Caravaggio - Biography and Legacy

Italian Painter

Born: September 29, 1571 - Caravaggio, Lombardy
Died: July 18, 1610 - Porto Ercole, Lombardy

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, 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.

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.

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.

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Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"Caravaggio Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 21 Mar 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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