Caravaggio and Caravaggism

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CARAVAGGIO AND CARAVAGGISM. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (born 1571, Milan or Caravaggio; died 18 July 1610, Porto Ercole), called Caravaggio, was the most radical painter in post-Tridentine Italy. In his religious and mythological compositions, he mocked Roman classical tradition by depicting his models"people in the street" rather than antique marblesin an unidealized, naturalistic style. He staged his scenes in the costumes and settings of contemporary society, not those of the ancient past. Even the Carracci, who in the 1580s had revolutionized Italian painting at their academy in Bologna, had not attacked tradition (the artificiality and precious classicism of late mannerism) so violently. Symptomatic of this same mentality was Caravaggio's elevation of still life painting (the lowest category of subject matter in the hierarchy of genres) to the level of history painting (the prime example is the Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, c. 16001601, Ambrosiana, Milan). Caravaggio had the audacity to announce to the Roman art world, for whom drawing the human figure with the beauty of Raphael and the antique was the sine qua non of great art, that "it was as difficult for him to make a good painting of flowers as one of figures." For Caravaggio, the imitation of naturenot idealized naturewas the goal of art.

Caravaggio's most important innovation was the creation of a new vocabulary for depicting moments of divine revelation, conversion, or ecstasy by cloaking his scenes in a bold chiaroscuro (transparent shading) penetrated by a wave of bright light entering the composition from a high, unseen source. The drama of light and dark, always carefully integrated with the poignant gestures, postures, and facial expressions of his actors, gives Caravaggio's images a heightened realism and psychological depth unique to late Renaissance art. It also doubled as a powerful metaphor of divine agency. Caravaggio represents major themes of the Catholic Reformationpoverty and charity, death and redemption, doubt and faithin a language that is at once populist, poetic, and spiritual.


The first child of Fermo Merisi (d. 1577) and his second wife Lucia Aratori (d. 1590), Caravaggio grew up under the protection of Francesco Sforza, Marchese di Caravaggio (d. 1583), for whom Fermo served as architect and majordomo. Sforza's widow, Costanza Colonna (d. 1622), provided the artist with introductions and protection throughout his life.

Caravaggio's earliest period, when he was apprenticed in Milan (c. 15841588) to the Bergamesque painter Simone Peterzano, a pupil of Titian, is still a mystery. No securely attributed works made before Caravaggio moved to Rome have been discovered. But judging from the earliest known pictures, it is clear that he had studied numerous Lombard and Venetian masters: Savoldo, Moretto, and Moroni as well as Titian, Giorgione, Lotto, and Palma Vecchio. Caravaggio's debt to Leonardo, whose naturalism and sfumato (modeling through delicate shading) had transformed Lombard painting in the early sixteenth century, was significant. An early biographer (Bellori, 1672) states that in Milan Caravaggio earned a living making portraits. The strong visual and psychological bond Caravaggio's compositions create between protagonist and spectator no doubt springs in part from this early interest in portraiture. His practice, when executing narrative scenes, of painting directly from the model rather than working from drawings (the norm in Rome) may also stem from the same experiences.

By 1592, or 1593 at the latest, Caravaggio made his way to Rome. He took on menial work until being employed by the Cavalier d'Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari), the most sought-after fresco painter in the city. A practitioner of late maniera style, d'Arpino seems nonetheless to have appreciated Caravaggio's naturalistic gifts and hired him to paint flowers and fruits (whether these were independent still lifes by Caravaggio or details added to d'Arpino's larger compositions is unknown). Caravaggio's earliest pictures, such as the Boy with a Basket of Fruit or the Bacchino Malato (Sick Little Bacchus) of c. 15921593 (both Galleria Borghese, Rome) are dazzling displays of still life painting. Their half-length treatment of eroticized boys in off-the-shoulder, togalike costumes also attracted attention. Two collectors in particular, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte and his friend Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, both connoisseurs of music and painting, purchased or commissioned numerous works by Caravaggio in this mode. Del Monte, who hosted the artist in his palace in c. 15961600, owned at least ten paintings by him, including the Concert of Youths (c. 1595, Metropolitan Museum, New York). Giustiniani owned at least thirteen, including the Lute Player (c. 1596, Hermitage, St. Petersburg). The androgynous protagonists and their solicitous gazes have been interpreted in a homoerotic key by several scholars, who note Del Monte's reputation as a pederast. Many questions remain, however, about Caravaggio's own sexuality (or bisexuality), since there is ample evidence that he had relationships with women. Moreover, it is important to note that with few exceptions, such pictures cease once Caravaggio became known as a serious religious painter. In these provocative paintings, Caravaggio has taken a Venetian tradition of half-length, portraitlike images of sexy females posing as mythological goddesses and flipped the gender. A good example of this practice is the Drunken Bacchus of c. 1596 (Uffizi, Florence). The fine line Caravaggio walks here between realism and parody is what makes his art so modern.

In 1599, Caravaggio's career took a major turn when he received his first commission for a public work. Left incomplete by d'Arpino, the task of decorating the Contarelli Chapel of the French national church, San Luigi dei Francesi, gave the young artist his first opportunity to paint site-specific works. His paintings (laterals) for the side walls, The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, are exceptional in their clever compositional structure, skewing perspective axes so as to draw the spectator into the scene. His bridging of the space of the image and the space of the spectatorsometimes called "coextensive" spacewould become a central feature of seventeenth-century painting. His treatment of light sources is also part of the integration of the work into its environment. Especially in the case of the Calling, we are to understand the light streaking across the wall behind Christ and Matthew as somehow connected with the natural source of illumination in the chapelthe window directly above the altar. He developed these ideas in his next public commission, in the Cerasi Chapel at S.M. del Popolo, where, in competition with Annibale Carracci's robust, classicizing altarpiece, he painted laterals of the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul (c. 16001601). In the latter, Paul, set diagonally to the picture plane, seems nearly to fall out of the frame toward the viewer.

His first version of the altarpiece for the Contarelli Chapel, The Inspiration of St. Matthew (the date is disputed, 15991602; formerly Berlin, destroyed), was rejected, but, significantly, it was purchased by Giustiniani. Caravaggio was given another chance, and his second version, painted in 16021603, remains in situ. Much has been made of Caravaggio's bad luck with religious patrons in Rome. Indeed, several other pictures were rejected (one or both of the Cerasi laterals) or removed from their original location (the Madonna dei Palafrenieri, Galleria Borghese, Rome). But only the Death of the Virgin (c. 1603, Louvre, Paris), an altarpiece for the Discalced Carmelites of S.M. della Scala, represents a clear-cut case of Caravaggio's decorum-breaching, earthbound interpretations of divine mysteries meeting with the disapproval of ecclesiastical authorities. It has been suggested that Caravaggio's violent behaviorhis numerous runins with authorities for brawling, shouting insults, carrying a sword without a licensehad so badly damaged his reputation that patrons no longer wanted his works in their churches. But this is a myth built loosely on the basis of negative remarks from biased critics. One biographer, his fellow painter Giovanni Baglione, sued Caravaggio for libel in 1603. Another, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, writing half a century after Caravaggio's death, was a partisan of the classicizing trend begun by the Carracci and developed by Domenichino, Poussin, and others.


Caravaggio's Roman period came to an abrupt end when he murdered his former friend Ranuccio Tomassoni in a gang fight on 28 May 1606. He fled the Eternal City, never to return. The artist probably received shelter from the Colonna family in Paliano or nearby towns during the summer months before making his way to Naplessafely outside the jurisdiction of the papal authoritiesby September 1606. In the nine months or so that he lived in the Spanish-controlled city, Caravaggio produced some of his most remarkable and influential altarpieces. Chief among these is The Seven Works of Mercy, completed by January 1607, for the charitable confraternity of the Pio Monte della Misericordia (in situ). Caravaggio's palette, which had become significantly darker in the last works in Rome (such as the Madonna of Loreto altarpiece in Sant'Agostino of c. 16051606), now restricts itself almost exclusively to a simple, nearly monochromatic array of dark earth tones and silvery whites. The occasional flash of red or yellow nearly jumps off the canvas. Caravaggio's brushwork is now noticeably looser and his modelspoor, rough types culled from the Neapolitan streetsmore realistically described than ever before.

By 12 July 1607 Caravaggio had made his way to the island of Malta, where he sought a knighthood from the Grandmaster of the Knights of St. John, Alof de Wignacourt (reigned 16011622). The artist painted a flattering full-length portrait of the Frenchman with one of his pages (Louvre, Paris). For the Oratory of San Giovanni Decollato annexed to the Church of St. John in Valletta, the Knights' conventual church, Caravaggio painted what many regard as his supreme masterpiece, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (in situ), in which the artist signed his name in the "blood" oozing from the saint's severed neck. This is the only work, so far as we know, that he signed in his career. Though the artist fulfilled his one-year novitiate and received his title, he committed a crime and was imprisoned. He fled Malta in late September or early October 1608 and made his way to Syracuse. He was defrocked in absentia by the Knights on 1 December 1608.

Caravaggio's brief Sicilian period, during which he moved from Syracuse to Messina and then to Palermo before returning to Naples in September or October of 1609, yielded some of his most moving altarpieces. His revolutionary compositional method developed in Malta, in which a concentrated group of figures is set into a cavernous space of which the top half is left almost completely unarticulated, is made even more expressive by the austerity and compactness of his Sicilian designs. In the Burial of St. Lucy for S. Lucia al Sepolcro, Syracuse (before December 1608), or the Adoration of the Shepherds of 1609 (Museo Regionale, Messina), Caravaggio compresses his figures into a single mass of humanity absorbed in a single action. Individuality has been reduced. Gestures are nearly eliminated. So thinly painted that large areas of the dark red ground are left exposed, these canvases begin a new trend that Caravaggio would not live to develop. The absorptive quality of his dark chiaroscuro in concert with the introspective glances of his actors generate a pathos unequaled in Italian painting.

Caravaggio's second Naples sojourn is not well documented other than a report of a near fatal slashing of his face by a group of armed men. Under the impression that one of his patrons had set the stage for him to receive a papal pardon, he set sail for Rome in the summer of 1610. However, upon arriving at Porto Ercole he was the victim of mistaken identityhis goods were seized and he was put in prison. Released two days later, he contracted a fever and died soon afterward, on 18 July.


Much to the dismay of classic-idealist theorists (such as Bellori), Caravaggio's incisive naturalism, genrelike treatment of history scenes, and ardent colorism and tenebrism (in which a painting's dark atmosphere is pierced by a beam of light) became more than a passing fad. Caravaggism, a modern term used to describe the international artistic movement generated by Caravaggio's style, had a considerable life until the early 1630s. It died out first in Rome, in the early 1620s, when the Bolognese Pope Gregory XV (reigned 16211623) made the Eternal City a mecca for the Carracci's pupils and followers such as Domenichino, Lanfranco, and Guercino. Many of the Caravaggisti changed styles or left town (some did both). Caravaggism endured longest in Naples and Sicily, where the style, in its most humble, pietistic, and graphically violent form (for example, in the works of G. B. Caracciolo and especially Jusepe de Ribera), seems to have struck a particular chord in these Spanish-controlled populations. Even in Naples, however, the Bolognese eventually made major inroads. Caravaggio and his followers generally did not practice fresco painting. But many of the great commissions of the mature baroque era called for illusionistic ceiling and mural painting. Both in Rome and Naples, as the Counter-Reformation turned to a more "triumphalist" mode of thought and expression, Caravaggism increasingly must have seemed old-fashioned and dour. The church no longer wanted its saints to be shown as lower-class types with dirty feet, ragged clothes, and sunburned faces crouched on the floors of humble dwellings. Instead they promoted the billowing draperies, levitating bodies, and angel-filled light-and-cloud shows of Lanfranco and Cortona.

In most cases, Caravaggism is not really a style unto itself so much as the grafting of popular elements of Caravaggio's art (boys with plumed hats, hidden candles or lanterns in a murky room, low-class types impersonating mythological deities) on to other, sometimes even contradictory, styles. There were very few artists who imitated his homoeroticism or attempted to replicate the tension between faith and empirical knowledge that permeates all of Caravaggio's religious works.

Though there is scant evidence that Caravaggio maintained a genuine workshop in which he trained painters, there is no lack of proof of his early popularity. In Rome, Caravaggio's style caught on almost immediately. During his own lifetime, he was imitated by Orazio Gentileschi (c. 1562c. 1647), Guido Reni (15751642), and Giovanni Baglione (c. 15731644). Each of these painters had a fully developed style of his own before experimenting with Caravaggism. Gentileschi's conversion, which began in earnest once Caravaggio had left Rome (June 1606), was the most profound and the most lasting (Reni's, by comparison, endured only about a year). In the second decade of the century, Orazio imparted his poetic brand of Caravaggism to his gifted daughter Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1597after 1651), who would develop the style in a unique direction, first in Rome and then in Florence and Naples. She is especially famous for her pictures of violent subjects and female heroines, such as Judith and Holofernes (c. 1618, Uffizi, Florence), a theme explored in an exemplary picture of c. 1599 by Caravaggio himself (National Gallery, Rome). All of these artists specialized in history paintings, but there was one Italian Caravaggist, Bartolomeo Manfredi, who, a full decade after Caravaggio had left Rome, seized on the market for genre paintings in the mode of Caravaggio's exceedingly popular Card Sharps (c. 1594, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth) and Gypsy Fortune-Teller (c. 1598, Louvre, Paris). Manfredi's concepts and techniques were more easily imitated than Caravaggio's own; foreign artists (especially those from France and the Low Countries) working in Rome in c. 16151621 flocked to his studio and imitated what the seventeenth-century painter/biographer Joachim Sandrart called the "Manfredi manner." In pictures such as the Concert (c. 16151621, Pitti, Florence), Manfredi takes motifs from Caravaggio's early works and represents them in the dark colors and looser brushwork of Caravaggio's post-Roman style. He also made numerous religious and mythological pictures, mining Caravaggio's compositions for ideas.

The attraction of Caravaggism for northern Europeans was no doubt due to the fact that so much of their traditionthe naturalist ideal of Van Eyck, Dürer, and Bruegelwas reflected and reborn in Caravaggio's art. A trio of Dutch painters from Utrecht, Dirck van Baburen, Gerrit van Honthorst, and Hendrick ter Brugghen, were active in Rome during the second and the beginning of the third decade. Their works are unsurpassed in their bold color and chiaroscuro, exotic costuming, and truly moving representations, whether of everyday life or religious subject matter. The return of these masters to Holland is an important link between Roman Caravaggism and the pictorial language of the young Rembrandt and Hals.

A number of French artists in Rome were also attracted to Manfredi's style, especially Simon Vouet, Nicolas Tournier, and Valentin de Boulogne. It used to be thought that the Caravaggists (especially the foreigners) worked mainly on the fringes of the art market. However, when one considers that Baburen, Honthorst, and Vouet all produced major works for Roman churches (as did Orazio Gentileschi and another Italian Caravaggist, Carlo Saraceni, who painted a replacement for the infamous Death of the Virgin commission), this old idea needs modification.

Caravaggism had practitioners in places like Siena (Rutilio Manetti) and Bologna (Leonello Spada), where the artist himself had never traveled and where his works were little known. Perhaps the most exceptional case is that of the Lorraine artist, Georges de la Tour. Poorly documented, La Tour may have visited Rome in 1640. He almost certainly knew Caravaggio's style in Lorraine through the works of the Utrecht school, especially Ter Brugghen. In pictures such as the Penitent Magdalen (c. 16391640, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), La Tour transformed standard Caravaggesque tropes such as a candle flickering in a dark room into sublime meditations on Catholic faith and human frailty.

The phenomenal spread of Caravaggism was equaled by few movements in the history of art of the early modern period. However, unlike the baroque classicism of the Bolognese school (Reni and Guercino had a steady following straight through the eighteenth century), Caravaggism had virtually no "survivals" and only one or two strange revivals in the eighteenth century, in a handful of works by Jacques-Louis David and Joseph Wright of Derby.

See also Carracci Family ; David, Jacques-Louis ; Gentileschi, Artemisia ; Netherlands, Art in ; Painting ; Rome, Art in .


Bellori, Giovanni Pietro. Le vite de' pittori, scultori e architetti moderni. Edited by Evelina Borea. Turin, 1976. Originally published in 1672.

Calvesi, Maurizio. Le realtà del Caravaggio. Turin, 1990. Detailed account of Caravaggio's patrons and his religious iconography.

Christiansen, Keith. "Caravaggio and 'L'esempio davanti del naturale."' Art Bulletin 68, no. 3 (Sept. 1986): 421445. Important technical study of Caravaggio's painting procedures.

Cinotti, Mia. Michelangelo Merisi detto Il Caravaggio: tutte le opere. Reprinted from I pittori bergamaschi, il seicento, vol. 1. Bergamo, 1983. Essential for bibliography. Contains exhaustive entries on known works.

Friedlaender, Walter. Caravaggio Studies. Princeton, 1955. Pioneering study with translations of key texts and documents, including Caravaggio's criminal record.

Gash, John. Caravaggio. London, 1980.

Gregori, Mina. Caravaggio. Milan, 1994.

Hibbard, Howard. Caravaggio. New York, 1983. The best, most synthetic study on the artist, though increasingly out of date.

Langdon, Helen. Caravaggio: A Life. New York, 1998. Important discussion of Caravaggio's social milieu.

Longhi, Roberto. Caravaggio. Rev. ed., Rome, 1982. Groundbreaking study by the art historian most responsible for the rediscovery of Caravaggio.

Marini, Maurizio. Caravaggio: pictor praestantissimus: l'iter artistico completo di uno dei massimi rivoluzionari dell'arte di tutti i tempi. 3rd ed. Rome, 2001.

Moir, Alfred. The Italian Followers of Caravaggio. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1967.

Nicolson, Benedict. Caravaggism in Europe. 3 vols. 2nd ed., rev. and enlarged by Luisa Vertova. Turin, 1989.

Posner, Donald. "Caravaggio's Homo-Erotic Early Works." Art Quarterly 34 (1971): 301324.

Puglisi, Catherine. Caravaggio. London, 1998. Updates Hibbard; excellent illustrations.

Spike, John T. Caravaggio. New York and London, 2001. Useful chronology and extensive bibliography.

Stone, David M. "In Figura Diaboli : Self and Myth in Caravaggio's David and Goliath. " In From Rome to Eternity: Catholicism and the Arts in Italy, ca. 15501650, edited by P. M. Jones and T. Worcester, pp. 1942. Leiden, 2002.

David M. Stone