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Caravaggio: Self (as Bacchus)  Caravaggio
(Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio)

born: Caravaggio or Milan, Lombardy [now Italy]; 29 September 1571
died: Port'Ercole, Tuscany [now Italy]; 18 July 1610

alt spelling: Caravggio

Caravaggio was the bastard son of Fermo Merisi, steward and architect for Francesco Sforzao, the Marquis of Caravaggio. Fermo died in 1577, when Caravaggio was 11. In the spring of 1584, the Marquis apprenticed him for four years to the painter Simone Peterzano in Milan. He was in Lombardy at least until May of 1592 when the final dispensation of Fermo's estate was held.

By autumn of 1592 the twenty-one year old Caravaggio was in Rome, with his painterly skills and some money from his father's estate, to seek adventure and fortune. He lived in the household of Monsignor Pandolfo Pucci and settled into life by frequenting the Campo Marzio, a decaying neighborhood of art dealers, inns, eating houses, temporary shelters and prostitutes. This area suited both his circumstances and his temperament. He had little money. His inclinations were always toward young boys, pugilism, anarchy, and artistic reform. The Campo Marzio fitted him perfectly.

Caravaggio arrived at about the same time Clement VIII started his reign as pope and began to encourage the arts in Rome. Money began to flow to prepare Rome for the Jubilee year of 1600 by refurbishing and decorating the churches. The Cardinals of this period were patrons of the arts and ran courts worthy of kings. Rome was filled with artists including Annibale Carracci who arrived in 1594 to work for Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. There was also a new artistic style in the air, to which both Caravaggio and Carracci would be major contributors.

The first years in Rome Caravaggio did hack work for other painters, never staying long on any one job. He worked for Lorenzo Siciliano, Antiveduto Gramatica and then Cavaliere d'Arpino, for whom he painted flowers and fruit. About 1595 he began sell his own pictures using a dealer in the Campo Marzio.

Caravaggio's pictures initially did not sell well. Perhaps the style he used was too realistic. A 20th Century person might call it photo-realist. He always painted from live models. If the models were not good actors, then their expressions of self-awarness show in the finished picture.

David Hockney conjectures that this extreme realism can be explained if Caravaggio painted based on images projected on to his canvas by a mirror or a lens. There is some indirect evidence for this method on the canvas itself. X-ray examination reveals no charcoal sketches of Caravaggio's extraordinary accurate pictures, but there are indentations in the canvas at key points that might have been used to reposition the model so that the projection matched the developing picture. No other explanation for these indentation has been offered, and the reason for their being there has been considered a mystery since they were first detected.

His personality showed in his choice of models and subject matter: young adolescent and preadolescent street urchins.

alt spellings: caravagio caravage carravagio ceravaggio ceravagio

 Caravaggio: Boy with Basket of Fruit

Boy with a Basket of Fruit
about 1593
Galleria Borghese
Rome, Italy

Caravaggio: Boy Peeling an Apple

Boy Peeling Fruit
about 1592
Longhi Collection
Rome, Italy

 Caravaggio: Boy Bitten by a Lizard

Boy Bitten by a Lizard
about 1594
National Gallery, London



 Caravaggio: Musicians

The Musicians
about 1595
Metropolitan Museum
New York, US


  Caravaggio: Concert



 Caravaggio: Cardsharps Taking a Young Nobleman

Cardsharps Taking a Young Nobleman
about 1596
Kimbell Art Museum
Forth Worth, Texas



Cardinal Francesco del Monte, a prelate of great influence in the papal court, purchased several of Caravaggio's paintings through a dealer. Soon thereafter Caravaggio came under the protection of Del Monte and was invited to live in the cardinal's palace, Palazzo Madama. He had room enough to work on larger subjects and the means to do it. He lived there until about the end of 1600. The Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani also admired Caravaggio. Both bought many Caravaggio paintings, and both he and del Monte had a variant of the The Lute Player. Both pictures are really of the same boy, Pedro Montoya, a Spanish castrato who lived in del Monte palace; so the picture should really be named The Singer.



Caravaggio: Gypsy Fortune Teller

Gypsy Fortune Teller
Pinacoteca Capitolina
Rome, Italy

Caravaggio: The Lute Player - Del Monte Version

The Lute Player
[Del Monte Version]
Private Collection
New York, US


 Caravaggio: Self as Bacchus

Self as Bacchus
about 1593
Galleria Borghese
Rome, Italy

 Caravaggio: Self as Bacchus (detail)


Caravaggio: Sick Bacchus

Sick Bacchus
c. 1596
Galleria degli Uffizi
Florence, Italy


Caravaggio, though in his mid-twenties, was clearly in the top rank of painters. There were plenty of orders for his pictures, both from individuals and from the church. Caravaggio's Roman patrons included some of the greatest names in art collecting in the period including the Barberini, Borghese, Costa, Massimi and Mattei families. Around this time, Caravaggio joined the Accademia di San Luca, the artists guild. He had become famous enough, and outspoken enough, to be embroiled in a libel suit brought against him by the artist Giovanni Baglione.



 Caravaggio: Still Life

Still Life
Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
Milan, Italy


Italian painters used fruit and leaves as framing and background. In a major departure from tradition this picture moves the basket, leaves, and fruit to the center of attention. Note that in his picture of 1593: Boy with a Basket of Fruit [the first picture on this web page], the boy and the still life share equal prominence. Still life pictures had been common in the Northern countries for many years, and Italian composite pictures by Arcimboldo and Francesco Zucci existed, but this seems to be the first real still life in Italian painting.


 Caravaggio: Amor Victorious

Amor Victorious
Staatliche Museen
Berlin, Germany

  Caravaggio: Narcissus

Galleria Nazionale
d'Arte Antica
Rome, Italy


These early photo-realist works by Caravaggio exhibited a refreshing change in style to some viewers, but to others it was offensive -- anti-art.


Caravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes

Judith Beheading Holofernes
about 1599
Plazzo Barberini
Rome, Italy

Caravaggio: Medusa

about 1598
National Gallery
Dublin, Ireland


The Beheading of Holofernes was the first of Caravaggio's dramatic, violent, narrative pictures which would eventually dominate his work.

Through Del Monte in 1597 Caravaggio obtained the commission for the decoration of the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. This established him, at the age of 24, as an important painter. The commission called for three large paintings showing scenes from the saint's life: St. Matthew and the Angel, The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. In all three pictures Caravaggio used his dramatic contemporary realism instead of the traditional idealized images that were usually used to show saints. These works are novel not only because peasants are used as models but also the lighting and positioning of the models creates a highly dramatic picture. The first version of St. Matthew inspired by the Angel  Caravaggio: St Matthew Inspired by the Angel  (B+W)   was in the Kaiser-Frederic Museum, Berlin, Germany, which was bombed by the allies in World War II and it became collateral ecclesiastical damage. This was the painting that was to go over the altar in the Contarelli Chapel; it offended the canons of San Luigi dei Francesi so much, that it had to be replaced by Caravaggio. The second version of the picture is shown below.


Caravaggio: The Calling of Matthew

The Calling
of St. Matthew

Caravaggio: St Matthew Inspired by the Angel

St. Matthew Inspired
by the Angel

Caravaggio: The Martyrdom of St. Matthew

The Martyrdom
of St Matthew

Contarelli Chapel
San Luigi dei Francesi
Rome, Italy

These three paintings for the Contarelli Chapel caused a scandal in Rome. But Caravaggio saw this approach as a way to success; thus it also caused a radical change in his artistic style. In the future almost all his paintings were of traditional religious subjects, to which, he gave a whole new lower class iconography and thus a common-man interpretation. He also often chose violent, dramatic, or macabre subjects, which seemed to also suite the pugilistic part of his character. His interest in young boys remained; he used them as models for angles and St. John the Baptist.

Dramatic pictures in a photo-realist style fascinated and sometimes repelled other artists, men of learning, and prelates. But the negative reactions generally reflected a self-protective reaction by other artists, or the conservative mindset of the traditional clergy; a conservatism shared by much of the general populace. Carracci hated the realism of the Caravaggio style while appreciating its technical precision.

The more brutal aspects of Caravaggio's paintings were often condemned mostly because Caravaggio's common people bear no relation to the graceful idealized models popular in much Mannerist art, and not because of the violence itself. Caravaggio painted plain working men, prostitutes, and young males off the streets; those are characters that dignified people should not be associated with, but they are people Caravaggio felt close to.

In late 1600, Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio received a join commission from Tiberio Cerasi to decorate his chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. It is clear that he had decided to make the decoration of his chapel into a competition between the two greatest artists of the day. Carracci was to do the frescos and the central painting of the Assumption of the Virgin; Caravaggio was to do the two side paintings: The Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St Paul.


Caravaggio: Te Crucifixion of St. Peter

The Crucifixion
of St. Peter

Cersi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo

The Cerasi Chapel

Caravaggio: The Conversionof St. Paul

The Conversion
on the Way to Damascus

Cerasi Chapel
Santa Maria del Popolo
Rome, Italy

Another version of the conversion of St. Paul exists:

Caravaggio: Conversion of St. Paul -- v2

Conversion of St. Paul
about 1601
Odescalchi Balbi Collection
Rome, Italy


Caravaggio was never far from a fight. In 1600 he assaulted a fellow artist; the following year he wounded a soldier. In 1603 he was imprisoned for injuring another painter. He was released only by using political contacts to plead his case. In April 1604 he attacked a waiter by throwing a plate of artichokes in his face. In October 1604, he was arrested for throwing stones at Roman guards. In May 1605, he was jailed for misuse of arms, and on July 29 he had to flee Rome for a time, because he had wounded a man in brawl who had defended his mistress from Caravaggio's insults.


Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus 1601

Supper at Emmaus
National Gallery
London, England

 Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus 1606

Supper at Emmaus
Pinacoteca di Brera
Milan, Italy



Caravaggio: St. Francis in Meditation

St. Francis in Meditation
about 1603
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Kansas City, Mo. US

Caravaggio: Stigmatization of St. Francis

Stigmatization of St. Francis
about 1595
Wadsworth Atheneum
Hartford, Connecticut, US


Some pictures produced in this period, when he was at the height of his powers are shown below. The last two paintings provoked violent reactions. The Madonna di Loreto, for the Church of San Agostino, became a controversy because of the "dirty feet and torn, filthy cap" of the two old people kneeling in the foreground. The most famous dirty feet in art history. The Death of the Virgin was refused by the Carmelites because of the indignity of the Virgin's plebeian features, bared legs, and swollen belly. Later, in April 1607, on the advice of Peter Paul Rubens, the picture was bought by the Duke of Mantua and was displayed for a week to the Rome artistic community before it left for Mantua.



Caravaggio: Madonna di Loreto

Madonna di Loreto
about 1605
Rome, Italy

 Caravaggio: Death of the Virgin

Death of the Virgin
Louvre, Paris, France


Caravaggio: Taking of Christ

The Taking of Christ
about 1602
National Gallery
Dublin, Ireland

Caravaggio: Christ crowned with Thorns

Christ Crowned with Thorns
about 1605
Prado, Madrid, Spain

Caravaggio: Entombment of Christ

The Entombment of Christ
about 1603
Vatican, Rome



John the Baptist remained a favorite subject.


Caravaggio: John the Baptist -- Galleria d'Arte Antica

St John the Baptist
Galleria d'Arte Antica
Rome, Italy

Caravaggio: St. John the Baptist -- Kimbal

St John the Baptist
about 1605
Nelson-Atkins Museum
Kansas City, Mo. US

Caravaggio: St. John teh Baptist -- Galleria Borghese

St. John the Baptist
Galleria Borghese
Rome, Italy


By February 1606 Caravaggio was back in Rome. On 29 May 1606 during a brawl about a wager over a game of tennis, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni. Caravaggio was himself wounded in the fight. He fled Rome and found refuge in the nearby Colonna estates, Colonna was a relative of the Marquis of Caravaggio. He then drifted south hiding in other places until he eventually reached Naples, in February 1607. Hiding was difficult for a famous painter, and he could never stay long in any one place. His only hope was a pardon from the Pope. He had contacts enough to accomplish that, but it would take time.


 Caravaggio: David and Goliath

David with Head of Goliath
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Vienna, Austria


At the end of 1607, Caravaggio traveled to Malta, where he was received as a celebrated artist. He worked hard, completing several works, the most important of which was The Beheading of St. John the Baptist for the cathedral in Valletta. In this scene of martyrdom, shadow, which in earlier paintings enclosed his subjects, is replaced by a high wall. One explanation for this dramatic change in style might be that Caravaggio had no place to set up his optical equipment so he had to draw from life, which may not have been his favorite way of working.

On July 14, 1608, Caravaggio was received into the Order of Malta as a "Knight of Justice". Soon afterward, probably because word of his crime had reached Malta, he was expelled from the order and imprisoned. He escaped from prison, perhaps with the connivance of Alof de Winnacourt, his protector in Malta, and sponsor for his entry into the Order of Malta.


Caravaggio: Alof de Wignacourt ver 1

Alof de Wignacourt
Louvre, Paris

Caravaggio: Alof de Wignacourt ver 2

Alof de Wignacourt
Palazzo Pitti
Florence, Italy

Caravaggio: The Seven Acts of Mercy

The Seven Acts of Mercy
Pio Monte della Misericordia
Naples, Italy


Caravaggio: John the Baptist and Salome -- Madrid

John the Baptist
and Salome
about 1605
Madrid, Spain

Caravaggio: Beheading of St. John the Baptist

Beheading of
Saint John the Baptist
Saint John Museum
La Valletta, Italy

Caravaggio: Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

Salome with the Head of
St John the Baptist

about 1607
National Gallery,
London, England




Caravaggio took refuge in Sicily, landing at Syracuse in October 1608. He undoubtedly feared pursuit. Yet his fame accompanied him; at Syracuse he painted The Burial of St. Lucy for the Church of Santa Lucia. In early 1609 he fled to Messina, where he painted The Resurrection of Lazarus and The Adoration of the Shepherds, then moved on to Palermo, where he did the Adoration with St. Francis and St. Lawrence for the Oratorio di San Lorenzo. The works created during Caravaggio's flight were painted under the most adverse of circumstances.


Caravaggio: Flagellation of Christ

Flagellation of Christ
about 1607
Museo di Capodimonte
Naples, Italy

Caravaggio: Burial of St. Lucy

Burial of St Lucy
Bellamo Museum
Syracuse, Sicily

Caravaggio: The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising
of Lazarus

Museo Nazionale
Messina, Sicily

Caravaggio: The Annunciation

The Annunciation
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Nancy, France




Caravaggio: The Adoration of the Shepards

Adoration of
the Shepherds
Museo Nazionale
Messina, Sicily

His flight could end only with imprisonment or the pope's clemency. Caravaggio may have known that a pardon was close when he again moved north to Naples in October 1609. At the door of an inn in Naples, he became involved in another brawl. He was wounded so badly that rumors surfaced in Rome that he was dead. After a recovery of nine months he sailed in July 1610 from Naples to Rome. His health was still weak. He became involved in another fight and was arrested again during a port-of-call at Palo. Released a day later, he discovered that the boat had already sailed, taking his belongings. Trying to overtake the boat, he arrived at Port'Ercole exhausted; he died a few days later. News of his pardon arrived from the Vatican a few days after he died.


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