Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio was an Italian artist from the Late Renaissance period associated with the Baroque movement. Caravaggio's production became especially relevant for his use of chiaroscuro, creating intense contrast between light and dark. This technique, allied with his violent subjects, resulted in direct and unceremoniously visceral religious art. Caravaggio is often considered one of the most pivotal artists in Western art history, especially in the transition between Mannerism and the Baroque. His artworks inspired generations of artists to come, such as Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, and the Caravaggisti.
Caravaggio was born in 1571, probably in the small city of Caravaggio, hence his name. His Christian name, Michelangelo, suggests that the artist was born on September 29. On his mother's side, his family had connections with the Sforza and Colonna families, two of the most powerful and influential houses in Italy at the time. Later, these connections would prove vital in his life, especially with Constanza Colonna, who became a valuable supporter during Caravaggio's troubled years.
Caravaggio's childhood was divided between his hometown and Milan, where his father maintained a workshop. In 1576, when the artist was five years old, Milan was smitten by an outbreak of the bubonic plague, while his family was still living there. The outbreak would reach epidemic proportions and reap the lives of one-fifth of the local inhabitants. Caravaggio and his family fled back to his hometown to escape the atrocious disease. However, in vain.
By the second half of 1577, the plague killed Caravaggio's paternal grandfather and grandmother, his uncle, and his father; by age six, the young artist would already lose almost all the male members of his family. These tragic experiences at such a young age probably scarred Caravaggio's psychologic for life and possibly pivotal elements that led to his somber, violent, and direct artistic production.
Documentation regarding the remainder of Caravaggio's early life is rather scarce. By age twelve, he signed a contract of apprenticeship under Simone Peterzano, a minor Milanese painter. However, scholars suggest that the artist did not take his studies very seriously. According to scholars, such lack of historical documents suggests that Caravaggio's youth was misspent, probably mastering the art of swordsmanship, since he later became an expert duelist.
According to scholars, several traits that would define Caravaggio as an artist were set during his youth, and especially influenced by his environment. During his early life, the city of Milan was under the heavy influence of Archbishop Charles Borromeo, who later became Saint Charles Borromeo. He believed that the Catholic faith should turn itself to the most basic teachings of Christ, and especially emphatic regarding the poverty of the son of God and his disciples.
For Borromeo, the divine duty of the church was to tend to the poor. Borromeo's artistic taste was also rather robust and direct, disliking the intellectually intricate production of the High Renaissance and Mannerism. These concepts made way into and became an important element of Caravaggio's oeuvre, especially regarding humility and poverty as vital Christian virtues.
Caravaggio left the region of Lombardy in 1592, to never return. It is possible that Caravaggio began his career the same way he ended it, in trouble with the law. Accounts suggest that the artist was involved in an incident that resulted in the death of a policeman.
Caravaggio then went to Rome, searching for work. By that time, Rome was a very prolific city for artists. According to scholars, about 2% of the whole city's population was comprised of artists. The coexistence of different communities of artists, often separated by their place of origin, was not always amicable, leading to feuds and often violent vendettas. Caravaggio, with his fiery temperament, would engage in many disagreements and fights.
The artist arrived in Rome in 1592. Soon after, he joined the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari, a highly prominent artist at the time. During this period, Caravaggio created his Boy with a Basket of Fruit and Sick Bacchus, also known as Self-Portrait as Bacchus. The latter depicts the Greek God Bacchus with the artist's likeness. However, the subject exhibits pale and weakened features.
According to scholars, the artwork was executed in front of the mirror during the artist's own period of illness. Also, it is suggested that the greenish pigmentation of his skin and eyes are indicative of some hepatic disease. These artworks are thought to be a way of Caravaggio showcasing his artistic prowess, displaying abilities in sill-life, portraiture, and his ability to explore Classical subjects.
During the mid-1590s, Caravaggio decided to leave the workshop and offer his artworks directly to the market. During this period, he developed a working relationship with the art dealer Constantino Spata. Through him, the artist attracted the attention of his most pivotal early patron, Francesco Cardinal Maria del Monte, who passed continuously in front of Spada's shop.
In order to draw the collector's attention, the artist created two unconventional paintings exploring mundane subjects The Cardsharps and The Fortune Teller. In both pictures, naive and apparently wealthy young men are being stolen from and deceived. In the first, the young man is being chated in a game of cards by two scoundrels. In the latter, a fortune-teller woman is reading an inattentive man's hand, as she softly takes one of his rings. Spada's and Caravaggio's plan worked. The Cardinal bought both paintings, and would also secure his several commissions.
In 1599, the artist executed Calling of St. Matthew. The painting depicts the moment Jesus, accompanied by Peter, calls Matthew the tax-gatherer. The scene is recreated in a contemporary setting as if it was occurring in a basement somewhere in Rome. The bleak room is struck by a radiant beam of light as Christ appears. The light shatters the scene in two, suggesting the separation of the world of sin from salvation, drawing Matthew away from the temptation of money and towards redemption. Later, Caravaggio continued to create Catholic paintings and to explore Matthews' story in The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew.
The intense contrast between dark and light in dramatic compositions became the cornerstone of Caravaggio's oeuvre. Soon, the artist would establish himself as one of the most original painters in Rome. In his paintings, Caravaggio was sure to attest to Christ's and his follower's poverty and humility, a Pauperist view of the Catholic church favored by orders such as the Franciscans. However, the notions of humility and poverty were falling out of favor within the Catholic church. Therefore, Caravaggio's artworks would suffer from recurrent censorships and remodelings.
By 1598, Caravaggio finished his Medusa, one of his most famous paintings. It depicts the Gorgon monster from Greek mythology, whose hair is made of serpents and whose gaze is capable of turning its viewer into stone. The monster was depicted moments after its beheading by the Greek hero Perseus, using the reflection of his shield as a guide. In fact, the artwork is quite creative in its execution. While it was traditionally executed on a canvas, it was later applied to a convex circular wooden structure, mimicking an actual shield.
An example of such a situation is his Saint Matthew and the Angel. At first, the artist depicted the saint as the poorest of peasants, with dirty feet and rough hands. The composition was promptly rejected and was later executed with far more decorous features. Between 1603 and 1606, the number of Caravaggio's commissions greatly reduced at the pace his appearances in court increased.
In 1606, the artist killed Ranuccio Tommasoni, a gangster from a powerful family, during a duel. He was forced to flee Rome under the threat of capital punishment for murder. First, he went to Naples, and then, Malta, where he painted the masterpiece Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. He soon fled Malta following a violent disagreement that left a knight seriously wounded. He then went to Sicily and later, Naples. During this period, Caravaggio's style continued to mature, increasingly isolating his subjects in a vastly void and bathed by intense light. The works Salome with the Head of John the Baptist and David with the Head of Goliath illustrates this beautifully.
In 1609, Caravaggio was assaulted by a group of men who left the artist in a critical state. Accounts differ regarding who was responsible for such an act. However, scholars' speculations orbits around the Tommasoni family, or maybe the knight he wounded in Malta.
In 1610, the artist created his last two paintings, The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and The Denial of St. Peter. Caravaggio succumbed to fever and died in July 1610, on his way from Naples to Rome. Although the reason for his death is inconclusive, recent studies suggest that he died from sepsis caused by a wound sustained back in Naples.
Caravaggio immortalized his name as one of the world's greatest painters. His visceral intensely dramatic oil paintings became an inspiration for generations of artists to come. Although he was an artist from the Mannerist period, Caravaggio was pivotal in the transition from the aforementioned style to the Baroque.
By the time of his death and subsequently after, Caravaggio's style was being imitated by many artists in Italy and was a crucial influence for the artworks of Diego Velazquez and Rembrandt van Rijn, especially regarding his use of light and dark to increase the dramatic intensity of the composition. Soon his style was an inspiration for various artists, known as Caravaggisti, who expanded his influence throughout Europe.
However, by the 18th century, Caravaggio's recognition waned, apart from a limited interest manifested by Neo-Classical painters, such as the French painter Jacques-Louis David. However, by the early 1950s, much due to the effort of the art historian Roberto Longhi, Caravaggio's name and legacy returned to the public eye. He would once again occupy his rightful place as one of the greatest Western painters and one of the most modern of the Old Masters.