views updated May 21 2018


The Italian painter Caravaggio (1573-1610) depicted insolent boys and rough peasants in the guise of Roman gods and Christian saints. They are often portrayed as if emerging out of darkness, with part of their faces and bodies strongly illuminated.

Michelangelo Merisi is called Caravaggio after the tiny town in Lombardy where he was born on Sept. 8, 1573. His father, Fermo Merisi, who was a master builder for the local lord, died in 1584, and the young boy was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano, a mediocre painter in Milan. Caravaggio's contract with Peterzano ran until April 1588. He probably stayed on in Milan for another year, studying the paintings in his native Lombardy. By about 1590 he was in Rome.

During Caravaggio's first year in Rome he was desperately poor. For a brief period he worked for a certain Pandolfo Pucci, whom he called "Mr. Salad" since he said that was all Pucci ever gave him to eat. We know too that during his first years in Rome Caravaggio worked in the studio of Giuseppe Cavaliere d'Arpino as a painter of fruits and flowers.

Turbulent Life

From 1600 on it is easier to follow Caravaggio's career since his name appears with a certain regularity in the police records. That year he was arrested for a sword fight in which he wounded a captain of the guards at Castel Sant' Angelo. It seems, however, to have been a good-natured contest between two lovers of the sport, and there was a formal reconciliation in court. In 1603 Caravaggio was sued and jailed for libel for writing sarcastic and offensive verses about the painter and writer Giovanni Baglione. Prominent friends, who presumably recognized Caravaggio's great talent, secured his release. In January 1604 he was hailed into court for throwing an artichoke in the face of an insolent waiter, and in November he was jailed for stoning the police.

The police records for Rome of 1605 contain entries regarding a notary called Pasqualone, who reported that he had been wounded by Caravaggio in an argument over a girl named Lena "who stands in Piazza Navona." Following this incident Caravaggio fled to Genoa. But in 3 weeks he was back in Rome, where he and Pasqualone were formally reconciled.

During all these years Caravaggio was painting daring, revolutionary works unlike anything ever seen before. Such paintings naturally aroused a great deal of controversy. Some attacked them as being vulgar and indecent, but a few critics and connoisseurs praised them highly.

In May 1606 Caravaggio was playing tennis with one Ranuccio Tomassoni. There seems to have been an argument over the score, which turned into a brawl and then into a sword fight. Tomassoni was killed, and Caravaggio was badly wounded. Aided by friends, Caravaggio fled Rome. For a brief period he remained near the papal city, hiding in the Sabine Mountains. From there he set out for Naples, then under Spanish rule. By May 1607 his friends were already at work in Rome trying to obtain a pardon so that he could return.

Early in 1608 Caravaggio was on the small Mediterranean island of Malta, then ruled by the Knights of Malta, an aristocratic military order. Because of the portrait he painted of the head of the order, Alof de Wignacourt, Caravaggio was made a knight of Malta, a most unusual honor for a person of his modest background, and received a solid-gold chain and two Turkish slaves. A few months later he was again involved in a sword fight, this time with his superior officer, and was jailed. In some way that is still not explained, Caravaggio escaped from prison.

By Oct. 6, 1608, Caravaggio had reached Syracuse in Sicily. From this point on he was pursued by agents of the Knights of Malta, who sought to avenge what they considered an insult to their order. A hunted man, Caravaggio fled to Messina and then to Palermo. Somehow through it all he continued to paint. By fall 1609 he was back in Naples, where the Maltese agents trapped him and beat him so badly that he was disfigured almost beyond recognition. Reports reaching Rome said that he was dead, but he was still alive.

By summer 1610 a papal pardon appeared imminent. For this reason Caravaggio took a boat to Port'Ercole, a small Spanish outpost just north of Rome, where he was arrested in a case of mistaken identity. The Spaniards released him from jail after a few days, but the boat had sailed and with it, so he thought, the painting he carried with him and all his possessions.

Raging along the shore under the hot July sun, Caravaggio came down with a fever. As Roger Hinks (1953) wrote: "There was no one to care for him and in a few days it was all over. He died, as he had lived, alone. It was July 18, 1610. He had lived thirty-six years, nine months and twenty days, as Marzio Milesi records with the pious exactitude of a devoted friend. Three days later, by a tragic stroke of irony, his pardon arrived."

Revolutionary Paintings

The early works of Caravaggio show him in full revolt against both mannerism and classicism. He rejected the elongations and formal curvilinear shapes of the mannerists and ridiculed the concept of the classicists that the subject of a painting should be idealized and carry a moral message. What Caravaggio shows us in his Bacchus with a Wine Glass (ca. 1595) is no Roman god but a pudgy, half-naked boy draped in a bedsheet, who is identified as Bacchus by the vine leaves in his hair.

Sometimes the subject is a scene from everyday life. The Fortune Teller (ca. 1595) shows an elegant young dandy with a sword at his side having his palm read by a gypsy girl. He looks away with almost ostentatious boredom as she slips the ring off his finger. As in most of Caravaggio's paintings, the figures are hard, sculptural, and intensely three-dimensional. The realism is reinforced by the great clarity of detail, for instance, the hilt of the young man's sword and the seams of his glove.

Many of the paintings of this period have a momentary quality, as if Caravaggio had isolated a single instance in the midst of flux. In Boy Bitten by a Lizard (ca. 1593), for example, a wonderfully affected young man with a small girlish mouth and a rose behind one ear squeals with fright as a lizard comes out from behind a flower and bites him on the finger. In these works and others like them Caravaggio developed a new, totally secular iconography.

When Caravaggio did paint religious subjects, and he often did, he employed an immediacy and directness that has few equals. In the Calling of St. Matthew the saint, who was a tax collector in the ancient Roman Empire, is shown in contemporary Italian dress sitting at a table counting money. Around him at the table, as if in a gambling den, are a group of young swordsmen of the kind we associate with Caravaggio. In these years (ca. 1600-1606) Caravaggio's paintings are filled with deep shadows that absorb and conceal parts of the figures. At the same time the figures remain solid and powerfully three-dimensional where the light strikes them. This use of strong dramatic contrasts between light and shade is called tenebrism. In the Calling it is especially daring. Christ is far over to the right, almost totally lost in darkness, and all that emerges into the light is part of his face and one beckoning hand. They express his words to Matthew, "Arise, and follow me."

Here and elsewhere Caravaggio makes the scene look as if it is taking place before our very eyes. In his Crucifixion of St. Peter, for example, we catch sight of the saint at the moment when the executioners are just beginning to raise up the cross to which he has been nailed upside down. His bare feet are thrust toward us so we can see and almost feel the spikes that cut through them. The aged but powerful apostle lifts his head up from the cross in defiance.

Influence of Counter Reformation

Scenes such as these reflect the drive of the Catholic Counter Reformation to appeal directly to the masses through their emotions. It was chiefly the Jesuits who directed the Counter Reformation. Their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, laid great stress on the immediate perception of religious experience in physical terms. This he emphasized repeatedly in his famous, widely read Spiritual Exercises. In it, for example, Ignatius urges Catholics to imagine hell and in so doing to use all their senses: to see the flames, to hear the screams, to smell the smoke, to taste the tears, to feel the fires.

Other paintings by Caravaggio are quiet. In the Madonna of Loreto (1604) the Virgin, holding the Christ Child, miraculously appears before two peasants who have made a pilgrimage to her shrine. As the old man and woman, their gnarled hands clasped in prayer, kneel before the Virgin, their bare, dirty feet stick out toward the viewer. Again we see the influence of St. Ignatius but, even more, that of St. Philip Neri. While the Jesuits tended to align themselves with the powerful, Philip was especially concerned with the weak. He wished religion to be simple, joyful, easily understood, and expressed in the most common and natural terms. Above all he wanted it to be open to the humble and the poor. Pompousness and lavish display he ridiculed. Philip died in Rome in 1595. During Caravaggio's lifetime the saint's living presence seemed to hang over the city, and it can certainly be felt in Caravaggio's art.

Late Works

In Caravaggio's last works, painted when he was fleeing from one southern Italian town to another, his style changed. The modeling is softer; the paint is thinner and applied more rapidly; and the shadows are less profound. The expressive content is deeper. All this can be seen in the Resurrection of Lazarus, painted in 1609 at the very end of the artist's life. In it a small crowd huddles around the dim figure of Christ, which is almost phosphorescent where the light strikes it. The whole upper half of the picture is left dark and empty to serve as a sounding board that reverberates the shadowy moments between death and rebirth.

Though Caravaggio was never truly famous in his own lifetime, many who knew his work realized that they were seeing something amazingly new. His style spread rapidly throughout Europe. Without Caravaggio it is not possible to understand countless artists who followed.

Further Reading

The fullest work on Caravaggio is Walter F. Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies (1955). It is especially valuable for an understanding of Caravaggio in his own era and above all for the influence of St. Philip Neri on his art. A much shorter book, Roger P. Hinks, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1953), provides the most sensitive interpretation of the expressive content of his painting, especially the late works. The best color plates are in Roberto Longhi, Il Caravaggio (1952).

Additional Sources

The Age of Caravaggi, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: Electa/Rizzoli, 1985.

Bissell, R. Ward, Orazio Gentileschi and the poetic tradition in Caravaggesque painting, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.

Moir, Alfred, Caravaggio, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1989. □

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da

views updated May 23 2018

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio



A Stormy Youth in Lombardy.

The figure who was to revolutionize early Italian Baroque painting, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, was born near Milan in 1571. His father served as an official in the household of one of the Sforza, the dynasty that had long controlled the great Northern Italian city and its surrounding countryside, Lombardy. Many of the early details of the young Caravaggio's life are shrouded in uncertainty, but it is clear that by 1584 he was living in Milan, where he was apprenticed to a painter. When his father died some years later, Michelangelo Merisi sold his claim to his inheritance and moved to Rome, arriving there in 1592. The earliest biographers of the painter point to certain legal problems that may have prompted Caravaggio to leave Lombardy. One points to quarrels in which the artist may have been engaged, while another suggests that he was imprisoned shortly before his departure. No contemporary documents survive to establish whether these accounts are true, but Caravaggio's later tendency to become involved in scandals, brawls, and to assault his fellow artists suggests that the artist may have fled Milan with a cloud over his head.


The artist's first years in Rome were apparently filled with trials. He lived in the household of a churchman, where he did menial chores. Next, he worked for several local artists, who produced paintings for the local market. Michelangelo Merisi painted heads on their canvases and he was paid by the piece. Sometime in these early years in the church's capital, the artist came to the attention of the Cavaliere D'Arpino, a prominent member of Roman society and a Mannerist painter. Caravaggio lived in the Cavaliere's household, a fact that suggests that the artist's talents were beginning to be recognized. Just what works the artist created under the influence of this successful Roman artist cannot be determined, but he probably painted still-life details onto the Cavaliere's works, or completed various works that this established artist then sold under his own name, a common custom of the time. This period of Merisi's life drew to a close, though, when he was kicked by a horse and forced to enter a local hospital in order to recover. With his health regained, the artist returned to work in Rome, soon finding lodging in the household of another official, the Monsignor Fantino Petrignani. It was during this period in Petrignani's house that Caravaggio's fortunes started to rise. The paintings he completed during this time show the artist's rising mastery over his medium, and this trend was to continue in the late 1590s as the artist came to the notice of a local connoisseur, the Cardinal del Monte. Del Monte was something of a polymath, that is, he was a master of all kinds of scientific and artistic endeavors, and after purchasing some of the artist's pictures, he invited Caravaggio to live in his house. The cardinal was at the time serving as the Tuscan ambassador to the Vatican, and his household was among the most sophisticated in the city. As a result of his time there, the young Caravaggio became known to the city's cultivated elite, and from this time forward, his fortunes were assured.

The Contarelli and Cerasi Chapels.

It was under del Monte's influence that Caravaggio was to receive the two greatest commissions of his career. In the first of these, the Contarelli family chapel in the Church of San Luis dei Francesi, the artist was to immortalize the life of St. Matthew in three works, the greatest of which was his The Calling of St. Matthew. The painting showed Christ entering an inn, where Matthew is counting the proceeds of his tax collection with a group of associates. Here Caravaggio painted from life and the models that he chose, dressed in contemporary Roman attire, mirrored the contemporary street. Christ is shaded in darkness and strong contrasts of light and dark characterize the painting, while a high light source, suggesting the miraculous nature of the incident, falls from the upper right hand side of the painting. The artist captures the moment when Christ has spoken the fateful words, "Follow me," and Matthew has placed his hand at his breast as if to ask "Me?" In this way Caravaggio's dramatic, yet realistic portrayal heightens the miraculous nature of the incident. Through his portrayal of the event, Caravaggio makes Matthew's abandonment of his profession as a publican, or tax collector, stand out in greater relief, because the full consequences of his denial of the gritty actuality of his trade become evident to observers. It was just this kind of realism that the Catholic reforming Bishop Gabrielle Paleotti had recommended to artists as an antidote to the highly intellectualized and obscure meanings that had governed much Mannerist taste of the late sixteenth century. Caravaggio was to continue in this vein with perhaps his greatest masterpiece, the Conversion of St. Paul, a work completed several years later for the Cerasi family chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Here he captured the moment that a blinding light from heaven has just struck Saul, and he has been thrown from his horse in a catatonic fit. In the background Saul's servant looks on in incomprehension, while Paul's body lies prone, his arms outstretched toward the light source that again falls from above.

Success and Later Troubles.

Caravaggio's triumphs in the Cerasi and Contarelli chapels established him as one of the greatest artists of his day and a group of "Caravaggisti," or imitators of his style, soon emerged who experimented with his light and dark contrasts (chiaroscuro) and dramatic realism. New commissions followed, but during the first decade of the seventeenth century many of his works came to be rejected by the religious institutions in Rome that commissioned them. This trend, however, scarcely affected the artist's reputation, since every time a monastery or church rejected his commission, a connoisseur appeared to purchase the work. Despite his success, these years were also plagued with legal troubles, as the artist accused others of plagiarizing his work, and he became embroiled in a libel suit. Accusations of assault, too, swirled around Caravaggio, and in 1606 he killed Ranuccio Tommasoni in a dispute following a tennis match. Forced to flee Rome, he went to Naples, receiving a number of commissions there and throughout southern Italy. His reputation had been little diminished by the controversies that swirled around his career, and the examples that he left behind in southern Italy inspired the development of a school of Caravaggeschi there that long outlasted his life. After travels in Malta and throughout southern Italy, he returned to Naples and prepared to journey to Rome. He had learned that he was to be pardoned for the Tommasoni murder, but when he boarded a boat for the city he was mistaken for another criminal and taken prisoner. The mistake was realized, but in the meantime Caravaggio had contracted a fever and he died several days later. Despite his untimely death, the example of gritty realism that his works provided, with their models drawn directly from life, was to outlive him. Although his reputation was to suffer over the centuries, the genius of his achievement has in recent times been recognized. He has, in other words, been restored to his rightful place as one of the formative influences in the development of the Baroque, and his impact on artists of the period has come to be fully realized.


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

John Gash, Caravaggio (London: Jupiter Books, 1980).

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

Caravaggio, Michelangelo da (1573–1610)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Caravaggio, Michelangelo da (15731610)

Italian painter whose expressive works overthrew the classical traditions of the Renaissance with dark and striking imagery that would be widely imitated during the Baroque period that followed. Born in the town of Caravaggio to a carpenter, he was orphaned as a boy and served as an apprentice to the painter Simone Peterzano in Milan. He then traveled to Rome, where he struggled for a time as a painter of still lifes and flowers in a small and little-known painter's workshop.

In Rome Caravaggio's career turned when he gained the patronage of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who had admired and bought the artist's realistic painting Cardsharps. This and other early paintings, including Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Concert of Youths, and The Fortuneteller, dealt with worldly scenes and ordinary peoplean entirely new genre. But Caravaggio brought this interest in street life and everyday experience to his religious art, beginning with works depicting Saint Matthew (The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martrydom of St. Matthew ). These paintings used commoners as models and placed sanctified biblical stories and miraculous occurrences in a familiar setting, making a break with the idealized figures and surroundings of past artists. Caravaggio also showed little respect for the gods of classical mythology; his portrait Bacchus, completed in 1595, shows the Greek god of wine and revelry as an insolent teenager draped in a bedsheet. His paintings had elongated, oddly posed figures and areas of deep shadow and startlingly bright color, used to highlight the personalities and themes of the work. This technique, called tenebrism, would be taken up by artists who followed him during the Baroque period.

The Saint Matthew series won Caravaggio fame and future commissions, including The Deposition of Christ and Death of the Virgin. This last painting distressed his patrons with his depiction of the Virgin Mary as a plain, fleshy, and noticeably pregnant woman. Caravaggio was accused of degrading religion and the saints, but his revolutionary new style, full of dramatic effects of light and posing, also attracted a legion of admirers, especially among fellow painters.

Caravaggio's turbulent private life got him into frequent trouble with the law. In 1600 he was arrested for fighting with an officer at the Castle Sant' Angelo in Rome, and in 1603 he was charged and jailed for libel after writing derogatory poetry about a rival painter. Several instances of disturbing the peace occurred in the next few years. In 1606, he got into a violent argument over a game of tennis that quickly turned into a sword fight in which Caravaggio killed his rival, Ranuccio Tomassoni. Threatened with arrest, he fled Rome and wandered through southern Italy and Naples, then under the control of Spain.

Caravaggio arrived in Sicily and in 1608 sailed for Malta, where his portrait of Alof de Wignacourt, head of the Knights of Malta, earned him the title of honorary knight of the order, and a payment of two Turkish slaves. A sword fight with one of the Knights then landed him in prison, from which he escaped; now pursued by the authorities of Malta as well as Rome, he wandered through Sicily and then reached Naples, where he was found by his Maltese pursuers and beaten senseless.

Through these events Caravaggio continued to produce expressive and startling religious imagery. The Madonna of Loreto shows the Virgin appearing before an old man and woman, whose bare feet are insolently turned toward the viewer of the painting. One of his last works, The Resurrection of Lazarus, shows Christ raising Lazarus from the dead; according to some accounts, Caravaggio exhumed a recently buried corpse to use as a model.

Severely injured after the assault in Naples, Caravaggio left Naples for Port' Ercole, where he was arrested by Spanish police who mistook him for another wanted man. He was released, only to come down with a pestilential fever from which he died within a few days. Three days later after his death, he received a formal pardon from the pope for the killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni in Rome.

See Also: Tintoretto, Jacopo; Titian; Veronese, Paolo

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da

views updated Jun 11 2018

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da (1571–1610) Italian painter, the most influential and original painter of the 17th century. His work brought a new, formidable sense of reality at a time when a feeble mannerism prevailed. Caravaggio's early works were mainly experimental and include the erotic half-length figures of The Young Bacchus and Boy with a Fruit Basket (both c.1595). The majestic Supper at Emmaus (c.1598–1600) with its beautifully modelled images of Christ and his disciples shows Caravaggio gaining confidence. His mature phase (1599–1606) began with two large-scale religious paintings of Saint Matthew. The use of dramatic shadows (chiaroscuro) and a living model, show Caravaggio's revolutionary approach to religious themes. The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul (both 1600–01) are masterpieces of psychological realism.;;


views updated May 29 2018

Caravaggio ★★★ 1986

Controversial biography of late Renaissance painter Caravaggio (Terry), famous for his bisexuality, fondness for prostitute models, violence and depravity. The painter divides his time between two street models, Ranuccio (Bean) and his lover Lena (Swinton), the decadent cardinals who commission his religious works, and Caravaggio's young assistant (Leigh), who cares for the artist as he lies dying. Photography by Gabriel Beristain reproduces the artist's visual style. 97m/C VHS . GB Spencer Leigh, Michael Gough, Nigel Davenport, Robbie Coltrane, Jack Birkett, Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton; D: Derek Jarman; W: Derek Jarman; C: Gabriel Beristain; M: Simon Fisher.

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

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