Two hunched men lower a pale white corpse onto a thick stone slab. Behind them are two women, their heads solemnly bowed, their faces etched with anguish. A third woman loiters further back with her eyes full of sorrow and her hands splayed towards the heavens in dismay. This moment of caring for the recently deceased is consumed by a palpable sense of mourning in a way that makes you feel almost uncomfortable for bearing witness to such intimacy.
The scene comes from “La Deposizione di Cristo” (“The Entombment of Christ”), a painting from the early 17th Century by Michelangelo Merisi. Better known to most as Caravaggio. The Milanese maestro – the art world's second most famous Michelangelo – was a genius, a rogue, an all round mad bastard who had the sort of tempestuous biography that manages to captivate the imaginations of even those uninterested in art.
Born in Milan and apprenticed under Milanese artist Simone Peterzano, Merisi was Lombardy born and Lombardy bred. Eventually he fled his home town following an altercation that left a police officer wounded and, from there, he moved to Rome where he established his reputation both as an artist and as man with a powderkeg temper. Caravaggio, renowned for wandering around with a sword at his side, had a habit of getting involved in street brawls and seemed equally happy to wield blade or brush. One of these brawls resulted in the death of a man called Ranuccio Tomassoni and he was forced into exile, spending the rest of his life as a fugitive from Rome before dying, aged 38, on his way back to the capital to receive a pardon.
La Deposizione features many elements emblematic of what Caravaggio was all about. His lack of reverence for the sacred brought a sense of humanity to religious scenes, seen here with the focus on the physicality of Christ's body. The dusty soles of his feet, the fingers of his disciple slipping into the open wound on his ribs, the clash of the divine with the disgusting – it all grounded his work in reality and found beauty in violence and the profane. Likewise, his use of light to create dramatic contrasts underscored his appreciation of the way opposing forces can co-exist and coalesce - set against the dolorous gloom of an expansive black background, Christ's porcelain skin takes on a luminescent glow.
But perhaps most striking of all is his composition. The way he arranges his bodies in the space of the canvas to capture movement gives his work dynamism and immediacy. In La Deposizione, the woman at the back with her hands raised initially captures attention and the bowed heads and arched backs of the men and women in front of her draws the eye in a diagonal line downwards towards the true focal point of the image. Not only does the positioning of the subjects communicate the action being depicted – the lowering of a body onto the ground – but it guides us through the stages of grief, from frenzied hysteria, to doleful sadness, to quiet stoic acceptance and finally the peaceful tranquility of Christ's body draped over the slab. It's masterfully put together.
They know a thing about composition in Milan.
Football is often discussed in the language of art. Players, especially creative midfielders, are positioned as artists; the pitch is their canvas and their passes brushstrokes as they toil trying to manufacture goals for their team.
But the analogy sits more comfortably with the manager in the role of artist. After all, it's his responsibility to organise his players into a shape – to find a composition for his subjects – that best executes his vision. Assembling a team is a case of finding the right balance between elements, of acquiring the right materials to serve a greater purpose and it invariably requires a refinement of style over time. In this respect, another of Milan's favourite sons is at home alongside Caravaggio.
Carlo Ancelotti arrived at the San Siro at the turn of the new century and he stayed there until 2009. In that near decade-long reign, he claimed a Serie A title, a Coppa Italia and reached three Champions League finals in a five-year span, winning two of them. Despite his impressive trophy collection, his real success and true legacy was the midfield that he built.
Ancelotti had been a player for one of the most attractive AC Milan sides in their history, winning titles under Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello, before his retirement in 1992. After ending his playing days with the club, he launched his managerial career with Reggiana and had spells with Parma and Juventus before returning to Milan almost a decade after departing.
Appointed to rejuvenate a stagnating powerhouse who had gone two seasons without a trophy, Ancelotti had quite a task on his hands. His first season at the helm was solid, if unspectacular – a 4th place finish ensured Champions League football for the following season, but semi-final exits in the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia meant it wouldn't be a glittering debut season for the manager.
It was his second season where his real innovations began. Ancelotti predominantly set up his side in a 4-3-1-2 shape - a variant on a diamond – with Rui Costa at the apex of the midfield. Rui Costa, who had been signed by Ancelotti's predecessor Fatih Terim from Fiorentina for a club-record fee, was a fabulously opulent player. In possession, rather than dictating the tempo of a game, he seemed to distort the notion of time itself – when he received the ball, the game would slide into slo-mo, giving the Portuguese player an eternity to weigh up his options before cutting a defence to shreds with a delicate, incisive pass played a fraction before you'd expect it. With the ball at his feet he was a cobra, using subtle, repetitive shifts of his body to hypnotise defenders into a stasis, rendering them helpless as he struck.
But due to the nature of his game, he was prone to drift in and out of matches and could cut an isolated figure. Ancelotti acknowledged this, and set about finding a solution. It arrived in the summer of 2002 and came from a source quite close to home. Clarence Seedorf signed for the Rossoneri from Internazionale in a part exchange deal including Francesco Coco and became part of the furniture at Milan over the next ten years. He usually slotted in on the left side of Milan's three-man midfield base and it was his responsibility to use his impressive engine to provide the link between attack and defence for his team. Seedorf was wonderfully versatile, his ability underpinned by his intelligence and tactical understanding, and was capable of fulfilling a variety of diverse positions and roles throughout the pitch – goalscorer, playmaker, tricky winger, disciplined holding player – a real Swiss Army knife of a player.
Under Ancelotti, he eased the burden on Rui Costa by using his athleticism to move quickly up the pitch in order to function as an auxiliary playmaker. By either carrying the ball forward himself, or arriving into the final third from a deeper starting position, he used his shrewd positioning to occupy opposition defences, granting Rui Costa more time and space to create. With the Dutchman alongside him, who was equally adept at laying on chances for team mates, the creative workload was shared, absolving Costa of any responsibility beyond doing what he did best. It worked like a charm and with the potent duo of Inzaghi and Shevchenko playing in front of them, the goals flowed at the San Siro. But as important as the Seedorf-Costa axis was to the side, it was only one half of what made that side special. The other half were the true heartbeat of Ancelotti's Milan: Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo.
It is almost impossible to mention Caravaggio without talking about chiaroscuro, a term used to describe the juxtaposition of intense light and darkness designed to create a strong contrast. Although by no means the first to use it, Caravaggio was a great exponent of the technique and it's one of the most recognisable features of his work. It's perhaps best exemplified by his painting “Judith Beheading Holofernes”, where Judith's alabaster complexion glows radiantly and punctures the overwhelming shadow of the background as she decapitates the Assyrian general. It highlights the way that light and dark can amplify and accentuate each other to mutual benefit.
The word itself reflects its own meaning. Chiaroscuro is an Italian compound word, formed of two roots: 'chiar' meaning 'light' and 'oscuro' meaning 'dark'. Those two roots are wedged together to make something entirely new – two separate, diametrically opposed entities unified in order to create something bigger, something with new meaning. Caravaggio understood the symbiotic relationship between light and darkness; he knew how they relied on one another for their existence, how the presence of light made the dark darker and how darkness had the capacity to make light shine brighter. So too did Ancelotti.
Gattuso and Pirlo were his light and his dark. It didn't take long to figure out what Gennaro Gattuso was all about. You could switch on any game he was playing in and you'd recognise his role in his team instantly. Andrea Pirlo's 2014 autobiography details his team mate's reaction to being wound up at lunch and it speaks volumes:
“You could see the red mist coming down and he just wasn't able to hide it. We could tell what was coming and so we'd commandeer all the knives. Gattuso would grab a fork and try to stick it in us. On more than one occasion, he struck his intended target and the fork sank into our skin.”
Rabidly hurtling around the pitch, snarling into tackles, and the undisputed king of the tactical foul – Gattuso was omnipresent in his ferocity. But far from signifying nothing, his sound and his fury meant everything. Too often players in his mould are too readily dismissed as simply being workmanlike, 'water carriers' in Cantona's phrase. That's not the case with Gattuso. There was creation in his destruction. He created space.
Gattuso was vital to Ancelotti's Milan. His relentless energy was what enabled them to play so narrowly. Slotting in on the right hand side of the midfield three meant that he was tasked with covering his right back and he suffocated the threat posed by any left winger. More importantly though, Gattuso's defensive discipline was an insurance policy, giving his team mates license to gamble and adventure forward, to make ambitious runs in advance of the ball knowing that Rino had them covered. He was the one who allowed Ancelotti to with play three players who were primarily concerned with invention and facilitated such an embarrassment of riches.
The space he created was only useful if someone could take advantage of it and there was no-one better equipped to do that than Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo, another cast-off from Inter, had joined Milan the year before Ancelotti and was still in the process of transforming himself from his more advanced playmaker role into the regista that the world would fall in love with. He was all elegance and poise as he ambled around in front of his back four, his mass of silky hair billowing out as he span to open up his body. A quiet veneer of lethargy masked a mind perpetually at work. He would use the time afforded to him by Gattuso's diligence to measure his through balls with Pythagorean precision, constantly assessing every option to pull the strings of the game like a marionette. Pirlo could play any pass you could conceive of – raking crossfield diagonals, floaty chips in behind, intricate weighted passes slid between defenders, searing balls jabbed into feet – without batting an eyelid. He was the sort of player so good, so capable of reading the game and unpicking defences, that he could have found a gap in the Gordian knot given half a chance. Next to Gattuso's darkness, Pirlo shone incandescently.
This quartet were Ancelotti's first great composition. Four individual components, working in unison to convey his ideas and to express his footballing philosophy. The Rossoneri stormed to a double, winning both the Champions League and the Coppa Italia at the end of their manager's 2nd season. Their European victory was especially impressive, dispatching Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Ajax before facing off against Internazionale in the semi-finals. In an absurd turn of events, Milan progressed to the final after drawing the 2nd leg 1-1, advancing on the away goals rule against a team they share a ground with.
The final was another all-Italian affair, this time against Juventus, but had a more routine conclusion. A game of few real chances was settled in a penalty shootout, with Milan eventually winning 3-2. Meanwhile a heavily rotated team beat Roma comprehensively away from home in the first leg of the Coppa Italia final and then drew the home tie to seal the trophy.
There was no doubting that the riches of Milan's midfield were pivotal in their success that season, but they added a new dimension to their attack in the summer of 2003. Ancelotti once again turned to the transfer window and he acquired a young Brazilian player from São Paulo who would lead to a tweak in approach that paved the way for sustained success. Kaká, with his angelic face and feet twice as divine, was just 21 when he arrived in Italy and was bought as a potential long-term replacement for the aging Rui Costa. His burgeoning talent quickly became apparent and within a few weeks of the start of the season he had secured himself a starting place.
Kaká's emergence and Filippo Inzaghi's knackered knees meant that the young Brazilian was often selected instead of another striker, adding yet another creative player into the midfield unit. Shifting to 4-3-2-1, Seedorf was now tasked with gamboling up the left wing to provide width from that flank, while Rui Costa would saunter out to the right, providing his team with new angles to attack opposition defences. With the game stretched, Kaká was free to prowl the centre of the pitch.
It left opponents caught between a rock and a hard place: press high to try and close the ball down and they'd leave a chasm of space in front of their backline for Kaká and Rui Costa to exploit; sit deep and monitor the two more advanced playmakers and they'd give Pirlo and Seedorf time in possession to scheme and unpick their defensive structure.
Italian defences could find no answer to Milan's unrelenting invention, as the Rossoneri went on the rampage, winning the Scudetto with a record-high tally of 82 points. Shevchenko, sitting at the head of the Milanese banquet table, gorged himself on the perpetual supply of chances made for him and scored 24 league goals, enough to win him the golden boot.
The same can't be said for European teams though and one game in particular provided the blueprint for how Ancelotti's men could be beaten. The defense of their Champions League title had been going according to plan until they drew Deportivo La Coruña in the quarter-finals. The home leg at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza had put Milan in charge of the tie. A 1-0 deficit was quickly obliterated by four goals in the opening seven minutes of the 2nd halfresulting in a 4-1 win. The game at the Riazor looked like a foregone conclusion.
That was far from the case. By now, Inzaghi had regained full fitness, so his team had reverted to their 4-3-1-2 formation and it proved to be no match for Depor's tireless running. The Spanish side came racing out of the blocks with Walter Pandiani scoring after just five minutes and they'd scored twice more by half-time, giving them the advantage on away goals.
Every time Milan had the ball, the Deportivo players descended on their opposition like a plague of locusts, pressuring them, dispossessing them, not giving them a moment's rest. Pirlo said the “the Deportivo players were like men possessed, galloping towards a target that only they could see. For our part, we were completely blind, and duly brutalised.” It meant that the Italians had no time to pass and probe in order to get themselves back in the game. The most impressive thing was that Deportivo maintained their intensity throughout almost the entirety of the match and it paid dividends when Fran scored his side's fourth goal to vanquish the reigning champions.
They'd have a chance to regain their crown the following year, as Milan made their way to the final again, this time to face Liverpool in Istanbul. And we all know what happened there.
Despite another good domestic season, Milan had been unable to duplicate their Scudetto success, finishing behind Juventus in the race for the title. That meant that by the time the Champions League final came around, the Rossoneri were determined to not end the season trophyless.
Milan's second goal of that game exemplifies how ruthless they could be. Liverpool bounded forward like an overeager labrador to close down Seedorf who rolled a square pass to Pirlo. The Liverpool midfield was caught square and a simple vertical pass to Kaká took four players out of the game immediately. The Brazilian had oceans of space as he drove forward before dinking the ball past Traore to Shevchenko, who eventually scuffed it to Hernán Crespo at the backpost for a tap in.
Liverpool's comeback highlighted their potential structural frailties though. Milan's narrowness cost them shortly agfter half time. After his initial cross was blocked, John Arne Riise had time to compose himself and pick out Gerrard with his second attempt at a cross. Stam's marking in the box was slack, but there was no pressure to close down the cross. The cracks started to show.
The second also originated from Liverpool possession in their left-hand channel. The passed the ball inside twice, first to Hamann who then laid it off for Smicer to thump into the bottom corner. Milan were sitting too deep and lacked the players or energy to pressure the opponents when they were out of possession.
Alonso completed the comeback, slotting home the rebound after Dida saved his penalty. Milan had the chances to win the game even after the game had been levelled and had it not been for Jerzy Dudek, all baggy shirt and spaghetti limbs, they probably would have. It wasn't to be and Liverpool triumphed in the penalty shootout.
Clearly something needed to be changed. Another barren, disappointing season followed and it became apparent that Ancelotti's composition had ceased to function the way he wanted it. The start of the 2006-07 season saw Shevchenko leave for Chelsea which forced his manager's hand. Rather than splash out on another centre forward, Ancelotti chose another path. He chose to introduce some more darkness in order to complement his light.
Over time artists tend to refine their style. As they age, their perspective shifts, their influences change and this inevitably manifests itself in their work. As Caravaggio's life grew darker, more turbulent, more violent, so too did his paintings, the deep black background threatening to swallow up his subjects. Meanwhile Ancelotti's vision of unrestrained creativity began to falter and required the addition of another disruptive presence to allow his other players to flourish. He needed to adjust the balance of his compositions.
Massimo Ambrosini was the chosen one. He slotted in to the role formerly occupied by Clarence Seedorf, but played it with a more conservative brief in mind. It was his duty to protect his left back and to diminish the threat of marauding opposition fullbacks rather than to join the attack from deep. Steadfast and sullen as he guarded his defence, Ambrosini was ever reliable when it came to smothering counterattacks and always tidily recycled possession to his team mates. This freed Seedorf from his diplomatic role, acting as the bridge between the deeper and more advanced midfielders, and instead used him as a more direct attacker along with Kaká behind a lone striker. Ambrosini's discerning spatial awareness and astute positioning complemented the attributes of his fellow midfielders and liberated them, providing a different type of cover than that offered by Gattuso.
This steely approach gave Milan more of an edge and gave opponents a whole new set of problems to deal with. Their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal meant that Milan received an eight-point deduction, immediately rendering their 2006-07 title challenge inert. Once again Ancelotti looked to the Champions League for glory and circumstance would hand them the chance to avenge their defeat two years earlier, as they met Liverpool in Athens.
Kaká had begun to ascend to the peak of his powers and he seemed to save his best performances for the Champions League. He bagged an extra time winner against Celtic and then went on to score vital goals against Bayern Munich and Manchester United as he guided his team to the final. His performance, and the two goals he scored, at Old Trafford was electrifying.
Ancelotti's midfield were at their most fluent for his first goal. Pirlo quickly swept a freekick on the halfway line out to Seedorf on the left, who cut inside and angled the ball into the onrushing Kaká with the outside of his foot. An immaculately weighted touch and a searing burst of pace later and Carrick, O'Shea and Heinze were left watching, gargoyles in red shirts, as Kaká caressed the ball across goal into the bottom corner. Two passes and six touches had thoroughly undone United.
His second was an outrageous solo effort, that left Evra oafishly flinging himself into Heinze in a desperately futile attempt to halt the Milan man. Ferguson was livid. Carlo was ecstatic, beaming and pumping his fists as he trotted down from the dugout. Rooney might have taken the edge off the result with a last minute winner but there was no question who the night belonged to.
In Athens, the Brazilian was the difference maker for his team again, acting as the catalyst for both of Milan's goals. Liverpool failed to clear the ball properly and it dropped to Kaká at the edge of the box. Sensing the imminent danger, Xabi Alonso crudely chopped down the Brazilian and gave Milan a chance from a set piece. Pirlo's strike was curling towards the far post when Inzaghi ran across the flight of the ball, diverting it past Reina with his shoulder. Not exactly one for the highlight reel, but it was the sort of ugly, unorthodox goal that Inzaghi specialised in.
Next was a goal remarkably similar to the Rossoneri's second in Istanbul. Liverpool flooded forward in search of an equaliser and a simple straight pass completely bypassed their entire midfield. It was Ambrosini this time who pirouetted in the centre circle before stroking the most basic of balls to his team mate who had drifted into the vast expanse of space left exposed by Luis Garcia and Dirk Kuyt. Kaká, marooned like a small child who's lost his mum in a shopping centre, had time to thread a delectable ball between centre back and full back. The Liverpool defensive line was shambolic and Inzaghi made the most of it. A deft touch with the outside of his boot took the ball away from Reina, who was helpless as the Italian striker struck the ball goalwards.
Ambrosini and Gattuso toiled, depriving Zenden and Pennant of space to drive into out wide, while also doing their best to fracture the interplay between Alonso and Mascherano in the centre of the pitch. This was a team that had learned from their mistakes and Ancelotti found a different arrangement to provide greater balance, using a greater degree of darkness to allow his light to shine.
It would prove to be his last great triumph with Milan. He scooped two more minor trophies – the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup – in 2007 but from there on things began to fizzle out. His domineering side began to age and, with legs creaking and lungs heaving, they found it difficult to replicate the intensity which had served them so well and had made them so dynamic just a few years earlier. A spate of 3rd and 4th placed finishes plagued Ancelotti's final few years at the San Siro, eventually culminating in him following Shevchenko's path and leaving for Chelsea in 2009.
Although he was living five centuries after Caravaggio and working in an entirely different medium, the principles that made the Baroque artist's work so enduring and enthralling are the same principles that made Ancelotti's midfield so exhilarating - an appreciation for composition, for space and for the symbiotic relationship between light and dark all characterised one of the most impressive midfield collectives of modern football. From the creative purism of his early composition to the disciplined pragmatism of his late period, Ancelotti assembled a scintillating collection of players who embodied football at its best: individuals working in harmony to enrich and enhance each others abilities, elements balanced and arranged to create something greater than the sum of its parts.You've got to admire the artistry in that.