Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da 1571–1610 Italian Painter

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Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da
Italian painter

The Italian artist Caravaggio is best known for his powerful and emotional paintings of saints and other religious figures. He worked in a naturalistic* style and used chiaroscuro (the contrast of light and darkness) to create dramatic effects and give his figures a sense of solidity and weight.

Early Works. Probably born in Milan, Michelangelo Merisi grew up in the town of Caravaggio and adopted its name as part of his own. After completing an apprenticeship*, he moved to Rome in 1592. However, his work continued to reflect the style of northern Italy, particularly its naturalism and dramatic use of light. Unlike many Renaissance painters, he did not imitate the work of ancient artists.

Caravaggio's earliest works are all similar in style. Each canvas shows a youth, in a style of dress typical of ancient Greece or Rome, looking toward the viewer. Caravaggio painted the figures in a highly realistic style, yet their poses and surroundings have an artificial quality. He focused on the central figure's gestures, expressions, and emotions, leaving the background flat and undefined. He also painted objects with exaggerated realism, often making them appear very close to the viewer.

In later pieces, Caravaggio presented groups of figures in a way that hints at a story. Rather than focusing on aristocrats, he created scenes from the everyday life of common people. For example, his Cardsharps shows a pair of rogues cheating an inexperienced young player at cards.

Religious Works. Caravaggio's religious paintings show a change in mood and style from his secular* works. Landscapes replace the stark, blank backgrounds of his early paintings. In these works, the artist employed chiaroscuro to add interest, make forms seem more solid, and indicate God's presence. In St. Francis in Ecstasy, for example, the use of light is the only sign of the subject's divine nature. In Judith and Holofernes and Conversion of the Magdalene, Caravaggio used lighting effects to increase the sense of drama.

In 1599 Caravaggio received his first public commission: a pair of paintings on the life of St. Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. These highly praised pieces show two different sources of light: sunlight entering through a window at an angle and overhead light from a lamp. This lighting gives the figures a three-dimensional quality and hints at a divine presence. The sacred figures in the paintings appear as realistic, not idealized, humans. Nonetheless, they contrast with the secular figures, who are dressed in modern costumes of exaggerated high style. Caravaggio eventually had to redesign the pieces, which were too dramatic for his patrons*.

In 1601 Caravaggio began work on two canvases for the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Once again the patrons rejected his original designs, but he quickly produced two excellent replacements. From this point on, Caravaggio's religious works were very serious, a mood expressed by the use of dark shadowing. Some of his pieces, such as Death of the Virgin, were too dark and realistic for his patrons' tastes. However, Caravaggio had no shortage of supporters.

Later Life. Caravaggio committed a murder in 1606 and fled from Rome to escape arrest. He moved to Naples, which was under Spanish control and out of the pope's reach. Caravaggio also spent a year in Malta, where he was knighted and later imprisoned. He escaped to Sicily and made his way back to Naples.

During his exile from Rome, Caravaggio continued to receive commissions from important members of Italian society. His style became less natural and more expressive, using broader brush strokes that reveal more of the reddish-brown background. The figures in these late works are smaller and their gestures less dramatic. The use of dark open spaces and massive buildings in the paintings creates a solemn mood and makes the figures seem more human. The overall atmosphere is humble, sober, and even tragic.

The dark mood of Caravaggio's late works oddly hints at the artist's own doom. In July of 1610, as he was on his way to Rome to receive a pardon from the pope, Caravaggio fell ill and died of a fever. However, his work had a great influence on the developing style of the Baroque* period, with its powerful appeal to the senses.

(See alsoArt in Italy; Patronage. )

* naturalistic

realistic, showing the world as it is without idealization

* apprenticeship

system under which a person is bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specified period of time in return for instruction in a trade or craft

see color plate 8, vol. 2

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* Baroque

artistic style of the 1600s characterized by movement, drama, and grandness of scale