Caravaggio [Michelangelo Merisi]

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

View some of Caravaggio’s works –Image Gallery

The Life of Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (September 28, 1573 – July 18, 1610), usually called simply Caravaggio afterhis 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 homoeroticism. 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 – nightime 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.

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