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Caravaggio

Italian Painter

Movement: Mannerism

Born: September 29, 1571 - Caravaggio, Lombardy

Died: July 18, 1610 - Porto Ercole, Lombardy

Caravaggio Timeline

Synopsis

The intensity of Caravaggio's paintings was matched only by his tempestuous lifestyle. Despite being a hot-headed, violent man often in trouble with the law and implicated in more than one murder, he created striking, innovative paintings and pioneered the use of dramatic lighting and the representation of religious figures in modern clothes and attitudes. Working from life and without the aid of preparatory sketches, Caravaggio paired close observation of his models with the use of strong beams of light to focus attention on certain elements of his images, contrasting these well-lit areas with dark shadows elsewhere on the canvas. This use of chiaroscuro became a core part of Caravaggio's highly individualized style and was widely imitated by his contemporaries. Even though he only lived until the age of 39, Caravaggio had a profound influence on the painters around him and on later art movements notably Baroque art and 19th-century Realism.

Key Ideas

Caravaggio's populist portrayals of religious figures were groundbreaking, showing biblical characters in a non-idealized fashion through the addition of signs of age and poverty and the use of contemporary clothing. This served to humanize the divine, making them more accessible to the average viewer. In doing this Caravaggio's work represented a type of spiritual populism. The bare, dirty feet of Caravaggio's figures united the artist's works with church teachings which emphasized the poverty of Christ and were also consistent with calls for a simplicity in religious art following the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Despite this alignment with current dogma, these portrayals drew some of Caravaggio's harshest criticism.
Whilst the technique of chiaroscuro was not introduced by Caravaggio, he was the first painter to incorporate the technique as a dominant stylistic element, making the shadows darker and using clearly defined rays of light for emphasis and to highlight the narrative of the image. The style became increasingly prevalent in his later work and has subsequently become synonymous with his more mature images.
As far as records show Caravaggio never married and had no children, this alongside his many sensual portrayals of young men (in conjunction with a lack of erotic female characters in his work) has led to a debate surrounding his sexuality and there have been a number of contemporary homoerotic readings of his work.

Most Important Art

Caravaggio Famous Art

Self-Portrait as Bacchus/Sick Bacchus (c. 1593-94)

It is probable that Caravaggio executed this self-portrait whilst in the employment of frescoist Giuseppe Cesari and the painting's carefully worked still life elements demonstrates the influence of Cesari's tutelage. Caravaggio's 17th-century biographer Giovanni Baglione identifies this painting as one of a group of the artist's early self-portraits painted with the aid of a convex mirror, a contention supported by the figure's awkward pose, as if turned to ensure better visibility in the mirror surface. The image may have been a 'cabinet piece' but was not, as far as is known, a commissioned work.

The title Sick Bacchus, a seemingly apt title for the subject's pallor and dark, hooded eyes, can be attributed to art historian Roberto Longhi, who believed that the artist painted it after he was discharged from the hospital, following an incident in which the artist was kicked by a horse and sustained severe injuries. Alternatively, the image's greenish coloration might simply be ascribed to a nighttime setting appropriate for the bacchanalia which was about to ensue. Bacchus was a fitting alter-ego for Caravaggio as he was the deity of wine, theater, ritualized displays of ecstasy and was synonymous with inspiration and destruction. The portrait, however, differs from traditional representations of Bacchus where he is depicted in the midst of unbridled celebration, often in a verdant landscape. Caravaggio's image adheres to the conventions of many of the artist's other works, presenting the mythological figure in a sparse interior. In addition, the artist's pallor and sedentary pose suggest not a deity in his prime, celebrating the virtues of wine and festivity, but rather the consequences of over-indulgence. Indeed, the ivy leaves encircling the artist's head have started to wither, a few of the grapes in his hands have begun to shrivel, and the two lush apricots in the painting's foreground betray the beginning brown spots of rot.

Cindy Sherman later famously reinterpreted this painting, posing herself as Caravaggio's Bacchus, in her 1990 photograph Untitled #224 (after Caravaggio's Bacchus).
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Caravaggio Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Reliable biographical information on Caravaggio is scarce and what does exist has been pieced together from court and municipal records and other surviving documents. As a child, Caravaggio was known as Michelangelo Merisi, a reference to his birth on the feast day of the Archangel Michael. The artist grew up between the quiet agricultural town of Caravaggio in Lombardy and the bustling city of Milan where his father, a master stone mason, worked. Though of lower social status, Caravaggio's family had elite ties. Caravaggio's aunt had served as a wet-nurse to the children of the Milanese Sforza nobility, and members of the Sforza family, notably the Marchese Francesco I Sforza di Caravaggio and his wife, Costanza Colonna, witnessed the wedding of Caravaggio's parents in 1571. Costanza Colonna would later become a supporter of the artist during his many flights from the law, although she never personally acquired a painting.

In August 1576, when Caravaggio was five years old, Milan suffered from an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Though the artist and his family retreated to the Caravaggio countryside, by October of 1577 his father, paternal grandparents, and uncle had all died from the plague. By 1592, aged 21, Caravaggio had also lost his mother and youngest brother. The family land was divided among the remaining siblings and sold and Caravaggio left permanently for Milan where he supported himself through portrait painting.

Early Training and Work

It is probable that Caravaggio embarked upon his artistic career armed with a knowledge of Renaissance painters. Art historian David M. Stone notes that Caravaggio's work betrays the influence of numerous Italian masters, including Savoldo, Moretto, Lotto, Giorgione, Palma Vecchi, Titian, and Leonardo da Vinci. Caravaggio almost certainly received some form of Classical education and was aware of key texts of his time. As art historian Sharon Gregory has demonstrated, Caravaggio would have studied Giorgio Vasari's 1550 The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, from Cimabue until Our Own Time, and used Vasari's text as inspiration and motivation for some of his paintings.

Milan in the late 16th-century was a dangerous, violent place, and, therefore, a setting ripe to tempt and provoke the young, rootless, traumatized, and possibly hot-headed artist. After his involvement in a murder the artist fled to Rome in either 1592 or 1593 and remained there until 1606. Here, Caravaggio spent several months as an assistant to the artist Giuseppe Cesari, a popular fresco painter. While in Cesari's employment Caravaggio mainly painted background flowers and fruits, he took from this experience an eye for detail and affection for the nuances of still-life paintings evident in the precise execution of fruits and flora in his own, later works.

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Caravaggio Biography Continues

Following his assistantship with Cesari Caravaggio came into contact with his future patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. Del Monte supported Caravaggio providing him with lodging, food and artistic commissions as well as introducing him into art collecting circles. Like del Monte other elite Roman art collectors such as Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani were attracted to the subjects of Caravaggio's early works: celebrations of music, works of still life and sensual portrayals of androgynous young men such as Amor Vincit Omnia (1602) which depicts a realistic, naked cupid atop symbols of war, science, music, and literature. These genre and secular works were his entrance into prestigious Roman patronage and catapulted him to artistic renown.

Mature Period

In 1599 Cardinal del Monte helped him secure his first major public works commission, the decoration of the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesci with scenes from the life of St. Matthew. A second appointment, to paint the side walls of the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo with the crucifixion of St. Peter and the conversion of St. Paul, soon followed. With these commissions, the artist embarked on the radical reinterpretation of divine figures which would become a hallmark of his career. Caravaggio humanized divine individuals by rendering them as lower-class folk. In this manner, Caravaggio critiqued and subverted the pristine, idealized figures of the Italian Renaissance and Roman classical traditions. Examples of this approach can be seen in Death of a Virgin (1601-1606) and Judith Beheading Holofernes (1602), the latter painting had a profound effect on other artists particularly Artemisia Gentileschi who created a number of images of the same subject matter. Caravaggio's religious paintings received very mixed reviews with the realism of the works and the juxtaposition of holy individuals with modern, 17th-century interiors inflaming some critics. Indeed, many of Caravaggio's works were rejected by commissioning institutions on the grounds of blasphemous or indecent portrayals.

Caravaggio's time in Rome came to an end in a dramatic fashion. Court records indicate that Caravaggio was involved in myriad scrapes and mishaps of an increasingly violent nature, and was often protected from prosecution by witnesses reticent to confirm the artist's involvement for fear of reprisal from the artist's influential and prominent patrons. In one of the more colorful episodes, in April 24, 1604, Caravaggio started a brawl with a waiter regarding his order of eight cooked artichokes, in which the artist smashed the man's face with a plate. Caravaggio's temper, trouble with the law, and violent acts reached their climax on May 28, 1606, when Caravaggio murdered his former friend Ranuccio Tomassoni, possibly in the context of a duel. Caravaggio fled Rome before formal charges for the murder were leveled against him; he was sentenced to indefinite exile from the city, condemned as a murderer, and subject to a capital sentence which allowed anyone in the papal states to receive a monetary reward for killing him.

Late Period

The artist then spent nine months in the Spanish-controlled city of Naples, arriving there by September 1606. In this period Caravaggio began to experiment more with color and contrast taking his lead from Venetian painters such as Titian. In 1607 Caravaggio moved to Malta and it is probable that he was guaranteed safe passage by General Fabrizio Sforza Colonna, son of his protector Costanza Colonna. During his time in Malta Caravaggio achieved great success and prominence and on July 14, 1608, he was invested into the Order of the Knights of Malta. His works from this period are distinctive - he began to paint with increasingly rapid brushstrokes and utilized reddish-brown hues more prominently.

A month after receiving his title Caravaggio was involved in a violent, armed fight at the house of the organist of the Conventual Church of St. John. This upheaval resulted in Caravaggio's criminal detention, his escape from prison, and his flight to Syracuse in the fall of 1608. The Knights of Malta subsequently revoked the artist's honors in absentia on December 1, 1608. Caravaggio moved from Syracuse to Messina to Palermo and then back to Naples in 1609. In Naples armed men slashed the artist's face for reasons unknown, leaving Caravaggio with near-fatal wounds. After this event, he remained convalescing at Constanza Colonna's palace until July 1610. Caravaggio then attempted to return to Rome after learning that one of his prominent patrons had secured a papal pardon for him. When he arrived in Palo, however, he was mistakenly arrested and put in prison for two days. Soon after his release, on July 18, 1610, Caravaggio died of a fever, possibly malaria, at the age of 39.


Legacy

Caravaggio has been alternately identified as an exemplar of late Mannerist style, or as a harbinger of the Baroque era. Though only twenty-one works have been definitively attributed to the artist, Caravaggio was a formidable artistic influence both in his time and today. By 1605, other Roman artists were beginning to imitate his signature style, and shortly thereafter artists outside of Italy such as Rembrandt and Diego Velázquez were incorporating Caravaggio's dramatic lighting effects into their own, landmark works. Caravaggio's style quickly gained devoted followers, the 'Caravaggisti', who imbued their compositions with the qualities of Caravaggio's work. Caravaggio's paintings also inspired important poets of his time such as Cavalier Giambattista Marino.

Despite acclaim in his lifetime and immediately after, by the 18th century, Caravaggio's legacy was all but forgotten, aside from some interest by Neoclassical painters such as Jacques-Louis David. The modern and contemporary fascination with the artist is largely due to the efforts of Italian art historian Roberto Longhi, whose 1951 Milanese exhibition and his 1952 Caravaggio monograph returned the artist to the public eye and cemented his current status. The theatrical elements of Caravaggio's images and his cinematic lighting enables an easy transference to film and directors such as David LaChapelle and Martin Scorsese have cited him as an influence in their filmmaking. In this they have channeled the power and directness of Caravaggio's images utilizing his depictions of imperfect bodies and his ability to create a narrative from the point of climax to immerse viewers within their own storytelling medium. Today, Caravaggio is viewed as one of the most strikingly 'Modern' of the Great Masters.

Beyond compositional innovations, Caravaggio's legacy has also been connected to the ostensibly queer content of his paintings, a signifier of his own potential homosexuality. The interpretation of Caravaggio's androgynous, sensual, and partly dressed or naked young men through the lens of homosexual desire is a contested issue within Caravaggio scholarship. Some authors, such as Donald Posner and Graham L. Hammill, unequivocally declare that works such as these represent depictions of queer sensuality and seduction. Other authors, such as Creighton Gilbert and David Carrier note that current assessments of the homoerotic content in the artist's work anachronistically misattribute to the 16th and 17th centuries, 20th-century codes and ideas about queerness and image signification.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Caravaggio
Interactive chart with Caravaggio's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

TitianTitian
TintorettoTintoretto
Guido Mazzoni
DonatelloDonatello
Leonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci

Friends

Cardinal Francesco
Maria del Monte
Costanza Colonna

Movements

Italian Renaissance
Northern RenaissanceNorthern Renaissance
MannerismMannerism
Caravaggio
Caravaggio
Years Worked: 1584 - 1610

Artists

RembrandtRembrandt
Peter Paul RubensPeter Paul Rubens
Jose RiberaJose Ribera
Francisco de ZurbaranFrancisco de Zurbaran
Diego VelazquezDiego Velazquez

Friends

Cavalier Giambattista Marino

Movements

BaroqueBaroque
RealismRealism

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson
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Useful Resources on Caravaggio

Videos

Books

Websites

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Caravaggio: The Complete Works

By Sebastian Schütze

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane Recomended resource

Andrew Graham-Dixon

Caravaggio: The Artist and His Work

By Sybille Ebert-Schifferer

Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity (Renaissance Lives)

By Troy Thomas

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