Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, simply known as Caravaggio, was an Italian Renaissance Art Movement painter.
Caravaggio was born in Milan, Italy, in 1571. He led a short, violent and chaotic life and is known to have fathered many illegitimate children. He died at the age of 38 in Spain. The cause of his death has been much speculated, with some historians theorizing that he died of syphilis with others believing he may have been murdered by his enemies from Malta.
Caravaggio paintings demonstrate a dramatic use of lighting to highlight areas and figures.
Caravaggio was born in born in Milan, Italy, in 1571, but his family moved to the town of Caravaggio in 1576 to avoid a plague. In 1584 Caravaggio began a four-year apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, he moved to Rome where there was a huge demand for artwork to fill the many new churches and palaces that were being built throughout the city.
At this time the Catholic Church was looking for a new style of painting that was an alternative to the Mannerism in religious art that acted as a counter to the rise of Protestantism. Caravaggio found a new style of naturalism that combined with the light effects of chiaroscuro that was to become so popular.
Caravaggio’s painting Boy Peeling a Fruit is considered to be his first known work. This painting, and Boy With a Basket of Fruit, and the Young Sick Bacchus, (a Caravaggio self-portrait), are all held by the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
During this period Caravaggio made important connections that would help him though his life; these included the painter Prospero Orsi, the architect Onorio Longhi, and the young artist Mario Minniti, who was often a model for Caravaggio’s paintings.
Another work, The Fortune Teller 1594, began a new theme for Rome with just two figures as the central subjects. This became a very influential painting, which alongside The Cardsharps, 1594, are considered as the first of Caravaggio’s masterpieces.
The Cardsharps was admired by a very wealthy and influential patron, the Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who, as a result, commissioned Caravaggio to paint The Musicians, The Lute Player and Boy Bitten by a Lizard.
Caravaggio started to paint religious themes, but unconventionally they were painted in a realistic style. The first of these was Penitent Magdalene followed Saint Catherine, Martha and Mary Magdalene, Judith Beheading Holofernes, Sacrifice of Isaac, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, and Rest on the Flight to Egypt
However, these paintings were seen by only a small circle of wealthy men and Caravaggio needed commissions from the Church to cement his fame and standing as an artist.
With the help of Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio was further commissioned to paint two paintings for the Contarelli Chapel, part of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome; The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Calling of Saint Matthew, both painted c.1600 are still in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. These two paintings were widely praised and from that time on Caravaggio never had to seek commissions or patrons again.
Conversion on the Way to Damascus 1601, was completed for the Cerasi Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, whilst The Conversion of Saint Paul, forms part of the Odescalchi Balbi Collection in Rome.
Two of Caravaggio’s paintings, Madonna and Child with St. Anne c1605 (also known as Madonna of the Grooms) and the Death of the Virgin caused some dismay over the very realistic features on the subjects.
Some of Caravaggio’s works were actually rejected by the Church and removed. One such painting was Death of the Virgin, which was purchased by the Duke of Mantua on the recommendation of the great artist Peter Paul Rubens, and it eventually became part of the collection of King Charles I of England.
Caravaggio was forced to leave Rome after the death of Ranuccio Tommasoni, who he killed in a dual. Tommasoni was from a wealthy family and Caravaggio’s rich friends could not protect him from the law and the charge of murder.
Caravaggio fled to Naples, where he painted Madonna of the Rosary, and the Seven Works of Mercy, which can still be seen at the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, in Naples, for which it was painted.
Caravaggio fled again to Malta where he had a friend who was a Knight of Malta and was also a member Colonna family, (part of the papal nobility). He commissioned Caravaggio to paint the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, which is still at the St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta, along with his largest ever painting, Saint Jerome Writing; the only painting Caravaggio is known to have signed.
Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page was painted during this time, as he was one of the highest-ranking Knights of Malta.
Caravaggio fled Malta after a fight and the serious wounding of another high-ranking Knight. From there he went to Sicily where his old friend, the artist Mario Minniti, helped him gain work.
Caravaggio painted the Adoration of the Shepherds while in Sicily.
Caravaggio’s religious painting Salome with the Head of John the Baptist is held by the National Gallery in London. David with the Head of Goliath was gifted to Cardinal Borghese and is held at the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
Caravaggio finally heard in 1610 that a Papal pardon was to be granted. However, he died enroute. In 2010 his remains were found in a church in Porto Ercole, in Tuscany, and DNA testing proved that he died from sepsis, from wounds received in a fight, probably in Naples.
In part due to his violent and confrontational character, his reputation and fame was all but forgotten until centuries after his death. In the 1920’s however, experts and art critics studied his paintings and concluded that without Caravaggio, there would not have been Vermeer or Rembrandt, and that the art of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet would have been materially different. American art historian Bernard Berenson stated “With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter has exercised so great an influence”.
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