What better way to celebrate the great painter, Caravaggio’s, that is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s September 29th birthday than with an Art History 101 Blog!

Born in 1571, Caravaggio was the leading Italian painter of the late 16th and early 17th centuries who became famous for the intense and sometimes unsettling realism of his large-scale religious works. His work became popular for the tenebrism technique he used, which is a style of painting that creates a spotlight effect by surrounding well-illuminated subjects with plunging darkness. Perfect timing for this style of art with Halloween just around the corner! We hope you enjoy this brief history of this brilliant yet troubled artist, courtesy of biography.com and caravaggio-foundation.org.

Little is known about Caravaggio’s early family life. His father, Fermo Merisi, was a household administrator and architect-decorator to the Marchese of Caravaggio. His mother, Lucia Aratori, came from a propertied family of the same district. When Caravaggio was six, the bubonic plague rolled through his life, killing almost everyone in his family, including his father.

According to writer Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of the 2011 biography Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, the artist’s troubled adult years stemmed directly from that traumatic loss of his family. “He almost seems bound to transgress,” Dixon writes. “It’s almost like he cannot avoid transgressing. As soon as he’s welcomed by authority, welcomed by the pope, welcomed by the Knights of Malta, he has to do something to screw it up. It’s almost like a fatal flaw.”

Orphaned, Caravaggio took to the streets and fell in with a group of painters and swordsmen who lived by the motto “nec spe, nec metu”, or “without hope, without fear,'” wrote an earlier biographer.

In 1584 he was apprenticed for four years to the Lombard painter Simone Peterzano, described in the contract of apprenticeship as a pupil of Titian. Caravaggio appears to have stayed in the Milan-Caravaggio area after his apprenticeship ended, but it is possible that he visited Venice and saw the works of Giorgione, whom Federico Zuccaro later accused him of imitating, and Titian. He would also have become familiar with the art treasures of Milan, including Leonardo da Vinci‘s Last Supper, and with the regional Lombard art, a style which valued simplicity and attention to naturalistic detail and was closer to the naturalism of Germany than to the stylised formality and grandeur of Roman Mannerism.

Sometime around 1595, Caravaggio struck out on his own and started selling his paintings through a dealer. His work soon caught the attention of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who adored Caravaggio’s paintings and quickly set him up in his own house, with room, board and a pension.
A prolific painter, Caravaggio was known to work quickly, often starting and completing a painting in just two weeks! Seems impossible given the amount of detail in his work. By the time he had come under the influence of del Monte, Caravaggio already had 40 works to his name. The lineup included Boy with a Basket of Fruit, The Young Bacchus and The Music Party.

In 1597, Caravaggio was awarded the commission for the decoration of the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. It was an important and daunting assignment, challenging the 26-year-old painter with the task of creating three large paintings depicting separate scenes from St. Matthew’s life.

The three resulting works, St. Matthew and the Angel, The Calling of St. Matthew, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, were finished in 1601, and together showed Caravaggio’s remarkable range as an artist.

However, these works also provoked much consternation from the church and public alike. In his execution of the work, Caravaggio eschewed the traditional worshipful depictions of the saints and presented St. Matthew in a far more realistic light. His first version of St. Matthew and the Angel caused so much angst among his patrons that he had to redo it! I cannot imagine having to redo a painting like that. #Motivation.

Despite the redo, the commission provided an exciting new direction for his painting, one in which he could lift traditional religious scenes and cast them with his own dark interpretation. His biblical scenes became populated with the prostitutes, beggars, and thieves whom he had encountered on the streets of Rome. Talk about scandalous!

In addition to some financial relief, the Contarelli Chapel commission also provided Caravaggio a wealth of exposure and work. His paintings from the next few years included The Crucifixion of St. Peter, The Conversion of St. Paul, The Deposition of Christ, and his famous Death of the Virgin. The latter, with its depiction of the Virgin Mary with a swollen belly and bared legs, packed so much of Caravaggio’s style that it was turned away by the Carmelites and eventually landed in the hands of the Duke of Mantua.

Controversy, though, only fueled Caravaggio’s success. And as that success grew, so did the painter’s own personal turmoil. He could be a violent man, with drastic mood swings and a love for drinking and gambling. The life of a troubled artist!

A frequent fighter, Caravaggio eventually served a short prison sentence in 1603 following another painter’s complaint that Caravaggio had attacked him. But the next few years only saw Caravaggio’s temper becoming hotter. His litany of assaults included throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter in 1604, and attacking Roman guards with stones in 1605. Wrote one observer: “After a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ballcourt to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument.”

His violence finally erupted with force in 1606, when he killed a well-known Roman pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni. Immediately following the murder, Caravaggio fled Rome and sought refuge in a host of other locations: Naples, Malta and Sicily, among others. But even as he fled from punishment for his crime, fame followed Caravaggio. In Malta, he was received into the Order of Malta as a Knight of Justice, an award that he was soon stripped of when the Order learned of the crime he had committed.

However, this did not stop Caravaggio from painting. In Naples, he painted Madonna of the Rosary for a fellow painter, and later The Seven Works of Mercy for the church of Pio Chapel of Monte della Misericordia.

In Malta, he created Beheading of St. John the Baptist for the cathedral in Valletta. In Messina, his work included The Resurrection of Lazarus and The Adoration of the Shepherds, while in Palermo he painted the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence.

One of Caravaggio’s more shocking paintings from this period is Resurrection, in which the painter revealed a less saintly, more bedraggled Jesus Christ escaping from his tomb in the middle of the night. This scene was no doubt inspired by events in Caravaggio’s own life. By this time, Caravaggio had become a nervous wreck, always on the run and in constant fear for his life, so much so that he slept with his clothes on and with a dagger at his side.

Unfortunately, the murder that Caravaggio committed in 1606 was not the end of his violence. In July 1608, he attacked Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, one of the most senior knights in the Order of St. John in Malta. Caravaggio was arrested and jailed for the assault but managed to escape just one month later.

The attack had a profound impact on Caravaggio’s mental and physical state. According to historians, his vision and brushwork suffered from the assault, as evidenced by two of his later paintings, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula and The Denial of Saint Peter. I still think they look impressive, but that’s just me. 🙂

For many years the exact cause of Caravaggio’s death in 1610 had been shrouded in mystery. But in 2010, a team of scientists who studied Caravaggio’s remains discovered that his bones contained high levels of lead—levels high enough, they suspect, to have driven the painter mad. Lead poisoning is also suspected of having killed Francisco Goya.

My boss, Linda Wehrli and I are thankful for water-soluble oil paints which are non-toxic. Phew! We suggest our students use these for the Oil Painting 401 Course.

Well, we hope this Fall’s Art History 101 blog inspired you and put you in a spooky mood for Halloween!🎃
Art History 101 reviews selected artists from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media. Comments appreciated! If there is an artist you would like us to feature, please comment below. Thank you for your support! 

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