In common with many of his compatriots, Caravaggio born as Michelangelo Merisi was only recognised as a founding father of modern painting after his death. He was born in 1571 in Italy and was orphaned by the age of 11 years. He was then apprenticed to a painter in Milan and later moved to Rome. His work became popular due to the tenebrism technique Caravaggio used which uses shadow as an emphasis for light. Like many artists, his life was troubled in different ways and Caravaggio’s artistic career was curtailed sharply when he killed another man during a contretemps. He fled from Rome and whilst a fugitive died a short time after the killing on July 18th in 1610.
Caravaggio produced such fiery masterpieces as “David with the Head of Goliath,” and “The Death of the Virgin”. His work was the inspiration to generations of artists.
In 1571, the world was an unstable and restless place full of conflict and violence. His family life is not well documented but his father was Fermo Merisi the architect and steward of the marquis of Caravaggio. At six years of age Caravaggio survived the bubonic plague that killed his father and almost everyone else in his family.
This early trauma seems likely to have contributed to Caravaggio’s troubled adulthood, which saw him accepted by the pope and other elite society only to be slighted again when he conducted himself in self-destructive ways. He was it seems fatally flawed except for his artistic genius. His motto along with other painters in his group was “nec spe, nec metu”, “without hope, without fear.”
Caravaggio went it alone and began to sell his works through a dealer and acquired a Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who adored his work. Caravaggio was a prolific and under the Cardinal’s influence Caravaggio soon had 40 works to his name.
The subject matter of many paintings was pretty boys dressed as angels, his favourite saint John the Baptist, musicians and bacchanalian beings. Such paintings include “Boy with a Basket of Fruit,” “The Young Bacchus” and “The Music Party.” Loosely dressed or naked, it seems Caravaggio’s muse was his young assistant Cecco who appears often. He may also have been Caravaggio’s lover.
Commissions to decorate places of worship which resulted in the famous paintings of St Matthew led Caravaggio into new directions where he painted religious scenes, but cast with his own dark interpretation. The pictures were inclusive of much of Rome’s street life characters such as prostitutes and beggars populated the canvas. Paintings from this period over the next period of his career included “The Conversion of St Paul”, “The Crucifixion of St. Peter,” and “The Deposition of Christ.” The iconic “Death of the Virgin.” Depicted the Holy Mother with bare legs and a swollen belly and was rejected by the Carmelites and ended up in the collection of the Duke of Mantua.
Controversy was the fuel to Caravaggio’s fire and his success grew along with his personal internal turmoil. Suffering severe mood swings coupled with a love of drink and gambling, Caravaggio had a propensity for violence and frequently brawled, spending a short time in prison for one physical assault.
In 1606, Caravaggio’s violence spilled overs into murder when killing a famed Roman pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni. There are some suggestions as to why he killed Tomassoni including a row over tennis and unpaid debts.
Caravaggio fled and found refuge briefly in Malta, Naples, Sicily and other locations. He continued to work on the run producing “Madonna of the Rosary” and “The Seven Works of Mercy” for the church of Pio Chapel of Monte della Misericordia.
In Malta, he painted “Beheading of St. John the Baptist” for Valetta Cathedral and while in Sicily, works included “The Resurrection of Lazarus”, “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” and “Adoration with St. Francis and St. Lawrence.”
Life on the run made Caravaggio a nervous wreck constantly fearing for his life. However, this was not the end of his violent episodes and in 1608 he needlessly attacked Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, a senior knight in the Order of St. John. He was jailed for the assault but managed to escape from jail. In retaliation, his victim followed Caravaggio to Naples and attacked him outside a tavern causing facial disfigurement. The attack had a lasting impact on Caravaggio’s health and his painting suffered as his vision was impaired and his mental state was affected.
Caravaggio believed his peace could only come from the pope so he travelled towards Rome and was arrested in Palo. When released, it was just a few days before he died. The cause of death was unearthed in 2010 when a forensic examination of his remains showed lead poisoning was the likely cause of death. Lead poisoning was also suspected in the deaths of other great artists including Goya and Van Gogh.
A selection of Caravaggio paintings are shown below.
Click each thumbnail to view the full image.