Realism and Emotional Expressivity

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Realism and Emotional Expressivity


Michelangelo Merisi (1573–1610), who became known as "Caravaggio" after his family's native town, was a truly revolutionary painter. During the seventeenth century his influence spread throughout Italy and eventually Europe. Despite his short life, a school of painters in Italy known alternately as the "Caravaggeschi" or "Caravaggisti" carried on his legacy of dramatic realism. Elsewhere in Europe, many artists came to be affected by his art, including the great Rembrandt and Rubens. The young Michelangelo's father was an official in the household of one of the Sforza, the ducal family that controlled Milan and surrounding Lombardy. In Caravaggio's youth the family seems to have moved back and forth frequently between their small, native village and the great city of Milan. When he was in his early twenties, he sold his share in the family's inheritance and left Lombardy, probably arriving in Rome around 1592. Early sources suggest that Caravaggio was a renegade and that he was involved in frequent brawls and quarrels. Even later, when his star had risen in Rome, he was often frequently caught up in court cases and a participant in brawls and eventually fled the city after killing a man in an argument. In temperament, the surviving sources paint a picture of a melancholic and incendiary spirit, prone to quick flashes of temper, but also to deep fits of depression. Upon his arrival in Rome, he was forced to take whatever positions he could find. He worked, for instance, in the household of a church official, churning out stock devotional images for use in his household. Then, he came to paint heads for a painter's studio, mastering the techniques of portraying the face so well that he was able to produce several works in a day. In these jobs, he was paid by the piece, although other painters soon recognized his skills and he rose to become a painter of half-length portraits in the then-reigning Mannerist style. After being kicked by a horse, he was forced to seek hospitalization in the ward of Santa Maria della Consolazione, and during the months of his convalescence, he produced a number of pictures for this institution. With his health restored, Caravaggio played a more independent role in the artistic life in Rome. For a time he lived in the household of Monsignor Fantigno Petrignani, a church official, and in this period his art began to take on a greater self-assurance. Next he seems to have been patronized by the Cavaliere D'Arpino, one of the reigning Mannerist painters in Rome. Around 1595, he painted a large number of pictures that show the influence of Northern Italian examples on his art. Among the most famous of these are the Fortune Teller, The Cardsharps, and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. These canvases reveal a fascination with the properties of light, a feature that Caravaggio developed into a hallmark of his style. Their delicate and lyrical style, though, reveals little of the intense realism that Caravaggio was to develop as he matured over the next few years.

Increasing Stylistic Assurance.

Caravaggio's increasing technical mastery and individualistic style came, in large part, as a result of his association with the Cardinal del Monte. By the mid-1590s, Caravaggio's art was attracting increasing attention in the Roman artistic scene, and the cardinal asked the artist to become a member of his household. At the time, del Monte was the Tuscan ambassador to the papal court, and he lived in one of the Medici family's palaces in Rome. Refined as a connoisseur of art and skilled as a musician, scientist and mathematician, del Monte's household was one of the most sophisticated in Rome at the time. The young Caravaggio was paid to paint pictures, and during his years there, he seems to have produced at least ten works for the cardinal. It was under the cardinal's influence, too, that the artist received the commission to execute a series of paintings for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The theme was the Life of St. Matthew, and Caravaggio painted three canvases for the chapel, the greatest of which was his Calling of St. Matthew. This subject had long been treated using the passage in Matthew 9 as a guide: "And as Jesus passed forth … he saw a man named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, 'Follow me.' And he arose and followed him." In his rendering of this story, Caravaggio endowed the deceptively simple lines of the narrative with an understanding of the social dynamic in which Matthew's life-changing decision occurred. The gritty realism with which he immortalized the scene had never yet been seen in the world of Italian painting. Most previous treatments had sanitized the story, making it appear heroic through idealization. Caravaggio instead embraced the real meaning of the account, and in so doing he endowed Matthew's life-changing miracle with a sense of religious immediacy and drama that painters had not achieved to this point. Matthew, in fact, had been a Jewish publican (a collector of Roman tolls and taxes), an occupation that was detested in ancient Judea. In Caravaggio's rendition, he is shown sitting at a table in the tavern receiving payment from his minions. The boys and men that surround him are drawn with the typical local faces that Caravaggio had observed while a minor portraitist in Rome. The clothing and setting are typically Roman as well. In the background a window's panes are covered with the grimy oilcloth used in common people's homes and public houses. Light does not flow into the room from this source, however, but from above Christ's head. It cascades across the canvas to illuminate the faces of Matthew and his circle, throwing them into a harsh light that sets off patches of illumination against dramatic darkness. To the right, the head of Christ is barely visible behind the form of St. Peter, the savior's first disciple. With his outstretched arm, Christ motions to Matthew, just after he has spoken the words, "Follow me." Matthew turns his index finger toward his breast, as if to ask, "Me?" In this way Caravaggio was able to capture the pivotal moment of Matthew's life-changing conversion, the leap of faith that marked his transformation from a lover of worldly wealth to a follower of Christ. The realism that his image suggested achieved the kind of pious demands that figures like St. Charles Borromeo and Gabrielle Paleotti had argued in previous decades should invigorate the religious art of the Catholic Reformation.

Later Achievements.

In the decade that followed the completion of the Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio painted a number of works notable for their dramatic intensity as well as for their sometimes coarse, even seamy presentation of religious themes. His success at the Contarelli Chapel was soon surpassed by the Conversion of St. Paul. As in the Calling of Matthew, the artist concentrated on the critical moment of conversion. Saul's transformation from a persecutor of Christians to the apostle Paul had often been treated in Renaissance art, and it remained a popular theme for painters in the Counter Reformation as well. In many previous treatments of the theme, Christ had been shown descending from the heavens surrounded by clouds and cherubs to speak the famous words, "Saul, Saul, Why persecutest thou me?" By contrast, Caravaggio dispensed with these saccharine trappings, and instead captured the instant at which Saul was thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus. He lies prostrate on the ground before us, his body dramatically foreshortened and appearing to project out from the picture plane into the viewer's space. In the background his horse has not even put down his front leg after rearing under the shock of the blinding light that has fallen from heaven. Saul throws out his arms toward the source of that light in the sky, while in the background his aged servant merely looks on, puzzled by his master's reactions. Engulfed in the darkness, the servant, in other words, has no clue to the great miracle that is occurring at this moment within Saul's soul. In this way Caravaggio depicted the event as a fully internal event, but one that occurred within the setting and trappings of everyday life. Beyond the ethereal light that streams into the canvas from the upper right to bathe Saul, no suggestion of the divine presence is made. Similar innovation marked several of Caravaggio's later paintings treating the life of the Virgin Mary. As the Mother of God, painters and their patrons had long taken great care to present Mary in ways that might spark reverence and admiration. Such a trend for idealized images of the Virgin continued in the seventeenth century and inspired the many ethereal presentations of artists like Guido Reni and his imitators. During 1604, Caravaggio painted an image of the Madonna of Loreto for the Church of San Agostino near the Piazza Navona in Rome. The previous winter, he had spent time in northern Italy, not far from the shrine of the Holy House of Loreto, a place believed to house the actual childhood home of the boy Jesus. Returning to Rome, Caravaggio painted an image of the Virgin standing in her doorway like an Italian housewife, being admired by two pilgrims. Instead of idealizing Mary, Caravaggio painted his model faithfully, complete with dirt under her nails. Again, as in the Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio intended such homely portrayals to call attention to the way in which God worked through humble agents and to heighten his viewers' piety with the realization that those involved in the sacred dramas of scriptures had been ordinary men and women. Yet some felt at the time that his tendency to make the sacred profane was troubling, and the Madonna of Loreto immediately caused a controversy because of its homely portrayal of Mary. Similar criticisms were made, too, of the artist's Death of the Virgin, a painting that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Typically, most artists had treated Mary's triumphant Assumption into Heaven, rather than focusing on the final hours of her life and death. Caravaggio, by contrast, showed the Virgin sick and bloated, just after the final throes of her suffering and with her bare legs outstretched as if in rigor mortis. When the painting was presented to the Roman monks who had commissioned it, they rejected it. Such a reaction to Caravaggio's work had become increasingly common at the time. But even as churchmen came to reject his works for public display, others clamored to purchase them for their private collections. In the case of the Death of the Virgin, many criticized the painting specifically for showing the Virgin's legs undraped, as well as for the artist's choice of a notorious local prostitute to serve as the model. Others attacked it for being too realistic, since there was no hint of Mary's triumphant journey to heaven. Instead the apostles and women who attended the woman seem struck by a grief so profound that there is no hope for release. Such works caused Caravaggio's art to be reviled, even as it was widely imitated by many later figures.

Increasing Troubles.

Even during the high-tide of his success, Caravaggio's personal troubles were multiplying. Between 1600 and 1606, the artist had been accused of assault on an almost annual basis. In these years, he and his associate Orazio Gentileschi were also accused of libel, and a notorious case brought by the highly successful artist Giovanni Baglione granted the artist a dubious celebrity. In 1606, Caravaggio killed a man in a brawl that occurred after a tennis match, and he was forced to flee Rome for southern Italy. He traveled to Naples, then to Malta, and in these final years he continued to receive commissions. Wounded again in a fight, he spent several months convalescing at Naples before deciding to sail to Rome in 1610 after several intercessions gave him the impression that he might be pardoned if he returned there. As his boat was about to set sail, he was mistaken for another criminal, caught, and arrested. Although released a few days later, he developed pneumonia and died soon afterward.


Despite his short and stormy life, Caravaggio's output of paintings was enormous and his works were avidly traded in by artistic connoisseurs even in the early seventeenth century. The artist's travels in his later years from Rome to Naples to Malta left examples of his art in southern Italy, at that time a province of Habsburg Spain. From this vantage point they came to be studied by Italian and Spanish masters, and their highly dramatic imagery was widely imitated. Many Northern European artists who traveled in Italy were very much influenced by Caravaggio's example. Those who imitated Caravaggio's way of painting, in particular, adapted his use of chiaroscuro (the painting of light against dark spaces) to suggest drama. They also longed to perfect his strikingly realistic style. In his technique, Caravaggio was an innovator, and throughout his later life he tried vigorously to guard the secrets of his working methods. Renaissance painters had usually made detailed studies for their compositions before beginning to work on their canvases and panels. Caravaggio, by contrast, painted without preparatory studies using live models. To achieve his effects of chiaroscuro he placed his models in a darkened room lit only with strong lighting placed high above their heads. His patron, the Cardinal del Monte, was very much interested in the science of optics, and reports survive that suggest that Caravaggio may have used lenses to project the outlines of his models and their setting onto his canvases. The attempt to capture nature faithfully was to be one of the preoccupations of the seventeenth century, and Caravaggio's example of a rough and dramatic realism was to inspire many who followed him.


Fritz Baumgart, Caravaggio. Kunst und Wirklichkeit (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1955).

Walter Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955).

Howard Hibbard, Caravaggio (London: Harper and Row, 1983).

Michael Kitson, The Complete Paintings of Caravaggio (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985).

A. Moir, Caravaggio (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1982).