Summary of Caravaggio
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.
- 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.
The Life of Caravaggio
By the age of 21, Caravaggio had lost his entire family to the bubonic plague, and throughout his life his extremely violent temper got him into heaps of trouble, forcing him to flee from city to city; nevertheless, his highly dramatic personal life didn’t stop him from becoming a preeminent Italian master of highly dramatic art.
Important Art by Caravaggio
Self-Portrait as Bacchus/Sick Bacchus
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 demonstrate 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).
Oil on canvas - Galleria Borghese, Rome
Boy Bitten by a Lizard
This work is one of two paintings representing the same subject matter; the other painting is in the Roberto Longhi Foundation in Florence. Here, a young boy, an example of the tousled, curly-haired youth who populated many of Caravaggio's early secular pieces, recoils in pain and surprise after having reached for one of the fruits on the table only to be bitten by a lizard, concealed among the pile of cherries. Though Caravaggio condemned Classical statuary, the boy's expression may have its root in the expression of horror found in the statue of Laocoön and His Sons, and the lizard is reminiscent of the reptile portrayed in the ancient Roman sculpture Lizard Apollo, which would have been in Rome in Caravaggio's time.
On the table, Caravaggio demonstrates his skill rendering the play of light over and through different textures. In keeping with Caravaggio's wider style, the boy exists in a nondescript, timeless interior, with blank walls punctuated only by a stark, diagonal light source originating from the upper left, and outside the frame of the painting. This heightens the intense expression of the piece, as it highlights the boy's bare right shoulder, raised as he recoils from the bite; his furrowed brow and mouth open in a gasp. The work is notable in large part for its striking sexual subtext. In the Italian street slang of Caravaggio's time, bitten fingers represented a wounded phallus, and the artist's inclusion of jasmine, a traditional symbol of sexual desire, in combination with the lizard lurking beneath the cherries and apples, each signifiers of temptation, suggests that the painting illustrates the perils of indulging in sexual appetites.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London
The Musicians (Concert of Youths)
This work is an example of the Venetian pictorial genre of a 'concert' picture, exemplified by Titian's earlier 1510 work, The Pastoral Concert, in which artists celebrated the performance of music. This image, however, subverts the genre in a number of ways challenging traditional readings of it - it depicts a rehearsal rather than a concert and the inclusion of the classical clothing of the musicians and a winged cupid in the upper left of the image signals a symbolic intent probably linking music, love, and wine (represented by the grapes in the cupid's hand).
The figures crowding the image seem to have been drawn separately and added to the composition. The central musician has been identified as Caravaggio's companion Mario Minniti and the other figure facing the viewer is possibly a self-portrait. The musicians are rehearsing madrigals and the lute player in the center is transported by the music, his wet eyes and dreamy expression suggesting sadness and lost love. The inclusion of a violin in the foreground indicates the presence of another musician. Caravaggio's patron, Cardinal del Monte, for whom this work was commissioned, was interested in music and he and his friends tutored musicians and encouraged musical experimentation. The crowded space of The Musicians may invoke the musical environment found in del Monte's household.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This painting depicts Medusa, the Gorgon monster of Greek myth whose hair was made of snakes and whose gaze turned viewers into stone. Medusa was finally defeated by the hero Perseus who beheaded her using the reflection in his shield as a guide. Caravaggio depicts Medusa taking her final breath, immediately after the moment of her beheading. Unusually the image is painted on a circular canvas stretched over a convex wood backing. This mimics the shape of Perseus' shield and depicts the reflection of Medusa's final moments in its polished surface. It also references the practice of drawing Medusa on shields when going into battle to demonstrate victory over huge odds.
It is thought that Caravaggio used himself as the model for the image and as a self-portrait, Medusa is a good example of the artist's experimentation with gender and androgyny. In keeping with Caravaggio's interest in representing the world as it appeared and drawing from life, he used live snakes, common water snakes native to the Tiber River, to model Medusa's writhing vipers. The green of these and that of the background contrasts strongly with the red blood of the decapitated head highlighting the gory and visceral nature of the image. The painting was sent by the artist's patron, Cardinal del Monte, to Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, as a gift, and was well-received by the Medici family who put it on prominent display.
Oil on canvas mounted on wood - The Uffizi Gallery, Florence
The Calling of St. Matthew
This image is from Caravaggio's first major public works commission, to create paintings for the lateral wall of the Contarelli Chapel in the Roman church San Luigi dei Francesi. It has two companion pieces depicting other scenes from St. Matthew's life, including The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Here, Caravaggio depicts a moment from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Christ, accompanied by St. Peter, beckons to the tax collector Matthew to join him as a follower. The person of Matthew has been variously identified. Most interpretations cite the bearded, central figure to be Matthew, as this figure's gesture, a hand with an extended finger pointing towards his chest seems to ask "who, me?". Others have suggested that Matthew is the younger man with bowed head at the end of the table and this may be intentionally ambiguous. Biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon attributes a political meaning to this composition. Completed around 1600, the year the French king Henri IV married Marie de'Medici, Graham-Dixon explains St. Matthew's slow rousing from "spiritual slumber by the coming of Christ" as an allusion to the French king's conversion.
This painting is a notable example of two of the artist's compositional traits: his depictions of holy figures in the guise of modern-day Romans, and his unique use of light. The figures around the table are dressed as members of the early-17th-century middle classes and Jesus and St. Peter are more simply clothed and barefoot, the faces are realistic and non-idealized. The only iconographic nod to the holy context of the scene is the faint, foreshortened gold halo above Christ's head, which is partly obscured by the diagonal beam of blinding light. These details caused critics to express dismay at the image and accuse the artist of blasphemy.
Though Caravaggio includes a prominently placed open window in the image, it provides no light; the brightness instead originates outside the picture frame, and is suggested as an otherworldly accompaniment to the divine presences of Christ and St. Peter. Caravaggio used this dramatic light source to integrate the chapel space into the world of the painting. Though its origin is not visible within the picture, the upper right light source was meant to connect to the natural illumination of the chapel itself and was an extension of the light emanating from a window directly above the chapel altar. The artist thus created continuity between the scene of Matthew's calling and the chapel in which it was situated.
Oil on canvas - San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
The Entombment was originally painted for the Oratorian church in Rome, Santa Maria in Vallicella. The scene shows mourners carrying Christ's body to its burial place, with John the Evangelist in a red cloak supporting Christ's torso, and Nicodemus carrying Christ's legs. A distraught Mary of Clopas, a weeping Mary Magdalene, and a bowed Virgin Mary accompany Christ to his burial. As in his other work the figures are presented with a realism that belies their religious significance and this is enhanced the red and brown tones of the image (representative of Caravaggio's palette in this period) which further serve to highlight the earthy normality of the participants. It is plausible that the composition was inspired by Michelangelo's 15th-century Pietá in St. Peter's Basilica as Christ's limp body, dangling arm and foreshortened chest and head echo the pose of Christ as seen from the front of the sculpture.
The painting is organized along a dramatic diagonal, with figures aligned in a descent from the top right of the picture to the lower left corner. Each person illustrates a progression of emotion commensurate with their position in the painting. The outstretched arms and extended palms of Mary of Clopas occupies the apex of the diagonal and suggests the initial reaction of disbelief and despair at Christ's execution. The composition then proceeds downwards to a weeping Mary Magdalene, her face concealed from the viewer; to the resigned, bowed head of the Virgin Mary; to Nicodemus, struggling under Christ's weight. He turns his face to the viewer as if to ask "what next?". The question is answered by John the Evangelist who focuses on the example of Christ himself, whose expression of serenity, peace, and acceptance of death completes the painting's emotional arc. The painting was designed to hang above an altar and the stone tomb in the image echoes the shape and appearance of the altar. Consequently, Caravaggio extends the scene of burial into the space of the worshippers and the frontal light source beyond the plane of the painting appears to emanate from the altar itself - a divine light of resurrection animating, and lending hope to the burial scene above.
Oil on canvas - Vatican City
The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (in situ)
This is Caravaggio's largest work and was painted as an altarpiece for the Oratory of San Giovanni Decollato, annexed to the Church of St. John in Valletta, in Malta. It is widely seen as one of Caravaggio's greatest paintings and may have been his passaggio, a gift customarily given following investiture into the Order of the Knights of Malta. This work is notable as the only piece Caravaggio ever signed. The blood pouring from John's head oozes into the artist's signature as 'Fra Michael Angelo' a centralized signature which, according to art historian Keith Sciberras, denotes the artist's new social status as Michelangelo, Knight of Malta. Scholars, including art historian Herwarth Röttgen, have noted Caravaggio's blood signature as an act of contrition, the artist professing his guilt and admitting his hand in the murder of his friend, the event which precipitated his flight and exile from Rome. Alternatively, David M. Stone argues that the artist's decision to sign the work through St. John's blood should be read as a celebratory gesture, the artist marking his new life in Malta as a Knight and his subsequent newly elevated social status.
As with other works from his Malta period the figures are clustered together leaving large swathes of empty or less populated space above and adjacent to the focus of the action. As a consequence, although the artist imbues each actor with a unique emotion or response, individuality is subsumed to the collective illustration of the dramatic moment. The only figure who betrays a strong emotion in the image is the old woman. The artist's tenebrism relegates much of her face to shadow, but Caravaggio highlights her hands, grasping her head in horror. The old woman is the emotional corollary to the placid, deceased St. John, and, by proxy to the stillness of the acts of witness which define the rest of the characters. The old woman's head, clasped in shock and dismay between her hands, represents the viewer's emotional guide to the scene.
Oil on canvas - St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valetta, Malta
Biography of Caravaggio
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, Palma Vecchi, Titian, Giorgione, 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of Caravaggio
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
Useful Resources on Caravaggio
- Caravaggio: The Artist and His WorkBy Sybille Ebert-Schifferer
- Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and ProfaneOur PickAndrew Graham-Dixon
- Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles (Eminent Lives)Our PickBy Francine Prose
- CaravaggioBy John T. Spike
- Lives of Caravaggio (Lives of the Artists)Our PickBy Giulio Mancini, Giovanni Baglione, and Pietro Bellori
- CaravaggioOur PickBy Catherine Puglisi
- M: The Man Who Became CaravaggioOur PickBy Peter Robb
- Caravaggio: A LifeBy Helen Langdon
- Caravaggio: The Complete WorksBy Sebastian Schütze
- Caravaggio and the Creation of Modernity (Renaissance Lives)By Troy Thomas
- Caravaggio: The Complete WorksOur PickBy Rossella Vodret
- CaravaggioOur PickBy Gilles Labert and Gilles Néret
- Caravaggio and Bernini: Early Baroque in RomeBy Frits Scholten
- Caravaggio’s Cardsharps on Trial: Thwaytes v. Sotheby’sBy Richard E. Spear
- The Stolen CaravaggioBy Marius Zarafa
- Caravaggio's SecretsBy Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit
- The Moment of Caravaggio (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 40)By Michael Fried
- Caravaggio’s EyeOur PickBy Covid Whitfield