Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da 1571–1610

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Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da

The Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi was born in or near Milan in late 1571, and died at age thirty-eight in Port'Ercole on July 18, 1610. During his brief but nonconformist life, Caravaggio, who laid the foundations of the baroque style, earned notoriety as much for his hottempered violence and bisexuality as for his painting, which was both popular and controversial. Critics were quick to connect his life of brawling, murder, and illicit sex with his art: It was rumored that he used a prostitute or mistress as a model for the Virgin Mary, and rival Giovanni Baglione accused him in court of keeping a young male model as lover. Caravaggio represents a land-mark in the history of sexual expression both for his innovative subject matter and for his biography, one of the first that enables correlation of a body of homoerotic images with both individual personality and social milieu.

After absorbing the north Italian tradition of detailed, unvarnished realism, Caravaggio made his reputation in Rome among a circle of patrons with bisexual tastes, principally Cardinal Francesco del Monte. These men commissioned subjects from mythology (Bacchus, Cupid) that offered pretexts for beautiful, partially nude males. The models for their androgynous fantasies were often the same working-class adolescents who entertained at the aristocrats' gatherings; Caravaggio also recorded these youths more objectively in genre scenes, as musicians and, implicitly, bedmates. His pictures preserve the self-image of an embryonic homosexual subculture, an urban network of patrons, artists, and models of the type increasingly visible in the following century. Even with classical justification, such images were potentially subversive, as the nobleman Vincenzo Giustiniani evidently knew. He commissioned Amor Victorious (c. 1602)—an allegory of the power of eros in which nude Cupid, an unidealized urchin, grins lasciviously while fondling a phallic arrow and trampling symbols of men's serious pursuits—but hung it with a curtain that could be discreetly drawn when official visitors required greater decorum.

Similar sensibilities animated the artist's religious works, which spotlighted undraped angels and young saints in the warm light and dramatic shadows labeled "caravaggesque." This style aimed to fulfill Counter-Reformation demands for emotional images with a sensuous appeal to broad audiences; in Caravaggio's hands, however, that very intensity blurred the boundaries separating spiritual from physical ecstasy. Commissioned to depict Matthew inspired by an angel, he imagined another androgynous winged boy intimately entwined with the saint's limbs; the client rejected the picture and demanded a less suggestive replacement.

Despite lingering claims that meager documentation makes his legend unverifiable, the artist's fame as unapologetic bisexual and celebrator of male beauty has made him a cultural icon to post-Stonewall gays, celebrated in the poetry of Thom Gunn (1929–2004) and Derek Jarman's film Caravaggio (1986). The centrality of forbidden sexuality and gender ambiguity in his art provides a lens to examine the links and tensions between earthly and heavenly rapture. Through it one can glimpse, philosophically, an early moment when divine love could be manifested in homoerotic form; psychologically, an artist who openly represented his homosexual desire, including revealing self-portraits; and culturally, an audience whose patronage and reception of his work are identifiable.

see also Art.


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

Varriano, John. 2006. Caravaggio: The Art of Realism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Wittkower, Rudolph. 1999. Art and Architecture in Italy 1600–1750, Vol. 1. Early Baroque, rev. J. Connors and J. Montagu. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

                                        James M. Saslow