Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, Italian painter (born in Caravaggio, near Milan in 1571, died of mysterious causes in Porto Ercole in 1610), one of the most important artists of Baroque art, who strangely enough had nothing to do with glitter and glory of the period – rather than that, he was the man of the gutter, of the ignoble and poor, of taverns and streets. And yet, his paintings appealed to people because of the sacredness conceived in the reality, not in the ethereal sphere of unattainable. As critics put it, he was the artist of tenebroso, of light and dark, and his days were spent in the same manner.
Caravaggio first started with flowers and fruits, portraying still-life, which was then considered the lowest genre, and he did it with the outmost attention, as in Still Life with Fruits
and Fruit basket. He became established as il famosissimo pittore after the paintings he did for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church San Luigi dei Francese in Rome – The Calling of St Mathew, St Mathew and the Angel, and Martyrdom of St Mathew, that will pave the way for the rise of the Baroque art and other famous artist of the period. His fame was fortified by Supper in Emmaus
(now in the National Gallery London), The Crucifixion of St Peter
and The Appeal of St Saul
for the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Fleeing from Rome, he settled in Naples and for the noble family of Colonna made several extraordinary pieces such as Madonna of the Rosary
and The Seven Works of Mercy
. During his days of exile in Malta, the troubled artist made Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (the only painting that he ever signed), and St Jerome Writing - another version of his St Jerome from Borghese Gallery in Rome. He regularly did his own portraits as cameo appearances – as Sick Bacchus
and in David with the Head of Goliath
. His artworks inspired by mythology include Medusa, Narcissus and Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto.
Out of the Renaissance
When young Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1593, the scene was still influenced by classical approach and art style of the old masters. The most famous painter of the period was Carracci
, who followed the footsteps of Michelangelo and Raphael
, although he did, however, plunge more into the naturalistic scenery. But it was the young, rebellious Italian Northerner, Michelangelo Merisi, who will change the game for good. And even though he turned to classical models for some of his settings – for example, St Mathew and the Angel pays homage to Lysippos’ Hermes Fastening his Sandal, Caravaggio used everyday people as posing models, thugs and courtesans characters who were so far from the Renaissance idealistic conventions, painting their images directly on the canvas, with no previous sketches. This radical, anti-conformism spread through his complete works must have been a complete shock for the noble crowd of the time.
Into the Baroque Art
But the effect that Caravaggio produced and the magnitude of his complete works could not be diminished. The essential marks of his art became crucial for the new and emerging art style. Caravaggio’s distinct use of light was the most obvious point – he illuminated the space from the above, putting the figures into the spotlight, and leaving the rear area in the shade. In that way, he froze the movement, as if it was ripped from a movie and about to turn to a live scene, right there in front of our eyes. And the bodies are those of real, regular people, with all the complexity, disproportion, and even dirt under the finger nails. It is often been pointed that Caravaggio painted in lines of force, in the diagonals. The vividness, the brute realism that is being transfigured within the setting and by its own means, was something that inspired not only the painters like Rubens
, de Ribera
, or Rembrandt
, but also the filmmakers such as Scorsese and Derek Jarman, centuries later.
The Personal life of the artist
There is probably no artist with biography that bears so much turmoil, mystery and drama, as the life of Caravaggio. He lost his family in a plague epidemic while he was just a boy, and what we know today was preserved thanks to the meticulous police reports – he was accused of many brawls and fights, vicious attacks, for cutting a courtesan’s face, for rude verse composing, among many things. Cardinal Borromeo described him as a man of uncouth, rough manner, always dressed in rags and living on the street. In 1606 Caravaggio was banished from Rome, on the account of a murder, and from then on, his life became a constant ramble – he went to Naples, Malta, Sicily, and then Naples again, where he was severely injured, probably in the vendetta attack from the Knights of Malta. But he kept painting, even on the run, and never passed the chance to complete works he started. His body was found on a beach at Porto Ercole, in July 1610, and he was buried in a collective grave for poor.