brutally exposed in court last week, as it was by Caravaggio.

I’m told his grave is here in Port Ercole. If I find it, I will pay homage to a man who plumbed the depths of his faults and those of others, and made them public for the world to know and perhaps to learn from for ever more.

Yet 400 years later, in a society where cash is king, we appear to have learned nothing.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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