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Caravaggio [Michelangelo Merisi]

Caravaggio [Michelangelo Merisi] 1571-1610 most revolutionary artist of his time. His paintings were realistic and dramatic.

The Life of Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (September 28, 1573 – July 18, 1610), usually called simply Caravaggio after his hometown near Milan, was an Italian Baroque painter, whose large religious works portrayed saints and other biblical figures as ordinary people. Though these paintings were controversial in the church, the wealthy purchased them for their drama, their spectacular technical accomplishment, their startling originality, and even their brazen homo eroticism. Though his life (1571-1610) nearly coincides with that of William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), it is hard to imagine two artists whose worlds were more distinct.


Little is known about Caravaggio’s artistic origins, or early work. He studied for several years with the obscure painter Peterzano in Milan, to whom he was apprenticed at age 12 in 1584, but the earliest known work which can be reliably attributed to him dates from almost 10 years later, by which time he had likely been in Rome for several years. His whereabouts in the intervening period are uncertain, and none of the several accounts of his life written by near-contemporaries are reliable on such details.

When Caravaggio finally arrived in Rome, he suffered the vicissitudes of an unattached young man from the provinces, unknown and un-welcomed, in the very center of the Catholic world. After a few years working as an understudy in the studios of other painters, his genre paintings of young boys came to the attention of a group of ecclesiastics and businessman who were members of the Roman elite, and passionate collectors of art and artifacts of every kind. This became the community he moved amongst (at least by day) until his hasty and involuntary departure from Rome a decade later, and it was this small group of patrons who bought or paid for nearly all of the pictures for which Caravaggio is best known.

The high point of Caravaggio’s Roman period came in 1600, when the unveiling of his three life-sized paintings narrating the story of St. Matthew in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, brought him the acclaim of a continent-wide public, and assured his continuing fame. These paintings are still installed in place, and remain a must-see for any artistic pilgrimage to Rome.

The works done during the next period of Caravaggio’s life, after his exile from Rome in 1606, are much darker in mood and hastier in execution. Given the tumultuous circumstances of his existence, that he continued to do remarkable works is in itself an achievement.

In his private life, Caravaggio was notorious for his violence and brawling even in a time and place where such behavior was commonplace. A full transcript of his police records and trial proceedings would fill several pages, and it is difficult to take a sympathetic view of the artist based on the picture which emerges from this material.

Several of these violent incidents nearly ended in the death of the painter or his adversary, and certainly Caravaggio owed his continuing freedom at least in part to the protection of his powerful patrons. But even his well-placed friends could not save Caravaggio from the police after a nighttime battle between rival gangs led to the death of one of the participants, and in 1606 the artist was forced to quit Rome for good. After further misadventures in the south of Italy (and more brilliant painting) he died in 1610, under disputed circumstances, before a pardon from the pope could reach him.

His familiarity with the darker side of Roman life frequently informs Caravaggio’s work, and scenes of violence and struggle are common. However, it is still a challenge to reconcile what we know of Caravaggio’s difficult and tempestuous nature with the extreme elegance and control of his work. Still more difficult to understand is his ability to charm and ingratiate himself with his aristocratic and clerical supporters,
several of whom – most importantly Cardinal Del Monte – lodged him for extended periods in their homes.

What continues to hold our attention is the work itself, which in its time represented the culmination of technical innovations begun 200 years earlier in the Renaissance. The art of representation has never surpassed the best of Caravaggio’s work, and it towered over the work of his contemporaries in a way that sent shock waves throughout Europe, waves that are felt to this day.

The Caravaggisti

The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty,
and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature, and looked on his work as miracles. They outdid each other in imitating his works, undressing their models and raising their lights. Giovanni Pietro Bellori, 1672.

It would be hard to overestimate the impact that Caravaggio’s innovations had upon painters of his generation and the generations that followed. His gritty realism, his choice of models, his theatrical lighting, his “night paintings” the rich passages of still life; in short, the revolution he brought to fruition at a time when art was ripe for renewal.

A short list of artists who owe much to his stylistic breakthroughs would include his companion Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter Artemisia, the Frenchman Georges de La Tour, and the Spaniard Guiseppe Ribera.

A group of Catholic artists from Utrecht, the “Utrecht Caravaggisti” travelled to Rome as students in the first years of the 17th century and were profoundly influenced by the work of Caravaggio, as Bellori describes. On their return to the north this trend had a short-lived but intense development in the 1620s among painters like Hendrick ter Brugghen, Gerrit van Honthorst, Andries Both (illustration, right), and Dirck van Baburen. In the following generation less intense affects of Caravaggio can be
seen in the work of Rubens (whose time in Rome overlapped that of Caravaggio, and who purchased one of his paintings for the Gonzaga), Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velazquez, who likely saw his work during his various sojourns in Italy.

It is easy to judge for oneself the pervasiveness of Caravaggio’s influence. Many large museums of art, for example those in Detroit, and New York, contain rooms where dozens of paintings by as many artists display the characteristic look of his work – nighttime setting, dramatic lighting, ordinary people used as models, honest description from nature.

In modern times, contemporary painters like the Norwegian Odd Nerdrum and the Hungarian Tibor Csernus make no secret of their attempts to emulate and update his work. Perhaps no single artist in the entire Western canon, outside of Giotto and Massacio, had so much influence beyond his time.

A touch of “Swan Song” and a dash of “The Stand”…Very good post-apocalyptic tale in the mode and mood of R. McCammon’s “Swan Song” and S. King’s “The Stand”. ★★★★★

Excerpt from Troop of Shadows:

Colleyville, Texas

Dani cursed the weight of her backpack. The final two items from the ransacked Walgreens, crammed in as an afterthought ten minutes ago, might cost her everything. After surviving the last twelve months of hell only to be thwarted now by a can of Similac and a twelve-pack of Zest soap, would be sadly anticlimactic. Despite running at a full sprint down a dark suburban street, dodging overflowing garbage cans while eluding three men who would steal her hard-won tubes of Neosporin and likely rape and kill her in the process, she snorted at the thought of a fictional headline: Young Woman’s Life Ends Tragically but Zestfully Clean.

Damn it, she would ditch the backpack. She could come back tomorrow night for it, but right now staying alive outweighed any future benefit its contents might provide. As her pursuers rounded the corner behind her, she darted across the front lawn of a house and leaped over a cluster of dead juniper shrubs. A year ago, those shrubs had been green, manicured, and providing curb appeal to the upscale neighborhood; they functioned now as a hurdle component in the obstacle course Dani navigated on most nights.

She angled toward the side of the house and around the corner, only to come to an abrupt stop next to a six-foot barricade. Residents of these sprawling bedroom communities situated between Dallas and Fort Worth clung to their privacy fences as fiercely as their rural counterparts did to their firearms. Why all those day-trading dads and cheerleader moms required such secrecy was beyond Dani. She didn’t care. All that mattered was how difficult they made her nightly forages. Only idiots or people with a death wish traveled alone on the streets anymore. The clever ones navigated through backyards and drainage ditches, shadowed easements and alleyway, avoiding open spaces and other humans.

Especially humans traveling in groups.

Stealth and caution were second nature to her now, and she was pissed at herself for loading up the backpack with more weight than she could easily carry at a full run.

Rookie mistake.

She flung the pack into the undergrowth of a once meticulous garden, making a mental note of the enormous red tip photinia which camouflaged the bundle in a leafy shroud. She hoped to be alive the next day to retrieve it.

She clambered up the fence, finding a toehold on a warped plank, and squirmed over the top. A silver fingernail of a moon did little to illuminate the backyard. Weak starlight reflected off the inky surface of a half-empty, kidney-shaped swimming pool. Her Nikes gripped the concrete deck as she skirted the murky water and made a beeline for the back of the yard that was, of course, separated from its neighbor by a privacy fence. It was a tall one too — a full ten feet. There were no bushes or trees to use for leverage either. She scanned the area for anything that might serve as a step ladder.

Of all the yards she could have chosen for her escape, she’d picked one with a damn ten-foot fence.

Her heart raced from the sprint, but not from panic. Gone was the young woman from a year ago, the full-time floundering college dropout and part-time surly Starbucks barista who spent too much time reading books and not enough time looking for a job that would allow her to move out of her parents’ house. She was too smart for her own good, everyone had told her. She should have taken that secretarial position in North Dallas, but she would have lost her sanity in that environment. The tedious filing, the ringing phones, the office politics — in other words, hell on earth for a girl with an IQ over a hundred and fifty.

Despite the recent horrors, she’d come into her own at last, after twenty-one years of meandering through life unfocused and unchallenged. The extra twenty pounds she’d been carrying courtesy of Freddy’s cheeseburgers and Taco Bell burritos were gone, thanks to her newfound self-discipline and endless hours of Krav Maga training with Sam. Not only had she transformed her body, she’d elevated and strengthened her mind as well. Before the power had gone out, she’d watched countless tutorials on T’ai Chi, Qigong, and Buddhist meditation. During that same window — when people were beginning to get sick, but before most of them had died — she’d combed book stores and libraries within a fifteen-mile radius. When the country went dark and people realized that life-saving information was no longer available with a few keystrokes, Dani had amassed reference material on subjects as diverse as hydroponics and combat first aid, ancient meat drying techniques and bomb making. Between martial arts lessons with Sam, she spent every spare minute absorbing the printed esoteric knowledge like a greedy lizard on a sun-drenched rock.

Knowledge was survival.

When the first of the men slithered over the fence into the backyard, she hadn’t found anything to use as a foothold. Another figure followed behind him. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and released it from her lungs, slow and measured, then took off at a full run toward them. While she ran, fingers slid down to a leather sheath secured to her belt. Two seconds before she reached the first of her would-be assailants, a Ka-Bar — the grandaddy of tactical knives — was in her hand.

Dani used momentum and every ounce of her one-hundred-twenty pound frame to slam the first man into the second, knocking both assailants off-balance and unprepared for her next move: a vicious stab to the groin of the first. He collapsed to his knees. She followed with a backhand movement, opening up the throat of his companion. A similar gesture to the man with the injured groin silenced his moaning.

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